Preach the Gospel. Use Words.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We Call Ourselves Disciples

My wife Jan and I have been members of First Christian Church of St. Paul for nearly 20 years.  We love the congregational focus.  We particularly embrace the dedication to the principles of wholeness and inclusiveness of the Disciples of Christ, that welcome everyone to the Communion Table with no exceptions.  We have recently rededicated ourselves to mission based activities.  Our work with food banks, homeless shelters, and job programs is very important to us.  If we are making sandwiches for the homeless, staffing a homeless shelter, packing food for the hungry, or just raising money for local support organizations, it helps us realize our goal of furthering God’s plan and Christ’s love in our communities, local and world wide.  When someone asks about our church we say, “Open, active, and loving.”

-John Paulson, member of First Christian-St. Paul.

IMG_1294This past weekend, First Christian-St. Paul did something we’ve never done before: took part in the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival in Minneapolis. Joining two other Disciple churches in the area, we shared a booth and handed out fans and information to the passersby. It was great to see our little church on the hill take part in this joint effort.

But we were doing more than just handing out fans. I mean, yeah we did hand out fans; but it was for a far greater purpose than getting our name out there. What we did in Loring Park on a warm weekend in June was an act of evangelism, telling the good news of Jesus to people passing by.

Evangelism is something that tends to scare people, especially those in moderate to progressive congregations. We fear it because of the stereotype that plays in our mind’s background. We envision someone yelling at people and making them feel bad. I get that. The actions of a few have kind of ruined that work for many.

And yet, we are called to evangelize. Actually, we are called to make disciples, followers of Jesus. Handing out fans at a gay pride festival doesn’t seem like evangelism, but in God’s economy it most surely is.IMG_1292

You see, to be an evangelist is to be someone that tells the good news: the news that Jesus is with us and worked to set things right through his life, death and ressurection. We tell the good news of a God that loves, because we have seen it in our own lives and want to see it in the lives of others.

Some of the people who passed by the booth might have kicked out of their church after admitting they were gay. Maybe they were told that they were going to hell or something. Our handing out brochures and fans helped them to see that this God that they thought hated them, welcomes them to the Welcome Table. The body of Christ is truly for them.

We small d- disciples are called to live like Jesus and sometimes that meant being in places we haven’t planned for. Disciples of Jesus are called to share the love of God with others and remind them that this Jesus who lived, died and rose again is concerned about YOU. This is a God that loves everyone and we called to make more people become disciples of a loving and caring God.

I don’t know if we will get people to come to church. That would be nice, but that’s not what mattered. We are called to do more than that; we are called to love the other as if he/she were our only kin.

Evangelism isn’t about getting people saved (though that does happen). It is about relationship; about knowing that this God of the universe does truly love us.

I say to those who volunteered, thanks for letting God speak through you. We aren’t done yet. We have more work to be done to show people God’s kingdom.

-Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Crossposted at the First Christian Church of St. Paul website.

Repost: Church Planting and Mainline Church

I wrote this post back in 2006.  A lot has changed since this post was written.  Sadly,  how Progressive Christians view church planting isn’t one of them.

 

I sometimes wonder if mainline Protestant churches really have a passion for new churches. I won’t go into the nitty gritty of the situation with Community of Grace ,but I get this sense that for many people, a new church is not high on the priority list.

Case in point. I was having a conversation a few months ago with a friend of mine. He is also a pastor and recently came out as a gay man after three decades of marriage. He’s coming to terms with being gay and with how society and the church deal with his sexuality. The whole “gay debates” have not hit the Disciples with the same ferocity that it has other denominations, but we do have some issues. He railed about the homophobia in the church. It was obvious he was angry and mad, about the injustice and rightly so. At some point though, I tried to talk about working for change and why Community of Grace exists; to be a place where everyone is welcome regardless of who they are (including sexual orientation). His retort was that I had to go and start a church to be a pastor; no other church would hire me because of my sexual orientation.

I was a little hurt. Yes, there might be some churches that might not call me because I’m gay. But, there might be some churches that don’t care, either. But what really bothered me was the assertion that since Community of Grace kind of started without the Region’s permission, it was not real. I had to start a church to be a pastor because no one would want me.

I didn’t decide to plant a church simply because I was not accepted by the larger church. That might have been a small part, but the larger part was a desire to plant a church, even though I didn’t want to. I truly believe God wanted me to plant a church, a church that was welcoming of gay people and so I went about doing that.

But my friend’s retort reminded me of how new churches are met by mainline Christians with a collective shrug at times. It’s not that people or church authorities are trying to stifle new churches, but at times I sense people are not as passionate about new churches.

Ron Robinson talks about how mainline Christians tend to be so wrapped up in the next big thing or cause, that they tend to ignore the present context. He writes:

We are so busy investing ourselves in the next big thing, or the new and improved thing, the cause around the corner that we don’t realize how this keeps us from being grounded where we are and to hear the calling of our context. Progressives love progression, I think, because it keeps us in the life of the mind–the future will come to us as an idea, we think. Not sure I want to blame this most recently on Whitehead, blessed be his name, and Process Thought, but there is something to how the Creator as Creativity comes to us Cultural Creatives, and becomes something like a mind-hit, an addiction to the next idea and the next, etc. (you will no doubt remind me to read my James Luther Adams and my F.H. Hedge and my George Huntston Williams on Hedge to know this is nothing new but of course the predictable failing; I am just wondering if we have forgotten it)…

…Maybe this is a reason why there is so little concern or conversation about church planting among us? We, progressives in many religious affiliations, are focused on getting our existing churches to catch up with us and our enlightenments, and spend much energy on transforming the old wineskins to handle the new wine of various causes. We stay attached to the “churches that are” in order to have a place for us to continually reinforce and act out our identity as progressives.

If we worried equally about how the ancient would be incarnated in the future, as we do about how the present can be transformed to better fit our current ideologies/theologies, then we would have church planting perpetually on our agenda. It would be one of our reasons for being. Ancient Christian faith has the Great Commandment and Great Commission at its core (two liberal commandments by the way) and so it compels us to be so committed. The committment to plant and relate to new people comes first–the particular kind of church planting, or relationship-creating, will come afterwards. Our progressive understanding of right relationships comes afterwards and answers the question of how we plant. The why and the must comes first.

For me, I’ve wanted to be about creating inclusive churches. Many of my fellow friends in the mainlne Protestant church are involved in “the church that are,” as Ron calls them. They want them to share whatever view people have, be it being more inclusive of gays and lesbians or women in the church. It’s an important task, but it blinds them to the ability to be evangelists, bringing God’s liberating word to people who desparately need it.

This questions comes up when I talk to some of my Lutheran friends. Many are rightfully upset that the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American can still bar “practiciing” gays and lesbians from being ministers. Many of them have worked for inclusion and time and again, they come up short. I’ve heard people comment that these moves make gays and lesbians feel unwelcome in the church. That might be the case on one level, but then I look at the many inclusive Lutheran churches in the Twin Cities area. People who were once not going church because of their sexual orientation, are now part of a Christian community. Some of these churches have even went as far as to call gay ministers in defiance of the ban.

The fact is justice is proceeding even if the official church still has its head in the sand. And yet, many of my friends ignore what God is going despite the efforts to stifle the Spirit. They are so focused on what the national body will or won’t do that they ignore what is going on at the local level.

In the Disciples, I remember being involved with a group at another church in the Twin Cities that wants to become Open and Affirming. Every few years they meet and try to get somewhere, but the effort is stymied by the some of the old guard. A few years back I finally asked about starting a church that is already open and affirming. The idea was poo-poohed. In fact, none of those involved have supported Community of Grace.

The funny thing is that Community of Grace is living out what they desire. We have gays in leadership, and we have helped bring people who were estranged from the church because of their sexual orientation, back into fellowship with other Christians and with God. Others are talking about change, butI feel CoG is doing something.

I think that it is the new churches that could lead the mainline church in the coming decades, taking us in new directions in being church. But that is only going to happen if mainline Christians give a damn about these new communities. Continually placing new wine in old wineskins while leaving those new wineskins unused isn’t a sound strategy. It’s way past time to use those news wineskins and let them grow into what God wants them to be.

Mainline Churches Don’t Give a Rip About Church Planting.

As 2012 draws to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the new church ministry in the Christian Church in the Upper Midwest and the hopes for 2013 and church planting in within Mainline Protestantism as a whole.

Earlier this year, I kind of fell into leading a ministry team of people interested in planting and sustaining new faith communities in my Region.  In some ways, I don’t know how wise it was to have me leading this, since I’m not a great leader, or at least have some traits that make it difficult to provide visionary leadership.  But I have stepped into the role and did the best I could with what I have.

This past year has been both uplifting and frustrating.  Uplifting because I see people who are called to plant new church communities accross the Region.  Frustrating, because it seems that such work brings shrugs from the larger church.

In my talking and meeting with people, I’ve encountered folks who tend to not care so much about new church when they hear the phrase.  Some have said it is a waste of money while others remain quiet or change the conversation to focus on justice issues or practical tips to help churches.

For someone like me who has a passion for new church,wants to support new church pastors and wants to tell the world about it, this apathy/hostility just makes me mad.

This is not just a problem among the Disciples.  Accross the mainline denominations church planting is viewed as the red-headed stepchild, if that.  Within the bodies of these denominations, there have been campaign after campaign to trumpet the need for planting churches and time after time again, those campaigns peter out and are forgotten.  The Presbyterians latest push is 1001 New Worshipping Communities and while it looks promising , there’s a part of me that thinks this push will fall by the wayside like so many other campaigns.

The thing is, while new church campaigns come and go, mainline churches are declining at a fast pace.  Earlier this year, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post related to his work on the Mid-Council Commission, which was an attempt by the PC(USA) to restructure the church for the current age.  In that post, Vest shares the sad news:

It is well known that practically every mainline Protestant denomination—and increasingly, many of the evangelical denominations—has experienced a significant decline in membership and overall strength since the middle of the 20th century. The experience of the PC(USA) is consistent with this overall trend. The membership of the PC(USA) is now half of what its predecessor denominations were in 1965, a loss of over 2,000,000 members. (emphasis mine)

In 2008, as the PC(USA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of Reunion, the denomination had experienced a net loss of almost 1,000,000 members since the 1983 merger, from 3,131,228 to 2,140,165. By 2010, our membership had further dropped to 2,016,091—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years. Though the rate of decline is less severe, the number of PC(USA) congregations has also dropped from 11,662 in 1983 to 10,560 in 2010, a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.

For the congregations that remain, the situation is often dire. We are an increasingly aging denomination, with a median age of 61. The average size of PC(USA) congregations has been significantly reduced over the past quarter century. It is now the case that half of all congregations have a membership of 100 or less. During this same time, average worship attendance has also dropped significantly. The percentage of these shrinking congregations that can afford to employ an installed pastor has decreased dramatically. In 2010, 44% of PC(USA) congregations had no installed pastor…

Most significantly, however, is the reality that we are not reaching out to newcomers or investing in new church development. As a denomination, across all geographic areas, we are not planting enough new faith communities. Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new churches were chartered. This is simply not sustainable. (emphasis mine) The Presbyterian Church of the 21st century must be a denomination that encourages and nurtures new church development.

I’m not trying to dump on the Presbyterians (they do, after all, keep me employed).  But the Presbyterians do show what’s going on in the wider mainline church.  Most mainline denominations are closing churches faster than they are planting them.  But why is this?

I’m beginning to think that the problem here is baked into the modern mainline Protestant church.  I think in some ways what has happened is that many mainline churches have become places where the folks in the pews are nothing more than customers and we really don’t know what the church is for, let alone why it matters to be a Christian.  I think the problem here is that the mainline church has forgotten who it is and who it belongs to.  Until pastors and the laity know why being a Christian matters and how it changes us, until we know what they church is for and about, until we see a life of faith as less about being affirmed and more about taking up our crosses, until we realize that we are called, gathered and sent, then church planting will be a losing proposition.

Episcopal priest Robert Hendrickson notes that many liberal Protestant churches are places that have become devoid of the mystery of the Christian faith, let alone stressing the fact that being a follower of Jesus changes us:

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.

I agree.  Too much of liberal Protestantism is all about affirmation and to little about invitation.  There is an important place for being affirmed and reminded we are loved by God, but our faith, our churches can’t simply be places where we come to feel good about ourselves.  They also have to be places where people are discipled in the ways of Jesus. They have to be places where the folks in the pews realized that they are called to share the good news as much as any clergyperson.

I think I and others have our work cut out for us.  While I will still advocate for new churches, I am realizing that the mainline church needs to be re-planted; because I think it has been uprooted for a long, long time and needs to the good soil and water of Christ to grow again.

We Can’t Be Friends

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC.   The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today.  Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff.  The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills.  At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up.  She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor.  You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other.  “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on.  But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today.  Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore.  Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other.  Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.

For liberals, this is about equality.  Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience.  They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality.  They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other.  Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story?  I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it.  We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value.  We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree.  Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.

 I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand.  But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil.  We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

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.

Sunday Sermon: December 4, 2011

“That Will Preach.”
 Isaiah 40:1-11 and Mark 1:1-8 
December 4, 2011 
First Christian ChurchMinneapolis, MN
 
It been interesting to walk around the church office these days. It’s kind of become a bit of a museum. As we get ready for the upcoming move to SpringHouse Ministry Center, old newsletters and church bulletins are being taken out of the archives room and getting scanned onto a hard drive. Space is going to a bit tight in our new home, so now is the time to get rid of or economize our stuff. It’s been fascinating to look at the newsletters and bulletins from the 1950s, 60s and 70s and to see what things were like here at First during that time. It’s hard for me to come into the office and not look at these documents from our past. There’s something about recent history that I find fasinating. There’s a store in Stillwater that has old car ads dating from the 1920s and onward. I could sit for hours and just look at these old advertisements. I really like reading more recent ads because it kindles a sense of nostalgia, a longing for how things used to be. These old bulletins can also kindle a sense of nostalgia. When you read these documents, you get a glimpse to the days when this sanctuary was full at two services. I remember reading somewhere that the Sunday School kids classes had hundreds of kids. Yes, I said hundreds. It’s after reading all this that you noticed how the feeling of nostalgia slides a bit into despair and sadness. The thing that keeps running through my head is what happened to all those people? Why are we not growing now? Is there any hope for us now? In a little over a month, we will have our last worship service here and we will probably get into a bus and start worshipping in our new space. There’s a lot of anticipation among us, but I also know there is probably some sense of sadness in there as well. We are headed to into a new way of being church. I know there is excitement in the opportunities to work together with Salem Lutheran and Lyndale UCC. But we can’t pretend that there is a sense of loss. The reason we are leaving this location is for a pretty simple reason: we had become too small to maintain this building. When we moved into this building in 1955, First was a large congregation. We aren’t that anymore. And while we can say all these great things about downsizing, we can’t really deny feeling as if we are losers.
And we are also anxious about the future. We wonder if we’ll grow in our new location. We wonder if we can make it with a reduced budget, reduced staff and reduced membership. Some of you have heard the news that First Christian Church in Mankato is closing at the end of this year after 143 years of ministry. In an email we learn that the church had shrunk to the point that they couldn’t maintain a viable ministry. We wonder if that’s going to be our fate 10 or 15 years down the road. We live in anxious times. We aren’t the only church dealing with the issues associated with decline. Add to that are people dealing with lost jobs and uncertain futures. We can’t really say that these are the good days. In many ways, it seems like those good days are far behind us. The passage today from Isaiah is one of the most familiar passages in the Bible. You may have not heard anyone read this passage, but you might have heard it in song. Part of Handel’s Messiah includes phrasing from Isaiah 40 and we also get the hymn “Comfort, Comfort You My People.” This passage is one of hope in the midst of despair. This part of the book of Isaiah was written at a time when most of the Israelites were off in capitvity in Babylon. Their homeland had been destroyed by foreign armies years before and they were carted off to a strange land to serve their new conquerors. These were not good times for the Israelites. And then out of nowhere comes this un-named prophet who says that God is going to bring comfort to God’s people. God was no longer angry at the Israelites for their wandering ways, going after other gods. The prophet shouts that God is coming and we are to get ready. Mountains will be made plain; valleys will be filled up and we are tell the whole world that God is here. The whole point of this passage is that God has not forgotten God’s people even though they had forgotten God. Actually, they realize that God has been there all the time. I’ve always considered the Gospel of Mark as the oddball gospel because it begins and ends so aburptly. We start with this guy named John who lives in the desert eating bugs and wearing uncomfortable clothing. He tells people that the promised One is coming and calls on folks to be baptized a sign of the renewal taking place in their hearts. He uses Isaiah 40 to say that Jesus is coming, so get ready. And the odd thing is that people take John’s word seriously. They pour out of the cities into the middle of nowhere to be baptized. In a time when Israel is again under foreign control-this time the Romans- and the religious leadership is somewhat corrupt and in some cases fratenizing with the Roman government, the people found hope in John’s message. God had not left them- in fact, hope was on the way. Advent is a time of expectation and waiting. But it is also a time of hope. “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” is not just a nice song we sing at this time of year, it is a cry for salvation, a pleading for God to come and save us and a belief that we can rejoice because liberation is just around the corner. We look at how things used to be, the old glory days, and wonder if God has left us. Isaiah and Mark remind us that God is always faithful to us and is always there. We might have a smaller number in the pews, we might not have the large choir we once had, we might not have the Sunday School rooms full of kids as in the days of old, we might not have as much in the bank account , but God is still with us. These passages also tell us something else: that we are to be messengers of the good news. Yeah, I’m bringing up that dreaded “e” word: evangelism. But before you start running away in terror, I want to tell you something. The first part of that word, the evangel part? Well, in Greek, that means “good news.” Evangelism is not about beating someone over the head with a Bible, but it’s about telling everyone around you that God is good, that Good is always with us and that God has not given up on God’s creation. Afraid of talking to strangers? Well, I’m not asking you to start talking to someone you don’t know, try starting with the people you do know: your husband or wife, your children, your friends, and even yourself. In this time of despair, we need to tell the good news over and over and over. This is the message we need to tell from the moment we enter the doors of our new home; no matter what the future holds, we will preach the good news; that God has not left, God loves us and is always, always with us. Every Wednesday evening, I lead a Bible Study. It has been fun to get together and discuss the Bible. Ann Wolverton and Karen Westphal have been regular attenders and it’s been great to sit down and study the scriptures together. Every so often, a questions comes up that I try to answer. After I’ve shared my thoughts, I noticed Karen looking at me with one of those thoughtful looks and she says, “That will preach.” This message that we have? It will preach. It’s a word that needs to be heard, one that we need to even tell ourselves. All of us are called to preach the good news. We are called to tell that good news to others in word and deed. In feeding the hungry or praying for a friend. We proclaim that God is here, come in the form of baby to bring hope and healing to the world. To the church called First Christian Church, the hope we have is not in a large membership and budget to match, though these are nice things to have. Our hope is Christ who comes preaching repentance and forgiveness. And that’s good news to share. As the song goes: Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel, shall come to thee, O Israel. Thanks be to God. Amen