The Church in the Trump Era

What does it mean to be church in the era of President Trump? What does this mean for Mainline/Progressive Christians?

I160903105945-donald-trump-protesters-outside-detroit-church-00000000-large-169n the days following the Inauguration, I was less worried about the new President.  It doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned: but he was chosen in an election and should be allowed govern.  It might be the same as giving him a chance, I don’t know.  But I didn’t want to fly from the reality that Donald Trump won the election.

But I was always waiting if he would cross a line that would be unacceptable.  Would he do something that seered my own conscience?  When would he do it?

The line I was worried he would cross was how we deal with refugees.  I think it is a good thing for America to welcome those fleeing from horror.  I believe we have a stringent vetting system that could help make us secure and allow those who need shelter to find it here in the US.

Well, I now see that  Trump did cross that line.  He has issued an executive order that would suspend entry of immigrants from seven countries, stops the US from accepting refugees for 4 months, and permanantly keeps Syrians refugees out.

The protests have been swift and the actions of the EO have been devastating.  Church leaders accross the spectrum are condemning this order.  Demonstrations have taken place at airports around the nation.  Immigrants on their way to the US or just arriving have been blocked from entering.

Meanwhile my Facebook feed is filled with people who seem to freak out about everything the new president has done, some of which isn’t that unusual from what other presidents have done.  Some progressives are going after Trump voters and it’s not to give them a hug. It’s to call them out, to shame them for voting for a man that has said so many racist, sexist, and every other -ist in the world. It’s to state that one can’t follow Jesus and support Donald Trump.

It’s suffice to say that Trump is keeping us all on our toes.  But how does the church respond in this new era?

I think the first thing is to realize what we are dealing with.  Progressive Christians like to talk about the concept of Empire and it has at times left me rolling my eyes.  But the role of “empire” in theology does have a place in our discussions about church and state: if we are willing to apply to all of our government and not just when the government doesn’t agree with us or is not from the same political party. The question we don’t ask, at least not when Democratic Presidents are in power is how the church should relate to Empire? Presbyterian Michael Kruse wrote back in 2010, about the totalizing agenda of an empire and it is the same no matter who is in charge:

The defining feature of Empire is its totalitizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how and empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.

Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?

Not long before being elected senator, Obama talked of a Second Bill of Rights … channeling FDR. It is a common mindset shared by the left. The original Bill of Rights lists “negative” rights, telling what the government will not do. The Second Bill of Rights would be “positive” rights guaranteeing everyone a home, health care, education, recreation, and so on. In other words, government moves from being a referee for free and virtuous people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities to government being the direct or indirect provider of every aspect of our basic existence. Every sphere of life … business, education, medicine, compassionate care … becomes an extension of government management used toward government’s guarantee of positive rights. All institutions and traditions in our various spheres of life are made to serve the Empire.

Yes, President Trump is lifting up the agenda of Empire, but so did President Obama. Sure it might have been for Obamacare instead of immigration restrictions, but both work to being all spheres of life under the Empire.

None of this means we exit society and stop voting.  It does mean that we need to be aware that both an executive order banning certain people and a health care bill providing universal  access can be tools used by the Empire to pledge total allegiance.  We always need to be aware in our dealings that our first allegiance is always to Christ and that sometimes the two things don’t always sync up, especially when we agree with today’s “Ceasar.”

But screaming “empire” has a way of legitimizing your political agenda, while demonizing the other side.  It also has a way of airbrushing inconvenient truths about our favorite Ceasars.  Have you ever noticed that progressives will talk about the internment of Japanese Americans, but never talk about the fact that Franklin Roosevelt signed the order that made this happen? Roosevelt is a hero of the left and is airbrushed out of the history of this sad chapter in American life.

To be church in this era means being willing to challenge all Caesars not just those we don’t like.

The second thing we need to do is to find ways to seek and dialogue with those who voted for Trump.  Unless your congregations are made up of just one political party, they are probably in your congregation or they are your friends and family.

But for some progressive Christians, that might be easier said than done.  There is a lot of anger out there for people who voted for Trump.  Every article that I’ve read in this vein, tends to list Trump’s sins probably in an attempt to say that it was so obvious that this was a bad man.  I’ve shared what John Pavolvitz said shortly after the election. Zack Hunt also brings up the list to hold up to Trump voters, especially evangelicals:

He said his personal motto is “eye for an eye.”

He unrepentantly declared he doesn’t ask for forgiveness.

He said he wants to bomb half of the Middle East until there’s “nothing left.”

He proposed a tracking system to monitor immigrants.

And a wall to keep them out.

And laws to keep more of them out.

He exploited the poor to build his empire.

He pathologically lied.

He said it was fine to consider his daughter “a piece of ass.”

And bragged about his ability to sexually assault women.

None of that is reconcilable with the Christian faith.

And that was just the campaign.

Yet, none of these deeply anti-Christian things stopped 81% of evangelical Christians voters from casting their ballot for Donald Trump.

In trying to defend their spiritual adultery, they told us – shamed us would probably be more accurate – to give him a chance as if we were just supposed to ignore literally everything he had said and done before the election, as if a vain, temperamental, 70-year old demagogue would magically and radically change who he is, how he behaves, and what he believes the moment he was sworn into office.

We did not owe him a chance, but even if we did, he’s proven after less than a week in office that he didn’t deserve it.

The problem with this kind of article is that it doesn’t even bother to get to know why some people voted for Trump.  They tend to act as if they know these people and view them with contempt, seeing them as wild-eyed nationalists bent on making this world worse off.

But there are a lot of reasons people voted for Trump, such as economic issues.  Read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to understand what life is like for the white working class, the group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

But there is another issue that makes sense and is important during the era of Trump:  the church needs to be united.

I am not saying the church must have one mind, but it must be a united in that we are grounded in Jesus Christ.  In some of the books like John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel and Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy,  the church is the “model home” of the Kingdom of God, a place where the world can see God’s kingdom in action.  If it is a taste of God’s kingdom, it should be a place where people from different backgrounds and viewpoints will come together, maybe to show a way in this divisive time how all of us can come together in Christ.  Maybe if the church was a place where people from various racial and ideological backgrounds joined through the observance of communion, it might be an example in our current context how people can come together in spite of our differences.

Finally, how the church should live in the Trump era calls on the regular practice of church life.  Writing in the magazine First Things, Reformed Scholar Carl Trueman writes about the importance of maintaining the regular acts of church life even in the midst of a changing world:

As I drove back from visiting the elderly congregant, I thought about how all of the recent changes in wider American society will affect my ministry.  Yes, they might make it financially harder and they are already making it socially less acceptable – but they will not really change it at any deep level.  Regardless of SCOTUS or the 2016 election, as long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants.  The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are.  In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.

None of these things will change, even if they do become financially and perhaps legally harder.  The world around may legitimate whatever sleaze, self-indulgence and self-deception it may choose.  It may decide that black is white, that up is down, and that north is south, for all I care.  The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides.  The tomb is still empty.   And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my of spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer.

This might seem pointless in a time when we have a president that seems to cause chaos with every step. But things like communion are there to prepare us, to stregthen us as we enter the world and join the fight. Disciples pastor Doug Skinner wrote recently:

But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”

And so when the question is What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table

to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.

The Trump era is going to test the world in ways it has never been tested. It will bring disruption. It could bring terror attacks. It could get the US involved in a war.

But in all times and places, the church is called to be the church. We are not to be wedded to the power structures of the world, we are to be agents of reconciliation and we will continue to do the work of the church day in and day out, so that our people will have the grace needed to work for justice in this uncertain time.

Preach the Gospel. Use Words.

When I was in seminary, I learned one of those ten dollar words that mean something to the art of being a pastor.  That word is proclamation or its even more fancy Greek version,κήρυγμα or kerygma. Kerygma means preaching.  When a pastor gives a sermon, he or she should be participating in proclaiming or kerygma.

But while preaching is kerygma, it isn’t everything.  Kerygma has a larger meaning; it’s about telling a story, telling a specific story.  The ethical teachings of Jesus had to be placed in a context.  The early Christians found a way to tell the story of Jesus and they called it, the proclamation or kerygma. This is how theologian C.H. Dodd described it:

According to the evidence of the New Testament, the earliest exponents of the Christian religion worked out a distinctive way of presenting the fundamental convictions of their faith, in a formula which they called “the proclamation. The Greek word here is kerygma. Our translators of the Bible commonly render it “preaching” but in its current implications at the present day the word is misleading. Kerygma properly means a public announcement or declaration, whether by a town crier, or by an auctioneer commending his goods to the public, or by the herald of a sovereign state dispatched on a solemn mission, to present an ultimatum, it may be, or to announce terms of peace.

The Christian “preacher” thought of himself as an announcer of very important news. He called it quite simply “the good news,” or in our traditional translation, “the gospel. ” It was this “good news” that was embedded in the “proclamation”, the kerygma. It was essentially a public announcement of events of public importance.

Dodd goes on to say that the proclamation could be recovered from the New Testament and the proclaimation had a purpose; to be confronted by the living God:

The form and content of the proclamation, the kerygma, can be recovered from the New Testament with reasonable accuracy. It recounted in brief the life, and work of Jesus Christ, His conflicts. sufferings. and death. and His resurrection from the dead; and it went on to declare that in these events the divinely guided history of Israel through long centuries had reached its climax. God Himself , had acted decisively in this way to inaugurate His kingdom upon earth. This was the core of all early Christian preaching, however it might be elaborated, illustrated, and explained.

The preacher’s aim was to convince his hearers that they were. indeed confronted by the eternal God in His kingdom, power, and glory; that they, like all men. stood under His judgment upon what they had done and upon what they were, and that this judgment was now immediate and inescapable; further. that those who would put themselves under God’s judgment would, through His mercy. find an opportunity open to them to enter upon a new life; that actually, as a result of these facts which they proclaimed, a new era in the relations between God and man had begun.

Those who responded to this appeal and placed themselves under the judgment and mercy of God as declared in Jesus Christ, became members of the community, the Church, within which the new life could be lived. These members were then instructed in the ethical principles and obligations of the Christian life. This course of instruction in morals, as distinct from the proclamation of the gospel, is covered by the term “‘teaching,” which in Greek is didaché.

This order of approach, first the proclamation, then the beginning of instruction in morals, first kerygma, then didaché, seems to have been thoroughly characteristic of the Christian mission; it is precisely this order, first kerygma. then didaché, which we have seen to be general in the New Testament writings.

So proclamation wasn’t just saying something to say something. It was about telling a story, THE story and connecting it to the lives of those around them.

So proclamation is about speaking something. It isn’t something that can be achieved without words. Which means that the old saying attributed to St. Francis (but really isn’t his words), ““Preach the gospel. Use words if necessary,” might not actually make sense.

Now, most mainline Christians love this passage for one simple reason: you don’t have to talk about Jesus to people. You don’t have to look weird or like those evangelicals down the street. But as evangelical theologian Ed Stetzer said in a 2015 article, preaching the gospel is about preaching about the saving work of Jesus. Since Jesus is the gospel, we can’t really “live out the gospel,” but instead have to announce the gospel:

The gospel is not habit, but history. The gospel is the declaration of something that actually happened. And since the gospel is the saving work of Jesus, it isn’t something we can do, but it is something we must announce. We do live out its implications, but if we are to make the gospel known, we will do so through words.

He goes on to say that proclamation is the central task of the church (which means it isn’t just the job of the pastor):

It appears that the emphasis on proclamation is waning even in many churches that identify themselves as evangelical. Yet proclamation is the central task of the church. No, it is not the only task God has given us, but it is central. While the process of making disciples involves more than verbal communication, and obviously the life of a disciple is proved counterfeit when it amounts to words alone, the most critical work God has given the church is to “proclaim the excellencies” of our Savior.

So, why am I talk about proclamation at this moment?

Because it has implications for some of my work outside the pulpit and because this is a major weakpoint of mainline churches.

Communication, about who we are and what we do is not a very prominent mission within mainline churches.  There are some bright spots among the Lutherans and Episcopalians, but for the most part the task of communication is not considered very important.

About 10 years ago, things were different.  The birth of social media breathed new life into the task of communicating. Positions were created that were communications-focused. Conferences were held to help churches become more tech savvy.  But then, all of this stopped.  It might have been the Great Recession, but all of the sudden, it wasn’t so important to have a good website or effective social media presence.  Positions created a few years prior were cut with churches and middle judicatories putting the task of communications on already burdened administrative assistants or volunteers.

The thing is, mainline churches have long thought what was important is what we do, not what we say.  Except, if we don’t tell people why we are feeding the homeless or why we are taking part in this protest, then people don’t know we are doing this because we follow Jesus.  They will assume you are just nice people.

The fact of the matter is that we are called to preach the gospel. NOT be the gospel; that’s something onlyJesus can do. NOT live out the gospel, because again, Jesus.  We are called to preach the gospel and since we don’t possess the power to speak telepathically to people, we have to say something.

In a sermon I preached at a Presbyterian Communicators Network meeting in North Carolina in 2008, I said that being church communicators mean looking out to see what God is doing in the world:

Whether we are communicators at the church, presbytery, synod or General Assembly level, this is our charge: to find out what God is up to in the world, to be empowered by the Spirit to tell the story of healing and love to a world that desparately needs to hear it.

But most churches and middle judicatories don’t act as if this is such an important task. Most churches ask an admin to do it, if they have the skills. The same might go for middle judicatories.

Evangelical churches have tended to be light years away from mainline churches when it comes to communications. But they also tend to be better at proclaiming the gospel. I might not agree with how it is done at times, but they do show they have the skills to make sure their social media sites, webpage and newsletters are proclaiming the gospel message.

Historically, mainline churches weren’t very strong with communicating the gospel, because culture was soaked enough with the faith that we didn’t have to. But those days are gone and it’s time to focus on how to learn to preach the good news through communication as well as other methods.

Because we have to preach the gospel and we need to use words.

Questions on the Disciples and the Local Church

Disclaimer: I have to start this blog post off by saying that the following criticism is not directed at any one person.  It is NOT a personal attack on anybody.  This is a critique of a larger system that people might be a part of, but again my beef is with the system and not any person.

church-you-can-see-through-10I think congregations in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are in trouble and parts of the  General and Regional Church bodies are not prepared to deal with it.

They aren’t ready because they are not geared towards helping congregations as they are focused on their own agendas and a less corporate spirituality.

They also aren’t ready because in the past, the churches were doing well.  In the heyday of the Disciples, the churches were full and sent their monies to the various ministries.  Not every church was great, but churches were not dealing with the massive change they are now so whatever issues there were might have been easily solvable.

None of this was intentional.  I don’t think there are folks in Indianapolis sitting around finding ways to destabilize local churches.  That said, I think churches are struggling to be relevant and sustainable in this new century and time of being church and the various agencies of the denomination are not responsive enough to the changing mission field.

They also aren’t ready because the current structure of the denomination, now nearly 50 years old, isn’t designed to help congregations of the 21st century. I’ve said it a few times before, and it bears repeating now. According a video shown at the 2013 General Assembly, only 18 percent of Disciple congregations are considered sustainable according to 20th century standards, meaning the ability to pay a full time pastor among other factors.  I said in a post a year ago, that my current congregation is not considered susatainable according to these standards.  Which means we have to find a new standard.  What makes a congregation sustainable and vital?  That’s a question that people at the General church and the Regional church have to answer.  I think there are a lot of churches like First Christian-St. Paul that are not considered sustainable according to the mid-20th century standards, but they are still places filled with vitality.  How is the wider church reaching out to them and helping them with resources?

How are we handling churches that decide to close?  Are we working with the leadership to look at using the sale of buildings to further ministry?  Are we helping them “die with dignity?” Do we offer pastoral care for the members?

How do we help congregations understand their ministry context?  How is Regional staff working to help these churches do ministry in this post-establishment era of mainline churches?  Is there a way for churches to share their best practices?  In the past, tools that help churches understand the demographics of their neighborhood were available in the Region.  A few years ago, it seemed that Hope Partnership could do this but for a fee.  Can this be made free again so that churches can access this resource?

Here’s a basic one: do we even know why we need congregations?  My take is at times we don’t know.  It could be why new church ministry languishes in some regions. Speaking of new church, are Regions working on ways to have staff support for this endeavor? Do we understand how these churches can introduce people to a loving God?  Do we understand that churches are small examples of the kingdom God is bringing forth?

That’s just some of the questions I have right now about Disciple congregations.  I’m curious to know if others have the same questions or even if they have questions.  I’d like to hear from fellow Disciples on this.

 

 

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.

Fatalism and the Disciples of Christ

Does the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) deserve to live?

Fatalism2I’ve been talking with folk about the current state of the denomination. We agree that all is not well in Disciple-land.  But in all of the conversations I’ve had, there is the belief that the tradition is dying.

And that’s where the conversation ends.

I agree with them in someway that the movement that was born two centuries ago is dying.  What is so odd is that at least among some people there isn’t any drive to do something to preserve the tradition.  There seems to be a creeping fatalism that just accepts what will happen, instead of seeing it as a wake-up call to take stock of where we have been and where God is calling us.

I know that all things come to an end. I understand that things (and people) die and we shouldn’t avoid death.  But I wonder if in this case, it is premature to give up, to start performing last rites.  Especially in Mainline Protestant churches, we have become accustomed to accepting the death of programs and churches, so why should the denomination be any different?

I think some people have decided that nothing can change and just accept that this denomination will go away.  Maybe that’s the best course. Just accept that things can’t be changed and that all good things must come to an end.

But what if this isn’t the end?

What if God still has a lot for Disciples to do in the world? What if this dying can become resurrection? Why is there this prevailing mood of fatalism?

I’ve shared some of the structural problems that are facing the Disciples. But there are deeper problems that need to be solved like the need for more effective leadership when it comes to church planting and church renewal.  Too much focus on political agendas and not enough on resourcing churches to more effectively preach and teach the gospel. More and more focus on telling people what they should think about social and political issues and not enough on giving people the tools to think through issues themselves and come up with solutions the bring for God’s peaceful kingdom.

I could go on.  The point here is that it is not time to give up and live a life of quiet resignation.  I think this tradition means too much to me to just not care.

It’s time for change.  Maybe that change will come from the inside, as people in Disciple institutions see the need for renewal.  Or it could come for outside, where independent affliliated groups model a different way to be church that can influence the whole.

There have been times I’ve wanted to leave the Disciples for greener pastures, but I’ve decided to stay because I don’t think God is done with us yet.  If the case is that we are dying and nothing can be done about it, then let’s just shut it down now. There is no sense in letting the corpse shamble on like a zombie.

I think it’s time for a reformation of the Restoration.

The Invisibility of Progressive Christianity

Church-You-Can-See-Through-10Every so often, I’ve heard an argument that goes like this:  “the press only talks about the Christians vs. the gays as if all Christians are against being gay.  Don’t they know that there are Christians who support gays?”

The frustration comes from being ignored by the wider culture, especially the media.  When we think of Christians, we are more likely to think of evangelicals or Catholics, but never liberal Protestantism.  This has long been a problem.  Some, including former evangelical-turned liberal Christian Randall Balmer, think there is a conspiracy afoot inspired by groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.

I will agree that liberal Protestantism does get ignored in society.  While groups like the IRD tend to go after liberals, I don’t think they have as a big as an impact as we would like to think.  I think that there is something else going on, something that we in progressive churches are doing to ourselves and it is this: I believe we are so uncritical of socially liberal society that we blend into the woodwork.  In essence, when you say the same thing the wider society says, you tend to cancel yourself out.

I’ve been think about that after reading Ross Douthat’s latest piece for the New York Times.  In this essay, he focuses on Pope Francis and the hopeful revival of liberal Christianity.  Could it happen?  Douthat says yes, but it has challenges:

But there are deep reasons why liberal Christianity has struggled lately, which a Francis-inspired revival would need to overcome. One is the tendency for a liberal-leaning faith to simply become a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes, until the very point of churchgoing gradually evaporates. (It’s not a coincidence that the most resilient of left-leaning religious communities, the African-American church, is also the most frankly supernaturalist.)

The other is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.

The first tendency is one that this pope’s example effectively rebukes. However “left” his political impulses may be, they are joined to a prayerful and devotional sensibility, an earthy, Satan-invoking zeal that has nothing arid or secularized about it.

The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.

I don’t agree with everything Douthat says here, but he is on to something.  Douthat says that religious liberals have sold out to the sexual revolution and that has cost it in many ways.

And I think he’s right.

Now before the pitchforks come out, I should explain.  Being gay, I am thankful of having a church and denomination that welcomes me.  The sexual ethics I grew up with was not something I would share with others, at least the ways it was taught.  The problem is this: liberal Christianity asks nothing of us when it comes to our sexuality.  It never asks how we should live as Christians when it comes to sex.  It never asks when abortions are necessary and when it is morally questionable, it just follows the line that comes from secular feminists.  It talks about same sex marriage as “love wins” but doesn’t ask what is marriage for as Christians.

I’m not urging that we create a lists of dos and don’ts when it comes to sex.  But like so much of the modern liberal church, we don’t think theologically about sexuality.  What liberal Christians have done is just tacitly accept what the wider liberal culture has accepted with out thinking about it critically.

So, if a journalist is writing a story and he or she has a choice to talk to either a liberal pastor who supports abortion on demand or the local abortion rights activist, they are going to go with the activist.  Why go to a pastor who will say the same thing when you have the real thing?

I will say it again: I am not advocating for liberal Christians to give up their support for a more liberal attitude towards sexuality.  What I am calling for is to start to think about the whys more often.  We  need to be thinking theologically and not culturally.

Having been trained as a journalist, I can tell you that writers want to get an interesting angle and we don’t have one.  And part of the reason is that liberal Christianity has lost or squandered it’s theological tradition.  In it’s place we have used culture-talk or politics, which make us sound like the Democratic Party at prayer.  If that is what we are, then I can see why people would rather stay in bed and get some extra sleep than go to church.

If mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity, especially the Protestant kind, wants to stand out more, then it needs to be a unique voice in society instead of an echo.

Disciples 3.0

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Just before I left for the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio back in July, a special appeal was sent out via Facebook about the upcoming event.  Registrations were well below what was expected and there was talk about what to do concerning the 2019 General Assembly which was supposed to be in Des Moines, IA.  It was decided at General Assembly to at least for now not sign the contracts for Des Moines and start giving some thought about future General Assemblies.  This makes sense since attendance at these events have been steadily declining.

But as the denomination starts to look at General Assemblies, I have to wonder if there is a bigger concern going on.  It may mean that it’s not just General Assembly that needs to be changed- indeed I’m thinking the entire denomination needs to be changed.

It’s been almost 50 years since the Disciples of Christ reorganized its structure.  Before 1968, the Disciples were not a formal denomination, but a loose association of churches and state coventions.  After 1968, the Disciples became more cohesive, less informal and more formal.

Of course, this restructure happened a year before I was born.  About two generations have passed since this plan was approved and many of the leaders involved have since died. The restructure came about in an age where we placed trust in institutions and not just institutitions, but large institutions.  It was an age where things were centralized.  It was also a time when denominational labels mattered.  I think that restructure was designed to take care or maintain the church.  None of those things matter today.  We don’t automatically trust institutions. We are suspicious of centralized power.  We don’t care as much if someone is a Baptist, Presbyterian or even Bhuddist.  We have a structure that I think was great at keeping the ship going steady, but we don’t have a structure that is designed for innovation in spreading the gospel.

I remember seeing a video around the time of the 2013 General Assembly in Orlando.  One of the things that I remember from that video was that only 18% of Disciple congregations are sustainable according to the 20th century model.  I was astounded by that number though not surprised, partially because I’ve seen churches struggling.  My own congregation is not sustainable to the old model.  Our churches are need of updating.  If they aren’t sustainable according to the 20th century standards, then what is the new standard?  This is something our denomination as a whole has to answer; because the key to restructuring our denomination starts from the bottom up.  It starts with churches, moves to Regions and then to the General Church.

Yes, we should entertain ideas of what to do about General Assembly.  Maybe it needs to be every 3 years instead of two.  Maybe we meet at a college instead of a convention center.  But frankly none this matters if we don’t get the churches straightened out.

But even more than churches, we need to figure out what it means to be a covenantal people.  Disciple pastor Lee Hull Moses shared what that means and how General Assembly fits into that:

What I do know is that we are a covenantal church; we are obligated to one another only by our relationships. We need time and space to nurture these relationships—in person, where we can hug each other and meet each other’s children and stay up late together. We need the time and space to connect with the manifestations of the church that enable us to do ministry more deeply and widely than any one congregation could ever do on its own. There were nearly 4,000 people at the assembly in July. Not one of them would have come if they didn’t love the church, and that is an incredible thing to behold.

Part of the problem I believe is that the covenant is in some ways frayed if not broken. Churches feel on their own. Regions can at times do their own thing spurning advice from the other two manifestations. General Church bodies seem distant and don’t always seem to connect to the local church.

It will be interesting to see what we decide about future General Assemblies.  But I think we need to do more than reboot GA; we need a reboot of the Disciples.  It’s time for Disciples 3.0