Why Being Nice to The Gays Won’t Save Your Church*

rainbowpcusaThis past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal.  According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law.

Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them.  But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church?  Will it save any church?

I ask that question, because I read an article by Carol Howard Merritt about how these actions might turn around the PC(USA)’s decline.

After serving growing churches, I know that people have been attracted to our church because we upheld LGBTQ rights. This is why we can grow, because of this decision:

Young adults overwhelmingly support LGBTQ rights. According to Pew Research, about 70% of Millennials support marriage equality. Guess what? The 30% is probably already going to another church. So, it’s a good plan to focus on the 70%.

The old-school evangelical church is declining because of their attitudes towards LGBTQs. For many years, people have told us evangelical churches were growing because of their doctrinal purity. But, as a refugee from the conservative Southern Baptist Church, I can tell you, homophobia combined with asking women to “graciously submit” and not use birth control pills, is not a strategy that will hold up with… almost anyone.

We’ve watched the exodus of younger generations. We’ve seen emerging churches mature. We’ve witnessed a movement of evangelicals embrace a more compassionate faith. Now the Southern Baptists are grieving losses as well. I don’t want to sound smug about this. Leaving my Baptist roots was the most painful thing I’ve ever done and I’m distressed when someone leaves church. I’m just saying that so-called doctrinal purity is causing decline in many cases, not stemming it.

I would like to believe this, but my own experience tells me that this reasoning is too good to be true for a few reasons.  First, I think everyone wants to pin the blame on something they don’t like as the reason for church decline.  If you’re a conservative, you will blame those loose liberal values.  If you’re a liberal then you think it’s because of the strict morality preached from conservative pulpits.  Either way, it’s the other side that is causing the ruin of mainline churches.

I don’t think that the reason mainline churches are losing members rests soley on embracing liberal theology and practice. Yes some folk do leave for doctrinal or theological issues, but I don’t think that captures all of the problem.  Some of the “fault” lies in a changing culture that is far more secular than the 1950s Mainline Protestant dominance.  Loses within the Southern Baptist Convention could stem from the fact that many Millenials don’t have a presence for any religion.    Are Millenials leaving the SBC because of the gay issue?  Probably.   But it also could be that the youth have lost interest in the adult world.  It could be having to work to pay off student loans which takes time.  We don’t know all of the why it’s happening; we only know that it is happening.

Also, if the gay issue is the thing causing people to either leave or join the PC(USA), you would expect massive shifts from more conservative denominations to liberal ones.  That’s not happening.  The splinter groups that became denominations never get a huge chunk of followers.  The same goes with the reverse: if people are upset at the SBC, you would think there would be a massive uptick in the mainline denominations.  In both cases, what probably happens when young people stop coming is that they stop coming to church,  period.

The thing is, while votes to change policy are very good and necessary; there is something about this belief that mainline churches will now grow that seems half-baked.  Progressive Christians believe that if they take some official position on gays or women or the economy that will cause people to consider their churches over evangelical ones.  Yes, it’s good that churches are becoming more open to LGBT folk.  But the thing is, the job is only half done.  Maybe some people will darken the door of a church because of a positive vote, but not everyone.  What will bring people is when members of LGBT-friendly churches do some old-fashioned evangelism.  They need to go to a LGBT friend and tell them about their church and how welcoming it is to them.  They need to tell LGBT people of how God loves them.  When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the numbers in mainline churches will grow.

Methodist blogger Sky McCraken wrote two years ago, that the reason for decline in denominations has little to do with it’s stance on homosexuality and more on making – or failing to make- disciples:

Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.

The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything – that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes… that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω - to make a disciple  - it’s a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: “teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship – we suck at it! –  and have for several generations.

If gay people show up at a local Presbyterian church and ask to be married, that’s a great thing.  If they end up attending, that’s even better.  But what do we do once they are there?  Is our job over, and we can now relax?  How are we helping them become better followers of Jesus.  As McCraken notes, Americans Christians have done a poor job of making disciples; people who want to follow Jesus.

I am glad that this vote passed.  What I hope is that those Presbyterians in churches near and far not only welcome LGBT and Allied people into the church, but then help them become disciples of Jesus as well.

*I wanted to add that not being nice to gays won’t save your church either, but that would have been a crazy long title.

The Outrageous Autistic

As I read a number of autistic bloggers, one thing becomes very clear:  there are a lot of people with chips on their shoulders.

At some point, some autistic blogger will write a post about how someone somewhere at sometime did something that was offensive.  So they write a post basically ordering people to stop doing whatever it is they are doing that the blogger finds offensive. But they usually don’t stop there.  They then question the person’s motives, seeing them as not really caring about the autistic community.

I always find these posts tiring and whiny.  Yes, some people do things that are insensitive; but we need to be more selective in dishing our outrage.  For example, if you don’t like that someone calls you “a person with autism” instead of “autistic person.”  You don’t need to act like this person or persons set fire to your house.  Simply say to someone what you prefer. Sometimes people need a gentle correction, not the full force of political correctness.

There are things that do warrant outrage.  There is a place to be angry.  But not everything has to be treated as a capital offense.

There are times for outrage, but there is also time for educating.  Sometimes we need to give a light touch, not a punch to the gut.


listservAlong the lines of missing DisciplesWorld, I also miss DOCDISC.  DOCDISC is the email group for Disciples.  I remember joining it in the late 90s and it was always an engaging medium to talk about issues both worldwide and within the denomination.  These days, only one person makes email posts, a poet that see this as a way of getting his work out there.  Most people have migrated to Facebook  and that most people includes me.  I think a lot of folk saw Facebook as the next step from an email listserv, but I’m starting to think that listservs are different from Facebook.  The latter just isn’t conducive to expound/rant on recent events.  Facebook tends to be a place where everyone is nice, but don’t probe too deeply, or it is geared towards the hyper-partisan- a place where like minded people can gather and basically rip on the other side.  By 2009, DOCDISC was already on the way out.  It was at the time when a fellow clergy, Rebecca Bowman Woods, shared her feelings about DOCDISC.  Here’s what she wrote.

When I began attending a Disciples congregation back in 1997, I didn’t know much about the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The more that I began to like the local congregation I was a part of, the more I wondered, “what does the denomination believe?” I would have hated to join the church, only to find myself at irreconcilable odds with some major piece of doctrine. So I started poking around on the web and asking my pastor and others where I could find information.

Pretty quickly, someone pointed me in the direction of DOCDISC – an email listserv (cutting edge stuff, back then) where Disciples (and a few non-Disciples) could talk. DOCDISC was, for me, a gold mine of information and a perfect way to learn. Sometimes, the discussions were heated, but that was alright. It helped me learn what the hot-button issues were, and I don’t mind a little debating, even arguing, as long as it doesn’t get personal. [And besides, I learned, some of our founders were fond of arguing too].

One of the coolest things, looking back, was that the people on there were just people. Several of them, I later found out, were presidents of general units. Many were pastors, and the rest were highly engaged laypeople. And yet, I don’t ever remember a time when these folks were not willing to be helpful or answer a basic ‘newbie” question.

While I could probably have learned about the denomination through reading and researching, for me, the best way to learn is from other people. It’s messier that way – you don’t always get the exact answer you’re looking for, and sometimes someone even challenges the question you’re asking. But beauty of it was the connection of a community of helpful and engaging people to the information itself.


I wish DOCDISC ramped up again or that we find some new way of chatting.  There are things I’d like to discuss that just can’t be talked about on Facebook or Twitter.  I wonder if anyone else thinks this way.

I Miss DisciplesWorld

disciplesworldIt’s been four years since the magazine for my denomination shut down.  DisciplesWorld was an effort to create an independent magazine that would replace The Disciple, the in-house magazine which shut down in 2002.  For seven years, DisciplesWorld did a valiant effort in trying to tell the story of our denomination.  One of the best things they did was ran an issue that focused on Jim Jones and the Jonestown massacre.  (Jim Jones was a Disciples pastor and the story show the efforts and the shortcomings of the Regions where he was a member to confront Jones.)

During the closure of the Disciples in 2002 and its successor seven years later the mood from a number of Disciples I knew was a collective shrug.  This is what colleague Dan Mayes said back in 2010:

I think the demise of DisciplesWorld also has something to do with larger issues facing the Church today, also. Being part of a denomination means less and less to people than it used to. People are more concerned with being a part of a particular local church where they fit than they are about that congregation’s denominational affiliation. This means our editorial outlets have less of a captive audience than ever before. With a wane in denominational interest the publications are sure to suffer.

I have been a faithful subscriber to DisciplesWorld, so I must confess a bit of sadness. But I have to admit that in recent years my magazine subscription has served as little more than a novelty. I, personally, find sources of theological reflection and information through trusted bloggers more than anywhere else. And I’m venturing to guess that more and more people are doing the same.

Perhaps someone else will pick up where DisciplesWorld left off one day. Or perhaps no one will ever need to. This old world keeps on changing. So changing is what we’re going to have to do.

Things have changed, but I don’t think they were for the better.  We still don’t have a pan-Disciple outlet.  Some blogs have come in to fill in the gap, like D-Mergent.  But the problem there is that D-Mergent tends to provide the progressive/left voice in the denomination.  For those of us who are more moderate, there is…nothing.

I think D-Mergent has its place.  As I’ve said before, I do need to be stretched at times.  The problem is, that I’m only hearing the progressive voice.  I’d like to hear someone that has views closer to mine every so often.  A denominational magazine would provides that wider view.

Disciples News Service has become more consistent with their weekly emails.  A look at their webpage shows some interesting stories. But I don’t think it does a complete job of telling the Disciple story.

Back in 2010, I wrote why we need some kind of denominational news source.  They are:

  • To stregthen and uphold the bonds of “brotherhood” and be aware of God’s mission in the world. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is not like other denominations.  Unlike Lutherans or Presbyterians, we don’t have creeds that bind us together.  Being non creedal means we have had to find other means of upholding the ties that bond us together.  A denominational news source that is telling the story of what is going on in the wider church, to talk about what ministries are taking place in California or Kentucky or Florida is keeping us bound together and helps congregations know they are not alone.  Maybe the best example of this is the work the Presbyterian Church (USA) is doing through Presbyterian News Service called “Growing God’s Church Deep and Wide.”  Over the last year, a number of stories have been written about mission taking place within local Presbyterian churches around the nation (including my hometown of Flint, MI).  Disciplesworld did a good job of telling those stories.  Who will tell them now?
  • To Give Us a Wide Viewpoint.  Yeah, I know, we can read blogs to get a wide range of opinions.  But the thing is, I can decide to read only the sources I want to read and ignore the rest.  What was great about Disciplesworld is that it presented views and opinions that not every would agree with.  While I don’t agree at times with folks like Jan Linn or Rita Nakashima Brock, I did appreciate reading a different opinion.  The loss of a news source leaves us without a forum where we can be intellectually and spiritually stretched.  Without a vital gathering place, we won’t have a place where we can make reasoned arguments and be able to discern the vital issues of the day like gay ordination or war.

I think there is the beginnings of a good magazine that is already being produced by Home Missions. The Disciples Advocate is published a few times a year and tells what’s going on around the church. The drawback at this point is that it isn’t well-publicized and it would need to spiff up its look. But the bones of a good magazine are there.

I still think there is a way telling the story of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Maybe it’s an even stronger Disciple News Service. Maybe it’s an online magazine. I don’t know. What I do know is that we need to have something that is greater than the parts that exist now.

The Disciples of Christ Historical Society has an online archive of past issues of DisciplesWorld, from 2002 until 2009.  You can access it here.

The Life and Times of An Accidental Jerk

I have a love-hate relationship with the church.

jerkYes, that’s kind of an odd thing for someone whose job revolves around the church to say, but it’s true.  Church can offer me comfort and challenge me in my mission of being Christ to others. But has also been a place of pain, a place where others misunderstand me and where I am constantly wondering if I’m doing the right thing and scared how people will react when I do get it wrong.

I don’t know how it is with other folks with Aspergers, what I am sharing might just be unique to me.  But sometimes church has been a minefield, a place where I seem to do the wrong thing and not always know that until I get the angry email or conversation.

A lot of what happens in church revolves around unwritten rules.  They are things that everyone else can see, but it’s something that I can’t understand let alone see it.  Even when I think I’ve done the right things that won’t get me in trouble, somehow, I mess it up.  I missed another rule.

The result of all this is that I live in quiet fear.  I second guess my decisions, triple-check what I say, and wonder if the parishoner I’m talking to is mad at me and I don’t know it.

Church can be a minefield for pastors in general, but the church is even more of a minefield to me…and I don’t know where the mines are laid.

I don’t want to give the impression that church is all bad.  I also don’t want to live in self-pity, blaming others for my mistakes.  I also can’t expect my colleagues and the laity to have learned everything about Aspergers.  I guess I just want people to see that am trying and learning to be better. To paraphrase Jessica Rabbit, I’m not bad…I’m just wired that way.


Sermons from FCC- St. Paul:”We’re on a Road to Somewhere”

Acts 2:1-21
Pentecost Sunday
June 8, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the sermon podcast.

I was always looking forward to the family summer vacation. Dad would back up the car to make it easy to put our luggage in. Mom would fill a picnic basket with items to eat or drink along the way. Dad would also get the old igloo ice chest, fill it with ice and place cans of pop and lunch meats, again for the journey ahead. I was over the moon as the car pulled out of the driveway and made its way to freeway and our chosen destination.

What was so exciting about that car trip? In most cases, we were going to places we had been to before. But that didn’t matter to me. Just being on the journey was exciting- even if I had travelled the road before.

Today is Pentecost, what is normally called the birthday of the church. It is the day that the Spirit makes itself known to the world through Jesus’ disciples. The story begins with the disciples gathered in a room in Jerusalem. Jesus told them to wait there until the Spirit comes. I’m guessing that the disciples didn’t understand what was going to happen. It was already hard enough to understand Jesus dying, rising again and the floating away. What was the Spirit? What was its importance?

The passage says that the 120 were gathered in one place. They stayed in this room waiting for…what? As usual, Jesus didn’t really explain what was going to happen.

And then something happens. A wind blows through the room. Then in what seems to be a vision of some kind, what appears like flames settled on each person’s head. Then something odd happened. Each one felt compelled to praise God. That wasn’t the strange thing. What was striking was that they were praising God in different languages- languages that very few of them had even learned.

i-475_mi_st_01They couldn’t just stay in that room. They had to get out, they had to get out and make their praises known to God publicly. And so they did just that, when it just so happens a religious festival is taking place with Jews from around the known world. They were amazed as they heard these uneducated country hicks from Galilee praise God in their mother tounges.

Some were amazed of what was happening. Others scoffed thinking the disciples were drunk. But people, the none too bright disciple, explains to the crowd what was going on. He finally gets what Jesus was all about and shares the story of God’s salvation. The passage ends with the writer saying that 3000 people were added to their number on that first Pentecost.

It’s tempting to look at this scripture and focus on the end: that 3000 people were added on that day. Most congregations in North America are facing decline and First-St. Paul is no different. We look at that and wonder what we could do to get 3000 people on to our membership roles.

But we should be focusing on another part of today’s text. It’s where Peter is explaining to the crowd what is happening. He refers to the prophet Joel which says that in the last days God’s spirit will be poured out among all flesh, men and women, young and old. Even slaves would receive the Spirit of God.
The Spirit’s arrival pushed the disciples out of the upper room and into the rest of the world. There was no more staying in a room, everyone was on a journey to witness the wonderous deeds of God through Jesus.
Pentecost is about the arrival of the Spirit and the beginning of the Church. The spirit is here and present with us. It doesn’t matter if we are a church of 1000 or a church of 10, the Spirit is present here now and if we pay attention to the Spirit, God just might kick us out of this building and into the world. Pentecost is about a church on the move, the car on the journey. The church isn’t a destination, but it is the means with which we travel.
As most of you know, I was the Associate Pastor at First Christian Minneapolis for nearly five years. I had known most of the folks at church, because I joined the church over a decade earlier, so this was a bit of a homecoming after being gone for several years.
First-Minneapolis was at a crossroads in their ministry. The church that was 1500 members strong, was now a church of about 150. The sanctuary that was built in the 1950s for a growing church, now seemed cavernous. A few months before I arrived, the church came to conclusion that they needed to sell the building and move into more appropriate quarters. Selling the building was hard and many wondered if this was the end of the congregation.

For about two years, I was part of a transition team made up the Interim Pastor, myself and lay members. We heard various ideas and prayed and listened. As we continued on our jounrney we didn’t realize that even though the road seemed uncertain, we were being led by the Spirit. We met two other congregations that were planning to move into one building. Salem Lutheran and Lyndale United Church of Christ had also gone through decline and was open to try something new. We cautiously entered the process, feeling that we should join this partnership. The three churches rehabbed what was the old Lutheran church into a facility that house three congregations called the Springhouse Worship Center. First-Minneapolis opened themselves to the Spirit, and while it wasn’t a mighty wind or fire or speaking fluent German even though they didn’t know the language, it was life changing.

As First-St. Paul discerns its future, we should remember that church is not a place. Our goal isn’t to get more people in the chairs, as much as we all would love to see that. What God is calling us to do is to be open to where the Spirit is active- and might be in places and people we don’t expect. We are called to be looking for the party- it’s to find where the Spirit is bringing joy and hope and then join in.

I am excited that First will join First-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy Christian in Lakeville at the Twin Cities Pride Festival. I know this is stretching ourselves into new years. But I also think this is part of what we are called to do; to see this place as a staging ground for our ministry into the world. Sitting at a booth for a few hours on Saturday might not seem important, but it is. Many people have been hurt by other Christians because of their sexual orientation. Part of the reason of the booth is to offer healing and fellowship. The three churches will take turns offering people communion and people who can listen and pray with them. Will there be paople who might join First-St. Paul? I hope so, but that’s not the reason we are going to be there. We will be there because the Spirit is already there and we will witness to that fact. Did you think taking a shift at Hope for the Journey Shelter was just doing a good thing? No, it’s joining the Spirit in offering hospitality and hope in the name Jesus.

We are called to go into the world and preach in the power of the Holy Spirit. Pentecost is about going out, not coming in.

As First-Minneapolis began to journey with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC, we would end every joint meeting with a prayer. It’s a prayer from the Lutheran tradition, and it fit what we were all dealing with. It’s called the Holden Prayer and it goes like this:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannon see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Pentecost is a journey. Let us feel today like I did all those years ago as I went on a summer vacation. Let us be excited where the Spirit is leading us and the God is with us. Don’t forget to buckle up. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon Podcast.

Work with a Church Rising from the Ashes in Minnesota

The following is something I wrote on the First Christian website.  As some of you know, First-St. Paul is down to a few faithful members.  We are starting to venture forth into the community, but it would by helpful if we had a few more people.  Share this with your friends.  To contact me, go to the bottom of this post.

IMG_0033First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this congregation.

First Christian is a 132-year old congregation. The congregation is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a mainline Protestant denomination. Until 1996, the congregation was located on Marshall Avenue in the Cathedral Hill area. In that year the building was sold and a church building was purchased in Mahtomedi, a St. Paul suburb. Like many urban congregations, First Christian lost membership until the church was left with a handful of members. While the current congregation is small, they have great faith and seek to be church. The members are open to new ways of doing ministry as much as being in community with each other. Changes have been made in worship, administration and mission. We are slowly but surely connecting the surrounding Mahtomedi/White Bear Lake community. The congregation works with ministry partners like the Mahtomedi Area Food Shelf and Hope for the Journey Family Shelter in Oakdale. We are working with other Disciples of Christ congregation to have a presence at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival, reaching out the LGBT community. God truly has been at work in this community. While there is great energy and faith, the congregation realizes the need to have a critical mass of people involved in our faith community.

First Christian is in many ways being rebirthed. The process is not unlike a church start, which is why we are looking at creating a launch team to join us in the rebirthing process. The Re-Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact Pastor Dennis Sanders at info@fccstpaul.com or by phone at (612) 568-4576. We will contact you shortly!


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 2,237 other followers

%d bloggers like this: