Yet Another Post on Church Planting

It’s been a bittersweet time for me.

sixfour_333_ChurchPlantingOn the one hand, I am excited of being pastor at First Christian.  There are a lot of challenges; the church is down a faithful few and we are starting to find ways to grow numerically and spiritually as well.  Most churches that are down to a handful would just close and that was suggested to the folks at First.  But they decided to stick together and keep on keeping on.  I am amazed at their faith and feel honored to journey with them as First-St. Paul becomes something new and yet the same.

But there is also a lot of frustration when it comes church planting.  As many of you know, I was heading up an unoffical group in my Region dealing with new church.  Without going into much detail at this point, the New Church Team is on hiatus.  I’m not heading it up anymore (though I’m still on the team) but I don’t know when if ever the group will start up again.

As I’ve said before, last year was a dissapointing year when it came to church planting.  There were a number of people who expressed interest in church planting, but for the most part all the talk was just that…talk.  Add to that is the failure of a Region-sponsored church plant in Rochester, MN and 2013 just seemed bad.

It’s not all a failure.  Our joint ministry with the United Methodists in North Dakota is doing rather well. I am thankful for Ward and Theta Miller and their heart and passion for ministry.  I’m also thankful for having the chance to help the Millers make their dream a reality.  The success with New Roots in North Dakota, made me hopeful and looking forward to helping birth another faith community.  I was hoping to help my Region have a better track record with starting new churches and at least from my vantage point, I failed.

My passion (actually, it’s my aspergian obsession) with new churches is part of a bigger passion that is only now coming together in my mind.  You see, I am passionate about new churches, but I am also passionate about keeping churches open.  I don’t believe that you should never close a church.  As a mentor once said, there are no churches around that have existed since that Pentecost Sunday.  But I think that Regions and other middle judicatories need to think long and hard before shuttering the church’s door.  Church should be a place where God’s people gather, remembering their calling and being sent into the world to preach the good news.  We can’t do that if we aren’t learning how to be a faithful living community of believers. We really can’t do it if we lack a passion for evangelism and that is something that is found in spades in mainline churches:

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.

But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

 

We seem to have a hard time starting churches, but we seem to be able to close long-standing congregations such as those in Fridley, Rochester and Mankato.  In some cases, these churches had outlived their ministry, so I can understand closing a church.  But we aren’t planting new churches in these areas and other parts of the state.  The reason we plant new churches is  to create communities where people can see what God is all about.  To be blunt, churches exist to show the wider community the love Jesus.  Do we understand that?  Do I?  This is what Episcopalian Robert Hendrickson said in a blog post from 2012:

Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.

The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.

I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.

The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.

The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.

In some of my discussions about church planting, a few fellow pastors have suggested that I plant a church.  I am giving it some throught.  However, I am already working with one church and I feel I need to let them know I am with them as they try to survive and thrive.  I will see how God leads.  I don’t know if I could do two churches at the same time, but who knows.

With only a handful of Disciples churches in Minnesota, I want to see new churches.  But I am wondering if this is the time to give up, or take a “sabbatical” and start again.  Maybe this is a sign that I need to take a break.

I just hope at some point there is a passion at the Regional Church and congregational level to start new communities that will reach out to the growing diversity that is the Upper Midwest.  All I can do is trust that God will work through me and others.

God help me.

Discipleship or Consumerism?

seedA few days ago, I was at a church retreat.  In response to a question on what challenges the church is facing, a woman remarked that one challenge is how people don’t really want to get involved in church.  They don’t see it as a life, as much as a place where they can get their needs met and be on their way.

I was glad to see someone in the pews notice this.  It’s been a growing frustration of mine over the years.  Pastors are pushed in many ways to try to make their churches appealing to folk, especially the oh-so-important Millenial crowd.  We are told that younger folks are not interested in serving on committees.  We are told they want to do mission.  We are told they want a church that is welcoming to LGBT folk.  So, we try to do everything to try to attract people: we offer more mission opportunities.  We push for our churches to be Open and Affirming.  We try to make our worship experiences more hip.  There is nothing wrong in trying to be hospitable and welcoming.  I’m not saying we don’t engage in mission and I most definitely am not saying churches should not welcome LGBT persons.  But there is a danger in that we start to trade the call to discipleship, the call of Jesus to follow him and replace it with a slick marketing message in order to gain market share among a certain demographic.

Again, nothing wrong with churches doing marketing; that is my trade.  But there is something wrong about replacing the hard message of becoming a disciple of Jesus for an easy message that tries to get people in the pews.

Methodist pastor Ben Godson reminds us that churches need to engage their local communities instead of trying the latest fad:

A biblical mandate says to go into the world preaching, teaching, and baptizing. It says we are to disciple one another in the ways of Jesus. Part of carrying out that mandate is learning the lay of the land and prayerfully discovering how the ways of Jesus can be lived out in a particular context with particular people. Our American, capitalist drive says if certain methods work well in one place, all we need to do is duplicate those methods everywhere and we can franchise the way to be church. In other words, a biblical mandate cares about people first while a franchising mentality cares about methods and results first. Churches of all shapes and sizes can put people first by uniquely and faithfully seeking to engage the communities they are in using the resources they already have. Other peoples’ ideas too often become warmed over leftovers that don’t fit outside of the context they are in. And that’s okay.

Every pastor or church board chair wants to see more people involved in the life of their churches.  We are all desiring some kind of trick to make our congregations grow and thrive.  Of course we need to make sure we aren’t placing barriers that prevents growth, but we need to have faith that God will cause the growth to happen at a church.  What we are called to do is to help those who want to follow Jesus is to help them become better followers of Christ; in short, we need to make disciples.

Discipleship isn’t sexy and it can be slow.  It’s not something that people are going to flock to.  But I have to think the benefits are longer lasting than having the latest, coolest worship service.

Even as Minnesotans await a big snow (in May?), I get excited around this time of year because it means I get to plant flowers.  Now, I am not a great gardener.  Actually, I kinda suck.  I’m getting better at it and the flowers I planted last year are slowly coming up.  This year, I will water the plants, put some more mulch in the garden.  There is no shortcut to a good garden, it just takes time.

The same goes with discipleship.  It will take time.  Some people won’t be interested and that’s okay.  But if we want strong followers of Jesus Christ, we will take the time and not be so uptight.  We are called to make disciples, not consumers.

There’s Still Hope for the Mainline

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I tend to be critical of mainline Christianity.  It’s not that I want to leave what has been my theological home for two decades; it’s that I get frustrated at some of it’s shortcomings.

Despite all of that, mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity is my home.  As much as I respect my evangelical beginnings, I don’t belong there anymore.  My current home might be a fixer-upper, but it’s still home.

So, I get a bit sad when I hear stories about how Mainline Protestantism is shrinking.  People leave the church.  Congregations close.  Denominational offices keep cutting staff. Will this form of Christianity even be around in 20 years or so?

The thing is, I do see some signs of a church that is trying to keep the lights on.  My day job with the Presbyterians is located in the Minnesota Church Center, which is home to several denominations.  During the building-wide weekly Lenten service, someone from the Episcopal Diocese in Minnesota shared a unique way of studying Scripture that has been used among Native American Anglicans.  This wasn’t some of flimsy stuff I sometimes find in liberal churches.  This had substance.

Even in the church that I serve, I’ve seen signs of life and a church willing to live and be open to the Spirit.  There is still good things going on in mainline churches.

An article in the Orange County Register talks about the signs of hope taking place in Mainline congregations in the suburban California county.  The author of the article does a good job as he shares what is going on several congregations and helps us understand that in light of the recent decline among evangelical churches, that the reasons for decline among the mainline is not simply because they decided to have a more liberal theology.  The increasing secularization of American society has caused churches to adapt.  Here’s what one Disciples of Christ congregation did:

At Harbor Christian Church in Newport Beach, a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, members solved the Sunday morning problem by shifting activities to Sunday evening or other days of the week.

Pastor Wes Knight said attendance at adult spiritual formation classes shot up when they were shifted to Sunday night.

Now, 30 people come weekly for a potluck supper and member-taught classes on topics ranging from forgiveness to the spirituality of pottery.

Knight said Harbor Christian, surrounded by several of Orange County’s largest churches, embraces its identity “as an alternative to the megachurch.”

There are no theological requirements for membership, and the roughly 70 worshippers who attend each Sunday are intimately involved in one another’s lives.

“They’re just like my own family to me,” said Mike Nelson of Mission Viejo who recalled being enthusiastically welcomed at the church when he arrived five years ago, even though he was struggling with a methamphetamine addiction.

“I tried the megachurches and didn’t find any sense of community,” Nelson said. Harbor Christian members “didn’t judge me at all.”

Read the whole thing.  It gives me hope that while the mainline churches might be smaller in the future, but by God we will be around in the future, preaching, teaching and welcoming the stranger.

Birth Control And The Sham of Theological Diversity

One of the things that Progressive Christians like to say about themselves is how welcoming and tolerant they are.  Compared to their more conservative cousins, progressives can pride themselves in being able to think for themselves and to have a place where all ideas and beliefs can be shared without fear. Why, your progressive church even welcomes Republicans!

But in reality, all of this talk of diversity is a complete shame.  We are no more tolerant of other viewpoints than our conservative relatives.  What we are good at is lying to ourselves about how good we are.

Case in point is the current discussions over birth control and the new federal health care law.  Catholics and Evangelicals were upset at the initial rules which came out a year ago that mandated birth control in all health care plans.  The exceptions were religious places for worship like churches or mosques.  However, religious bodies such as a hospital or university would have to include birth control in their health plans regardless if they found such things goes against their faith as they understand it. The Obama Administration has offered a compromise solution that seems to fall of deaf ears of the opponents.

Now, I need to say straight up here is that I support people using birth control.  I think it can help prevent unwanted pregnancies, which is a good thing.  That said, even though I think birth control is a good idea, that doesn’t mean that I think anyone who has a problem should just shut up or that the government should force groups to go against their beliefs.  If people of faith have really discerned the issue and they believe that mandating universities or hospitals to include birth control in their health plans goes against their faith, the those of us who might have an other position should within reason stand to support them.  Not because we agree with them, but for the simple reason that Christians should be able to express their faith without the state forcing them to go against their beliefs.

Very few progressives were up in arms about the proposed changes a year ago and not much has changed.  Methodist pastor Morgan Guyton shares in his somewhat overly candid Huffington Post piece his satisfaction that the United Methodist Church covers birth control.

Apparently, the Obama administration just announced a rule change in the contraception mandate to allow broader exemptions for religious employers beyond churches themselves. Well, that’s fine and all, but I’m actually grateful that my health insurance through the United Methodist Church pays for my wife and me to have our IUD that keeps us from having more babies. And I think it’s time someone named the fact that family planning is a legitimate part of the equation of Christian sexual ethics rather than always being a demonic conspiracy against God’s will for humanity. Birth control is part of how my wife and I try to be faithful stewards of our bodies and our relationship for the sake of both our family and the ministry to which God has called each of us.

I’m very attracted to Roman Catholic theology for a lot of reasons. The Roman church’s theology of the body is derived from a lot of principles I agree with: a sacramental understanding of human existence, an affirmation of God’s sovereignty over modernist individualism and a suspicion of the worship of science. At the end of the day though, I’m a pragmatist. My wife and I are at the age where we would risk having a child with serious health problems if we did not use birth control. We would receive a child like that as a blessing from God and love him or her with all our hearts, but it would result in our relative lack of availability for ministry beyond our family, which is why having an IUD is appropriate stewardship for us.

Again, I’m not personally opposed to having birth control as part of a health care plan.  Good for the United Methodists for including it.  But not everyone thinks that way.  Should we just ignore them because they get in the way of our pleasure?

Guyton says birth control is part of Christian sexual ethics.  I’m not saying it can’t be part of a Christian sexual ethic (it should), but how?  Guyton doesn’t say.  He keeps saying that having his wife use an IUD keeps them from having another baby that could be subject to health issues.  He then lifts up a Latino couple who are low income and might not be able to afford the IUD.  Okay, but why are we acting as if this is the only option?  Has Morton ever heard of a condom?

Guyton then goes to focus on the evangelicals who oppose the mandate and basically says their opposition is probably racist and very selfish:

Fifty years ago, the threat that black male libido posed to white girls was the main justification for the social order of segregation (if they come into our neighborhood and our schools, how will we keep our women safe?). Though the racial dimensions have been sublimated (somewhat), the threat of sexual transgression has carried over into our era as the primary underlying anxiety behind middle-class evangelical family decision-making whether it’s about homeschooling, suburban living, or finding a church with a strong youth program so my kids won’t go to the drinking sex parties that every non-Christian high school student attends every weekend.

The irony is that the culture war over sexual purity is not at all the counter-cultural stand that it purports to be; it’s completely accommodating to the mythology about the underlying causes for the social order that privilege needs to tell itself. It reassures a population of middle-class parents that focusing on their nuclear family to the exclusion of everything else is exactly what Jesus wants them to do (the same Jesus who said, “My mother and brothers and sisters are those who do my Father’s will” [Mark 3:35]). This reassurance is one of the most important obstacles to kingdom living among Christians today.

So, it’s pretty obvious that the kingdom of God includes IUDs and selfish conservatives should wake up and smell the coffee.

The problem with Guyton’s piece is that he makes no attempt to even understand the other side.  He has made up his mind that the other side is profoundly evil and if they want to be good Christians they need to give up their upper middle class priviledge and support birth control coverage.

A year ago, Episcopal Priest and commentator Frederick Schmidt wrote about the contraception mandate issue.  He wrote:

What should be troubling to Protestants is that there aren’t more people in our circle voicing support for the Catholic bishops. It is true that the intersection of secular government and religion poses peculiar tensions and the church cannot afford to treat the government as if it were a surrogate for Christian activity. But, for the same reason, no part of the church can afford to compromise its freedom to take specific religious positions—regardless of what other churches or even its own membership might think. The issue of precedent is at stake here, not just the specifics of this particular policy decision.

Furthermore, simply because Protestant churches may not completely share the Catholic position this time around, does not mean that they will manage to avoid jeopardy at some point in the future. Presidents come and go, but precedents are forever—unless the Supreme Court reverses them—and religious leaders everywhere would do well to remember that. What would the same progressive Protestants argue if some future administration reinstituted the draft and eliminated conscientious objector status?

Schmidt continued to note that Progressive Christians have lost the theological language to speak on issues, especially those dealing with sex and marriage:

So, is there any other reason that progressive Protestants aren’t more actively engaged? Yes, there is one: We don’t have any language for the presenting issues of contraception, choice, and abortion, except for the political vocabulary that we’ve been using all along. So, while the administration has run a coach and horses through the First Amendment, we find it hard to explain why that might be a problem, because we are convinced that what the administration just did was strike a blow for what is not just politically, but theologically appropriate.

Shame on us. The right to choose, control over our bodies, and access to treatment are all political issues–and they have a place in the conversation.

But in using that language alone, we have neglected the hard theological work that is properly the church’s task. From the theological point of view the stewardship of the bodies that God has given us, being made in the image of God, giving birth to those made in the image of God, chastity, the sacrament of marriage, and the purpose of life are all in play as well. How those values are honored in a complex world is the stuff of Christian conviction and practice.

Progressive Christians who are dead sure that the Catholic bishops have conflated church and state should remove the beam in their own eyes before reaching for the microscope to help others. Far too often Protestants have bought the so-called Erastian notion that the church is subordinate to the state and that faith, therefore, is a private affair. Now we are in danger of taking those notions to their logical, self-destructive conclusion: The only theological vocabulary we have is the vocabulary that the state gives us.

Sociologist Peter Berger notes that many secularists and their liberal Christian counterparts, want to defend the gains in sexual liberation made in the 1960s.  Here’s what he said relating to two legal cases on the public display of religion:

I do want to make a general observation: In all these cases the authorities accused of violating the plaintiffs’ rights operate with a definition of religion as a private matter to be kept out of public space. There is here a general issue of government overreach, as clearly illustrated by the (still unresolved) attempt by the Obama administration to force Catholic institutions to provide contraception coverage in their employees’ health plans. Beyond that, though, there is a very ideological view of the place of religion in society. In other words, religion is to be an activity engaged in by consenting adults in private. The attorney for the Judeo-Christian side in the aforementioned American case had it quite right when he compared the treatment of his client’s religion with measures of disease control. This is not an attitude one would expect to find in a Western democracy. It is curiously reminiscent of policies toward religion in Communist countries and toward non-Muslims under Islamic rule….

Let me venture a sociological hypothesis here: The new American secularism is in defense of the sexual revolution. Since the 1960s there has indeed been a sexual revolution in America. It has been very successful in changing the mores and the law. It should not be surprising that many people, especially younger ones, enjoy the new libidinous benefits of this revolution. Whether one approves or deplores the new sexual culture, it seems unlikely to be reversed. Yet Christian churches (notably the Catholic and Evangelical ones) are in the forefront of those who do want to reverse the libertine victory. Its beneficiaries are haunted by the nightmare of being forced into chastity belts by an all too holy alliance of clerics and conservative politicians. No wonder they are hostile!

Now, I benefited from that sexual revolution.  If that never happened, I would never be able to be an openly gay man.  So, I’m not against the loosening of sexual standards.  But why are they good?  Why should we use birth control?  What is does marriage mean for the Christian community?  What about divorce? What about sex outside of marriage?  The answer doesn’t have to be no (though sometimes it can be) but we need to do some thinking theologically as to why Christians can take these stances instead of just baptizing any left-wing idea as holy and good.

Which brings me back to the subject of theological diversity.  If we really have a spirit of discernment and an openness to what God might be saying, then there will be room for other views and a willingness to allow for space for different views.  However, when we adopt the language of politics, we divide folks into like minded groups and hinder any chance of diversity.

Which is what Guyton is doing here.  Instead of trying to understand the other side and explaining in theological terms why he thinks his view has merit, Guyton wades into demonization.

If Progressive Churches are basically suppose to be chaplains to the Democratic party, then let’s be honest about that.  Just don’t dress it up in religious garb.  I’ve had enough of that, thank you.

Shower the People

The pastor of a Disciples of Christ congregation in Colorado shows another way to help a church turnaround from decline: simply love the people:

When I came to Mountair I had a close friend tell me to do nothing but love people for a year.  I didn’t like that advice much.  I saw so many things that needed to change!  I don’t like the status quo.  But by the grace of God (and my respect for my friend) I heeded his advice (mostly).  I spent a year listening to stories, making hospital visits, doing my best in preaching and Bible studies, holding my tongue on many things I knew needed to change.  In that year a funny thing happened–I learned to truly love and care about our elderly congregation and they learned to love me as well.

When love enters the picture it changes things.  I still knew many things needed to change and that people wouldn’t like many of the changes, but I also knew I didn’t want to hurt people in the process.  So we began tackling one thing at a time.  To me it felt like we were trying to put out a fire with a thimble of water at a time.  To them it felt like I was spraying them with a firehouse.  But in the midst of that tension we loved each other.

Another thing I’ve learned along the way is that momentum matters.  As we changed something and the world didn’t end people were more willing to talk about changing the next thing.  As they saw success happening–even a little at a time–it made them more willing to move into the next challenge.  I can’t lie, at times it’s been excruciating taking what to me is such a slow pace, but the thing that has kept me from turning into the proverbial bull in the china shop is my love for the people.

It’s been two years and nine months.  In that time we have reformed some unhealthy leadership structures, had elders go from sharing a communion meditation in the service once a quarter to seeing themselves as leaders in the church, moved from a “no” to a “probably” disposition in regard to change, spent $25,000 updating the building so it wouldn’t be a deterrent to reaching the people in our community, began a Missional Community where people are taking the initiative to engage our surrounding community, become a church of 50% long-time members and 50% people from the community, agreed to spend money from savings to hire an Associate Pastor to help us move into the new ministry we’ve been dreaming about, and had the older people give permission for me to run with some new things that will hopefully make Mountair a presence for the gospel in our community for decades to come.  It’s seemed slow but a lot has happened in two years and nine months, and we’ve loved each other in the process.  (And what I’ve written here is really only a fraction of the story.)

I think this is something we almost never hear about when we talk about trying to rejuvenate declining churches.  We tend to blame the people in the pews more than we love them.

I am reminded of the response of a member a few years ago at a church board meeting.  I shared a story about mainline churches and how they need to change and the man responded that he was tired of hearing how things are his fault.

Congregations can have a role in the success or decline of the congregation.  While churches must change, that doesn’t mean we forget the people.  We have to learn to love the people we serve, which is probably the only way to lead a church towards change.

via Another Way to Turn a Church Around.

PS:  This was a good excuse to use one of my favorite James Taylor songs.

Constitutional Amendments and the Church

This fall, Minnesotans will go to the polls to vote on two constitutional amendments.  The first one would ban same-sex marriage and the second one would require photo ids before a person could vote.

Now I have my own opinions on the amendments and I’m not shy about sharing them (I’m strongly against the first and somewhat in favor of the second).  However, when it comes to the context of church and in my role as a pastor, I am less comfortable in telling people how they should feel on this issue, let alone how they should pray.

Recently, during a time when prayers were being offered, someone asked prayers on both amendments and stated their viewpoint.  It was a little bit uncomfortable for me, mainly because the prayer focused on one side of the issue and because I knew there might be folks that had differing opinions on both issues.

Normally I would say something about how we are the Body of Christ and that at the communion table we are a diverse bunch but united together in Christ.  I would say something about how churches have people from all walks of life and we need to be aware how to be church amidst the differences.

I would say all of this…but in these polarizing times, I’ve come to believe that we don’t even see the church as a place where different people come together.  Churches are becoming like everything else in society: filled with people who tend to agree with each other.  So maybe it wasn’t so odd to see someone stating their views on a political issue as if there were no other folks who might disagree; they might believe that church is just “for us.”
I’m not advocating that we never talk about politics in the church.  But is there a way to talk about these issues without claiming that God is only on our side?

I don’t know the answer to that.

Repost: Why Church Planting Matters

Jim, left and my partner, Daniel, right.

From August 2010.

As First Christian plans its future, a constant among the plans is to leave some money aside for to plant new churches. Both the Senior Pastor and I have made this a priority in what ever decisions are made.

That has been met with some resistance. One person wondered why we weren’t spending some of the money on mission. Others have thought the same thing. (It’s funny that people all of the sudden care about mission when it comes to using money for church planting.) I’m always a bit angry at the resistance to planting churches. As someone whose position involves mission, I get wanting to support mission, but church planting is part of that mission.

Of course, I have a strong belief in planting new churches, because I planted one. Yes, it failed but it also made a difference in the life of one man, my dear friend Jim.

Jim came from a Catholic and Anglican background, but because he was gay, he never felt welcomed in those churches. When Community of Grace came online, he was able to reconnect with God in a way that continues today.

I don’t know if Jim would have come back to the church if it was an existing church. But because there was a new church that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality, he could come on in and meet Jesus.

I know that at First part of the resistance is that many of churches planted by the congregation have since closed. But just because a congregation is no longer in existence that doesn’t mean that planting it was in vain. Countless people were able to learn the stories of old, feast at the table, make a baptismal covenant and meet Christ. That matters.

I wonder at times if part of the resistance to new planting new churches comes from what has happened to mainline Protestant churches over the last 50 years. Walter Russell Mead writes that as the fundamentalists/evangelicals split from the modernists in the early 20th century, it was the modernists that ended up much poorer:

In a sense, the mainline churches today suffer because they never took stock of the costs of modernism in quite the same way that evangelicals came to terms with some of the shortcomings and one-sided characteristics of the fundamentalist movement. Beginning really with Billy Graham’s pilgrimage, for two generations evangelicals have been working to free themselves of cultural detritus (culturally determined views on race and on the place of women in society, for example) while holding on to the vital principles of the fundamentalist core — doctrines like original sin, the atonement, and a strong belief that God, however mysteriously, acts in history.

The heirs of the modernists, I fear, have not really had this ‘second stage’ movement. If anything, the most noticeable trend in many mainline denominations has been to go farther down the road of the modernists. Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who in many ways came closer than any other to the kind of review and renewal that mainline Protestantism needs, would be politically and theologically isolated in the mainline churches today. His stance suggested a rigorous and critical approach to the limits of liberal theology, but that side of his legacy has been largely ignored.

Niebuhr in a sense has had no heirs. His effort to synthesize the core vision of historic Protestantism with a contemporary sensibility did not capture the imagination of subsequent generations of mainline church leaders. The mainline churches seemed to feel that little of value was really lost when the fundamentalists left. The modernists won the fight with the fundamentalists, after all. They ended up with the big buildings, the prestigious and academically well respected theological schools, the patronage of the social elite, the bully pulpits that commanded attention and respect, the control of the denominational machinery. Why look for anything more?

In truth, the split impoverished the mainline churches as much as it did the fundamentalists. Modernity in religion became progressively unglued from the foundations of Protestant faith; the mainline churches lacked the kind of compelling, burning message of faith that would have kept new generations of educated, thoughtful believers engaged in the church. For too many mainline congregations, faith faded into a habit, and the habit faded away.

While many people in the mainline churches continue to live rich and intense spiritual lives, the mainline churches as a group seem to have lost both the urge and the ability to communicate a message of urgency about the need to people to, as the old spirituals put it, “get right with God.” They have lost the ability to make the Christian life and a Christian commitment the vital center of community and family life — even for many of their own members.

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.

And of course, please have done that. But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up in the African American church and I can tell you that they had a lot of passion. And yet, that bothers white mainline Protestants. Yes, the will try to enjoy a black church service, but the urgency, the passion is just not there.

I came accross this post a few weeks ago by Presbyterian pastor John Vest explaining his experience at Presbyterian Youth Triennium:

For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.

Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.

But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.

As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)

All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.

Now, I get and appreciate the “earthy Jesus” he is talking about. I think it is incredibly important to understand the life of Jesus, not just his death.

But I also understand the “Jesus, bloody Jesus” as well. The life of Jesus tells us how we should live. But it is the death of Jesus that allows us to follow Jesus. Following the earthy, Jewish peasant is something we can do, kinda like I can choose to become a vegetarian. Both are good, but they aren’t necessarily passionate. But there’s a reason the crucifixion and death of Jesus is called “The Passion.” There was emotion involved. It affected people, it changed them. It still does today.

In the African American church, we sing songs that talk a lot about blood, the blood of Jesus. It might seem goulish, but we realize that it was this blood that saved us, that saved us all to be servants to each other. I don’t know, but maybe the experience of slavery made us less squeamish about blood and make Christ seem more urgent.

So, what does this little theological trip have to do with church planting? Well, if Jesus is just the earthy prophet, then I don’t really see the need to plant churches. Hell, I don’t even need a church. I can just give money to an agency and spend time at a soup kitchen. But if Jesus is the One who came and lived among us, cared for the poor, healed the sick, made the blind see and also died for us and rose up to defeat the powers of death, well that sounds a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? Kinda like you want to be in church.

Church planting matters because Jesus matters. Jesus changes lives. He brought my friend Jim back to a church. Jesus matters. Let’s plant churches.