The Middlebury Effect Goes to Church

By now, everyone has heard about the ruckus that took place at Middlebury College in Vermont when conservative scholar Charles Murray came for a discussion.  It is a very disturbing story and seems to point to  coarsening culture where different viewpoints bring out fear instead of tolerance and questioning.

One of the most interesting voices that arose during the aftermath is Alison Stenger, a professor at Middlebury, a self described liberal and the liasion to Murray during his time on campus.  While she was trying to protect Murray from the protestors, she was yanked and thrown to the ground resulting in concussion and a neck injury.  Writing in the New York Times, she saw the event as a microcosm of a larger problem:

In the days after the violence, some have spun this story as one about what’s wrong with elite colleges and universities, our coddled youth or intolerant liberalism. Those analyses are incomplete.

Political life and discourse in the United States is at a boiling point, and nowhere is the reaction to that more heightened than on college campuses. Throughout an ugly campaign and into his presidency, President Trump has demonized Muslims as terrorists and dehumanized many groups of marginalized people. He declared the free press an enemy of the people, replaced deliberation with tweeting, and seems bent on dismantling the separation of powers and 230 years of progress this country has made toward a more perfect union. Much of the free speech he has inspired — or has refused to disavow — is ugly, and has already had ugly real-world consequences. College students have seen this, and have taken note: Speech can become action.

It used to be that our culture was one where ideas were brought up and debated. But increasingly, we are becoming less tolerant of any view that deviates from what we consider the norm. As Fred Bauer writes in the National Review essay, “Repressive Tolerance,” denying those deemed racist or sexist the right to speak is becoming the norm.

And this behavior seems to be making its way to the church.  Recently, Princeton Seminary invited Tim Keller to the campus to recieve an award.

On the surface, this doesn’t seem out of the ordinary.  But Princeton is a seminary of the Presbyterian Church (USA), a mainline Protestant body while Tim Keller is a minister from the Presbyterian Church in America, a conservative Protestant body.  Keller is know in church planting and evangelistic circles for his planting of a PCA church in New York that has become a megachurch, with locations throughout the Big Apple.

But there are problems.  The Presbyterian Church in America is a conservative body that doesn’t ordain women and has what could be called “traditional” views on marriage and sexuality.   The PC(USA) allows for women clergy and within the last 10 years, allowed gays and lesbians to be pastors.

I tend to think it is a good thing that Princeton is reaching beyond its liberal comfort zones to welcome and honor a fellow Christian with whom they might disagree with on some issues.

But the reaction to Keller receiving this award has been one of shock and anger.  Alumni from Princeton Seminary are appalled that it would even consider granting Keller an aware because of his views on ordaining women.This is what Presbyterian pastor Traci Smith has to say about this:

I’ll let others argue finer points of Rev. Keller’s theology (hello, this is Princeton Theological Seminary here, arguing finer points is what we do.).  My personal soapbox is much less refined. It boils down to this: an institution designed to train men and women for ministry shouldn’t be awarding fancy prizes to someone who believes half the student body (or is it more than half?) has no business leading churches. It’s offensive and, as I have taught my four and five year olds to express, it hurts my feelings. 

Another blogger and Presbyterian pastor, Carol Howard Merritt, goes even further. She doesn’t get why Princeton would give an award and the space to talk to someone who support complementarianism which she believes supports the abuse of women:

I know that people are angry that Tim Keller doesn’t believe in women in the pastorate. But, my friends, this goes much, much deeper than women not being able to be ordained as Pastors, Elders, and Deacons. Complimentarianism means married women have no choice over their lives at all.

So as Princeton Theological Seminary celebrates Tim Keller’s theology, I will be mourning. As he presents his lecture and receives his $10,000 award, I will lament for my sisters who have been maligned and abused. So much of my ministry has been dedicated to aiding the victims of these poisonous beliefs. In these difficult days, when our president says that women’s genetalia is up for grabs by any man with power and influence, I hoped that my denomination would stand up for women, loud and clear. Instead we are honoring and celebrating a man who has championed toxic theology for decades.

God, help us.

Now let me be clear: I support the ordination of women. I am not a complementarian. That said, I don’t think that means that people who are complementarians or are against the ordination of women should be banned from a seminary. Because if we start not welcoming people because of differing views, that make us no better than when conservatives do the same thing.

And yes, I’m pretty sure Keller thinks homosexuality is a sin.  But I’m not offended by that or fearful- it’s one person’s viewpoint and having him come to give a speech doesn’t threaten the rights of gays and lesbians.

This is part of a disturbing trend that I am seeing among the Left and within Progressive Christianity- the tendency to not listen to dissenting views.  The views themselves are deemed harmful to people and some believe that progressive churches shouldn’t allow those with views like opposing the ordination to even set foot on a seminary campus to give a speech.

We live in an age that is far more tribal.  People draw sharp lines to demarcate who is in and who is out.  We sit afraid that someone will say something that we don’t agree with and will reign down havoc along with the end of all that is fair and good.

People are (rightly) offended when Donald Trump talks about building a wall on our southern border, but he is simply showing what is going on in American society these days; the erection of walls to protect us from those who are different than us.  We can’t really say boo to Trump for building a wall when Americans are doing that with their friends and neighbors.  Trump’s wall is just a symptom of a larger problem.

I would like to believe that we can learn to trust each other and be willing to open ourselves up to alternate views that might make us uncomfortable.  But I think we are heading towards a new Dark Age where Christian belief in loving our neighbor or our enemy is being set aside for something far more harsher. It is an age where we might even believe that conservative Christians aren’t even real Christians.

It used to be common among more progressive Christians to hear talk about the need “to stay at the table” or to work on healing the bonds of community.  There was a belief that people of differing opinions need to stay engaged with each other and that even those who had the “losing” view were part of the community. Such language seems absent these days. Maybe it was because of some of the great sucesses that we have seen in the area of gay rights.  Maybe people started to think that it wasn’t necessary to bridge differences.

Seminaries like other institutions of higher learning should be places where we have our beliefs challenged and where we learn that the other side is just as human as we are.  But academia has become a place where only certain views are tolerated.

What bothers me more and more is that Progressive churches are becoming places that are more Progressive than they are Christian.  Like Charles Murray, there are things about Keller that I disagree with.  But we should be more willing to welcome a fellow Christian and listen to what he has to say and offer our own views.  He needs to hear other views on the role gays and women in the church, but you don’t learn that by trying to bar someone from campus because their views don’t match yours.

Seminary President Craig Barnes is doing his best to be honest to where Princeton stands on gay inclusion and women’s ordination, but he is also taking a stand against a kind of censorship.

It is also a core conviction of our seminary to be a serious academic institution that will sometimes bring controversial speakers to campus because we refuse to exclude voices within the church. Diversity of theological thought and practice has long been a hallmark of our school. And so we have had a wide variety of featured speakers on campus including others who come from traditions that do not ordain women or LGBTQ+ individuals, such as many wings of the Protestant church, and bishops of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic communions.

So my hope is that we will receive Rev. Keller in a spirit of grace and academic freedom, realizing we can listen to someone with whom many, including me, strongly disagree about this critical issue of justice.

As I said before, as a gay man, there is always a bit of apprehension around those who might see what I do as a sin. But I am reminded that we follow the One who allowed himself to be vulnerable to suffer for the salvation of the world. If Jesus can do that, we can sit and listen to those we might disagree with. Because God is with us and has been through this before.

That is, if we have the grace to take a step in faith.

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Sermon: Looking for Loopholes

 

Luke 10:25-42
Who Is My Neighbor Series
First Sunday in Lent
March 5, 2017
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio version.

Supposedly the commedian W.C. Fields was reading a Bible one day. Fields was known for his kind of outrageous lifestyle of drinking and mistrisses, so having him reading a Bible seemed a little out of character. When asked why he was reading the Bible, Fields responded, “I’m looking for loopholes.”

Today we are looking at one of the most well-known parables, the tale of the Good Samaritan. Even people who have never set foot inside a church know about this story. People look at this tale and see it as a morality play, that tells people how we should live good and ethical lives. But the parables had bigger plans than just being about being good. Parables give us a peek into God’s kingdom; it shows us what it means to live under the rule of God.

Before we go into the play, let’s get to know about Samaritans. The Samaritans are people of mixed heritage. When the Northern Kingdom of Israel fell, many Jews were taken to Assyria and Assyria sent many of its citizens to the Northern Kingdom. They started to intermarry with the Israelites who remained and over time, they gave up their worship of idols and picked up the practices of their Jewish heritage. Jews were not crazy about Samaritans because they were not considered pure. So Jews and Samaritans don’t get along.

Which might explain that time that Jesus was not accepted in a Samaritan town. In Luke 9:51-55 Jesus starts his journey towards Jerusalem and his ultimate death. Jesus sent some of his disciples ahead to a Samaritan town in order to find accomdations. But the townsfolk were not interested in welcoming Jesus at all. We aren’t given a reason why the town didn’t welcome Jesus. Maybe they saw him as a troublemaker. Maybe it was that he was simply Jewish and they didn’t want their enemies in town. This is ironic since in the next chapter we will hear a story of a welcoming man that was a Samaritan. But this might be an example of the fraught relationship between the two peoples.

Today’s text open with a lawyer or Pharisee coming up to Jesus with a question. He asks Jesus: about what he needed to do to have eternal life. Jesus answers back by asking him what is written in the Torah or law. The layer responds, “You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your being, with all your strength, and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.” Jesus tells him that he has answered correctly.

Then the lawyer asks another question. “Who Is My Neighbor?” Some versions say he is asking this question to justify himself. What this means is that he was wondering who had to be considered a neighbor. In essence he was looking for a loophole. Who were the people he was supposed to love and who were the people he could ignore?

This is when Jesus goes into his famous tale. He challenges the lawyer by setting the story up with several characters that the lawyer or Pharisee would find hard to love. The Samaritan, in addition to being considered a heritic, would probably have been a trader. Traders were also despised by the Pharisees because they were considered dishonest and because they had to deal with people from all walks of life, didn’t follow religious laws closely. We don’t know much about the man, but he would have also been frowned upon because of his state. Being injured and left for dead on the roadside meant that he was ritually unclean. The innkeeper also wasn’t considered pure because they provided shelter to traders. And we know the robbers weren’t heroes in the Pharisees eyes either.

So Jesus has set up this tales with a lot of people who would be considered ne’er do wells in the eyes of this lawyer. But Jesus also included two people who would be considered politically correct in his eyes, the priest and the Levite. But here is the interesting thing: these two people who would be considered faithful to the law, saw the injured man on the road and they passed him by. These were men who knew they law. They knew what could make them unclean and also they knew they were to love their neighbor. Their faith was such that it left no room for love of people.

Jesus is smart here. The lawyer or Pharisee wants to be able to use the theology he has learned to get out of caring for a stranger. So Jesus decides to tell a story that is so stark, so urgent, that it shows how small the Pharisees faith really is. Because when you say that these folk are not worthy of love, it means ending up with situations like these where supposedly holy people leave a person dying on the side of a road.

The thrust of Jesus story is not who is our neighbor. Jesus never bothers to answer the Pharisees’ original question of Who Is My Neighbor. Instead he asks who was the neighbor. The lesson here is that we should be neighbors to those we meet. Which means not just loving those near and dear to us, but those who are alien to our way of living.

The theme for Lent here is “Who Is My Neighbor?” Of course, the answer here is that we are the neighbor and being a neighbor means that we exhibit the love that Jesus would want us to show. We live in a time when we live in fear of the other. We have people who seek to say we should be loving, but not to these folk. We love everyone, but not these Muslims. We love everyone, but not these Mexicans. We love everyone, but not these Trump voters. Just like the lawyer, we are all looking for the loophole, for the thing that tells us we don’t have to care for those who are different or do things we don’t agree with. In essence, we are saying that there are people beyond God’s love.

But in God’s kingdom, love is boundless. God loves even at the risk of self. Note that Samaritans also practiced ritual purity, so touching the injured man meant making the Samaritan unclean. But the Samaritan was willing to do this because God’s love doesn’t stop at the borders that we place in our lives.

A moment here. I’ve said that parables are not morality tales and it’s easy to see the Samaritan as a role model, someone we should aspire to be. You have to see this in the context of first century Palestine where Jews and Samaritans didn’t get along. To understand what this parable is saying you have to put in an analogus modern context. The theologian Debi Thomas makes it clear:

An Israeli Jewish man is robbed, and a Good Hamas member saves his life. A liberal Democrat is robbed, and a Good conservative Republican saves her life. A white supremacist is robbed, and a Good black teenager saves his life. A transgender woman is robbed, and a Good anti-LGBTQ activist saves her life. An atheist is robbed, and a Good Christian fundamentalist saves his life.

How can First Christian be a good neighbor in Mahtomedi and beyond? How do we reach beyond our comfort zones to extend active love to someone? In God’s kingdom, people are neighbors to those who are alien to them as well as those who are similar. In God’s kingdom there is no boundary that walls us off from certain people or tells us certain people are beyond love. That is a hard thing to accept, because as humans we all try to decide who is not welcomed, who is beyond redemption. But there is are no loopholes in the Bible. We are called to be good neighbors to everyone.

In 1996, the Klu Klux Klan held a rally at the city hall in Ann Arbor, Michigan. When people in the area heard about the rally, about 300 people came to counter-protest the meeting of the Klan. The Klan rally only garnered 17 people total. During the rally, someone spotted a man in the crowd who had a tatoo of the dreaded Nazi SS wore a confederate flag t-shirt. This was basically the equivalent of waving a red cape in front a raging bull. The anti-klan crowd began to chased the man. The crowd started to hit and kick the man.

In the crowd at the time was an 18 year-old African American woman named Keisha Thomas. When the crowd started to attack this man, she placed herself in front of the man who was now down on the ground. There are a series of now-iconic photos of Keisha shielding the man and trying to fend off the angry protesters. The reasons those photos still resonate today is it recorded something so odd: an African American woman protecting an alleged white supremacist. This sort of thing doesn’t happen.

But this is exactly what it means to be a neighbor. In the moment the crowd started to attack the man, she saw this man as someone worthy of love, even though he had done nothing to deserve it. Keisha knew there weren’t any loopholes that would exempt her from being a neighbor and so acted in love to protect someone that today we would consider “unclean.”

Who Is My Neighbor? We already know the answer: we are the neighbor and we are the ones to love those around us no matter who they are. Jesus told the lawyer and tells us today to follow the Good Samaritan. “Go and do likewise.”

So church, “Go and do likewise.” Thanks be to God. Amen.

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.