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.

 

 

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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.

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.

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.

Diversity in Name Only

diversityA friend on Facebook linked to an article in First Things by Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus is an interesting fellow.  He is a sociologist at the University of Texas and  has been at the center of some controversy in recent years over a study he released on gay parenting that did not put same sex families in a positive light.  Knowing that, I was a little hesitant to share this article because so many will dismiss this article at first read because of who wrote it.

I disagree with Regnerus, but his article on diversity in mainline churches did hit at something I’ve been thinking about.  If you can read past the triumphalism of the post, he shares that for all the talk within mainline churches about diversity, there just isn’t that much to be found vis-a-vis Pentecostal or Catholic churches:

There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”

In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.

But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.

By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.

I think there is truth to be found here.  I’ve heard more than enough stories about mainline clergy who are persons of color and how they are treated.  I know some of the hidden racism I’ve faced over the years from people supposedly committed to social justice.  There are problems within other sectors of American Christianity, but mainline congregations have never seemed to me to be naturally diverse in a way that I’ve seen in Catholic or some evangelical communities.  We are good at talking about race and racial injustice, but I think we aren’t that good when it comes to living it.

To add to that, Regnerus’ joke about Episcopal plumbers shows another embarassing truth about most, but not all of the mainline: there are almost no working class folk in the pews. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the mainline congregations in my hometown of Flint, Michigan as well as here in Minnesota that are closed tended to be less middle to upper middle class and more working to middle class. When I think of some of the strongest mainline churches, they tend to be large urban congregations that again have few working class people. Regnerus’ quip about rich and poor Catholics taking communion together is very true.  My years attending Catholic schools and having many Catholic friends have shown me congregations where doctors and carpenters worship together.  My Catholic high school in Michigan had a mix of people from  various economic classes.  Maybe that’s because I came from a working class town where General Motors had a big influence, but I don’t think I’m far off.

In contrast most of the mainline churches I’ve been involved in tended to be folks that were professionals of some sort.  Nurses, teachers, middle management folk are what make up some of the Disciple, Presbyterian and UCC churches.

Three years ago I wrote about the fact that the white working class are few and far between in mainline churches. I wrote in 2012:

The thing is, 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.
I also tend to think mainline churches tend to not welcome those of differing political and theological views.  Every so often I notice how some of my pastoral colleagues will say something about conservatives and libertarians.  Now, both political persuasions don’t always adhere to the gospel and they should be called out on that.  But the chatter in I see on Facebook sometimes go further.  They seem to show Republicans as heartless monsters.  In many ways some in mainline churches have adopted the language of politics instead of the language of theology and God’s grace.  So when one hears a pastor rip on Republicans, someone who might lean that way may think that this congregation isn’t really for them.  When an evangelical hears their beliefs and practices being mocked, they might think this church is for them. As someone who leans right, I’ve wondered at times if I’ve really found a home in the mainline.*
I think that mainline/progressive Christians really need to think about who is really welcomed at the table of Jesus. We need to examine our own biases and preferences to discern how inclusive we really are. We need to think about what it really means to say “all are welcome.”
Unlike Regnerus, I am not writing off the mainline church.  I believe it can become once against a Broad Church, but for that to happen it needs to take a good, long look at itself.