The Politics of Fear, Reconsidered

I looked into the mirror, (Yeah)
Proud as I could be, (Yeah)
And I saw my pointing finger (Yeah)
Pointing back at me,
Saying, “Who named you accuser? (Yeah)
Who gave you the scales?” (Yeah)
I hung my head in sorrow; (Yeah)
I could almost feel the nails
I said, “This is how it is
To be crucified and judged
Without love”

-Amy Grant, What About the Love

ISIS_zpsebcsoq8xAs the news about the list of Governors either pausing or barring Syrian refugees from coming to their states continued this week, I started to be bothered by what I was seeing on social media.  At first it was a sense of righteous outrage, but it soon morphed into a self-righteousness.  It felt like the Good Samaritan all of the sudden became a big jackass talking about how open minded and compassionate he was as opposed to those other two losers.

I still think we need to welcome refugees no matter where they come from.  But like most of life, this issue is not as black and white as we want it to be. We can talk about Baby Jesus being a refugee (which is true), but it doesn’t mean that this issue is that simple.

Political blogger Kevin Drum noted in a blog post yesterday, that people should tone down on the mocking tone because the concerns about safety are legitimate:

The liberal response to this should be far more measured. We should support tight screening. Never mind that screening is already pretty tight. We should highlight the fact that we’re accepting a pretty modest number of refugees. In general, we should act like this is a legitimate thing to be concerned about and then work from there.

Which brings up an interesting point: did you know that the Obama Administration paused the immigration process of Iraqi refugees in 2011 because of terror concerns? This is from an ABC News article:

Several dozen suspected terrorist bombmakers, including some believed to have targeted American troops, may have mistakenly been allowed to move to the United States as war refugees, according to FBI agents investigating the remnants of roadside bombs recovered from Iraq and Afghanistan.

The discovery in 2009 of two al Qaeda-Iraq terrorists living as refugees in Bowling Green, Kentucky — who later admitted in court that they’d attacked U.S. soldiers in Iraq — prompted the bureau to assign hundreds of specialists to an around-the-clock effort aimed at checking its archive of 100,000 improvised explosive devices collected in the war zones, known as IEDs, for other suspected terrorists’ fingerprints…

As a result of the Kentucky case, the State Department stopped processing Iraq refugees for six months in 2011, federal officials told ABC News – even for many who had heroically helped U.S. forces as interpreters and intelligence assets. One Iraqi who had aided American troops was assassinated before his refugee application could be processed, because of the immigration delays, two U.S. officials said. In 2011, fewer than 10,000 Iraqis were resettled as refugees in the U.S., half the number from the year before, State Department statistics show.

Now, what happened in 2011 is not the same thing happening now. We don’t have proof that there are terrorists among the refugees. But this does make me think that in light of last week’s attack in Paris, it isn’t so far-fetched to request a pause.

Which leads me to the article that prompted me to write this blog post. Evangelical blogger John Mark Reynolds wrote that being prudent doesn’t mean being anti-refugee and that accepting a token amount of refugees makes you virtuous. Reynolds believes that Christians must care for the refugee, but he also thinks a lot of what is being done by the United States is not enough and not helpful:

We can pretend to be making room for Baby Jesus at our inn while doing almost nothing for Syrians relative to the need of the Syrian refugees. If we wanted to help by repopulating, then we should be moving tens of thousands more, but nobody thinks this is a good idea.


Our goal is for people to flourish in their homelands, not depopulate Syria of Christians and other religious minorities. We do not want to move Syrians to the US and Europe in such great numbers that we effectively end Syrian culture.

In the meantime, we do need safe havens near home for the refugee populations. I wish the Obama administration were doing more . . . but taking in ten thousand is doing next to nothing that is meaningful.

Leaving the Islamic State and terrorist groups in charge of much of Syria while helping the good people of Syria depopulate the area of those who have lived there for centuries is questionable policy. What happens next? Where will the next million Syrians go? Will we take another ten thousand and pretend that is enough?

Reynolds also notes that we haven’t done a good job of preventing Syrians from having to leave their homes in the first place:

I have no doubt that almost none of the ten thousand are here to commit terror or will commit terror. I also have no doubt that if one does that it will be devastating to the political will to do anything again. We do little and risk much through this gesture.

Yet if I say this, then I am shown a picture of a dead child and told I support this policy, generally by people who oppose putting boots on the ground to end the regime that is causing the refugee crisis. I want to preserve Syria, beautiful, multi-cultural Syria, not appropriate her people into permanent exile or cultural isolation.

Fortunately, I am blessed to have sensible, loving friends who know how painful this decision is on both sides. I am not sure I am right and this is hard. Loving Syria and the people of Syria makes me wish to throw all caution to the wind and do all that can be done . . . but we are already not doing all we could. When on Facebook I was told my “prudence” would kill a Syrian child, I wanted to say: “What of the Obama administration that through prudence has let Syria burn?”(emphasis mine). What of your prudence in only taking ten thousand? Why not one hundred thousand?”

That is the question we aren’t talking about: why did we let this happen in the first place? In 2013, the President had a chance to go into Syria to deal with the crisis, but backed out of it. I along with others, thought we should stay out of Syria. Wasn’t our concern, we said. Why is it now our concern? Did Syrians have to leave their homes for us to give a damn?

In some way, a lot of this is just another part of the ongoing political polarization of America.  People lumped together every Republican governor that said “no” into a xenophobic cowardly bigot.  Some of the governors are cynical bigots, but not all of them.  Michigan Governor Rick Snyder was one that asked for a pause.  I was dissapointed in his decision because earlier in the year he said rather publicly that he would accept Syrians.  Michigan (which is my native state) already has a substantial Arab population, including a number of Syrian immigrants in Metro Detroit and Flint. The governor has gone to great lengths to explain that he is not wanting to shut the door permanently; he simply want to be sure.  Maybe that’s not the right course.  Maybe he should have just accepted the refugees without question.  I don’t know.  What it seems to me is that he is trying to be both welcoming and responsible.  But all of that nuance gets lost in the debate.

I still think we should accept refugees.  But I’m less willing to automatically chastise anyone who doesn’t agree with me.  I will denounce the naked racism that I find on Facebook when we talk about these issues, but I will also think about when and why we should get involved in conflicts around the world. I will learn that sometimes the issues we think are so black and white, aren’t.

The reason I started off with the lyrics from an Amy Grant song is that even when we are doing good things, our pride can taint them.  It’s wrong to be hate another person for their religion.  But God also looks down on pride, the sense that you are better than others because you are so righteous.  I think there has been a lot of pride over the last few days and we have to ask if this is leading to something better or not.  We can be right and yet be so wrong.

The Politics of the “Other”

The Lord is for me—I won’t be afraid.
    What can anyone do to me?

-Psalm 118:6

In the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, I’ve been watching with some disgust the number of governors who have said they won’t take in Syrian refugees.  The chances that one a refugee could actually be a terrorist is pretty low.  

I was ashamed to be (at least nominally) a Republican at this moment.  But as I was upset at how these governors are going against common human morality, I remembered something:

Dubai Ports World.

For those that don’t remember, about a decade ago, a company based in Dubai was going to end up running several ports in the United States.  Congress got wind of the deal and members of both parties raised concerns.  It caused enough rancor not only on Capitol Hill but among the American public that the deal died.

I remember writing about this event back in 2006 and I actually still have the blog post.  This is what I wrote back then:

I don’t care if the majority of Americans were deadset against this. I don’t care that most of Congress was against it. This whole fight was never about security- it was about politics. Both parties want to look tough on terrorism and this was a slam dunk of an issue. We could cash in on fear of another 9/11 and throw in some xenophobia and get the American public to fear people with funny sounding names.

Sometimes I think that our country is incredibly short-sighted and fearful anything that is “foreign.” September 11 didn’t open us up to the world, it made us even more suspicious of anyone that doesn’t seem “American,” whatever that means.

The fear back then was that somehow a foriegn (read: Arab) owned company would not ensure the security of the ports. But I argued back then that we don’t have to fear the outsider as much as those already here.

Not much has changed.

Alabama Governor Robert Bentley.

I share this because I think its important to remember that the politics of xenophobia are as bipartisan as apple pie.  Politicians do things like this because it works.  Looking on Facebook, I could see a number of people who were only barely hiding their fear of Muslims.  They were thanking the governors that had decided to not welcome the refugees.

Fear sells.

But the thing of course is that if there is ever an ISIS attack on American soil, it won’t come from some refugee, it will be conducted by people who already live here. People who live in our communities.

But fear of the other and politicians willing to play into those fears has been with us for a long time.  The grossly named Operation Wetback forcibly removed undocumented Mexicans during the Eisenhower years and we all know about the internment of 100,000 Japanese Americans during World War II.

Fear is all around and the temptation to give into the fear is great.  We all have trepidation on things that are not familiar to us.  In Paul’s letter to young Timothy, he says that God has not given us a spirit of fear, but one that is powerful, “loving and self-controlled.” (2 Timothy 1:7).

Politicians are responsive to our own fears, but as Christians we aren’t to give into fear. We trust in the God that is our “light and our salvation.”  We have to believe that we won’t be saved by turning our backs on refugees, but only through God.

Writer Michael Gerson notes that the refusal to help people fleeing from war is helping ISIS, the very people we don’t want to help:

All our efforts are undermined by declaring Islam itself to be the enemy, and by treating Muslims in the United States, or Muslims in Europe, or Muslims fleeing Islamic State oppression, as a class of suspicious potential jihadists. Instead of blaming refugees, we need to make sure our counterterrorism and intelligence policies give us a chance to screen and stop any threat (which means keeping the post-9/11 structures of surveillance in place). But if U.S. politicians define Islam as the problem and cast aspersions on Muslim populations in the West, they are feeding the Islamic State narrative. They are materially undermining the war against terrorism and complicating the United States’ (already complicated) task in the Middle East. Rejecting a blanket condemnation of Islam is not a matter of political correctness. It is the requirement of an effective war against terrorism, which means an effective war against the terrorist kingdom in Syria and western Iraq.

Ten years ago, I said Osama bin Laden was smiling of the Dubai Ports World fiasco. Now I think the people in the so-called Islamic State are smiling as well.

And Jesus wept.

Sermon: “Coexist?”

1 Kings 18:20-40
Twenty Fourth Sunday After Pentecost
November 8, 2015
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN


The scene is Mount Carmel. Thousands of citizens from the Northern Kingdom have trekked to this place to see a spectacle.  Off to the side, they can see King Ahab and his wife Queen Jezebel seated on ornate chairs.  In the center are two altars.  On the right are the prophets of Baal, some 450 people.  The people had been introduced to Baal worship only a few years before when Ahab married Jezebel, a Phoenician princess.  Rumors have swirled that Jezebel demanded that she and all of Israel worship her god.  Ahab had a temple built for Baal and other places were set up for people to worship this new god.


People had heard that the prophets of Yahweh were being persecuted.  Some even believe that Jezebel is giving the orders.  As to worshipping this foreign god, most of the people in the audience had gone down to the temple once or twice.  Of course, they still went to the temple of Yahweh, built by King Solomon when Israel was a united kingdom.  But most of them thought it couldn’t hurt to get some extra help in making sure the crops grow or for success in battle or business.  Plus it was the thing to do.  They lived in an area surrounded by other nations and all the nations kind of borrowed each other’s god.  This is what was done.  


On the left was Elijah.  He told people he was God’s prophet, there to make sure the King was doing his job of leading the people in the ways of God.  A lot of people didn’t really like Elijah.  He was a bit rude to people and just didn’t know when to shut up.  Most of the people knew that he had been away for a few years.  Reliable sources said Ahab blamed him for the drought that had gripped the land.  


After a bit of preparation on both sides, Elijah strode to the crowd.  It looked like he was going to say something.  Oh boy, the people thought, he’s going to chastise us again.


They were right.  Elijah scowled at the people and said, “How long are you going to sit on the fence? If God is the real God, follow him; if it’s Baal, follow him. Make up your minds!”


Just like clockwork, they thought.  No one responded to his statement.  Why do we have to choose?  What does it hurt to worship an extra god?  We need all the help we can get!


But Elijah wasn’t done talking.  “I’m the only prophet of God left in Israel; and there are 450 prophets of Baal. Let the Baal prophets bring up two oxen; let them pick one, butcher it, and lay it out on an altar on firewood—but don’t ignite it. I’ll take the other ox, cut it up, and lay it on the wood. But neither will I light the fire. Then you pray to your gods and I’ll pray to God. The god who answers with fire will prove to be, in fact, God.”


A few people in the crowd rolled their eyes.  The only prophet of God in Israel?  What a drama queen.  Most of the people nodded their heads to Elijah’s challenge.  “Good idea!” a few people yelled.


Elijah nodded to the group of Baal’s prophets, indicating they can start first.  The prophets started bowing and yelling for Baal to answer them.  Some of the people expected fire to come down, any minute now.  Half an hour past. Then an hour. Then two hours.  The prophets were getting hoarse after all that shouting.


It’s then that the people hear Elijah’s voice.  He starts laughing loudly and then gave a sneer.  “I don’t think your god can hear you.  You might want to yell louder, he taunted.  “Is he off meditating?  Maybe he’s taking a bathroom break?  Was this the week he was going on vacation?”


The prophets of Baal grew upset at Elijah’s teasing.  They decided it was time to make sure Baal listened.  To the surprise of the people, the prophets start cutting themselves until they were covered in blood.  It was a hideous sight.  Some people wondered.  Baal was supposed to be the god of storms and fertility.  Why could Baal answer the prophets?


Elijah waves his hands.  “Enough. It’s now my turn.” He started getting the altar setup.  The odd thing was when he asked that the altar be doused with water.  It seemed odd in the middle of a drought to waste water like this, but Elijah never made sense, anyway.  When he was done he started to pray in a loud voice. “O God, God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, make it known right now that you are God in Israel, that I am your servant, and that I’m doing what I’m doing under your orders. Answer me, God; O answer me and reveal to this people that you are God, the true God, and that you are giving these people another chance at repentance.”


The people were startled by the lightning.  First it was in the distance and within seconds it was right on them.  The lightning looked like fire as it came down from the sky and struck the altar.  The heat engulfed the altar and was intense.  Within a few minutes, the fires dissipated leaving nothing behind.  The people were astonished.  A few people started yelling, “God is the true God!”  Many in the crowd started bowing in obedience to God.  Many of the people had thought worshipping Baal was no big thing, but when they saw nothing happened  when asked to perform a sign, the god did nothing.  But this God, Yahweh was active.  Maybe it was time to place our bets on Yahweh, they thought.  


The people decided to follow the God of their ancestors: unless something better came along.


There is a bumper sticker that I’ve seen around town in the last few years and you’ve probably seen it as well.  The sticker says “Coexist.” The letter c is shaped like a crescent moon representing Islam.  The letter x is shaped as a Jewish star of David and the letter t looks like a cross representing Christianity.  The message of the bumper sticker is to preach tolerance among the major religions. Looking at the news today, I think the message of tolerance among different faiths is sorely needed. I am thankful that we live in a nation where people are free to worship different faiths.  


But the sticker also bothers me too.  It feels at time that the message on the sticker is to look at faith as nothing more than a commodity, something to be consumed and used.  The people of Israel were guilty of using faith. Take a prayer here and a sacrifice there to use.  Israel didn’t have a problem with belief, it had a problem with faithfulness. There is a rush in liberal Protestantism to try to not make our faith too distinctive.  We think it would be nice if we could strip away the difference between the faiths.  If we could just get rid of the fervor, the doctrine, we could then get to the essence of every faith.


I’m not advocating that we become fanatics.  I think there is much to learn from other faiths, and I think we are called to be good neighbors to them.  We shouldn’t fear the mosque being built down the road or the guy who wears a turban as part of his Sikh faith.


But in the passage today, the message that is that we need to believe all this God-stuff. The word for belief or faith is also the same word for trust.  We put our trust in God and God alone.  The people of Israel needed to believe in not just any God, but the God that led them out of Egypt.  It was a particular God that loved them and cared for them.  


The cross, the symbol of Christianity, is more than just a symbol.  It is a reminder of our sin and a sign of God’s love.  It is a reminder that God passionately loves us and is willing to give up life itself.  Our faith is not just something we pick up for good luck.  It is a worldview, it is a reordering of life itself.  Faith, our faith, should change us.  


What bothered Elijah and God is that the Israelites no longer saw their faith as all encompassing.  It was something that could be used the thrown away when done.  To place trust in God, to believe in God and Jesus and the cross means entering a story and letting that story change us.


Most of the Spanish that I’ve learned, I learned by listening to my mother talking to my grandmother and my uncles.  Probably the best way to learn a language is to be immersed in it.  You have to be in a place where it is used from day to day to begin to understand it and speak it.  Part of the reason that I think people who take a language class in high school forget it is because they come to the class with an English mind.  You’re standing outside the language, may be able to pick up a few words, but not to totally understand it all.  I can’t remember much of what I learned in taking Spanish in high school, but I do remember what I learned when I was 10 years old and having to talk to my grandmother in Spanish.


Faith is much like a language.  You might be able to get some understanding from the outside, but unless it is a part of you, unless you take in what it says, it doesn’t have much effect on your life.  


Faith is about believing in something, to put your trust in it.  As Christians we believe in a God that created the world, a God that came in to earth in the form of a human called Jesus, who lived with us, died and rose again to bring us closer to God.  And we believe we are called to preach the good news and care for others.  This isn’t about being nice to each other or being better people, but it’s about believing that all this church stuff matters. Coexisting is not enough.


Did the people understand that in Elijah?  I don’t know.  But I hope that we will. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Black Jobs Matter


I am posting this with some trepidation. I posted it a few months ago at a group blog. I’ve not posted it here because I don’t want to seem that I am the whiny black guy who just complains.  But I think it is important to see how I feel as a working in the workforce.  So if I offend anyone, I apologize.

My dad, who passed away earlier this year, once told me a story about looking for work.  Dad moved to Michigan in the early 50s to find work in the auto plants, but before he did that, he and some relatives drove from his native Louisiana to the Caterpillar plant in Peoria, Illinois. They had heard jobs were available and went to apply.  When they got there, they were told the plant had no jobs- translation: there were no jobs for black people.  So, Dad never got a job at Caterpillar, but did get a job at Buick where he worked for nearly 40 years.

Flash forward to the late 1980s.  I’m in my junior year of college at Michigan State University.  I had heard from a friend that the college newspaper was in need of copy editors, so I went down to apply.  I was told by the editor himself that there were no jobs available.  When I told my friend, she was surprised since she was told they really needed more copy editors.

In the wake of all the concern about how African Americans are treated by the police, there is another issue that doesn’t get the attention that the police conduct issue gets and that’s in the area of employment.  While separated by decades, my Dad and I faced some of the same challenges; that of being judge by the color of your skin instead of your talents.  The judging is not as blantant as it was for my Dad, but it is there all the same.  It’s something that millions of African Americans have dealt with when it comes to finding and keeping a job.

A recent report by the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis shows that a college degree is not necessarily a ticket to prosperity for African Americans and Hispanics:

A college degree has long been recognized as a great equalizer, a path for minorities to help bridge the economic chasm that separates them from whites. But the report, scheduled to be released on Monday, raises troubling questions about the ability of a college education to narrow the racial and ethnic wealth gap.

“Higher education alone cannot level the playing field,” the report concludes.

Economists emphasize that college-educated blacks and Hispanics over all earn significantly more and are in a better position to accumulate wealth than blacks and Hispanics who do not get degrees. Graduates’ median family income in 2013 was at least twice as high, and their median family wealth (which includes resources like a home, car and retirement account) was 3.5 to 4 times greater than that of nongraduates.

But while these college grads had more assets, they suffered disproportionately during periods of financial trouble.

From 1992 to 2013, the median net worth of blacks who finished college dropped nearly 56 percent (adjusted for inflation). By comparison, the median net worth of whites with college degrees rose about 86 percent over the same period, which included three recessions — including the severe downturn of 2007 through 2009, with its devastating effect on home prices in many parts of the country. Asian graduates did even better, gaining nearly 90 percent.

I’ve seen this happen in my own life.  I have a college degree and a post college degree.  But my income is not in keeping with the degrees.


Finding and keeping work has always been a challenge for me.  It’s not that I don’t have the skills.  After years of feeling that I was just too dumb to get a job, I’ve started to see that my skills in communications, web and graphic design are pretty good. But over the last few years, I’ve had to go through two layoffs and they have made me think more about the role of race in employment.  The first time was when I working at the regional office of a mainline Protestant denomination.  I had been their communications/IT person for six years.  There was a budget shortfall and among the cost saving measures was the elimination of my position.  You should know I was the only person of color on staff.  Despite some concerns from people, the position was terminated and I was looking for another job.  That came with a siminlar position at a local Methodist church.  This time I had my husband looking out for me.  I had that job for a year and then two days before Christmas I was told again because of budget issues, that my position was terminated.

I can’t say for a fact that these decisions were racist.  I can say that in both positions I added value to the organization. I pushed boundaries, started new initiatives and brought hightened visibility to the organization.  None of that protected me from being let go.  Meanwhile in some cases, people who produced less (and were white) were saved from the chopping block.

In both cases, I probably stayed longer than I should, even as I saw dark clouds because I knew it would be hard to find another job easily.

There is no smoking gun here.  No one said “let’s go after the black guy.”  But in both cases I’ve been left wondering.  It becomes one of what I like to call “Is it racist or is it Memorex” moment.

Was there some unconscious bias?  I don’t know.  I can’t say yes, but I can’t rule it out either. The same goes to all those meetings with a friend of a friend about jobs.  You give them your resume and you don’t hear back.  Was there unconscious bias there as well?  I don’t know.  All I do know is that I’ve tried all the suggestions people give in job hunts and while I see others (who are white)  trying it and having it work,  it doesn’t work for me.

My own belief is that there is an implicit bias at work.  It’s not intentional, but it is there and it has consquences.  Harvard sociologist Sendhil Mullainathan notes the many ways bias appears in the lives of African Americans:

In a 2009 study, Devah Pager, Bruce Western and Bart Bonikowski, all now sociologists at Harvard, sent actual people to apply for low-wage jobs. They were given identical résumés and similar interview training. Their sobering finding was that African-American applicants with no criminal record were offered jobs at a rate as low as white applicants who had criminal records.

These kinds of methods have been used in a variety of research, especially in the last 20 years. Here are just some of the general findings:

? When doctors were shown patient histories and asked to make judgments about heart disease, they were much less likely to recommend cardiac catheterization (a helpful procedure) to black patients — even when their medical files were statistically identical to those of white patients.

? When whites and blacks were sent to bargain for a used car, blacks were offered initial prices roughly $700 higher, and they received far smaller concessions.

? Several studies found that sending emails with stereotypically black names in response to apartment-rental ads on Craigslist elicited fewer responses than sending ones with white names. A regularly repeated study by the federal Department of Housing and Urban Development sent African-Americans and whites to look at apartments and found that African-Americans were shown fewer apartments to rent and houses for sale.

? White state legislators were found to be less likely to respond to constituents with African-American names. This was true of legislators in both political parties.

? Emails sent to faculty members at universities, asking to talk about research opportunities, were more likely to get a reply if a stereotypically white name was used.

? Even eBay auctions were not immune. When iPods were auctioned on eBay, researchers randomly varied the skin color on the hand holding the iPod. A white hand holding the iPod received 21 percent more offers than a black hand.


The silent bias, the thing that people aren’t even aware of can have an amazing impact in the lives of African Americans and not for the better.

I don’t know what the answer is here.  Some would say this a perfect reason for affirmative action and while there is some need for that, it still leaves African Americans out of the social networks that help whites in employment.  No doubt there has to be more acknowledgement of implicit racial bias in the workplace and conscious efforts to combat it.

While America deals with this, I still have to find work.  I have a part time job and some freelancing to help (though the freelancing is slow…it’s August, I guess), but I need either more freelancing or a fuller time job to pay the bills.  Either way, I have to gird myself and hope that people will see me as the communications geek and not random unknown black guy.


The Church for Today (and not 1955)

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

This morning at church, things are what they are on most Sundays. We had about 15 people who sang, prayed and listened to the sermon.  We talked about making sandwiches for the homeless in a few weeks time.

But something unusual did happen today.  For whatever reason, an elderly woman was dropped off at 9AM for the service held by a church that rents our space.  Their worship service was at 11.  The woman used a wheelchair.  And because our heater is on the blink, the church was cold, causing her to shiver.  The congregants fretted about leaving this woman in the narthex for two hours, so it was decided that we bring her into the sanctuary where we had some space heaters going.  The woman had to go to two services, but I think she enjoyed herself.  I know it warmed my heart when she was served communion along with everyone else.

This is a wonderful example of church in action.  But I think that if it were known to some denominational people, First Christian-St. Paul would be closed.

Why?  Well, we have a tiny membership that barely keeps things afloat.  They can’t afford a full time pastor.  The money is always tight.  If we were to judge this congregation according to the standards of say 1955, we would not be considered sustainable.  And in the eyes of some who still unknowingly follow those standards, we should have closed a long time ago.

One of the things that saddens me is when a church closes.  Now I  know all things must die, and no church lasts forever.  But sometimes I think in mainline Protestantism, we have lost the meaning of what is true church and because of this, we tend to pull the cord on congregations too early.  There might be other ideas available if people could get out of making churches what they were when Eisenhower was president.

In the 1950s, mainline Protestant denominations were a potent spiritual, civic and cultural force in America.  People filled the pews of churches, because of culture as much as because of faith in Jesus.  Pastors and churches were part of the community, acting as civic boosters as well as religious leaders.  National leaders listened to what we had to say.

Lots of churches were planted in that era.  They were planted in areas where there wasn’t a denominational presence and set up shop.  Usually these churches were planted in growing suburbs where people moved into new homes.  For the most part suburban churches were built and the people came in droves to be a part of them. An article from 2010 explains the important role Mainline Protestant churches had in our culture:

Historically, members of mainline Protestant churches were the leaders of American civic culture and institutions. Whether it was as bank president, town manager, local newspaper editor, or as the state senator and governor, mainline Protestant Christian commitments and values were both represented and reflected in the world view of public leaders – with the result that the United States was distinctly mainline Protestant Christian in outlook….Back when mainline Protestantism provided the worldview and values of the nation, mainline churches did not have to spend much organizational effort on teaching their values to their children; the culture reinforced their views. By contrast, African American churches, Catholics, non-mainline versions of Christianity, and non-Christian faith communities (notably Jewish groups) had to be intentional about teaching their views and values to their offspring. Non-mainline faith communities paid particular attention to three areas of church life: worship that clearly reflected and inculcated a particular view of God and humankind, religious education that intentionally articulated those worship values, and fellowship that provided social and cultural reinforcement for the community’s values, especially where they diverged from those of the dominant culture.

But fast forward 60 years and we find that mainline Protestantism is no longer the force in society it once was.  The ultimate insiders were now on the outside.  Churches lost members.  Some Denominational executives seem stymied as to what can be done. Others think it is time to face reality and begin closing churches can cutting staff to make ends meet. Our leaders in many ways are still in a mindset from the 1950s, which means that churches are viewed in that same light.  If a church has lost members or maybe has lost vision of focus and it’s budget has taken a hit, that church is a prime candidate for closure.  No one necessarily make a congregation close its ministry, but in my observation it is strongly suggested.

In some ways, when churches were planted in the 50s and 60s, they were planted in areas where say, there wasn’t a Presbyterian church in the area.  What this means is that congregations were viewed as franchises of a certain brand.  This is a different way of seeing congregations from evangelicals.  The language I hear about evangelical church planting is that they move into an area that might not have many people who identify as Christians and they want to share Christ with people.  The language used when some of the suburban mainline churches were planted were about serving a potential population of church goers.  It seems that in one example, the church exists to serve the people.  In the other, the church exists to extend the brand.

Companies like Target or Kroger close stores that are underperforming.  It doesn’t really matter if that area then has no location of their store, that location is closed.  I think inadvertently, this how we view congregations.  We keep the performing ones open and close the underpreforming ones.

But an underperforming church isn’t the same as a Target store with poor sales.  I’ve seen churches close that still had some potential for new ministry.  Of course the church would have to change, but the tools for a new or revived church were available.

Also, when a church closes, there very well might be ministries that can be harmed.  There are churches that are stuggling and yet are performing ministries to people around them, doing such things as helping single mothers in their communities or feeding the homeless.  If the church goes away, it might very well mean that the people served by the ministry are threatened.

When a church is struggling maybe what needs to be done is to assess what can be done in ministry.  Maybe they can’t afford a full time pastor.  Could they afford a part time one?  Could a leader of the church become a commissioned or licensed minister?  What ministries can be done by the church?  Are they able to do ministry with a small membership?

Again, I am not saying you should never close a church.  But I am saying that this should be the last resort, not the first.  A church with a small membership and small budget is not a failure.  But all of this means having a very different mindset when it come to churches.  It means grading churches with a different criteria than one from the midpoint of the last century.  It means understanding what the church means in the first place and how that is expressed in a local setting.  We have to understand what a church is for in a local community.  As the quote above notes, conservative and African American churches have a better understanding of the role of the church, especially when society runs counter to their values.  The problem with mainline churches is because we were at the center of American society, culture instilled and reineforced the values that were expressed in church.  Because culture did all the heavy lifting, we viewed churches like a local franchise.  Our culture no longer reineforces Christian values.  Church can’t be viewed anymore extending the denominational brand or judged on “performance.”  There needs to be more focus in seeing congregations as places where Christians are formed, where church values are taught.

The other thing that has to change is the concept of the pastor.  The standard in the past was that a mainline pastor had a full-time salary.  But many churches are not able to fork over the 40 to 50 thousand dollars to pay for a pastor’s salary, let alone pay for their health care and retirement.  This means that churches have to start looking at part-time pastoral help.  Pastors will have to consider becoming bivocational pastors instead of seeing the church as their sole place of employment.  African American churches have long been places where the pastor worked on Sundays at church and somewhere else during the week.  I think this change is going to be hard for mainliners because we have envisioned the pastorate as a professional akin to a lawyer or doctor.  But doctors and lawyers are paid by entities that can afford to pay high salaries for their expertise.  This means that we have to look at pastors more in terms of artists instead of lawyers.  An artist doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from their work. They do what they do for the love of it.  Sometimes I think a lot of mainline pastors are in churches for reasons other than the love of sharing the good news and caring for others.  Yes, pastors should make a just salary.  But if a church can’t afford to pay a pastor $40 or 50K, but could pay maybe $15 or 20K, they should not be viewed as a failure.  A part time pastor is not inferior to a full time one.

It’s time for mainline churches to be judge according to 21st century standards and not 20th century ones.  Churches of 2015 look different than churches of 1955.  Mainline church leaders need to start living in the present and not in the past.  Congregations are more viable than we think…but we have to use a different measuring stick.