What Are We Being Inclusive For? (Revisited)

 

Note: Most of following post was written exactly five years ago, when First Christian became an official open and affirming congregation.  I’ve added a few additional thoughts.

There has been something that has been bothering me for a while.  Usually when people start talking about gay ordination or same-sex marriage, someone on the pro side will say something to the effect: “Jesus was inclusive,” or “Jesus welcomed everybody.”

Now, I’m all for welcoming people into our churches in the way that Jesus did.  I’ve been fighting for LGBT inclusion in the church for years.  But when someone says something like the sentences above, I get a weird feeling, like something isn’t right.

Recently, after reading a blog post, I finally understood what was bothering me.  In the contemporary liberal church, the highest goal, the highest good is to be “inclusive.”  As I’ve said, being inclusive matters to me.  But should our faith be only about inclusion?  What are we including and why?  Why are we being inclusive? What are we being inclusive for?

Rod Dreher linked to an article from Slate on the controversy brewing among Catholics in San Francisco.  The bishop wants to make sure that teachers working in Catholic schools don’t say anything that contradicts church teaching on issues such as homosexuality.  Needless to say, this has bothered a lot of people.  But the problem is less the bishop’s policy, but the response to the bishop.  The protestors want the church to be nonjudgemental- something that Will Saletan from Slate believes is impossible:

The protesters are confused. They reject morality clauses but call the archbishop’s behavior sinful, shameful, and wrong. They belong to a church but seem to think it shouldn’t forbid anything. They insist that no one can be judged, except for issuing judgments that contradict their own. They can’t explain or even acknowledge the moral differences between homosexuality, contraception, and abortion. The nonsense of nonjudgmentalism has turned their brains to mush. It’s clouding their ability to think and speak clearly about society’s mistakes—and their own.

Saletan isn’t a conservative, he agrees that the bishop is wrong.  But he thinks that many of the liberal Catholics don’t understand their own faith, ignoring church teaching and thinking the highest goals in Catholicism are inclusiveness and tolerance. He argues:

The dictionary says churches are supposed to teach doctrines. But the campaign against Cordileone says they shouldn’t. Students at one Catholic school “are very upset” by the new policy, says a teacher. “They’re afraid it’ll lead to indoctrination.” A statement signed by more than 200 opponents of the policy says Catholic leaders should follow their flocks: “Most U.S. Catholics believe very little of what is in the Archdiocesan document and actively reject much of it. The role of the bishop is to articulate the faith of the people.”

In place of morality or doctrine, the archbishop’s critics preach acceptance, inclusiveness, tolerance, affirmation, and diversity. An online petition, signed by more than 6,000 people, says his proposed rules violate “Catholic values of inclusion and diversity.” “By forcing morality clauses, you’re taking away all inclusivity and diversity in these schools,” adds a supporter on Twitter. Haider-Winnett says students need “affirming environments.” The campaign’s hashtag is “#teachacceptance.”

Of course people can argue against church teaching.  And teachings change over time.  But it’s one thing to argue that teachings must change, it’s another to say that things like doctrine have no place in the life of faith.

Which gets me back to why we need to be inclusive.  What is the theological reason for this?  I think we should, but why does it matter that churches have to be inclusive and diverse?

I tend to think that in many liberal churches (the tribe that I hang with) gay and lesbian inclusion and indeed, all inclusion is based on moral therapeutic deism (MTD), the defacto civil religion in the United States.  Writer Damon Linker explains what MTD is all about:

1. “A god exists who created and ordered the world and watches over human life on earth.”

2. “God wants people to be good, nice, and fair to each other, as taught in the Bible and by most world religions.”

3. “The central goal of life is to be happy and to feel good about oneself.”

4. “God does not need to be particularly involved in one’s life except when God is needed to resolve a problem.”

5. “Good people go to heaven when they die.”

I think this is what drives inclusion these days.  Now there are some outliers, liberal Lutherans have enough classical Christianity that they still talk about sin, cross and grace.  But this what my side of the debate on LGBT issues tends to believe in, which I think is pretty thin gruel.

The church should be open to people of various sexual orientations and gender identities.  Church should be tolerant of differences. But if we want to include them into the life of the church, there has to be some there there.  We can’t just talk about being inclusive, because Christians are supposed to be nice. Inclusion should then lead people to discipleship, to learning about who Jesus is and allowing Jesus to change us.

Churches can and have become places where all that matters is to be nice and tolerant, but I wonder.  Is this what we fought for?  I think people sacrificed a lot for us to join a church that simply teaches one to be nice.

The thing is, inclusive churches don’t have to give up orthodox belief in order to be inclusive.  In this blog post from 2014, an Episcopalian priest named Matt Marino noted that he is getting a number of calls from gay Millennials that are looking for a place where they can talk about Jesus, resurrection, evangelism and the like.  They were in churches where such talk was not cool and longed for community that talked about a faith worth having.  Here’s what one such gay Christian said to the priest:

“Well, when I talk about ‘Jesus, and the power of the Resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings,’ I get raised eyebrows. When I talk about evangelism, historic doctrines, or believing the Creeds, people tug at their shirt collars…and clergy their clerical collars. They are very excited about Spong, Borg, Crossan and the Buddha, but they get the willies when I want to talk about Augustine, Aquinas, NT Wright and the Messiah.” They tell me ‘we welcome questions,’ but it seems that orthodox answers are the only ones not tolerated.

Marino continues wondering why such “inclusive” places are not so inclusive to those who they don’t agree with:

Imagine that you are a twenty year old Episcopalian. You view the world through post-modern eyes…you place high value on maintaining relationships with people, including those with differing viewpoints from your own. Whether gay or straight, you are coming of age in a world in which, chances are good, that you have not fought over sexuality.  In that world, young Gay Episcopalians seem to be seeking out the theologically orthodox for supportive Christian discipleship.

My snarky side wants to whisper, “Gee, that sounds like actual tolerance.” You know, from before “tolerance” was code for “progressive,” when it was a word that presumed disagreement. After all, I don’t have to “tolerate” those I agree with. We already agree. Much has been written about the exclusivity of “inclusivity” – How the only idea that is out of bounds is the idea that some ideas are, in fact, out of bounds. The old and inherently contradictory notion that there is no objective truth except, of course, the statement that there is no objective truth. But now my iPhone call log is showing a growing list of indicators that at least some of the group the Episcopal Church has most tried to enfranchise are feeling disenfranchised. What kind of inclusivity is it that is gives Gay Millennials the experience of being excluded for simply wanting to follow Jesus according to the traditions and doctrines of our faith, as set out in our prayer book and Scriptures?

I can understand back in the day that one might want to tone down on the sin talk since many gays were coming from places where they were considered sinful, if not damned to hell.  I can understand the need to talk up the love of God more than God as Judge.

But I’m beginning to think that many LGBT folk are yearning for a more robust faith, something that asks of them.  Yes, they know God loves them for who they are and they want to share that love with others.

Last fall, Lutherans were abuzz with an article entitled “Will the ELCA be Gone in 30 Years?” The article explained what was going on within the ELCA and other denominations like our Disciples.  What can stop the slide in among mainline Protestants?  It’s basically about getting back to the basics:

Too many churches are cluttered with all sorts of programs and activities that aren’t really designed to form Christian identity and practice. Many of these are holdovers from previous eras. They may be meaningful to legacy members but not transferable to newer generations or diverse neighbors. We need to rediscover and reclaim the simple practices that Christians have always done–prayer, scripture study, service, reconciliation, Sabbath, hospitality, etc.–and make these the center of congregational life. Such disciplines must be expressed in forms ordinary members can practice in daily life throughout the week as they discern and join God’s leading in their neighborhoods and spheres of influence.

They add that churches have to move to a more participatory spirituality:

Faith cannot be primarily something performed by clergy or staff for people to watch or consume; it must be something that everyone is equipped to practice in daily life. This means creating pathways for simple, accessible spiritual habits and disciplines that can be adopted by everyone. 

For LGBT folk and their allies, it is time to move beyond MTD to something stronger.  Jesus didn’t call us to simply be tolerant, we are called to be disciples.  Inclusivity is a very important first step, but it is not the only step. Inclusivity is about welcoming LGBT folk to become disciples of Christ or at least it should.

That’s why we should be inclusive.  That is what being inclusive is for.

Photo by Matt Meltchley.

 

Delis and Supermarkets

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

It Really Is the Little Things

“We are so small.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Church of Tomorrow

What is church all about?

That’s a question I’ve been asking for some time. It kicked into overdrive when I read the Interim Regional Minister’s monthly column. Churches in my region were worried. Would they continue? What can they do turn things around?

My denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) describes the local congregation in our Design of the Christian Church. It states:

Congregations constitute the primary expression of the community of faith within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). Through congregations, individuals are brought to the saving grace of Christ, baptized into the Body of Christ, nurtured in their faith, and gather at the Lord’s Table. Joined in discipleship, congregations partner with their regions and the general ministries of the church to share the good news from their doorsteps to the ends of the earth.

Design of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)

The statement is pretty clear. The local church is physical place where people are “brought into the saving grace of Christ.” It is the place where people are baptized, nurtured and receiving communion.

The words seem clear, but at times it feels at least in our denomination that we are all confused why the local congregation exists. Why are we here? Why do we matter? Do we matter? Those congregations in Iowa wonder, how long will they be around. They are dealing with a changing culture and are unsure where to turn next.

I don’t pretend to know the answer. I’m not a Regional Minister, I’m just a pastor in a small suburban church that is wondering how it will survive in a changing world.

And how the times are changing! We live in a time when the church is not so central in our culture. We also live in a time when anti-institutionalism is rampant in our culture and that way of thinking has crept into the church. How many of us have heard how Jesus didn’t care about the institutional church? It’s the belief that as long as we do good in the world, why do we need church?

So mainline/progressive churches need to ask what are churches for, and it is a question that has to be answered if congregations are going to have any future.

I think we need churches as places where people are formed as followers of Jesus. It is a communal experience where we learn from each other. We need places that are places where forgiveness is possible, there are people who long to be forgiven. That need for forgiveness is important, but mainline churches are not as comfortable of talking about sin. What they are comfortable doing is focusing on justice issues. Issues like the environment or racial justice are issues where the church need to give voice, but as Christians we understand these issues belie the fact that we are in bondage to sin. Heidi Havercamp looks back to her great-grandfather to relearn the Calvinist belief in total depravity. She writes:

In recent years, the doctrine of total depravity has caught my imagination. It’s the first tenet of the notorious “TULIP” acronym, which came into popular use among Calvinists around the time of my great-grandfather’s retirement as a way to summarize the five main points of the faith. If you’ve never heard the term before, “total depravity” might sound like a joke or the name of a high school metal band. It is, in fact, an astoundingly dire theology. Total depravity frames humans not as good people who sometimes mess up but as messed-up people who, with God’s help, can do some good things—but nothing completely free of selfishness or error. We are unable to make a choice that is unquestionably, entirely good. None of our actions, loves, or thoughts can be truly without sin…

Total depravity speaks to sin in our personal lives. More importantly for me, it also gives theological definition to corporate and societal sins. It’s not just that I am unable to love everyone I meet or to live a life that is plastics-free. I have also found it impossible to untangle my individual life from systems of injustice—institutionalized racism, pollution of the air and land and water, cheap clothing and food supplies that depend on the exploitation of laborers, banks and corporations that bend the economy toward their profit. A contemporary Episcopal prayer of confession includes this line: “We repent of . . . the evil we have done, and the evil done on our behalf.” There is a lot of suffering and a lot of evil in this world, and I find I cannot consider myself entirely innocent of it.

Eric Thorson, who was a classmate of mine at Luther Seminary, understands that people are hungry for a place where they can experience forgiveness:

My work as a pastor came at a pivotal time in American Christianity.  Inclusion was the most pressing thing to be talking about.  The ideas and words we had spoken about people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender were not adequate to the reality of these people’s lives.  The ministry of the church had driven these people into hiding, hurt them, divided their families, and provided cover for the selfish hatreds people have toward those who are different.  I fought and preached and agonized over how to get the church to recognize the full equality of these beloved children of God.

My church, the ELCA, is trying to prove its relevance at a time of great unrest in society.  So many things have gone wrong.  So many wrongs have been championed in the name of religion.  How can we show we are not part of the problem?  How can we resist the tide of loveless brutality that sweeps through our society?

And yet, coming to church as a stranger, as a person merely seeking mercy and forgiveness, sometimes I have seen the basic message of the Christian faith drowned out by the struggles of the moment.  Yes, it is important to know the difference between good and evil, sin and righteousness, and yet, we should not forget that we are not good or righteous.  We need grace and mercy and life from One greater than ourselves.

I have met so many people these past years who are afraid of the church not because it fails to be inclusive, but because they believe their sins cannot be forgiven.

There is a truth in coming to the table as a beggar, to eat and drink life unearned and undeserved.  This truth should not be lost.

I think if I were to talk to those congregations, it is to tell them that there isn’t a special program that will turn their church around. Instead, I would tell them that they recover the lost lessons found in the Design. They need to be a places where people are formed into becoming followers of Jesus. They need to be places where they know that they are forgiven by God and experience the grace that has been denied to them for so long.

Finally, they need to be places where they are willing to take a risk for the Kingdom of God. The cover story in a recent edition of the City Pages focuses on Peace Lutheran church. A small congregation found on the edge of St. Paul. The church dwindled down to about 20 members and there was maybe about a year of finances left. It was then the church decided that if they were going to close they would at least do it with a bang. They opened the doors to the community and death was postponed:

“Parishioners decided if they were to die, they would die well. So they took loving thy neighbor to a practical extreme. Peace leafleted Lauderdale with 700 fliers, offering to roof houses, fix plumbing, repair anything in need, free of charge.”

A church that wasn’t open much through the week was now the first place people looked to if something went wrong.  Strangers decided to donate to the congregation keeping it afloat. The little church kept going out being servants to their community.  The church is growing because the people decided to risk, to serve.

Local churches in big cities, small towns and suburbs are places that are a local example of the wider church. If people are going to see real live followers of Jesus in action, it’s going to be at the church. It’s a place where they can see God in action through the lives of everyday people. If they are going to experience grace in a world where that is in short supply, it’s going to be at the local church.

That’s why churches exist. In a time where we think it’s all about me, the church says you are you because of community. In a time where the stranger is shunned, the church opens its door. In a culture where the meritocracy pushes people to be perfect, the church says we aren’t perfect but we are forgiven.

This is the message mainline churches need to recover. We need churches. Not because we love institutions, but because 2000 years ago, small churches in the dusty corner of an empire were able to turn the world upside down. We did it then and with God’s help, we can do it again.

The Parallax View

parallaxWe can see different things according to our viewpoint.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why I Can’t Give Up the Mainline

presbyterian-church

A recent article in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune got attention nationwide.  It focused on the closing a rural Lutheran church this coming summer in particular and about the Mainline Protestant Church as a whole.

The long decline of the Mainline denominations is nothing new. It’s been happening for decades, but it’s speeding up.  Over the years, I’ve agreed with some that the Mainline churches tend to at times de-emphasize the gospel to the point that the church offers little to the general public. Anyone who has read this blog over the years know that I have issues with my own denomination and the mainline church and I think those grievances are legit.

But even though I sometimes feel adrift where there is a strong focus on social justice but very little at times on the spiritual, even though there might be churches and denominations where I could find a better fit, even though there might be churches where the theology is sounder and not feel like its being tacked on to whatever cause, even if there are places where I feel like evangelism is viewed as important as social justice, I will stay in the mainline church for one very important reason:

It is the only place where I can worship God openly and safely as a gay man.

This is something that sets me apart from other people who might be evangelical, conservative, orthodox or traditional (ECOT). They can happily leave, but I can’t.  Because even though there might be places that have the “correct” theology, they are not places of welcome for me or other LGBT people. For example, I’ve always been impressed by the Evangelical Covenant Church, especially in how the deal with racial justice (there is a very good interracial church in Minneapolis focused on racial and ethnic justice), but it is not ready to accept any church that is openly welcoming of LGBT people. A lot of the more conservative churches are places where I could never be a pastor, and in some cases not even be a member.

Paul Moore, a colleague and Presbyterian minister, is also familiar with decline.  But he has also been involved in revitalizing one church and planting another, in a time when the Mainline is declining he has been a planting seeds of revival.

As someone who helped redevelop a Presbyterian church and who started a new Presbyterian church virtually from scratch, I live and breathe the question(s) of how to build a church ministry from a Mainline perspective that is appealing to the wider community.

Do I think it is possible to build a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation in 2018?  Of course I do!   I’ve seen it happen in the two contexts I’ve served.  And more importantly God hasn’t changed in the last 18 years; the stories of Jesus haven’t changed in the last 18 years; the possibility of individuals and the wider community having their lives transformed in the last 18 years haven’t changed either.

I don’t think that the path to building a growing, vibrant, mainline congregation is easy. And the ways to do this are many.

I do believe that one essential way to growth is to adapt continuously.

One of the strengths of liberal, Mainline churches is that they have been willing to welcome those that have in the past been banned or restricted. Not just gays, but allowing women to become ministers and be able to fully listen to their call. It was in the forefront of the civil rights movement, helping the nation finally live up to the promises it said it followed in the Constitution.

What has made Mainline churches go into decline is not liberalism. Instead, it is what a pastor I know has said: mainline churches are no longer good at communicating the gospel, let alone explain the role faith has in their lives. This is where evangelicals shine, because they know what they believe in. What I think needs to happen is that pastors in mainline congregations have to begin preaching the gospel, Jesus Christ and merge that with it’s social liberal outlook.

So, I want to stay to build up the lost vital center in mainline churches. We have to find ways to be strong on social justice and evangelism. We have to help people know what they believe and use their faith to preach liberty to the captives.

I believe the mainline church does have a future. It has to, for my sake. I remain, hoping to help change the church for the better, because it is the only faith home I have.

With all the problems it has,with all the ways it seems out of step with my faith, I want to stay in the mainline church. I want to stay to reform it, since at the end of the day, it’s my only home.

The Revenge of the Rednecks

Every election year in America is interesting, but 2016 is going to be one for the history books. When real estate mogul Donald Trump started his campaign last summer I was among many that thought it was a joke.  When he started portraying Mexican immigrants as rapists, it seemed his campaign would sputter early.  I thought the same thing after he slandered Senator John McCain for getting captured during Vietnam. Or when said sexist things about Fox News reporter Megyn Kelly.  Or…

You get the idea.  Things that would have sunk more traditional candidates have only made Trump stronger, not weaker.  And many of us are left scratching our heads as to why this man has such strong followers, especially after he has said horrible things such as deporting all 11 million people here illegaly or banning Muslims from entering our country.  Who in the world would support a man that is nothing more than a nationalist that peddles soft core bigotry?

It’s a question many are wondering.  Among churches, there are many that scratch their heads as to why anyone on God’s green earth someone would support someone like Trump. Evangelical leaders are especially troubled . Some go as far as to think that those evangelicals who support Trump aren’t really evangelicals at all.

But since I run with mainline/progressive Protestants, I am interested in what they think. The answer is pretty simple: they think Trumpistas are ignorant racists.  Here is what Tim Suttle has to say:

CNN recently conducted 150 interviews at Trump rallies in 31 cities. The results paint a picture of supporters who are largely white, angry, scared, and united by intense dislike for President Obama. Much of the outrage clusters around issues of race. Hatred toward Obama stems from the sense that he cares more about blacks than whites, and that he is too friendly toward Muslims (along with the Trump-birthers who still think he’s a secret Muslim). Supporters outside Trump rallies chant, “Hey, hey. Ho, ho. All the Muslims have to go!” Backlash against the Black Lives Matter protests fuel many other Trump supporters. Frustration with underemployment or lack of opportunity has been directed toward hispanic immigrants. There is a sense that, as one supporter claimed, “No one’s looking out for the white guy anymore.”

Now Suttle doesn’t say that they are racists and that’s that. He does think they are focused on the wrong enemies.

But mainline and evangelical leaders do tend to lump Trump voters into one box, the box that says these voters are racist, xenophobic, uneducated rabble.

I don’t doubt that a number of Trump supporters are racists and xenophobes.  Anyone who can’t see that is blind.  But that said, I wonder if those of us in the mainline churches are missing something.  Are we not seeing why they might be attracted to Trump? And are we not seeing how we have treated these people and in some way has pushed them to choose a reality TV show star?

Trump has exposed something that we Americans are loathe to talk about and that is class.  As hard as it is to talk about race in America, we like to pretend class doesn’t exist.  But the fact is,it does and it shows itself in how middle and upper income Americans look at low income Americans, especially those who are poor and white. The well educated in American society tend to view the working class, especially the white working class with contempt.  British writer Clive Crook has noticed that coming from class-conscious Britain didn’t prepare him for the way the working class is treated in America:

I’m a British immigrant, and grew up in a northern English working-class town. Taking my regional accent to Oxford University and then the British civil service, I learned a certain amount about my own class consciousness and other people’s snobbery. But in London or Oxford from the 1970s onwards I never witnessed the naked disdain for the working class that much of America’s metropolitan elite finds permissible in 2016.

When my wife and I bought some land in West Virginia and built a house there, many friends in Washington asked why we would ever do that. Jokes about guns, banjo music, in-breeding, people without teeth and so forth often followed. These Washington friends, in case you were wondering, are good people. They’d be offended by crass, cruel jokes about any other group. They deplore prejudice and keep an eye out for unconscious bias. More than a few object to the term, “illegal immigrant.” Yet somehow they feel the white working class has it coming.

But this attitude isn’t just found among the elite Washington set. It is found especially among the mainline/progressive churches.

For all the talk of inclusion, most mainline churches tend to reflect the culture they were born in, that is the middle and upper classes. The people who attend local and national meetings tend to be well-educated folk. When we plant churches, we tend to go after white hipsters and(maybe) persons of color. Working class whites? Forget about it.

Four years ago, I shared that for all the justice and peace talk, mainline Christians had a class problem:

I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it.  A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes.  We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.

Which is maybe why Trump has such a following among the white working class. They don’t like him because of his positions on say health care, but that he that he stands up to the upper class. Crook notes:

…contrary to reports, the Trump supporters I’m talking about aren’t fools. They aren’t racists either. They don’t think much would change one way or the other if Trump were elected. The political system has failed them so badly that they think it can’t be repaired and little’s at stake. The election therefore reduces to an opportunity to express disgust. And that’s where Trump’s defects come in: They’re what make him such an effective messenger.

The fact that he’s outrageous is essential. (Ask yourself, what would he be without his outrageousness? Take that away and nothing remains.) Trump delights mainly in offending the people who think they’re superior — the people who radiate contempt for his supporters. The more he offends the superior people, the more his supporters like it. Trump wages war on political correctness. Political correctness requires more than ordinary courtesy: It’s a ritual, like knowing which fork to use, by which superior people recognize each other.

Crook ends up saying that the vote for Trump is a protest over the lack of respect.

Of course, there is also an economic reason for the rise of Trump. Thomas Edsall and Charles Murray have some good analysis at what has happened in the economy that gave us the Donald.  What happened in my hometown of Flint, Michigan is something that happened around the country: we had a massive deindustrialization starting in the 70s that made life challenging for the working class. African Americans and other minorities were hit hard.  However, even during hard times, these groups had one institution that was there for them: the church.  For the white working class, there is nothing to rely on, not even the church.  In both its evangelical and mainline forms, American Protestantism has abandoned the white working class.

An example of this took place in my hometown. I started to notice something happening in Flint, starting in the 1980s and continuing to the present day.  One by one, many of the mainline churches in the city started closing. Part of this is because of the shrinking of the city and the shrinking of mainline denominations.  For African Americans in this majority black city, there was always the black church to help them in the challenging times.  That’s still the case today. Was that the case with working class whites. I don’t know.  I know that evangelical churches have stayed either in the city limits or nearby, but when it came to the church that prided itself in social justice and caring for the least of these, mainline churches were nowhere to be found. Conservative political writer Yuval Levin wrote what is happening in this new lower class in a 2012 article:

The formation of the “new lower class,” meanwhile, amounts to nothing short of a cataclysmic cultural disintegration. Among this group, the family is falling apart—with marriage rates for people between ages 30 and 50 plummeting from 84 percent in 1960 to 48 percent today, and only 37 percent of children living with both of their biological parents. Religious practice and belief are sharply declining: About 4 percent of Americans in Murray’s lower class reported having no religion in the early 1970s; today the proportion is greater than 20 percent. Industriousness is falling, especially among men: The share of lower-class households with a full-time worker dropped from 81 percent to 60 percent in the past half-century, while the number of men claiming to be disabled and unable to work has grown five-fold. Lawfulness has plummeted: Crime rates among this group exploded between 1960 and 1990, and although they have since declined some, much of that decline appears to have been caused by far higher incarceration rates, which hardly constitutes a sustainable solution.

Long story short, when things are going bad for you, when the upper class looks at you as nothing more than stupid racists, when institutions like the church are not to be found, maybe we shouldn’t be so surprised that these folk go for a guy that tells them that it’s the fault of Mexicans or Muslims for their plight.

As the 2016 campaign rolls on, I think that mainline churches really need to look at themselves.  How are they reaching out to the down and out? We are good in talking about being with the poor, but the hard reality is that the mainline churches are geared towards the “creative class,” and not towards all people. (Don’t get me started on how mainline churches are really only interested in tokenism among people of color.) We have to ask ourselves if we truly believe these people are people that God loves and seek ways to reach them, not just politically, but spiritually, giving them churches that can help them weather the storms of life. What the white working class needs is the same thing poor African Americans need: dignity.

But this means being real about how mainline churches have given lip service to the poor and working class while making sure their upper class compatroits are doing well. It means setting up churches in areas where the Tex Sample’s “hard living” folk live.

Much of the 2016 election year for Christians has been about either denouncing Donald Trump or outright frustration that Christians, evangelicals especially, are so enamoured with a candidate that is authoritarian and borderline racist.  There has been much written about denouncing Trump and to some extent denouncing his supporters.  There is an important case to be made for that.  Trump is too dangerous to be allowed to occupy the highest office in the land. But I also know that Jesus hung out with a rough crowd that didn’t set will with religious leaders.  If Jesus can do this, then it might mean we have to as well, to reach out and offer hope- not to accept their prejudices, but to meet them where they are and start knitting them into the larger whole.

I end with something I wrote in 2012 about this topic.  It sill carries relevance today:

There are policy answers to what’s going on here, but there are also spiritual issues going on here. We should be reading this and wondering how we can give them a word of hope?  How to do we let them know that God loves them and cares about them?  How does the church reach out and help them?  How do we stop talking about the poor or the down and out and actually get to know them in all their complexity?
I don’t know what is the answer here, but I do think we in the mainline church need to find ways to know these people and welcome them into our churches warts and all.  I think it might be what God would want us to do.

 

 

Sermon: Automatic for the People

Mark 4:1-34
Second Sunday of Epiphany
January 17, 2016
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

selfdrivingcarBeing from Michigan, I am a car nut.  I kind of miss not being in Detroit today because it’s time for the annual Detroit Auto Show which because it’s in the Motor City, it is the car show.  Daniel and I have gone for several years in a row, but won’t be attending this year.  Hopefully we will get back there next year.

 

Like I said, I like cars.  I like to drive cars.  If I could have been an auto journalist I would have.  But I would have to learn to drive a manual if I wanted to do that.  Someday I will tell you the story of my one and only attempt to drive stick.  It involved a Ford Taurus SHO and burning rubber in a Missouri Arby’s parking lot, but that will have to wait for another time.

 

One of the biggest developments at Detroit and in the automotive industry in general is the rise of automated or self-driving cars.  These cars are only in the testing stage at this point, but they are more a reality than they were say five years ago.  At this point, more and more cars have some sort of assitive technology that gives the car more control.  We have cars that can sense when you might be drifting into another lane, and cars that can brake themselves if it senses a collision.  

 

While I think some of the assistive tech is a good idea, there’s a part of me that is not crazy about autonmous cars or what others think about these cars.  A number of writers have opined that the most dangerous part of the car is the driver.  They celebrate that fallible humans are written out of the process to ensure a more safe drive.  

 

Maybe I’ve read one too many scifi novels about robots becoming our overlords, but it does seem we are giving power over to a machine, all because we are fallible.

 

I like to be able to drive. I like the sound my car makes when it’s shifting gears.  I love the car’s get up and go and I love how that feels.  An automated car means I don’t drive, I don’t get to derive pleasure from the vehicle, I become passive, letting the car do all the work.  But, the self-driving car seems to be on its way to being a reality, so I guess I have to learn to love my robot overlords.

 

The root of the problem here is that a self driving car means giving up control.  I have to rely on microchips and motherboards to make sure I get from point A to point B.

 

What this has in common with our text today is that in our Christian walk, we are called to allow God to work in the world and trust that God is working things for the better. We have learn that faith is not all about us.

 

in chapter 4 of Mark, Jesus shares several examples of parable that focus around farming such as it was in first century Palestine.  The first story is the most well known: the parable of the sower.  It involves a farmer that scatters seeds hither and yon.  The seeds fall in different types of soils, rocky soil, among the weeds, on a path and finally in good soil.  

 

I’ve said this before, but I need to say it again: I used to hate this parable.  The reason I hated it is because in the churches of my youth, everyone was focused on the second part of the parable, the part where Jesus explains the story to his disciples.  People have taken these verses as proof of what this story was all about.  But the thing with Jesus’ parables is that they were told straight, but told as Emily Dickenson said slant.  Jesus did explain the parable somewhat, but it almost seemed too easy.  Was Jesus trying to say something else?  Was he only sharing part of the meaning?  Look back at the parable.  What do you notice?  If you know anything about farming or even just gardening, you should pay attention to what the farmer is doing.  For the farmer, sowing seed means throwing it anywhere.  I don’t think that’s what a farmer usually does with seed, unless one is really lazy.  I remember one time just throwing grass seed around on bald spot of lawn a few years back.  The results were less than optimal.

 

Why would a farmer throw see around like that?  What was the meaning here?

 

Let’s set that aside for a moment and look at the second farming parable, the Growing Seed.  If the farmer in the first tale is wasteful, this one is just plain dumb.  It seems that the seeds were just planted automatically and the farmer is at a loss to understand how it was planted and how it is growing.  You would think the farmer might want to water the plant, but he just sits aghast at this plant growing.  How in the world did this guy become a farmer?  He ends up harvesting the grain when its ready. At least he knew that.

 

The final tale is about the mustard seed.  Jesus says its a small seed, and indeed, it is.  But once it is planted it becomes a big plant.  What you need to know is that the mustard plant is sort of invasive, it takes over an area, much like kudzu does in the American South.  So God’s kingdom is like kudzu.

 

What do all three stories have in common besides having dumb farmers?  They are all about the kingdom of God and what is common in all three stories is that things happen in spite of human interaction.  The sower isn’t careful where the seed is planted; it is just planted anywhere and everywhere.  The second farmer doesn’t even plant the seed, but it still grows and produces a harvest.  The third tale doesn’t even have people in it- it’s just about this small seed and how it grows everywhere.

 

Parables can have more than one meaning, but one meaning that could come from all three tales is that in God’s kingdom, God is the main actor not us.  In God’s kingdom, life is automatic and we will happen with or without us.

 

That thought is both humbling and freeing.  It’s humbling because it means that all of our hard work for God doesn’t get us a gold star.  It means that God loves us for us, not because we do things that please God.  

 

The freeing part is that we don’t have perform.  We don’t have to feel that we have to do God’s work or nothing will happen.  God’s work happens; we can choose to join it or not, but it will happen and it won’t be stopped.

 

This can be humbling for pastors.  We like to think everything is on us, but in reality it isn’t.  It means that churches are places where we are looking for where God is active and joining in.  It means that we tell people where we see God active and point to God.  It makes faith more of an adventure than a chore.

 

As much as I am wary of automated cars, there is a mode of transportation that I use that I am not in control of.  Everytime I board a modern airplane, I am entrusting my safety to the pilots in the cockpit.  As I like to imagine me telling the pilot, their job is to make sure I don’t die.

 

The fact is, I’m actually putting more faith in the airplane’s navigation systems more than I do the pilot.  Most of our modern airlines use autopilot to get from point A to point B with the pilots there to help with the flying and to step in when the autopilot might not work.

 

So it is with us.  We place our trust in God, the farmer that throws God’s love everywhere, no matter how it is recieved.  We place our trust in a God that puts people in our lives and work with God to help them to know Christ.  We place our trust in a God that is constantly growing and drawing people to God even when we haven’t done a thing. Part of discipleship is to trust God, which at times can be a hard thing to for some of us to do, but God is there telling us that God has this.  

 

If I can trust God and look for where God is active in our world, maybe I can accept a self-driving car, provided it doesn’t drive me off a cliff.  

 

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

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.