Why Our Church Isn’t Progressive

As I was scanning Facebook the other day, I noticed a church Facebook page that claimed they are a progressive church. More mainline Protestant congregations are declaring themselves as a progressive congregation, meaning a congregation that focuses on LGBTQ rights, the environment, race, abortion and other issue that would be issues from the political left.

Branding yourself as a progressive church can make the church attract more people. People want more and more to be with people they agree with on various issues.

But is First Christian progressive? I would say no.

Now, before you start thinking that I am a wild conservative, let me explain. First Christian is not a progressive church and it is not a conservative church . Our congregation does do things that might make us appear to be Progressive Christians, such as support of LGBT rights and concern for the marginalized. We want to really study the biblical texts. We do talk about politics in this church. It is not a sin to have strong opinions on things. But churches have to be careful in how we engage political issues.

What I would say is this: we are a political congregation because Jesus was political in his care for the outcasts and critique of the powerful. What this church, or any church, should not be is partisan. We should not be the Democratic Party at prayer (or the GOP at prayer). That

As Christianity Today said in its powerful editorial in December it is never good for the church to get involved with partisanship. Many Evangelicals have decided to support the GOP and the President full force, even if it means abandoning principles they long held. As that Christianity Today editorial notes:

Trump’s evangelical supporters have pointed to his Supreme Court nominees, his defense of religious liberty, and his stewardship of the economy, among other things, as achievements that justify their support of the president. We believe the impeachment hearings have made it absolutely clear, in a way the Mueller investigation did not, that President Trump has abused his authority for personal gain and betrayed his constitutional oath. The impeachment hearings have illuminated the president’s moral deficiencies for all to see. This damages the institution of the presidency, damages the reputation of our country, and damages both the spirit and the future of our people. None of the president’s positives can balance the moral and political danger we face under a leader of such grossly immoral character.

Now, progressive Christians have not gone as far as evangelicals have under Trump, but what we see happening should make us shy away from using political terms to define ourselves. Bowing down to the gods of partisan politics ends up pulling us away from God and serving an idol.

Every Sunday, we gather around a communion table. That table is a powerful symbol in Disciples theology. It is a place where God calls everyone, not matter their ideology, their race or their ethnicity. The table call us all and that is important in these days when we are so fractured and so tempted to create place where everyone believes the same things.

First Christian is a place where the the Whole Gospel is preached. That means being like the church found in the book of Acts where the apostles preached the Gospel of Jesus calling people to repentance and becoming a place where people served God and neighbor.

So no, First Christian is not a progressive congregation. We are not a conservative congregation. We are a political congregation that sees Jesus as Lord and seeks to live like Jesus, preaching the good news of the Gospel, caring for the poor, welcoming the outcast and trying to be community.

Delis and Supermarkets

Daniel and I in front of Greenblatt’s Deli in Los Angeles.

In early September, Daniel and I flew to San Diego to visit a friend. The next day, we drove up to Los Angeles to visit a world famous car museum and other various sites in the City of Angels.

That evening we had dinner at a real Jewish delicatessen that looked like it could have been in New York and not Los Angeles. We had the most fatty sandwiches and decadent desserts you could ever have. There was an odd juxtaposition of having a deli in the land of clean living where people eat in open air restaurants. But this deli was able to stay in business because of the good food and a place of community. You could hear people speaking in Eastern European languages as they ate their corned beff sandwiches.

Presbyterian pastor Jack Haberer wrote back in 2007 about the difference between delis and supermarkets. Delis were small places that had produce that came straight from the farm. But the delis were put out of business by the growth of supermarkets which provides a large selection of items from everywhere. He then relates this to small churches like ours. First Christian is a deli church. We are not large in space or in size. Harberer notes that at times small churches look at the larger “supermarket” churches that offer a bevy of programs and think they can’t really do what they do.

He states one idea: small churches could become places of spiritual formation. But to do that, we have to expect more:

One thing we can do is to turn our churches into universities of spiritual formation.  

We Presbyterians are smart. We are avid readers. We equip our leaders with high quality educations to instruct us in the faith. Some of us are squandering that great asset. I hate to say it — I don’t want to misjudge — but I fear that too many churches have extended their pastors an unwritten and probably unstated but well understood term of call: “You don’t expect much from us, and we won’t expect much from you.”

What those churches are trying to avoid are too many programs, too many costs, and too many classes to attend. Sunday school? That’s for kids. We have no kids? Then we don’t need Sunday school. Ah, no teachers to recruit. No curriculum to buy. What a relief!

We Disciples are also smart avid readers. Our heritage is one where the congregation was expected to study the Bible for themselves.

But as Harberer notes, small churches tend to think because they don’t have the money or people to do things start to not expect much from themselves or their pastor.

Small churches can at times think they really can’t do anything because of their time. There is some truth that a small church can’t do everything. But are we selling ourselves short? More importantly, are we selling God short? Do we not see how God can work even through the small and weak?

Haberer uses an example when he was a young pastor at a small congregation:

Churches that sleepy are few in number, but like Joe Gatta, many a church leader watches out the narthex window as the population drives by en route to one of those other service providers.

This is one place where the modern consumerist mentality is screaming wise counsel to the church. Do you want us to join your congregation? Then give us an education! Provide us a university atmosphere where we can learn the Bible, cultivate excellent practices, study classical thinkers, wrangle newfangled ideas, and in the process become thoughtful disciples of Jesus Christ. Yes, Jesus was the one who commissioned his followers to “make disciples of all nations” and many in our nation are hungering to live into that commission.

Can that be done in smaller churches? Karen DeBoer, a developer of small church children’s curriculum, says it can be done (article link). I asked her, “How can small churches become magnetic?” She responded with force and enthusiasm, “The biggest thing is for leaders to treat that program big even though it’s little. Whether you have five kids or 50 or 250, you give it the same effort because God led that child through the doors for you to minister to.”

If only to humor my youthful enthusiasm, the elders on the Session and members in the congregation rose to the challenge. They developed more programs and recruited more classes — for all ages — than ever conceived before. Our weekly calendar soon filled like that of churches three to four times our size. We stretched our resources, financial and human, almost to the breaking point but, funny, they never did break. What we did do was to develop a reputation in the community for quality educational ministries for all ages. And we drew in new members at a rate that defied local population growth trends.

Too often what we do is hope and wait that we can get enough people to do programs that will allow us to do all the things we want to do. But why do we need to wait? As I said in last week’s reflection, God gives us what we need to do God’s work. What if we looked at our children and youth and create a program even though we don’t have many kids? What if we had other people besides the pastor leading Bible Studies? What if we used the downstairs to host a community meal?

There really isn’t a silver bullet to help a church grow or become a strong church. What makes the difference is taking a risk, a leap of faith, trusting that God will be with us as we take the leap.

My guess is that deli in LA is doing such good business because they provide great service and great food. Churches need to be doing the same. We have to trust that God will be with us walk together in mission and ministry.

It Really Is the Little Things

“We are so small.”

When you are the pastor of a small church that belongs to a small denomination that happens to be small in number in Minnesota, you will hear this phrase over and over. We are so small.

As Americans, we don’t like small. We live in a big country in size and third in population in the world. Most of us don’t like to talk about how big we are, but we still live large. We like big cars, we want to live in big houses, we just like big.

I’m not here to knock bigness. As someone over 6′ tall, I’m kind of use to being big. But our love for big things at times comes at the expense of the small. Big is viewed as being good. Being big is a sign of success. Being small, on the other hand, is viewed as failure. We see that in the area of faith, a big church is viewed as a successful church. A small church is seen as week and dying.

When a church is small, there is a temptation to think you really can’t do anything because you don’t have enough people. I get that to a point. Having more people makes a difference. Believe me, I would love for this church to have more people to do things.

Churches in America, especially mainline churches have been dealing with shrinkage for years. Denominational leaders become pessimistic, believing that they can only manage the resources that grow smaller by the day. Everyone wishes they could be bigger. We all think we could do more if we were large.

But I have to remind myself that while this congregation is small, we can be used by God for great things. In the book of Judges, we are introduced to one of the most fascinating characters in the Bible: Gideon. He considered himself the lowest of the low in Israel and he was a bit of a coward. But God still called him to lead the Israelites. God wanted him to lead an army to defeat the Midianites. He starts with 10,000 men which seemed like a good-sized army. But God has other ideas. Time and time again, God tells Gideon to cull the army until he is left with 300 people. God tells Gideon he will be victorious and you know what? They were! With nothing but horns and pots, they were able to confuse the Midianites who ended up killing each other. Three hundred people were able to defeat a massive army all because Gideon placed his trust in God.

As we head into the holiday season, our church is looking to get ready for the season. But that is usually when we feel that smallness even more. But what if we stopped looking down at ourselves and we started to see how God can use us? What if we took a step in faith like Gideon did? What if for a moment it doesn’t matter how much money is in the bank or how many people are on the church rolls, but all that matters is that we trust God as we go out in faith to take part in God’s mission. A few years ago, I preached about a small congregation that made a difference in the world.

Border Methodist was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown (Minneapolis). At some point, the church was being torn down to make way for a freeway. This could have been where the story ends; the church closes. However, it doesn’t. A short distance away was Hennepin Avenue United Methodist, the big downtown church. Hennepin heard of the struggle facing their sisters and brothers at Border. Hennepin decided to do something that seems rather mundane; welcoming the folks at Border to become members at Hennepin. What was the big deal of this invite? This was the 1950s and churches were still very segregated. Whites went to one church, blacks to others. What was happening between two churches in Minneapolis was not normal. Things like this just weren’t done.

The display has articles from the New York Times about this event. This was huge. There’s a story that I heard that wasn’t in the display. On the Sunday that the Border people would come to Hennepin, the large white congregation decided to do something that was hospitable and God-infused. As the African-Americans from Border came into the sanctuary to become part of Hennepin, the members from Hennepin stood up, welcoming their new members. A cup of cold water made the difference.

Border was small church that could have been ignored. But they were noticed by a larger congregation and they were willing to join this small church in mission because of their witness and for a greater good. I continued by talking about one of our first visit to the Gay Pride festival:

This weekend, First Christian is participating with two other Disciples of Christ churches- First Christian-Minneapolis and Spirit of Joy in Lakeville in staffing a booth at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis.  Some of us have volunteered yesterday and some will do so today.  The booth has brochures from each congregations, fan and beads (people love beads) and a place where people can take communion and pray.  As I was handing out fans yesterday, more than once I heard someone say “Thank you for being here.”

I don’t think I was doing anything heroic in standing in this booth at a city park on a hot Saturday afternoon.  Handing out fans doesn’t seem like much; but it makes all the difference to people who might have been ostracized from churches because they were gay.  It says that there is someone, someplace that accepts them and sees them as children of God.

First Christian is a congregation that believes in diversity and welcome and we have done that through our witness at Pride. One retired pastor said upon visiting that this congregation was a Beloved Community. That’s something.

First Christian-St. Paul’s better days might be behind us, but with God we might be headed towards our best days.

This church and countless other churches that think that they can’t do much should take comfort in knowing that God has always used the things that might seem insignificant to do God’s work in the world. When God came in the form a human being God chose to come in the form of a baby; a helpless child. Could anyone think this tiny babe would turn the world upside down?

So, let’s move forward in faith, taking risks. Let us remember that while we are few in number, like Gideon we are backed by a mighty God.

The Parallax View

parallaxWe can see different things according to our viewpoint.

I’ve been thinking about the concept of parallax. That’s when it looks like a difference or displacement of an object when you view it from two different lines of sight.  If you go to the Wikipedia page on a parallax, you see a diagram looking at an object from two different viewpoints.  In one view it looks like the object has a blue background, but from another view, it’s in front of a red background.

I’ve been thinking about myself and the church I serve at in terms of parallax. My church is a very small church, with a shrinking budget in a broken down building.  Looking at this from one point it appears the church is ready to close.  But if you look at it from another vantage point, you would see a church that is active, a church looking at what it’s future can be.  Two vantage points.  Is one the real choice or are both true?

My own take is that both can be true.  The church looks vulnerable and it is.  If the boiler blows that could spell doom for the congregation. But the other view, where there is still hope for the future is also true. I don’t think it has to be an either/or, I think it can be a both/and.

(I could have used my other physics think piece which is my favorite- Schrödinger’s cat.)

I think about Disciple congregations in Minnesota that have closed.  Now, there are a lot of reasons why churches close.  But I have to wonder, did they get to a point where one vantage point was no longer visible?  Did they get to a point where there was no other way to look at the longevity of the church? What does it mean that First Christian- St. Paul can still see things from two places?

I’ve been thinking about parallaxes because of a sermon by Disciples pastor Doug Skinner.  In his final sermon at First Christian Church in McAllen, Texas he writes about the state of the denomination and its state right now isn’t very great.  He notes when he was ordained in 1979, the Disciples were 1.2 million strong.  Forty years later, the denomination numbers 450,000. This is just par for the course for what is happening to churches across America, but it’s happening faster in the DOC.  He then shares an interesting story about the pastor of a “big steeple church:”

I knew a minister in one of our tall steeple churches back in the day who, when his church was building their annual budget, after all of the pledges had been calculated, and all of the revenue streams had been fully taken into account, and they had a good fix on their projected income for the coming year, insisted that another 10% be automatically added to the bottom line.  He called that extra 10% “the faith quotient.”  He liked to say that he didn’t become a minister to raise churches’ budgets but to grow people’s faith, and he said that the added 10% “faith quotient” was just a concrete way of reminding himself ,and his people, that God was able to do things in them, and through them, that they couldn’t even see yet.  So, what do you think?  Was this a foolish or a faithful thing for him to do?

Did his “faith quotient” make sense?  I think it did.  As Doug shares, this pastor wasn’t interested as much in growing budgets as he was in growing the faith of the members.

I’m not as interested in the quotient as much as I am in the role of the pastor.  He took what was a common everyday thing, a church budget and used it as an instrument to grow people’s faith.

Sometimes we pastors get caught up in things like budgets or building maintenance, or political action.  We get caught up in all these things…things people do.  What we don’t do as well at times is having faith.  Faith is in many ways parallaxed: if you look at things from a vantage point that is only focused on what we see, we can see things one way.  But if we stand from another vantage point, the vantage point of faith, we will see things in a different way.

I sometimes wonder in many churches if we have forgotten that congregations are supposed to be places where faith is formed.  Someone once told me that in many Disciples churches the congregations have become clubs and not communities of faith. Pastors are trying to grow people’s faith and the people in the pews are not thinking about faith. We see things from only one vantage point.  I’m as much caught up in this way of looking at things – worried about how we can afford the church budget.

I want to be the kind of leader that wants people’s faith to grow, to want my own faith to grow and to trust where God might be leading.  Not in an uneducated way; but in a way that is knowledgable and also faithful.  One where we can see where God is leading and follow even if we don’t know the entire journey.

I hope to God we can be church that looked at things from the vantage point of faith.

Love Don’t Live Here Anymore

2019-General-Conference-Logo-2070

Well, the Special General Conference for the United Methodist Church is done.  For those of us who are LGBTQ and allies, the result was shocking and hurtful. I want to share some observations about the event and what it means for the church as a whole.

 

A few caveats:  I’m not Methodist, so this is an outsider’s perspective. But, this issue matters to me as a gay man, an ordained minister and most importantly, as a Christian. Second, people will not like this post for various reasons.  This is not a blog post trashing one side, there are a lot of other blogs that can give you that. What I want this post to be is a way how church in many ways is ceasing to be church. Just as the wider culture has become polarized, with no middle ground, the church is showing those same sides.  Instead of being an example of unity in the midst of diversity, we are simply following culture and what happened in St. Louis is Exhibit A.

 

One more thing. My underlying point here is that we, the church have to learn how to have hard debates in ways that respect one another.  What happened in St. Louis is just a microcosm of what is going on in the larger culture. Beyond all the nice words, we really don’t respect one another and we feel that the other side is evil.

 

I say all of this not as someone who is above the fray but as someone that has “picked a side.”  I am gay. I am married to a man. I do believe the church is called to welcome folks like me. I saw what happened at the General Conference and felt sadness and shock.  So yes, this is personal.

 

But I am also a Christian that is called to love even those I might believe are my enemies. I know that there are people who I strongly disagree with on this issue who are good and faithful people. I know this because I’ve met them and engaged them.  I know that this is also a personal issue to them. So how can we talk about this important issue and still be church? How can we be an example, a witness to the wider society?

 

With that, here are some of the salient points:

 

The Traditional Plan Sends a Clear Message.  It was quite telling that of the four plans that were offered, One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan, the one that was approved was the only one that did not allow a place for LGBTQ Christians in the church.  I know that there are those who will say that gays are welcomed in conservative churches and I do believe that. But the enhanced penalties that are now in place against gay clergy and same sex marriage send a message that conservatives might not think they are sending: the message that any LGBTQ Christian is not really welcome in churches.  That sense of not being welcome is born out in the fact that conservatives didn’t seem to even want to be in the same denomination with LGBTQ Christians. Nevermind that some of these plans allowed both sides freedom to do their own thing; there was no desire to even have to deal with LGBTQ Christians. It’s hard for me to believe that I would be welcome in a church when you can’t even think of having me in the same denomination.

 

A Gracious Exit that Wasn’t So Gracious. This is an issue I am most familiar with.  I worked for the local jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for seven years.  In 2011, the denomination approved allowing gay and lesbian Presbyterians to become ordained and serve in PC(USA) churches.  This was not something that more conservative Presbyterians could support. Presbyteries worked hard to draw up “Gracious Separation” plans that allowed some path that would allow for dissenting churches to leave with their property. It makes sense to have some kind of plan that dealt with the separation of dissenting churches because it would lessen the chance that church bodies would end up in court against departing congregations. This is what happened to the Episcopal Church after the consecration of a gay bishop in the early 2000s. The plan that was approved by the Bishops, the One Church Plan, didn’t have an exit plan.  I don’t know why and there didn’t seem to be much talk about adding a plan. The Traditional Plan did have what is called a “Gracious Exit.” On the surface this seems like offering more progressive churches room to leave if they can no longer abide by the rules. It seems compassionate, but I’m starting to wonder how gracious it really was. It feels more like what is being said to moderate and progressive churches is, “here’s the door.” It looks like they are the good guys in offering dissidents a way to leave, but it could also be interpreted in a negative way.

 

The Bishops lost authority. The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan.  In an earlier time, the delegates to the General Conference would take that endorsement to heart and would probably pass it up the bishop’s recommendation. But General Conference basically ignored the Bishops’ advice and passed a plan they didn’t endorse.  I’ve heard that Methodist bishops are more powerful than bishops in other Protestant traditions like the Anglicans. However, after this vote, the bishops have lost any authority. The General Conference not only passed on their recommendation, but they picked the plan that was the exact opposite of the One Church Plan. Will the bishops be listened to in the future? I don’t know.  But any illusion that they have power is now gone.

 

We don’t know how to talk about social issues. Why is it  that when it comes to issues like homosexuality we don’t know how to talk about them without wanting to go our separate ways? In the early 1990s I attended a Baptist church in Washington, DC.  At the time it was an odd church; it had both liberal and evangelical members. An ordained pastor who belong to the congregation was called as a part time Associate Pastor, but there was a catch, she was an LGBTQ ally. During the debate, an evangelical member spoke in favor of calling her. The two had a relationship and she might have disagreed on the pastor’s stance, but at the end of the day, they were friends. That’s an example of how to disagree and yet be united.  Unity was some kind of afterthought to the opposing sides. Conservatives thought the One Church Plan enforced a fake unity. Progressives never didn’t seem to see conservatives as people they should respect. As fellow Disciple minister, Douglas Skinner noted, progressives never listened to theological conservatives. No one was interested in talking in a way that respected the other. Instead, people talked at each other.

 

False humility. I remember seeing an image of a tweet written by a Democrat on election night 2016.  The person wrote thinking, like many people did, that Donald Trump would lose the election about the need to come together and all of that.  A few hours later when it became certain the Clinton would lose and Trump would become President her attitude changed. The next tweet was angry at conservatives swearing up a storm.  

 

I remembered that when I read retired Bishop William Willimon’s article after the vote.  I’ve always respected him and love reading his blogs and books.  But his writing after the vote was like the second tweet, a mask of civility fell revealing a sense of rage. He asks God to smite the other side and exhibits what I think is a rather racist attitude when he says that the global Christians who voted for the Traditional Plan will have to deal without that money from American Methodists which provided the income for the denomination.  His advocacy for LGBTQ people is admirable, but the attitude towards fellow Christians tarnishes his support. He displayed some a kind of false humility because he believed his plan would win the day. When it didn’t that mask fell revealing his true face.

 

Listen, don’t come talking about wanting the Spirit to move and then get mad when it seems the Spirit didn’t go your way. Willimon had a false kindness that was only based on his side winning. It’s hard to see someone I have respect seem to be so petty and shallow.

 

The Global Church was heard…and Progressives and Centrists didn’t like it. The United Methodists are different from most American mainline churches in that they are a global denomination and not just limited to the United States. That means there were people at the General Conference from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.  In most of these places the view regarding LGBTQ people is…well, not as affirming. But they deserved to be listened to. One of the problems that progressives have is that they don’t know how to deal with Christians in Africa and other places. Either they speak down to them or they think they are the unwitting tools of American conservatives.  What became very clear in the aftermath of this debate was the underlying racism coming from progressives. Both Willimon and another Methodist I hold in high esteem, Adam Hamilton, have written blog posts that basically assert that American Methodists are the ones that fund the church, which is basically saying that American pay for the church so the Global Church should be grateful.  I’m sorry, I respect both Willimon and Hamilton, but such assertions can’t be described as anything but condescending to persons of color. It reminds me of what happened in the Anglican Communion during the Lambeth meeting where Bishop John Shelby Spong, a progressive bishop in the Episcopal church called African Christians “superstitious.” For some reason, that didn’t go over well, with African Anglicans.  I want to believe Willimon and Hamilton were speaking out of the immediate hurt and anger and that this isn’t what they really think about people from outside America. People have every right t to be angry; but don’t patronize your sisters and brothers from outside the States in doing so. Progressives have to come to terms to the fact that Christians in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe probably don’t share our views.

When we think of Africans we tend to think they are being deceived by evil evangelicals here in America.  They have come to their own beliefs on their own. They have their reasons for why they believe how they do.  Disciples pastor Jeff Gill explained why at least Africans might not want to relax sexual standards:

 

…Africans are not interested in relaxing standards on sexual activity from where they’ve been. For this, they’ve been demonized in social media and by advocates of the changes proposed; perhaps worse, it’s been repeatedly implied they’ve just been manipulated by cash and propaganda from American conservatives. When I read this stuff, I ask myself “have they actually ever met and talked to any African bishops?”

I have. I had a series of life-changing conversations with one, in this country, in 2005 and have kept up with him, and alongside him some mission and ministry partners in North Katanga on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What they have said repeatedly is this: our society does not have any guardrails. Next to none. Polygamy is common, exploitation rife in our cities and villages.

Christian preaching is often the first message many men in Africa have heard, I am told, about the need to treat women with respect, and to live their family lives as something other than a series of conquests. This is, they tell me, still an ongoing struggle. The boundaries of their church are pretty much all the guardrails they have for defining family and relationships in any form other than through power and force as their defining qualities.

So the African Methodist delegates are not interested in relaxing any standards right now. And I hear them. I also see the conflict in this country perhaps more clearly than they do in Africa, and I acknowledge the pain felt by those who see our society making lane changes and resetting some road markers, opening up acceptance and support of same-sex relationships, but then seeing some churches, perhaps their own faith tradition say “we are not making those shifts.” Not now, maybe not ever.

 

You don’t have to agree with this viewpoint, I don’t. But you need to understand it. You need to know why Africans other international members think the way they do. Progressives need to engage these people and also realize that the black and brown people that they admire don’t always see eye to eye on this issue.

 

And to borrow a tired phrase, Progressives and Centrists need to check their privilege.

 

Where do we go from here?  There are some people who think that things will remain the same.  Since the Traditional Plan has to go through a judicial process, it might be rejected outright.  But I think a line has been crossed. Both sides came to St. Louis, not to have a conversation, not to find unity amidst diversity; no to listen to each other.  They already had divorce on their minds. As the old saying goes, it was all over but the shouting.

 

My guess is that by the time of the next General Conference which is next year in Minneapolis, the United Methodist Church will not be whole.  My guess is the Progressive and Centrist factions will split from the main church to create something news. Adam Hamilton has said there will be a big meeting at Church of the Resurrection after Easter to talk about the future of Methodism.  

 

I would also keep an eye for what is happening with the Western Jurisdiction of the church.  This includes all the Annual Conferences in the Western United States and it tends to be the most liberal.  I could see the Western Jurisdiction becoming the basis for a new denomination. There is no desire in the church to try to heal fissures. For LGBTQ Methodists and their allies, the passage of the Traditional Plan was the last straw.  There is no going back. That’s probably the best option for the sake of LGBTQ Christians. But I think the Methodists missed a chance to show the world how to deal with difficult issues and still remain united.

 

I am reminded of the song, “Up on A Cross” by 80s Contemporary Christian group, Degarmo and Key. It’s a song about all of the different flavors of Christianity and how they are divided.  The last chorus ends with an extra line that sums up what is behind some of the division:

 

Up on a cross, He died for sinners
Up on a cross between two thieves
Up on a cross, He died for you and me

I heard the Devil’s voice today

 

I feel somewhere the devil is laughing.

Loving Jesus, Hating Church?

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I gave up church because I can no longer make the trade-offs between worship, theology, mission, and community that I have made for years. My congregational options usually seem to consist of historically Black church settings with prophetic preaching and action on issues of racial and social justice, but that reject women’s call to pastoral leadership; predominantly white churches that profess gender and sexual inclusivity, but are experienced as oppressive by people of color; and multiracial churches whose preaching, worship, and leadership are oriented to the comfort of white, middle-class Christians (which is, incidentally, an act of white supremacy). I gave up church because fitting into any of the spaces required me to conceal or contort too much of my womanist self. I gave up church because I cannot seem to find a place where I can worship God with my whole being. And I am not alone.

These are the words from a recent post by Chanequa Walker-Barnes, a professor at McAfee School of Theology. Her post is about her leaving the church because it is not prophetic enough. I want to be sensitive and not be dismissive of her complaints. Churches are not perfect and they are filled with racism and homophobia and misogyny. I know that churches have treated people of color, LGBT community, women and others poorly. I have been treated as such.

But there is something in this post that bothers me.  It’s something that I’ve seen in other thinkpieces over the years.  Usually someone will say how the church doesn’t do X and because of this, they aren’t in church anymore.  If the church took part and offered X, then maybe they would return to church. This is what former Millenial pastor Steve Austin has said about his generation and why they gave up church:

We’re desperate for honesty. We are hungry for conversation. We want to show up at church with our success, failure, vulnerability, questions, and what’s left of our deconstructed faith. We have shifted away from and sifted through the excesses of man-made religious constructs. We have grown up and read the Bible for ourselves. And we are passionate about the overarching theme of the life and lessons of Jesus: that love comes with no strings attached. Anything else is just a loan.

We are choosing to step away from the in-fighting that happens too often in the name of God. We’re sick of petty fights over the color of the new carpet in the sanctuary, or the volume of the music. Deeper than that, we’ve had our hearts crushed because our friends aren’t welcome in certain sterilized churches. We’re convinced that Jesus was serious when he said, “Love one another.” But much of what my Millennial friends and I have witnessed from institutions that operate in the name of God is pain and abuse. We were once baptized by well-meaning people in fear, shame, and guilt. But we aren’t buying that any more. We are coming up from those muddied waters, looking for new life.

Like Walker-Barnes commentary, Austin’s piece brings up some important themes that should be taken seriously. But there is also could be something else taking place at the same time; a sense of seeing the church not as a place where the imperfect people of God gather and to work to keep including people at God’s table, but as a consumer good that should be made to a person’s desires and likes. It’s like taking the old slogan of Burger King, “Have It Your Way,” and make it how the church should operate.

I know that some will think I don’t take seriously the cry of those who feel hurt by the church. I think we should work to make the church more receptive to women, to gays and especially to be more willing to take on the topic of race. But I don’t think Walker-Barnes is talking about churches that are preaching against LGBTQ individuals or preaching for racial purity.  What I think is happening here is that the churches aren’t where she is on these issues.  The churches aren’t where she is, so she decides to not go to church.

No one should stay at a church where you are being abused or condemned from the pulpit. But what this seems like is a sense of consumerism.  The church isn’t made-to-order to her expectations and so she walks.

But the church is never going to be up to our own standards and at the end of the day it doesn’t matter if it is to our standards.  The church has to be to God’s standards.

As for dealing with racism, we have to remember that God used people who at times didn’t get it.  In Acts 10, Peter is called by God to preach the good news to  Cornelius, a Roman, which is another way of saying “not a Jew.” God schools Peter by telling the disciple that the gospel is for all.  But after Peter’s epiphany there was some backsliding as Paul notes in his letter to the Galatians.

11 When Cephas (Peter) came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned. 12 For before certain men came from James, he used to eat with the Gentiles. But when they arrived, he began to draw back and separate himself from the Gentiles because he was afraid of those who belonged to the circumcision group. 13 The other Jews joined him in his hypocrisy, so that by their hypocrisy even Barnabas was led astray.

-Galatians 2:11-13

The thing is, there have been many throughout the history of the church, Christians have arose hearing the call of justice. Think Martin Luther King. Or the Freedom Riders. And there are times when the church went silent in the face of evil. Church is a mixed bag because it is filled with humans who aren’t perfect.

And for that reason, we need Jesus.

But I wonder if the people who say they love Jesus and not the church realize their need for Jesus and that Jesus inugurated the church. It seems at time that these people want a Jesus that is more like Che Guevara- a revolutionary Jesus. But the Jesus was read in Scripture is the one that gathered the disciples and prepared them to lead the church .

Jesus does care for the poor and Matthew 25 is a good example of what happens when we ignore those in need. But Jesus is not just a social justice figure. Jesus is also the son of God who comes to die for us, to set us free from the bonds of sin.

In the Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) we are given an understanding of what the big C church is as well as the little c church. This is what is has to say about the church:

Within the whole family of God on earth, the church appears wherever believers in Jesus the Christ are gathered in His name. Transcending all barriers within the human family, the one church manifests itself in ordered communities bound together for worship, fellowship, and service; in varied structures for mission, witness, and mutual accountability; and for the nurture and renewal of its members. The nature of the church, given by Christ, remains constant through the generations, yet in faithfulness to its nature, it continues to discern God’s vision and to adapt its mission and structures to the needs of a changing world. All dominion in the church belongs to Jesus, its Lord and head, and any exercise of authority in the church on earth stands under His judgment.

The Design continues:

Within the universal Body of Christ, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) is identifiable by its testimony, tradition, name, institutions, and relationships. Across national boundaries, this church expresses itself in covenantal relationships in congregations, regions, and general ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), bound by God’s covenant of love. Each expression is characterized by its integrity, self-governance, authority, rights, and responsibilities, yet they relate to each other in a covenantal manner, to the end that all expressions will seek God’s will and be faithful to God’s mission. We are committed to mutual accountability. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) confesses Jesus Christ as Lord and constantly seeks in all of its actions to be obedient to his authority.

The emphasis is on the word “covenant.” Church means that we are connected. It means we are responsible to each other. It means loving that person that you think is stupid for supports tax cuts or who that “hippie” who supports a $15 minimum wage that you think its madness. It means being in covenant with the guy that think women can’t be ministers even when you want to walk away. None of this is about allowing or enabling abuse, but it is about being willing reach beyond what is comfortable to see that person on the other side is your sister or brother in Christ.

I want to share one more quote from Chanequa Walker-Barnes as she explains why she’s given up church:

We are people who take seriously what Jesus said in Matthew 25 when he stated that the test of true discipleship was solidarity and service with the “least of these.” But rarely can we find a church that makes solidarity and service its central focus. Instead, we encounter churches that endorse such hate-filled and theologically vacuous declarations such as the Nashville Statement opposing homosexuality and same-sex marriage; that refuse to engage anti-Black police violence, mass deportations of immigrant families, and unjust prison systems; that shun, silence, and demonize leaders that it deems too outspoken on matters of justice.

I don’t know what churches she’s gone to, but I know a lot of churches that do take justice seriously. But I wanted to contrast this with something written by pastor and writer Lillian Daniel six years ago. It got her in trouble, but it helped distill what church is really all about. In some way she responds to Walker-Barnes about the church and what it is made of:

Now there is much in the church I do not want to be stuck with, including Qur’an-burning, pistol-packing pastors. It’s no wonder that many good people are like the pop singer Prince: they want to be a person formerly known as a Christian.

The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I do not want to be associated with a lot of it—particularly when I have been personally involved in it.

But—here’s a news flash—human beings do a lot of embarrassing, inhumane, cruel and ignorant things, and I don’t want to be associated with them either. And here we come to the crux of the problem that the spiritual-but-not-religious people have with church. If we could just kick out all the human beings, we might be able to meet their high standards. If we could just kick out all the sinners, we might have a shot at following Jesus. If we could just get rid of the Republicans, the Democrats could bring about the second coming and NPR would never need to run another pledge drive. Or if we could just expel all the Democrats, the fiscally responsible will turn water into wine, and the church would never need another pledge drive.

But in the church we are stuck with one another, therefore we don’t get the space to come up with our own God. Because when you are stuck with one another, the last thing you would do is invent a God based on humanity. In the church, humanity is way too close at hand to look good. It’s as close as the guy singing out of tune next to you in your pew, as close as the woman who doesn’t have access to a shower and didn’t bathe before worship, as close as the baby screaming and as close as the mother who doesn’t seem to realize that the baby is driving everyone crazy. It’s as close as that same mother who crawled out an inch from her postpartum depression to get herself to church today and wonders if there is a place for her there. It’s as close as the woman sitting next to her, who grieves that she will never give birth to a child and eyes that baby with envy. It’s as close as the preacher who didn’t prepare enough and as close as the listener who is so thirsty for a word that she leans forward for absolutely anything.

It’s as close as that teenager who walked to church alone, seeking something more than gratitude, and finds a complicated worship service in which everyone seems to know when to stand and when to sing except for him—but even so, he gets caught up in the beauty of something bigger than his own invention.

I served at a church that had two members who were interesting. One of them was developmentally disabled and he would use his outside voice and blurt something in the middle of worship. The other was schizophrenic and was always struggling to deal with the voices in his head. But he could draw some of the most wonderful drawings of futuristic worlds.

What does this have to do with church? Everything. These two men come to church on a regular basis because they need church. They need the community that will pray for them when the voices are too loud. They need that community because they need a place where they can speak up in the middle of worship and know that they still belong.

I need church because  I don’t need to learn about his life lessons or teachings but because I want to meet him in the Word that is preached and in the sacraments that are shared.

Church is not perfect.  It doesn’t always do the right thing.  But it is the only church we got.

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.

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.

 

 

Trumped Up

There have been a myriad of stories about how Republican Presidential candidate Donald Trump is winning over evangelicals.  And there have been a lot of pixels given over to talking about how hypocritical evangelicals are.  In the 90s, they wanted to burn Bill Clinton at the stake for adultery, but now they ignore Trump’s many affairs and marriages.

So, are evangelicals really flocking towards Trump?  Well, the picture is not as clear as some would like to think. Earlier this month, New York Times columnist Ross Douthat noted that not every evangelical was jumping on the Trump train:

First, the good news for despairing anti-Trump believers: Despite those polls showing him doing well with evangelicals and Catholics, Trump is not the first choice of most active churchgoers. Indeed, active religiosity is (relatively speaking) one of the bulwarks against Trumpism, and his coalition is strongest among the most secular Republicans, not the most religious…

…Trump is losing the most active believers, but he’s winning in what I’ve previously termed the “Christian penumbra” — the areas of American society (parts of the South very much included) where active religiosity has weakened, but a Christian-ish residue remains.

The inhabitants of this penumbra still identify with Christianity, but they lack the communities, habits and support structures that make the religious path (somewhat) easier to walk. As a result, this Christian-ish landscape seems to produce more social dysfunction, more professional disappointment and more personal disarray than either a thoroughgoing secularism or a fully practiced faith — which makes it ripe territory for Trump’s populist appeal. And his occasional nods to religious faith — like, say, his promise to make store clerks say “Merry Christmas” instead of “Happy Holidays” — are well tailored for voters for whom Christian identity is still a talisman even when an active faith is all but gone.

So, the people who are attracted to Trump who might consider themselves Christians are people who don’t normally attend church, you could call them cultural Christians.  As Douthat notes, they have the language of the faith, but they are not connected to the institutions that could offer them help in hard times.  Their faith has the words of Christianity, but without the church.

The importance of this is that it reminds all of us Christians- evangelical or not- of the importance of church going.  I don’t know how it’s being viewed in evangelicalism, but there is at times a sense within progressive/mainline Christianity that going to church is not the main thing.  In fact, we have pushed people out of the churches and into the community, but we’ve done it at the time where people need it the most.

Church is the place where we are formed to be followers of Jesus.  It is a lifelong learning process, where we learn of the importance to love God and neighbor.  For those on the outer edges of American life, just trying to scrape by, Trump is able to latch on to those last fading embers of Christian faith and inject his own agenda.  But for those who go to church on a regular basis, they know that Trumps’ statements on Mexicans, women, Muslims and whoever else Trump doesn’t like is contrary to what the Bible teaches.

Does that mean that there aren’t evangelicals that go to church every Sunday and are voting for Trump?  Yes. Is that a problem?  Definitely. (Read comments from evangelicals like Russell Moore and  Peter Wehner about the that issue.) But it seems that the real decider on Trump is based on how often the person goes to church.

There are many that want to believe that evangelicals are every kind of evil imaginable. (I will add that there are many who think that mainline/progressive Christians are every kind of evil imaginable as well.)  But the picture is always more complex than we would like it to be.

But while churchgoing evangelicals are not going for Trump, it is important to note that the percentage of church going Christians has been going down.  A recent Vox article shares the numbers:

From 2007 to 2012, there was a 5 percentage point drop in the number of people who said they were Christian, according to a Pew Research study. The number went from 78 percent of Americans to 73 in just five years.

But it’s not just that fewer people are identifying as Christian; it’s that even the people who still identify as such are going to church less frequently — and as we see in the Trump polling, this matters.

Less people going to church means more people falling sway to other gods.

It is having actual communities where people gather and worship God that can be an innoculant against the wiles of Trumpism and any other isms in our world. This is why we need churches; as places where people are formed and also as communities of resistance against the ways of the world.

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.