Eugene Peterson and the Age of Shibboleths

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I don’t know when it happened, but I’ve become a walking, talking shibboleth.

A shibboleth is a word or custom that signifies who is in the ingroup and who is in the outgroup.  Think of it as an old fashioned version of virtue signaling.

Now, I didn’t personally become a shibboleth, but the fact that I am gay and in a same sex marriage does make me shibboleth in our neverending culture wars.  How one views same sex marriage either makes your virtuous or a sinner.

This past week, the pastor and author Eugene Peterson was interviewed this past week by journalist Jonathan Merritt.  Peterson is a well-known author and is most known for his version of the Bible, the Message.  During the interview, Merritt asked Peterson about his views on gays and lesbians in the church and if he would perform a same sex marriage.  Here’s what he said (the words of Merritt are in bold):

I wouldn’t have said this 20 years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over. People who disapprove of it, they’ll probably just go to another church. So we’re in a transition and I think it’s a transition for the best, for the good. I don’t think it’s something that you can parade, but it’s not a right or wrong thing as far as I’m concerned.

RNS: A follow-up: If you were pastoring today and a gay couple in your church who were Christians of good faith asked you to perform their same-sex wedding ceremony, is that something you would do?

EP: Yes.

This set off alarm bells among evangelicals who are some of his fans and it caused people to speculate about his motivations. Writing in First Things, Samuel James thought his change of heart was about trying to be accepted by a changing society:

Says Peterson, “I wouldn’t have said this twenty years ago, but now I know a lot of people who are gay and lesbian and they seem to have as good a spiritual life as I do. I think that kind of debate about lesbians and gays might be over.” Why is the “debate” over? Because the LGBT people Peterson knows are good, spiritual people. How can that knowledge—not the knowledge of doctrine, but the knowledge of human beings—comport with an antiquated definition of chastity and marriage? What use are theological disputations when it comes to looking real gays and lesbians in the face, living with and loving them, and affirming their humanity and worth?

The question for our generation is increasingly not, “Is this doctrine true or false?” Rather, the question is, “Can I live with it out there?”

He continues rather pointedly:

What I wish people like Eugene Peterson would see is that there is no safe corner of the Christian story that is completely intuitive or unfailingly neighborly. Every element of the Gospel can and will grate against our modern sense of “real life.” If the doctrine of marriage is untenable in “real life,” what doctrines are tenable? “Real life” doesn’t teach us to desire the good of our enemies. It teaches us to shame them, on either Puritan scaffolds or progressive college campuses. “Real life” doesn’t support the notion that justice will ultimately prevail. It reinforces our sense that we must kill or be killed. There’s no intersection of Christ and culture that finally finds both running parallel all the way to glory.

Russell Moore wrote a more softer article expressing disapointment, but also seeing that good that Peterson has brought to his life.

His statement was could have cost him literally. Lifeway, the national Christian bookstore chain, was ready to stop selling Peterson’s books in their stores.

The rancor made him retract his words a short time later. He wrote:

“I affirm a biblical view of marriage: one man to one woman. I affirm a biblical view of everything. . . . When put on the spot by this particular interviewer, I said yes in the moment. But on further reflection and prayer, I would like to retract that. That’s not something I would do out of respect to the congregation, the larger church body, and the historic biblical Christian view and teaching on marriage. That said, I would still love such a couple as their pastor. They’d be welcome at my table, along with everybody else.”

He might have been recieved back into the good graces of evangelicals, but now he pissed off progressive Christians who saw him as greedy, feeble-minded or uncaring. Rachel Held Evans apologized to the LGBTQ community for Peterson’s reversal.

Another writer said Peterson was selfish and greedy:

A man who wrote one of the most popular interpretations of the Bible said my son and his peers are equal. So equal that he would perform wedding ceremonies for them. A bookstore chain run by a Christian denomination says it will cost him money. When he realizes it will cost him money, my son’s life does not matter.
Equality does not matter to him. Civil rights does not matter. Bullycide does not matter. Suicidal ideations, increased violence and sexual assault to LGBTQIA youth does not matter. What matters is the bottom line of the bank account.
Now, let’s take a look at who runs this bookstore chain? The SBC was founded in the 1840’s to protect their precious Bible from the threat of abolitionists. That’s right, to them slavery was biblical. More recently the SBC made the news because they had controversy over an issue. That issue? Should they condemn the actions and philosophies of the alt right.

The SBC is the nation’s largest protestant denomination. Historically founded to fight for slavery as a biblical principle. This same group had to discuss the merits of condemning white supremacists. They are also anti LGBTQIA. And they own a chain of bookstores.

This is who Eugene Peterson relies on to sell his Bibles. He needs their money more than he needs the strength of conviction to say my son is equal.

As a gay Christian man in a same sex marriage, I have to call bullshit on both sides.

For conservatives, it seems like people are willing to love and adore a pastor’s teachings- as long as he adheres to their viewpoint. If he doesn’t he is to be treated as if he said Jesus was equal to Bozo the Clown.

But Progressives don’t fare better. They loved this guy the moment he said his initial statement, but when he retracted, people were swearing to never use the Message Bible and deem him a greedy SOB who doesn’t care LGBTQ persons are dying.

This is why I say I am now a shibboleth. How you look at me and my marriage determines whether a group will love you or condemn you.

Would I have like him to stick to his guns on same sex marriage?  Yes.  Am I dissapointed that he retracted? Yes.  But that’s one flaw in a person that has a lot of good to share.

As gay rights move forward in our society, we aren’t learning to live and let live.  All of the knives are out and we are looking for someone to say anything that is against their views and getting ready to punish that person.

To conservative Christians: what does it say that you seem to be willing to just dump someone because of one paragraph in an interview?  Is it more important that he follow toe the line on this issue than it is to judge his whole character?

And now progressive Christians:  What happened to grace?  What happened to praying for someone like Peterson, for courage and strength?  Are you going to stop reading his books for one stupid loss of nerve?

It feels like people on both sides are playing for keeps and there is very, very little room for love. Peterson stopped being a flesh and blood and imperfect human being and became the latest pawn in the culture wars. As a tweetstorm said this week, “We see people as collections of beliefs and ideas, which makes it easy to avoid seeing the whole person.”

In the real world, I know people who I know think I’m engaged in sin.  And I think they are very wrong.  But I still keep relationship with them because it is important to see them as more than their view on this one issue.  There is a lot that we can agree on beyond sexuality.

No matter if we are evangelicals or mainline Christians, we are called to love one another.  And that means loving people even when we disagree.

Love doesn’t excuse sin, but it should make us look at each other differently. Let’s put down the shibboleths and learn to love one another.

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Sermon: That’s Me In the Corner

Galatians 1:13-17; 2:15-21 and Luke 18:9-14
Sixth Sunday of Easter
Losing My Religion Sermon Series
May 21, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Click here to listen to the audio.

It’s been about two years since our congregation voted to become an Open and Affirming congregation, meaning that we openly welcome Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered persons into the life of our church.  I think that’s a good thing, but over the years even long before our vote, I’ve been wondering about the quality of the pro-inclusion argument.  Whenever I’ve seen people argue in favor of LGBT inclusion, the main thrust goes like this: Jesus hung around undesirable and marginalized people and so should we.  

 

I get what this message is trying to say, but it feels sort of a flippant answer and not really delving into the question.  Too often, people cherry pick Scripture to find some verse on inclusion and maybe throw in that the rest of society is more accepting of gays and so should we.  But the thing is, it really doesn’t answer the deep questions that issues like this bring up.  Who belongs to God?  And why?  How are we accepted by God?

 

In today’s text, Paul is teed off.  Something is taking place that has hurt the Gentiles who came into the faith.  A leading founder of the church was exhibiting a two-faced behavior.  A delegation from Jerusalem is stirring up dissention.  Paul has to say something to put things right.

 

The problem here is similar to what we talked about last week.  A group of Jewish Christians have come to Antioch to persist that any Gentile Christian must be circumcised to be part of the faith. In some way they are being pushed by events in Jerusalem.  A nationalist movement is coming to fore in Jerusalem and demanding people follow a strict interpretation of the law.  This group is causing trouble especially with the church which had started welcoming Gentiles.  Peter who was in Antioch, knew what was going on back home. He had made it a habit to eat meals with the Gentile Christians.  Eating a meal with someone is a sign of a close relationship.  When, Peter sees these Jews from Jerusalem urging for purity, Peter decides to stop eating with the Gentiles.  Peter probably believed he was doing this to keep the Jewish Christians back home safe from persecution.  But he did it at the expense of the Gentiles who now made to feel like second-class Christians.

 

Paul is seeing all of this and he is mad and calls Peter out.  He rails against what Peter has done and how it led to other Jews to engage in the same hypocrisy.  This is when Paul goes into sharing what really matters in the faith.

 

Now in the past, this passage has been seen in a very simplistic terms.  Pastors tend to see this as Paul repudiating the Torah and saying that all we need is to just believe in Jesus.  In this view, it sets up Judiaism is the wrong faith and that Christianity is the good faith.  But at this point, the church was still a sect within Judaism. Paul and Peter and others didn’t see themselves as starting a new church, but probably more as reforming Judaism.  Paul’s words in chapter one shows he was a faithful Jew and didn’t see himself as leaving the faith.

 

So Paul isn’t arguing for a new faith, but and expansion of the old faith.  Paul is talking about covenant.  If you can remember way, way back to last September, God establishe a covenant with Abraham and the whole Jewish people.  God and Israel would be in a covenant relationship.  So in this way, the covenant was focused on one specific people, the Jews and these Jews would perform works like circumcision. These works were not done to please God, but were a sign to show that they belong to God.  So when Paul says in chapter 2, verse 16 that righteousness doesn’t come by following the law, but faith in Christ, he is not saying what you think he is saying.  The law was a way to mark you as a Jew.  But Christ’s death on cross means that this mark is no longer needed.  Righteousness was no longer limited to nationality, but was for everyone.  

 

When Paul talks about faith, it is again tempting to believe this is about mental assent.  If you really believe in Jesus, then you’re in.  Believing in Jesus matters, but the real nugget is what Jesus has done, not what we have done.  Yes, we should believe, but it is not about beliving in Jesus as much as it is to realize that God in Christ has already done the work.

 

Paul is talking about freedom.  We are not bound to a covenant that is only for one group, but a covenant for everyone. We are not bound to believe enough in Jesus to be saved, but realize that we are saved by God’s actions through Jesus on the cross.

This is why Galatians is called a book about freedom.  We are freed from the different barriers to be able to live as community who realizes it is free in Christ.

 

So, if I was going to talk about LGBT inclusion today, I would say something like this:  they don’t have to give up their sexuality in order to show they belong to God.  Instead, they are free by faith, not mental assent, but realizing that God has already done the work to make them, to make me belong because of what was done on a cross on a hill a long time ago.  Inclusion in Christian terms is not about trying to be hip or trendy or being on the right side of history.  It is about knowing that we, all of us are free. It is knowing and trusting that God has done the work of inclusion because of the work done on the cross.  This is why we are Open and Affirming.  

 

Our second text from Luke, is the parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector.  You see how the Pharisee comes before God.  He stresses he has done all the things that show that he was a faithful Jew.  Then we see of the Publican or the Tax Collector.  He doesn’t really want to be there.  He doesn’t even look up to heaven and pleads for mercy.  If you remember, tax collectors were not seen as upstanding people because of their work with the Romans and because they could rip people off.  The publican can only rely on the grace of God.  Unlike the Pharisee, he couldn’t talk about all that he had done.  He knew he didn’t have anything that could make him righteous accept the mercy of God.

 

In a few weeks, we will be gathered at Loring Park in Minneapolis with our fellow Disciples churches, First Christian-Minneapolis and Plymouth Creek Christian Church.  We go there not to show how hip or “woke” we are, but to witness to a God that loves all of us, that God became like us and died on a cross for us.  Because of this means everyone is welcome.  I am welcomed, you are welcomed because we place our trust in God and we share that good news with others.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

The Church for Today (and not 1955)

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

First Christian Church of St. Paul.

This morning at church, things are what they are on most Sundays. We had about 15 people who sang, prayed and listened to the sermon.  We talked about making sandwiches for the homeless in a few weeks time.

But something unusual did happen today.  For whatever reason, an elderly woman was dropped off at 9AM for the service held by a church that rents our space.  Their worship service was at 11.  The woman used a wheelchair.  And because our heater is on the blink, the church was cold, causing her to shiver.  The congregants fretted about leaving this woman in the narthex for two hours, so it was decided that we bring her into the sanctuary where we had some space heaters going.  The woman had to go to two services, but I think she enjoyed herself.  I know it warmed my heart when she was served communion along with everyone else.

This is a wonderful example of church in action.  But I think that if it were known to some denominational people, First Christian-St. Paul would be closed.

Why?  Well, we have a tiny membership that barely keeps things afloat.  They can’t afford a full time pastor.  The money is always tight.  If we were to judge this congregation according to the standards of say 1955, we would not be considered sustainable.  And in the eyes of some who still unknowingly follow those standards, we should have closed a long time ago.

One of the things that saddens me is when a church closes.  Now I  know all things must die, and no church lasts forever.  But sometimes I think in mainline Protestantism, we have lost the meaning of what is true church and because of this, we tend to pull the cord on congregations too early.  There might be other ideas available if people could get out of making churches what they were when Eisenhower was president.

In the 1950s, mainline Protestant denominations were a potent spiritual, civic and cultural force in America.  People filled the pews of churches, because of culture as much as because of faith in Jesus.  Pastors and churches were part of the community, acting as civic boosters as well as religious leaders.  National leaders listened to what we had to say.

Lots of churches were planted in that era.  They were planted in areas where there wasn’t a denominational presence and set up shop.  Usually these churches were planted in growing suburbs where people moved into new homes.  For the most part suburban churches were built and the people came in droves to be a part of them. An article from 2010 explains the important role Mainline Protestant churches had in our culture:

Historically, members of mainline Protestant churches were the leaders of American civic culture and institutions. Whether it was as bank president, town manager, local newspaper editor, or as the state senator and governor, mainline Protestant Christian commitments and values were both represented and reflected in the world view of public leaders – with the result that the United States was distinctly mainline Protestant Christian in outlook….Back when mainline Protestantism provided the worldview and values of the nation, mainline churches did not have to spend much organizational effort on teaching their values to their children; the culture reinforced their views. By contrast, African American churches, Catholics, non-mainline versions of Christianity, and non-Christian faith communities (notably Jewish groups) had to be intentional about teaching their views and values to their offspring. Non-mainline faith communities paid particular attention to three areas of church life: worship that clearly reflected and inculcated a particular view of God and humankind, religious education that intentionally articulated those worship values, and fellowship that provided social and cultural reinforcement for the community’s values, especially where they diverged from those of the dominant culture.

But fast forward 60 years and we find that mainline Protestantism is no longer the force in society it once was.  The ultimate insiders were now on the outside.  Churches lost members.  Some Denominational executives seem stymied as to what can be done. Others think it is time to face reality and begin closing churches can cutting staff to make ends meet. Our leaders in many ways are still in a mindset from the 1950s, which means that churches are viewed in that same light.  If a church has lost members or maybe has lost vision of focus and it’s budget has taken a hit, that church is a prime candidate for closure.  No one necessarily make a congregation close its ministry, but in my observation it is strongly suggested.

In some ways, when churches were planted in the 50s and 60s, they were planted in areas where say, there wasn’t a Presbyterian church in the area.  What this means is that congregations were viewed as franchises of a certain brand.  This is a different way of seeing congregations from evangelicals.  The language I hear about evangelical church planting is that they move into an area that might not have many people who identify as Christians and they want to share Christ with people.  The language used when some of the suburban mainline churches were planted were about serving a potential population of church goers.  It seems that in one example, the church exists to serve the people.  In the other, the church exists to extend the brand.

Companies like Target or Kroger close stores that are underperforming.  It doesn’t really matter if that area then has no location of their store, that location is closed.  I think inadvertently, this how we view congregations.  We keep the performing ones open and close the underpreforming ones.

But an underperforming church isn’t the same as a Target store with poor sales.  I’ve seen churches close that still had some potential for new ministry.  Of course the church would have to change, but the tools for a new or revived church were available.

Also, when a church closes, there very well might be ministries that can be harmed.  There are churches that are stuggling and yet are performing ministries to people around them, doing such things as helping single mothers in their communities or feeding the homeless.  If the church goes away, it might very well mean that the people served by the ministry are threatened.

When a church is struggling maybe what needs to be done is to assess what can be done in ministry.  Maybe they can’t afford a full time pastor.  Could they afford a part time one?  Could a leader of the church become a commissioned or licensed minister?  What ministries can be done by the church?  Are they able to do ministry with a small membership?

Again, I am not saying you should never close a church.  But I am saying that this should be the last resort, not the first.  A church with a small membership and small budget is not a failure.  But all of this means having a very different mindset when it come to churches.  It means grading churches with a different criteria than one from the midpoint of the last century.  It means understanding what the church means in the first place and how that is expressed in a local setting.  We have to understand what a church is for in a local community.  As the quote above notes, conservative and African American churches have a better understanding of the role of the church, especially when society runs counter to their values.  The problem with mainline churches is because we were at the center of American society, culture instilled and reineforced the values that were expressed in church.  Because culture did all the heavy lifting, we viewed churches like a local franchise.  Our culture no longer reineforces Christian values.  Church can’t be viewed anymore extending the denominational brand or judged on “performance.”  There needs to be more focus in seeing congregations as places where Christians are formed, where church values are taught.

The other thing that has to change is the concept of the pastor.  The standard in the past was that a mainline pastor had a full-time salary.  But many churches are not able to fork over the 40 to 50 thousand dollars to pay for a pastor’s salary, let alone pay for their health care and retirement.  This means that churches have to start looking at part-time pastoral help.  Pastors will have to consider becoming bivocational pastors instead of seeing the church as their sole place of employment.  African American churches have long been places where the pastor worked on Sundays at church and somewhere else during the week.  I think this change is going to be hard for mainliners because we have envisioned the pastorate as a professional akin to a lawyer or doctor.  But doctors and lawyers are paid by entities that can afford to pay high salaries for their expertise.  This means that we have to look at pastors more in terms of artists instead of lawyers.  An artist doesn’t expect to make a lot of money from their work. They do what they do for the love of it.  Sometimes I think a lot of mainline pastors are in churches for reasons other than the love of sharing the good news and caring for others.  Yes, pastors should make a just salary.  But if a church can’t afford to pay a pastor $40 or 50K, but could pay maybe $15 or 20K, they should not be viewed as a failure.  A part time pastor is not inferior to a full time one.

It’s time for mainline churches to be judge according to 21st century standards and not 20th century ones.  Churches of 2015 look different than churches of 1955.  Mainline church leaders need to start living in the present and not in the past.  Congregations are more viable than we think…but we have to use a different measuring stick.

The Invisibility of Progressive Christianity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And I think he’s right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hard Times for the Mainline

The-Third-Law-of-Mainline-ProtestantismWither the Mainline church?

It’s a question those of us who are part of a mainline/progressive denomination have been wondering for years.  Or, it is a question we continually hear about.  Our numbers continue to shrink, as does our monetary reserves.

Everyone has their reasons as to why mainline churches seem to be in sort of the death spiral.  I want to use this blog post to share some of those responses and what they offer to our churches.

The most common response to shrinking numbers in our churches is one of mild annoyance.  Fellow Disciples Pastor Derek Penwell, shares this view.  In a recent blog post he is upset at how some believe that the liberal churches are losing members is because of their socially liberal stances on issues like gay marriage.  Penwell sets up strawmen (one that is partially based on truth) that tells the mainline churches they are losing members because of their liberal views.  He writes:

If mainline Protestant denominations would just shut up about all that liberal stuff — the soft stuff that gives liberals a reputation for bleeding hearts (like caring about the poor and the oppressed), and start focusing on the real moral problems confronting American life — like gay marriage, or the loss of traditional family values, or “the war on Christmas” — then they wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding members at such distressing rates.

 

He concludes by dismissing the “we are too liberal” argument as one focused on survival and not faithfulness to Christ:

But distilled to its essence, the contention that liberal denominations are losing members because of their liberalness or because they don’t make one’s stance on gay marriage a test of fellowship can’t but appear to be an appeal to utility dressed up in ecclesiastic garb. That is to say, if you begin from the premise that the church’s primary function is to survive, then anything that threatens that survival is bad, while anything that promises to aid in keeping the doors open is good. If the primary question centers on figuring out what works, then whether liberal theology is a faithful reading of the vocation of following Jesus or that insisting on doing away with high-handed legalism better reflects the message of the gospel is largely beside the point. The primary consideration is whether a belief or practice succeeds in helping keep the doors open — or, if you’re the more ambitious type, allowing you to add to your church the qualifier “mega.”

Now, I agree with Penwell that I don’t think mainline churches are declining because we are too liberal. I also don’t think the answer is to not be open to LGBT folk or the ordination of women.  But Penwell never really answers the question about decline.  This is really happening.  Why is that?  And if the “we’re too liberal” is bunk, what is the explaination?  Why do mainline churches matter?  Can we be concerned about the health of an institution like the church without it being dismissed as only being concerned about survival? Instead he just trades in slamming evangelicals and talking about following Jesus means dying (another good idea on the surface, but what does it mean in this context).  Penwell’s response might appease liberal culture warriors, but it doesn’t help those in declining churches and seminaries figure out what’s next.

Penwell reflects a trend among some in mainline churches to ignore the serious injury that is causing blood to spout forth all the while proclaiming “it’s just a flesh wound!” We try to minimize the problems taking place either by saying we aren’t interested in survival or by looking for any chink in evangelicalism’s armor.  When attendance starts to slip in evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention, some mainline leaders latch on to this as proof that we aren’t the only ones declining.  That’s all true; but mainline churches are still declining more rapidly than those other churches.  Why?  Answering that means having to take a look inside and it might mean that we don’t do somethings so well.

Penwell’s view also reflects something else that I feel is going on within the mainline church: apathy for the tradition.  Over the years, I’ve heard how God doesn’t need (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  Or that we shouldn’t be so concerned about the survival of (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  I’ve noticed at times a disdain for any formal structure and no appreciation of where they have been.

Putting too much faith in institutions can bring about death, just ask the Catholic church in the light of clergy sex abuse scandals.  But as Allan Bevere notes, even the early church was formally organized.  What I get from Penwell and others at times is that this tradition doesn’t matter.  Of course tradition isn’t God.  But tradition matters.  It shapes us.  Tradition reaches back into the past to connect us to the present and the future.

Dwight Welch is concerned about the decline of the mainline.  In his recent blog post
, he shares how progressive congregations shaped him in the faith to become the man (and pastor) he is today.

He also shows that decline has consequences.  Smaller numbers means smaller budgets and that can rebverberate in ways people don’t realize.  Welch is concerned that the institutions that formed him are slowly disappearing:

We may be heartened by the rise of religious progressives among the young, but without institutional ways of relating, it’s hard to see how they will be organized. The loss of numbers means seminaries close, campus ministries shut down, the chance for a progressive church to be near by continues to diminish.

For example, In Indiana there were a dozen progressive and mainline campus ministries 20 years ago. Now there are 2, Butler and ISU. Notice that the largest universities in the state, including IU have no such presence. In Kansas we had a dozen ministries and in the same period we’ve been reduced to 2. Compare that to what evangelical para church groups and secular student organizations are doing.

I know from my own story that the reason I found a way to stay in the church was because there were religious progressive campus ministries where I found a way connect my values and faith. But given the expense of the old model, they required denominational funds that simply are not there, given the membership declines.

Many of the theologians I read, that opened up faith to me, taught at progressive seminaries, which are endangered. When I was first diving into progressive Christianity I read Christianity and Crisis, the Other Side, and other journals that don’t exist now. Mainline publishing houses face an uncertain future, a source of progressive ideas for the wider society.

While Dwight and I tend to have somewhat different political and theological views, I resonate with his view of the mainline. As much as I appreciate how evangelicalism shaped me, it was the mainline church that was able to intergrate my faith and my sexuality. It was the tradition that challenged my assumptions. But many of the institutions from publishing houses to denominations and seminaries are threatened due to the decline of the mainline.

I get that nothing lasts forever. I get that institutions can become gods to us. I get that we should trust God and be faithful even as our churches dwindle. But I am reminded of something Presbyterian pastor John Vest once noted: what is at stake for mainline/progressive Christianity? What makes mainline Christianity worth preserving for future generations? Can or should our seminaries and congregations help form tomorrow’s leaders? Do we believe this is a tradition that should be cared for? Or do we just dissolve and leave the defining of the faith solely to evangelicals?

I think one can work to preserve a tradition without it becoming their master. But we can’t do that until we understand why this tradition of the mainline matters. This tradition matters to me. It should matter to others as well- because Christianity will the poorer should this tradition wither.

The New Orthodoxy and Me

rainbowcrossFor the last few years, I’ve been impressed with a growing number of writers and bloggers, mostly from Methodist circles, but from some other traditions as well who seem to be carrying the Neo-Orthodox/Post-Liberal banner that had seem somewhat dormant for a while. I’ve been attracted to this stream of Protestantism after finding both evangelicalism and liberal Protestantism wanting in different ways.  Writers like Allan Bevere, David Watson, the boys over at Via United Methodists and others echo some of the same feelings I’ve been thinking about God, Jesus and the church.  They show a different way of being within mainline Protestantism.  It is more focused on the importance of salvation, atonement, sin and grace which sadly has become a counter-movement against the spiritually relative ethos in the mainline (at least among the elite).

But while I am thankful for this small movement, I am also left with some wariness about this movement when it comes to the issue of sexuality.  Is there room for LGBT people in this movement?

I’m probably an odd duck: a gay Christian that has an orthodox theology. That’s not how it usually goes: most churches that tend to be gay-friendly, also tend to be quite progressive in their theology.  Many gays would tend to have a more liberal theology.  (Small-o orthodox doesn’t mean conservative.) But I’ve never felt comfortable with the standard liberal theology.  Post-liberal theology is a far better fit for me. ( I know that I’m not the only gay person that doesn’t fit the usual profile.)

But a good part of these writers haven’t said much about sexuality.  Some writers, like the late William Placher, were gay friendly.  But what about other bloggers?  I understand there is still disagreement on this issue and I’m not asking that this movement start excluding those who have different views on sexuality.  But I am wondering if there is room for me.  So, how does sexuality fit in this neo-orthodox/ post-liberal milieu?

I’m looking forward to your answers.

Sermon: Getting God’s Goat

Matthew 25:31–46 | Fifth Sunday of Lent | March 22, 2015 | First Christian Church | Mahtomedi, MN | Dennis Sanders, preaching

 


“Not all the sheep are good all of the time. Not all of the goats are bad
all of the time. We are sometimes sheep, giving of ourselves to help
our neighbor and we are sometimes goats, shutting ourselves from the
cares of the world. We never really know who is a sheep or who is a goat
even if we think we do.”

Read the Sermon Text.