Love Don’t Live Here Anymore

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Well, the Special General Conference for the United Methodist Church is done.  For those of us who are LGBTQ and allies, the result was shocking and hurtful. I want to share some observations about the event and what it means for the church as a whole.

 

A few caveats:  I’m not Methodist, so this is an outsider’s perspective. But, this issue matters to me as a gay man, an ordained minister and most importantly, as a Christian. Second, people will not like this post for various reasons.  This is not a blog post trashing one side, there are a lot of other blogs that can give you that. What I want this post to be is a way how church in many ways is ceasing to be church. Just as the wider culture has become polarized, with no middle ground, the church is showing those same sides.  Instead of being an example of unity in the midst of diversity, we are simply following culture and what happened in St. Louis is Exhibit A.

 

One more thing. My underlying point here is that we, the church have to learn how to have hard debates in ways that respect one another.  What happened in St. Louis is just a microcosm of what is going on in the larger culture. Beyond all the nice words, we really don’t respect one another and we feel that the other side is evil.

 

I say all of this not as someone who is above the fray but as someone that has “picked a side.”  I am gay. I am married to a man. I do believe the church is called to welcome folks like me. I saw what happened at the General Conference and felt sadness and shock.  So yes, this is personal.

 

But I am also a Christian that is called to love even those I might believe are my enemies. I know that there are people who I strongly disagree with on this issue who are good and faithful people. I know this because I’ve met them and engaged them.  I know that this is also a personal issue to them. So how can we talk about this important issue and still be church? How can we be an example, a witness to the wider society?

 

With that, here are some of the salient points:

 

The Traditional Plan Sends a Clear Message.  It was quite telling that of the four plans that were offered, One Church Plan, the Simple Plan, the Connectional Conference Plan and the Traditional Plan, the one that was approved was the only one that did not allow a place for LGBTQ Christians in the church.  I know that there are those who will say that gays are welcomed in conservative churches and I do believe that. But the enhanced penalties that are now in place against gay clergy and same sex marriage send a message that conservatives might not think they are sending: the message that any LGBTQ Christian is not really welcome in churches.  That sense of not being welcome is born out in the fact that conservatives didn’t seem to even want to be in the same denomination with LGBTQ Christians. Nevermind that some of these plans allowed both sides freedom to do their own thing; there was no desire to even have to deal with LGBTQ Christians. It’s hard for me to believe that I would be welcome in a church when you can’t even think of having me in the same denomination.

 

A Gracious Exit that Wasn’t So Gracious. This is an issue I am most familiar with.  I worked for the local jurisdiction of the Presbyterian Church (USA) for seven years.  In 2011, the denomination approved allowing gay and lesbian Presbyterians to become ordained and serve in PC(USA) churches.  This was not something that more conservative Presbyterians could support. Presbyteries worked hard to draw up “Gracious Separation” plans that allowed some path that would allow for dissenting churches to leave with their property. It makes sense to have some kind of plan that dealt with the separation of dissenting churches because it would lessen the chance that church bodies would end up in court against departing congregations. This is what happened to the Episcopal Church after the consecration of a gay bishop in the early 2000s. The plan that was approved by the Bishops, the One Church Plan, didn’t have an exit plan.  I don’t know why and there didn’t seem to be much talk about adding a plan. The Traditional Plan did have what is called a “Gracious Exit.” On the surface this seems like offering more progressive churches room to leave if they can no longer abide by the rules. It seems compassionate, but I’m starting to wonder how gracious it really was. It feels more like what is being said to moderate and progressive churches is, “here’s the door.” It looks like they are the good guys in offering dissidents a way to leave, but it could also be interpreted in a negative way.

 

The Bishops lost authority. The Council of Bishops endorsed the One Church Plan.  In an earlier time, the delegates to the General Conference would take that endorsement to heart and would probably pass it up the bishop’s recommendation. But General Conference basically ignored the Bishops’ advice and passed a plan they didn’t endorse.  I’ve heard that Methodist bishops are more powerful than bishops in other Protestant traditions like the Anglicans. However, after this vote, the bishops have lost any authority. The General Conference not only passed on their recommendation, but they picked the plan that was the exact opposite of the One Church Plan. Will the bishops be listened to in the future? I don’t know.  But any illusion that they have power is now gone.

 

We don’t know how to talk about social issues. Why is it  that when it comes to issues like homosexuality we don’t know how to talk about them without wanting to go our separate ways? In the early 1990s I attended a Baptist church in Washington, DC.  At the time it was an odd church; it had both liberal and evangelical members. An ordained pastor who belong to the congregation was called as a part time Associate Pastor, but there was a catch, she was an LGBTQ ally. During the debate, an evangelical member spoke in favor of calling her. The two had a relationship and she might have disagreed on the pastor’s stance, but at the end of the day, they were friends. That’s an example of how to disagree and yet be united.  Unity was some kind of afterthought to the opposing sides. Conservatives thought the One Church Plan enforced a fake unity. Progressives never didn’t seem to see conservatives as people they should respect. As fellow Disciple minister, Douglas Skinner noted, progressives never listened to theological conservatives. No one was interested in talking in a way that respected the other. Instead, people talked at each other.

 

False humility. I remember seeing an image of a tweet written by a Democrat on election night 2016.  The person wrote thinking, like many people did, that Donald Trump would lose the election about the need to come together and all of that.  A few hours later when it became certain the Clinton would lose and Trump would become President her attitude changed. The next tweet was angry at conservatives swearing up a storm.  

 

I remembered that when I read retired Bishop William Willimon’s article after the vote.  I’ve always respected him and love reading his blogs and books.  But his writing after the vote was like the second tweet, a mask of civility fell revealing a sense of rage. He asks God to smite the other side and exhibits what I think is a rather racist attitude when he says that the global Christians who voted for the Traditional Plan will have to deal without that money from American Methodists which provided the income for the denomination.  His advocacy for LGBTQ people is admirable, but the attitude towards fellow Christians tarnishes his support. He displayed some a kind of false humility because he believed his plan would win the day. When it didn’t that mask fell revealing his true face.

 

Listen, don’t come talking about wanting the Spirit to move and then get mad when it seems the Spirit didn’t go your way. Willimon had a false kindness that was only based on his side winning. It’s hard to see someone I have respect seem to be so petty and shallow.

 

The Global Church was heard…and Progressives and Centrists didn’t like it. The United Methodists are different from most American mainline churches in that they are a global denomination and not just limited to the United States. That means there were people at the General Conference from Asia, Africa and Eastern Europe.  In most of these places the view regarding LGBTQ people is…well, not as affirming. But they deserved to be listened to. One of the problems that progressives have is that they don’t know how to deal with Christians in Africa and other places. Either they speak down to them or they think they are the unwitting tools of American conservatives.  What became very clear in the aftermath of this debate was the underlying racism coming from progressives. Both Willimon and another Methodist I hold in high esteem, Adam Hamilton, have written blog posts that basically assert that American Methodists are the ones that fund the church, which is basically saying that American pay for the church so the Global Church should be grateful.  I’m sorry, I respect both Willimon and Hamilton, but such assertions can’t be described as anything but condescending to persons of color. It reminds me of what happened in the Anglican Communion during the Lambeth meeting where Bishop John Shelby Spong, a progressive bishop in the Episcopal church called African Christians “superstitious.” For some reason, that didn’t go over well, with African Anglicans.  I want to believe Willimon and Hamilton were speaking out of the immediate hurt and anger and that this isn’t what they really think about people from outside America. People have every right t to be angry; but don’t patronize your sisters and brothers from outside the States in doing so. Progressives have to come to terms to the fact that Christians in Africa or Asia or Eastern Europe probably don’t share our views.

When we think of Africans we tend to think they are being deceived by evil evangelicals here in America.  They have come to their own beliefs on their own. They have their reasons for why they believe how they do.  Disciples pastor Jeff Gill explained why at least Africans might not want to relax sexual standards:

 

…Africans are not interested in relaxing standards on sexual activity from where they’ve been. For this, they’ve been demonized in social media and by advocates of the changes proposed; perhaps worse, it’s been repeatedly implied they’ve just been manipulated by cash and propaganda from American conservatives. When I read this stuff, I ask myself “have they actually ever met and talked to any African bishops?”

I have. I had a series of life-changing conversations with one, in this country, in 2005 and have kept up with him, and alongside him some mission and ministry partners in North Katanga on the eastern edge of the Democratic Republic of the Congo. What they have said repeatedly is this: our society does not have any guardrails. Next to none. Polygamy is common, exploitation rife in our cities and villages.

Christian preaching is often the first message many men in Africa have heard, I am told, about the need to treat women with respect, and to live their family lives as something other than a series of conquests. This is, they tell me, still an ongoing struggle. The boundaries of their church are pretty much all the guardrails they have for defining family and relationships in any form other than through power and force as their defining qualities.

So the African Methodist delegates are not interested in relaxing any standards right now. And I hear them. I also see the conflict in this country perhaps more clearly than they do in Africa, and I acknowledge the pain felt by those who see our society making lane changes and resetting some road markers, opening up acceptance and support of same-sex relationships, but then seeing some churches, perhaps their own faith tradition say “we are not making those shifts.” Not now, maybe not ever.

 

You don’t have to agree with this viewpoint, I don’t. But you need to understand it. You need to know why Africans other international members think the way they do. Progressives need to engage these people and also realize that the black and brown people that they admire don’t always see eye to eye on this issue.

 

And to borrow a tired phrase, Progressives and Centrists need to check their privilege.

 

Where do we go from here?  There are some people who think that things will remain the same.  Since the Traditional Plan has to go through a judicial process, it might be rejected outright.  But I think a line has been crossed. Both sides came to St. Louis, not to have a conversation, not to find unity amidst diversity; no to listen to each other.  They already had divorce on their minds. As the old saying goes, it was all over but the shouting.

 

My guess is that by the time of the next General Conference which is next year in Minneapolis, the United Methodist Church will not be whole.  My guess is the Progressive and Centrist factions will split from the main church to create something news. Adam Hamilton has said there will be a big meeting at Church of the Resurrection after Easter to talk about the future of Methodism.  

 

I would also keep an eye for what is happening with the Western Jurisdiction of the church.  This includes all the Annual Conferences in the Western United States and it tends to be the most liberal.  I could see the Western Jurisdiction becoming the basis for a new denomination. There is no desire in the church to try to heal fissures. For LGBTQ Methodists and their allies, the passage of the Traditional Plan was the last straw.  There is no going back. That’s probably the best option for the sake of LGBTQ Christians. But I think the Methodists missed a chance to show the world how to deal with difficult issues and still remain united.

 

I am reminded of the song, “Up on A Cross” by 80s Contemporary Christian group, Degarmo and Key. It’s a song about all of the different flavors of Christianity and how they are divided.  The last chorus ends with an extra line that sums up what is behind some of the division:

 

Up on a cross, He died for sinners
Up on a cross between two thieves
Up on a cross, He died for you and me

I heard the Devil’s voice today

 

I feel somewhere the devil is laughing.

The New Orthodoxy and Me

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

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

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

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

I’m looking forward to your answers.

Sermon: All the Small Things

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Matthew 10:37-42
Eighth Sunday in Ordinary Time
June 29, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

 

Ernie is someone you just can’t forget.

 

Ernie is a man in his mid60s who is developmentally disabled and a part of the community of First Christian in Minneapolis.  Every Sunday, someone from the church would pick him up at his apartment and bring him to church.  He seems to always have a smile on face.

 

But Ernie can be a handful.  For one, he doesn’t really have an inside voice.  This means when he talks, everyone hears.  Which meant you might not want to share you deep dark secrets with him.  Speaking loudly in the hallway before worship service is one thing.  But you see, Ernie also talks like this in worship.  Every so often as the worship service would progress, one of the pastors would say something and Ernie would respond in his loud voice.  When this would happen, we would simply and calmly answer his question and continue with the service.  There are a host of other things I could share about Ernie that would exasperate me.

 

Sometimes sitting next to Ernie was Kevin, a man in his 50s.  Kevin is schizophrenic and it always seemed that he was just on this side of sanity.  It was not unusual during the time for prayer that he would ask for prayers because he was hearing the voices again.

 

After a while we learned something about Kevin.  He was a budding artist.  He drew fantastic drawings in black and white and also in color. Most of his works had a science fiction feel to them, a vision of what a futuristic city looks like.

 

What is wonderful to see is that both Ernie and Kevin are considered full participants in the community.  In the five years I was a pastor at First, no one ever complained about Ernie or Kevin’s antics at time.  People learned to roll with the punches with these two.  I was thankful to have been a part of a church that welcomed folks like Ernie and Kevin and were not embarrassed by them.

 

Churches always say that they are welcoming.  But no matter how much this is true or not, churches are always tested.  It might be the teenager with autism that sometimes starts yelling in the middle of service while his parents have a mixture of embarrassment and concern.  It might be the transgendered person that stays in the homeless shelter for women at the church.  It could be the sex offender that has done his time in prison and tries to reconnect in the community.  Time and time again, our faith communities are tested.  How do we really welcome everyone?  Do we understand what welcoming everyone means?

 

In today’s text; Jesus is giving his disciples some instructions before they are sent on their mission.  Jesus is tells them straight up that they have to put Christ and God’s kingdom first before family.  I always love the translation of the text found in the Message Bible and this time it does not disappoint.  “Don’t think I’ve come to make life cozy,” the passage begins.  Following Jesus was going to be hard and it would test our relationships with our family and friends.  People would not understand that you are putting Jesus first, so be prepared. Jesus says, “If you don’t go all the way with me, through thick and thin, you don’t deserve me. If your first concern is to look after yourself, you’ll never find yourself.”

 

When Jesus calls us like he called the disciples, Jesus is telling us to learn from him.  This process of learning how to be Christlike has name-discipleship.

 

That word has always confused me.  When I do think of it, I think of people reading their Bibles at 5AM or people who are known by what they don’t do: don’t drink, don’t smoke and so on.  Nothing is wrong with reading our Bibles or trying to live a chaste life.  It’s just that discipleship can seem so hard, so impossible.  How can any of us emulate Jesus?  Wasn’t he perfect?  While I hate to admit my weaknesses, I’m sure that I am not perfect and neither are any of you.

 

But here’s the thing, we might be called at times to do difficult things, like those who took part in the civil rights marches in the 1960s, all the while facing angry mobs of people.  But most of the time, it involves doing a small thing.  This is why Jesus talked about how great an act was of giving someone a cup of water.  Jesus didn’t say you need to go live in a yurt in Mongolia.  Jesus said give someone a cup of water.  We will face the more challenging aspects of discipleship, but we start right here with some H2O in a styrofoam cup.  When we do something like welcoming the Ernies and Kevins of the world we are doing more than just being nice.  We are representing who God is, a God that loves us all, good and bad, straight and gay, Democrat and Republican and so on. When we start with cold water, don’t be surprised if you start doing other things.  Once we learn to welcome people, it can be hard to stop.

 

My full-time job during the week is working as the IT guy at Hennepin Avenue United Methodist in Minneapolis.  At one end of the church building, there is a small chapel named Border Chapel.  Across from the doors to the chapel is a display.  You learn that the chapel was named after a church Border Methodist Church in Minneapolis.  Border was a small African-American church at the edge of downtown.  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.

 

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.  A cup of cold water makes all the difference.

 

Jesus calls us to be disciples.  God doesn’t start by telling us to go to seminary and learn Greek.  No, God starts by calling us to do simple things; like welcoming a person with developmental disability, or a person dealing with mental illness, or people of a different race or ethnic group or someone who is gay, lesbians, bisexual or transgender.  If we can welcome one these children of God, then we are well on our way as faithful disciples of Jesus.

 

A cup of cold water can make all the difference.  Thanks be to God. Amen.

What’s Missing?

Inverted-Chalice-HectorFor the last few months, I’ve been following a blog called Via Media Methodists.  The purpose of VMM is: 1.”To offer an alternative beyond the current polarization in The United Methodist Church; 2. To raise the level of discourse within The United Methodist Church; and 3. To practice what we preach.”  After a few bit of chatter with one of VMM’s curators, Drew McIntrye, he suggested I write a post about my own tradition.  I wrote the blog post and it now appears on the blog.  Please read it when have the chance.

Fellow Disciples pastor Brian Morse was able to put in a few words what I’ve struggled to define.  He responded to my posting of the article on Facebook this way:

I believe that we Disciples have difficulty discussing theology. I find our conversations to be personality-driven. Methodists have a stronger theological tradition to stand upon, even when critiquing it.

I think he is right and I think it has implications on the mission and ministry taking place in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  What can be done about this?

 

The picture used in this post is called Caliz Invertido (Inverted Chalice) by Hector Hernandez.  Learn more about the significance of the Inverted Chalice by reading this article.

Why Being Nice to The Gays Won’t Save Your Church*

rainbowpcusaThis past week, the Presbyterian Church (USA) meeting in Detroit, approved pastors being able to marry same sex partners in states where same sex marriage is legal.  According to Presbyterian polity, it still has to get the approval of the majority of presbyteries (there are 172) before it becomes the law.

Judging Facebook and Twitter there were a lot of comments about how good this is and I agree with them.  But will this action, coupled with the approval of non celibate gays to become ordained a few years ago save the Presbyterian Church?  Will it save any church?

I ask that question, because I read an article by Carol Howard Merritt about how these actions might turn around the PC(USA)’s decline.

After serving growing churches, I know that people have been attracted to our church because we upheld LGBTQ rights. This is why we can grow, because of this decision:

Young adults overwhelmingly support LGBTQ rights. According to Pew Research, about 70% of Millennials support marriage equality. Guess what? The 30% is probably already going to another church. So, it’s a good plan to focus on the 70%.

The old-school evangelical church is declining because of their attitudes towards LGBTQs. For many years, people have told us evangelical churches were growing because of their doctrinal purity. But, as a refugee from the conservative Southern Baptist Church, I can tell you, homophobia combined with asking women to “graciously submit” and not use birth control pills, is not a strategy that will hold up with… almost anyone.

We’ve watched the exodus of younger generations. We’ve seen emerging churches mature. We’ve witnessed a movement of evangelicals embrace a more compassionate faith. Now the Southern Baptists are grieving losses as well. I don’t want to sound smug about this. Leaving my Baptist roots was the most painful thing I’ve ever done and I’m distressed when someone leaves church. I’m just saying that so-called doctrinal purity is causing decline in many cases, not stemming it.

I would like to believe this, but my own experience tells me that this reasoning is too good to be true for a few reasons.  First, I think everyone wants to pin the blame on something they don’t like as the reason for church decline.  If you’re a conservative, you will blame those loose liberal values.  If you’re a liberal then you think it’s because of the strict morality preached from conservative pulpits.  Either way, it’s the other side that is causing the ruin of mainline churches.

I don’t think that the reason mainline churches are losing members rests soley on embracing liberal theology and practice. Yes some folk do leave for doctrinal or theological issues, but I don’t think that captures all of the problem.  Some of the “fault” lies in a changing culture that is far more secular than the 1950s Mainline Protestant dominance.  Loses within the Southern Baptist Convention could stem from the fact that many Millenials don’t have a presence for any religion.    Are Millenials leaving the SBC because of the gay issue?  Probably.   But it also could be that the youth have lost interest in the adult world.  It could be having to work to pay off student loans which takes time.  We don’t know all of the why it’s happening; we only know that it is happening.

Also, if the gay issue is the thing causing people to either leave or join the PC(USA), you would expect massive shifts from more conservative denominations to liberal ones.  That’s not happening.  The splinter groups that became denominations never get a huge chunk of followers.  The same goes with the reverse: if people are upset at the SBC, you would think there would be a massive uptick in the mainline denominations.  In both cases, what probably happens when young people stop coming is that they stop coming to church,  period.

The thing is, while votes to change policy are very good and necessary; there is something about this belief that mainline churches will now grow that seems half-baked.  Progressive Christians believe that if they take some official position on gays or women or the economy that will cause people to consider their churches over evangelical ones.  Yes, it’s good that churches are becoming more open to LGBT folk.  But the thing is, the job is only half done.  Maybe some people will darken the door of a church because of a positive vote, but not everyone.  What will bring people is when members of LGBT-friendly churches do some old-fashioned evangelism.  They need to go to a LGBT friend and tell them about their church and how welcoming it is to them.  They need to tell LGBT people of how God loves them.  When that happens, then maybe, just maybe the numbers in mainline churches will grow.

Methodist blogger Sky McCraken wrote two years ago, that the reason for decline in denominations has little to do with it’s stance on homosexuality and more on making – or failing to make- disciples:

Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.

The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything – that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes… that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω – to make a disciple  – it’s a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: “teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship – we suck at it! –  and have for several generations.

If gay people show up at a local Presbyterian church and ask to be married, that’s a great thing.  If they end up attending, that’s even better.  But what do we do once they are there?  Is our job over, and we can now relax?  How are we helping them become better followers of Jesus.  As McCraken notes, Americans Christians have done a poor job of making disciples; people who want to follow Jesus.

I am glad that this vote passed.  What I hope is that those Presbyterians in churches near and far not only welcome LGBT and Allied people into the church, but then help them become disciples of Jesus as well.

*I wanted to add that not being nice to gays won’t save your church either, but that would have been a crazy long title.

Sermon: “But We Had Hoped…”

Luke 24:13-35
Third Sunday of Easter
May 4, 2014
First Christian Church

Mahtomedi, MN

 

In the evening I went very unwillingly to a society in Aldersgate Street, where one was reading Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans. About a quarter before nine, while the leader was describing the change which God works in the heart through faith in Christ, I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ alone for salvation; and an assurance was given me that He had taken away my sins, even mine, and saved me from the law of sin and death.

 

The_Road_To_EmmausThese are the words of John Wesley, known as the founder of the Methodist Church.  Wesley was going through a time of doubt and depression and while sitting in a church in England he had an encounter with Jesus.  He felt “strangely warmed” as he said.  He went into the service full of despair and left feeling he could place his trust in Christ. When most people hear this story, they focus on the whole warming of the heart.  What we tend to forget was that Wesley came in to this church a broken man.  He didn’t come in with much hope.

It was a little over ten years ago that I worked as a chaplain at a nursing home in Minneapolis.  This is one of those requirements you have to do before getting ordained.  Clinical Pastoral Education is a time when your faith comes face to face with life.  You have to figure out how to be Christ in a very vulnerable moment.

I worked at Luther Hall, which was a transitional care facility.  Some of the people I met were only there for a few days after a surgery.  Others were there for a longer stay.  I remember one of my first visits was to stop by the room of a patient.  He was unconscious and this family was all around him.  The man had a brain tumor it didn’t look like he was going to make it.  However, the wife kept saying that he was going to get better.  This was hard for me.  I couldn’t just be frank and tell them he wasn’t going get better.  I couldn’t  pray that he would be miraculously healed.  I was facing a moment where there seemed to be no hope.  I did the best I could to not do something that would offend them.

How do you minister to someone when there is no hope things will get better?  Those events happened thirteen years ago and I still don’t have a really good answer.

The this story about the Road to Emmaus is an fascinating story.  We hear a story about two disciples and we don’t really know much about them.  We don’t even know why they are walking to this town.  What we do know is that they are heartbroken.  This is only a few days after Jesus was crucified and now on this day they have heard the story of an empty tomb.  These two people were crushed by the news.  First their friend was killed by Rome and now there isn’t even a body left to mourn.  Their emotion is distilled down to a few words: “But we had hoped.”

The two believed that Jesus was going to come and redeem Israel, that he was going to free Israel from Roman occupation.  Now, that wasn’t going to happen.

But we had hoped…how many times have we echoed those words?  But we had hoped to have twins.  But we had hoped to keep my job.  But we had hoped we would not lose our house to forclosure.  But we had hoped to see our child graduate.  But we had hoped it wasn’t Alzheimers.  But we had hoped he wouldn’t walk out on his wife.  But we had hoped.  Those four words pack a punch.  It tells us all that we need to know; hoping for something, excepting something better and to not have those dreams come true.  Ernest Hemingway was once challenge to write a story with only six words.  He responded: “For Sale: Baby shoes, never used.”  Everyone of us has dealt with some kind of heartbreak, failure or loss.  But we had hoped.  It is one of those mainstays in life.

As these two men walk, another stranger starts walking beside them.  Jesus had joined the the two men.  Even when we don’t feel there is hope, when we think nothing will ever get better, Jesus is there.  But it’s hard to see that when you are mired in despair.  It’s also hard to walk with someone who is in pain.  How many of us don’t know what to say when someone levels a bombshell of pain on you?  I can tell you it’s not easy.  It’s uncomfortable.

A little later, the two men invite Jesus to stay with them the night.  They sit down to have a meal and Jesus blessed and broke the bread.  It was then that they knew Jesus was there.  It was at that moment, hope came alive.  Jesus was there all the time and they have to go and tell the other Disciples.

As Christians, we gather every Sunday and have communion.  It’s easy to just go through the motions.  I’m pretty sure we don’t expect much to happen as we eat a cube of bread and a thimble of grape juice.  But the thing is, the Lord’s Supper is a reminder that Jesus is with us now.  Communion is a reminder of what Jesus has done, but it is also a powerful reminder that Jesus is with us now, even when we can’t sense God.  Christ walks with us even when we don’t know. Because we are humans that tend to forget God is with us, we need this holy meal.  We need to know that when say “but we have hoped” Jesus responds by breaking bread and revealing that God has been with us all along.

This is the reason we need church.  Evangelical theologian Scot McKnight was recently interviwed about them importance of the church. He call the church a “kingdom society where God’s will is done as a result of Christ’s redemption.  It is being part of a community that we learn about how God operates and where we can see Christ in each other, as well as in bread and win.

When they realize they were talking to Jesus, the disciples ran and told the others.  We are called to go and tell others that Jesus is alive and is with all of us.  The result of breaking bread with Jesus, as we do every Sunday is to go and tell the good news.  There will still be heartache, at least on this side of heaven.  But we can tell others that Jesus is with us even when we don’t know.

As we continue our journey this Easter season, let us know that Jesus walks with us- even when we don’t feel it.   And let us go and tell the world. May our prayer be this passage of the well known hymn, “Let us talents and Tounges Employ:”

 

Let us talents and tongues employ,

reaching out with a shout of joy:

bread is broken, the wine is poured,

Christ is spoken and seen and heard.

Jesus lives again; earth can breathe again.

Pass the Word around: loaves abound!

 

May it be so.  Amen.

Listen to the Sermon

What Does It Mean to Be Prophetic, Part Three

JayWhiteMoralMondayNC

It was two years ago, that I wondered aloud what it meant to be prophetic.  I’ve heard that phrase a lot in many of the progressive circles I’ve been in, but I’ve always wondered if what is called prophetic is nothing more than espousing your ideology and wrapping it up in God-language.

What does it mean to be prophetic?  The reason I ask is that I think a lot of folks have an idea what it means to be prophetic that I think is a bit wrong.  I will see a pastor who will get up and talk about some of the major issues facing our world and it is billed as “prophetic.”  But more often than not, what I hear is more of a political agenda than it is calling the church to present the Kingdom of God.  Since I move around mainline/progressive Christian circles, I tend to hear what sounds like a churchified version of the Democratic party platform, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of what might pass as prophetic in evangelical circles just mirrors the GOP agenda.

So, what does it mean to be prophetic?  What does a prophetic church look like?  I have to think that it’s more than a party platform sprinkled with lots of Jesus.  I’d like to know, because what I see passing as prophetic kind of falls short.

Methodist pastor Drew McIntyre is asking the same question.  He comes up with an answer that is shocking (at least to me,) but true.  Quoting Henri Nouwen, he remarks that there is very little theological reflection in the church today:

In his wonderful little book In the Name of Jesus, Henri Nouwen names temptations common to leadership and offers particular disciplines as solutions.  He concludes this brief treatise by discussing the temptation “to be powerful.”  In different ways, both the right-wing and left-wing perversions of the prophetic are temptations to power.  Fundamentalists manipulate Scripture to show forth their own insight and giftedness, unlocking “secrets” of the end times heretofore unknown.  In so doing they often amass large followings (and bank accounts).  Progressives too quickly make use of the prophetic role to mask their own ideological agendas with a veneer of Biblical authority, and claim God’s voice for whatever the cause happens to be that week.

For Nouwen, the solution is “theological reflection.”  He concludes,

“Few ministers and priests think theologically. most of them have been educated in a climate in which the behavioral sciences, such as psychology and sociology, so dominated the educational milieu that little true theology was being learned. Most Christian leaders today raise psychological or sociological questions even though they frame them in scriptural terms.  Real theological thinking, which is thinking with the mind of Christ, is hard to find in the practice of ministry.  Without solid theological reflection, future leaders will be little more than pseudo-psychologists, pseudo-sociologists, psuedo-social workers.” (65-66)

Theological reflection is critical because without it, we will too quickly mistake our words for God’s, and so make fools of ourselves when speaking on His behalf (as a pastor, I’ve done this more than once).  This discipline is sorely lacking in every corner of the church, Mainline or Evangelical, Catholic or Charismatic.  Such a poverty of theological insight is all the more problematic because we (all of us, including the author) are quick to forget that we are not brilliant by virtue of living in the 21st century or having masses of education.  The great missionary and ecumenist Lesslie Newbigin points out that we may come to different conclusions than Paul, but that doesn’t  make us Paul’s moral superiors; we are apt to be as blind to some things in our day as Paul may have been to certain obvious evils in his.

McIntyre briefly talks about the Moral Mondays campaign in North Carolina.  The movement happens to be led by a Disciples of Christ pastor.  Mother Jones magazine has a pretty good profile of Barber, but in reading you have to wonder: is this about following God or following a party platform (and protesting the other party)?  Would there be Moral Mondays if instead of a conservative legislature and governor passing conservative legislation, there were liberals in power. The answer of course is no and that’s the problem. If you are willing to protest Republicans who you are against and not Democrats that you agree with, then what you are doing isn’t prophetic and you need to quit fooling yourselves.

I tend to think that a true prophet is not going to be liked by either liberals or conservatives.  Another Methodist pastor, Alan Bevere had this to say in 2012 about prophets:

I have spent some time this week in the Old Testament prophetic books. I do not find it surprising that most prophets are not accepted in their own time. Their cutting words of truth at best fall on stopped ears. Then, in order to reinforce their words, they resort to symbolic acts which, if committed in the 21st century West, would be more than sufficient cause for them to be put away in special places reserved for people who walk naked in public (Isaiah) and who eat paper (Ezekiel), and walk around with an oxen yoke on their neck (Jeremiah). The people of God today have no more clue on how to recognize a prophet than the ancient folk. Every time I hear someone referred to as prophetic, it’s only because they are speaking words that the hearers who so designate them agree with. But that’s precisely the problem.

When God used Amos or Micah, it wasn’t because God wanted to raise the minimum wage or ban gay marriage.  God had a covenant with the Israelites and from time to time, God would tell the people when they were off track or when their worship wasn’t matching with their lives.  The closest parallel to this is God talking to the church today.  The prophets were speaking for God, calling the people back to righteous living.  The prophets were not setting policy.  They weren’t talking about voting rights, or same sex marriage or abortion, or the minimum wage.  It’s okay for Christians to work on these issues, but don’t use the prophetic writings for your own agenda.

This brings me back to Nouwen.  I think he’s correct that the church is sorely lacking in thinking theologically.  In a lot of cases evangelicals and progressives have basically adopted the ideologies of the main political parties and sprinkled God talk around them.  I’m starting to think that thinking theologically would mean spending time discerning issues and reflecting on what scripture and tradition have to say about an issue.  That isn’t attractive to a smashmouth church culture, but slowing down to find out how to listen to God and to each other might present a real third way to how the church responds to the outside world.

None of this means that churches should withdraw from the world.  But we need to be able to standback from an issue and see what God is saying.  Maybe in that time of listening we will learn what truly is prophetic.

* I know there have to be a few folks wondering why I didn’t take conservatives to task for doing the same thing.  I didn’t do that because that observation has been used ad nauseum for years.  We all know that the Religious Right jumped into bed with the GOP.  There’s no sense in repeating what we already know.  What a lot of people don’t know is how liberal Christians have basically done the same thing.  I condemn both, but the latter is a story that is not always told.

Some Thoughts on the Frank Schaefer Case

frank schaeferI haven’t followed the news about Methodist minister Frank Schaefer as closely as I should have.  For those who know even less, Frank Schaefer faced a church trail for going against the Book of Discipline by marrying two men (one of who happened to be his son).   What I do know about the affair has led me to ask a few questions and make a few statements:

So much for diversity. Many liberal Christians (myself included) love to talk about how wonderful diversity is and how much we have to strive for all kinds of diversity: gender, racial and ethnic.  The problem is that most liberal Christians tend to think that people of color share the exact same views that they deem important.  Then they meet reality.  The United Methodists are not as much a national body, but a world-wide body, made up of folks from everywhere.  African Methodists are growing in number and they don’t have favorable views of homosexuality.  North American Methodists are not growing and liberal Methodists are a small fraction.  What this all means is that the rules on sexuality aren’t changing any time soon and no amount of protest is going to change that, at least not immediately.  Diversity is a good thing, but the downside is that the person with a different skin tone might also have different views that you might not agree with.

Laws for Me But Not for Thee.  Being a gay man who just recently got (legally) married, I totally side with the good reverend on this matter.  That said, I am bothered by those on “my side” that seem to want the church to just throw the Book of Discipline aside and follow the law of love or something like that.  I don’t come from a creedal background, so on some level, I just think these things are sort of silly.  But the fact is, other denominations are set up around certain documents that govern their way of life.  The Book of Discipline is the way the United Methodists order their life together.  You can’t ignore the Book of Discipline just because you don’t like what it says.  You might think that the ruling on homosexuality is silly, but the fact remains it is there.  This doesn’t mean that my side of the isle must simply submit to what is considered an unjust law. There is a lot of room for civil disobedience, but people have to admit that they are breaking the law and be willing to face the consequences.  You can’t wish away a law you don’t like.

What About the Love? I can understand defrocking someone if they have committed a grave sin, such as child molestation.  I don’t understand the drive to not simply say that Rev. Schaefer violated church rules, but to humiliate him.  What about restoring a fallen brother or sister gently and in love?  Can we disagree without being mean? There really was nothing Christian about the sentence and it was rather cowardly too: they left it up to Schaefer to decide if he wanted to admit wrong or give up his ordination.  Please.  If you’re going to make someone “an example” at least have the guts to be upfront about it.If progressives are at fault for being too loose with the Bible and/or books of order, then conservatives tend to be guilty of using these tools for organizing as ways to exclude and shame.

The Center Cannot Hold. My time with the Presbyterians have had me thinking about two people, a man and a woman in their 80s who served the church in various functions.  The man is liberal and the woman conservative.  What was interesting about both is that while they had their views and held to them, they also had a belief in the institution, the thing that bound them together.  Because they had this thing called the Presbyterian Church (USA) in common, they were able to function with some impartiality, trying to solve problems for the good of the institution.  We no longer have that today, not in Washington or in our churches.  Institutions, especially the church, have been weakened.  In it’s place has risen the tribe, a group of people who share common concerns and views that is suspicious of those who are different from them.  We see this in our politics, but it is also rife in our churches.  Tribalism doesn’t give people the benefit of the doubt, but instead sees the different as a threat.  What has happened with Schaefer is all about tribes than it is about church.  The conservative tribe wants to make an example of the pastor, while the progressive tribe sees this as proof positive that the opposition is exclusive and backwards.  Tolerance takes a backseat when it comes to the tribe, whereas in the institution, tolerance is a bedrock rule, because you can’t have people aim to something higher than base pursuits if they see the person next to them as evil incarnate.  I don’t know how to heal the wounded center in American Christianity.  We are engaged in a zero-sum game with the other side and demand nothing short of total surrender.

The Schaefer case is on one level about gay rights, which I totally support.  But it also holds up how we as Christians in the United States fall so far short of being Christ in the world.

Jesus Is Not a Fashion Accessory

There are folks who tend to focus on the “numbers” taking place in Mainline Protestantism with concern.  One example is an article written in 1987 by William Willomon and Robert Wilson.  They looked at the numbers and didn’t like what they see:

The Methodist and the Evangelical United Brethren Churches each began to experience a decrease in membership in the 1960s. This was obscured by the optimism engendered by the merger of these two denominations in Dallas in 1968. The details of the merger took a couple of years to be worked out and several more years for the overlapping annual conferences to combine. During the early years, a number of EUB congregations, largely in the Pacific Northwest region, withdrew to form a separate denomination.1 However, by 1970 The United Methodist Church was in place with a total membership of 10,671,744 and 40,653 organized churches.2

The decline, which began in each of the denominations before the merger, has continued. By 1984, the total number of members had decreased to 9,266,853; a loss of 1,404,891, or 13 percent. We had lost members equal to almost twice the number of EUBs who had united with the Methodists in 1968. The United Methodist Church, in the fourteen-year period 1970-1984, lost an average of 1,930 members every week. (This decrease is illustrated in Graph 1).

The downward trend has not yet been reversed. Preliminary figures for 1995 give the lay membership as 9,105,046.3 During calendar year 1985, the total number decreased by 75,692, or an average loss of 1,455 persons each week. This is the equivalent of closing a church of 207 members every day for one year. The average attendance at the principal service of worship has also shown a downward trend, although at a somewhat slower rate than the membership decline. There were over 442,000 fewer persons attending worship in 1984 than in 1969, a decrease of 11 percent. (This trend is illustrated in Graph 2.)

Nor is the picture regarding the number of congregations is encouraging. During the period of 1970-1984, United Methodism closed a total of 2,665 local churches, or an average of slightly under four congregations per week.

An examination of the membership trends of several other mainline denominations for the decade and a half from 1968 to 1983 reveals equally dismal pictures. The Episcopal Church had a membership decline of 17 percent.4 The decrease in the United Church of Christ was 16 percent.5 The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) dropped by 29 percent. The recently created Presbyterian Church (USA), the result of a merger between the United Presbyterian Church in the U.S.A. and the Presbyterian Church in the United States, in 1983 had 25 percent fewer adherents than the combined membership of their component parts a decade and a half earlier.

It is difficult to conceptualize the extent of the membership declines suffered by the mainline churches during the 1970s and early 1980s. Every week these denominations averaged a decline of over five thousand; this is the equivalent of mainline Protestantism’s closing one local church of almost seven hundred members every day for a decade and a half.

The significance of this downward trend in membership on these historically prominent denominations and their role in the larger society is great. It may mean a realignment of the religious bodies in America. For example, there are now more members in the Assemblies of God than in the United Church of Christ, a fact that will influence both denominations.

Willomon and Wilson notes that the drop off does have a result on the morale of both pastors and congregations and fosters a sense of self-preservation and maintainence.

Another person that has watch these numbers with some worry is Presbyterian Pastor John Vest.  Earlier this year, he wrote an emotional post about the rate of decline taking place in the Presbyterian Church (USA) and urged the church to do something:

Last week the Office of the General Assembly released the 2012 statistics for the Presbyterian Church (USA). The numbers aren’t good, more signs of our rapid decline (and the similar decline of all mainline Protestant—and even evangelical—denominations).

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.
  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.
  • 86 churches were dissolved.
  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.
  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

I’ve said it before: this is simply not sustainable. Continue reading “Jesus Is Not a Fashion Accessory”

What J.C. Penney, Sears and Montgomery Ward Taught Me About the Mainline Church

sears-move

Ever since it appeared a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about John Vest’s blog post called “The Vine is Dying.”  The Presbyterian pastor from Chicago has been involved in finding ways to help the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebound after decades of decline and his February 27 post was one borne of frustration with the church he loves:

I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our success by how well we manage and deploy an increasingly small pool of resources—people, money, influence, and relevancy. The things we do with these resources are often really great, but we consistently fail to reckon with the stark realities of mainline Protestant decline. We close more churches than we open. We lose more members than we baptize. And because of this, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to serve the world, yet we continue to follow the same basic game plan developed during the zenith of mainline Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m not claiming to fully understand the reasons for mainline decline, nor do I claim to have solutions ready to roll—but I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. It seems to me that mainline Protestants have so closely identified our understanding of the gospel and the purpose of the church with social justice agendas that we are stuck trying to serve those agendas—worthy as they are—at the peril of church growth and vitality. I’m finding it harder and harder to be proud of our mission work when our church is marching steadily toward extinction. I’ve lost patience with General Assembly statements and actions about social justice that make us feel good but don’t really register a significant impact in the world. And I wonder what good it is to update our structures if we don’t shift our priorities and rethink our purpose.

I share John’s frustration.  Working for two mainline denominations, I think we are become experts at managing decline instead of finding a new way of being in a changed world.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about how Mainline Christianity is the next big thing, or how we should ignore the naysayers.  Meanwhile we close more churches and seem to have lost any interest in reaching other folks with the good news of Jesus.

For some reason all of this talk about decline had me thinking of some of the oldline department stores.  Recently, JC Penney hired a new CEO, Ron Johnson, who cut his teeth at Apple and Target.  Coming from two of the hip and trendiest companies around, he sought to jazz up the staid retailer, with a different pricing structure, neater stores and a nice simple logo ala the bitten apple and the bullseye. So far, things aren’t going well.  Penneys has lost money and had to lay off thousands of employees.  The media is having a field day with all the bad press. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic has a good summary of the problems facing Penney’s

Ever since it appeared a few weeks ago, I’ve been thinking about John Vest’s blog post called “The Vine is Dying.”  The Presbyterian pastor from Chicago has been involved in finding ways to help the Presbyterian Church (USA) rebound after decades of decline and his February 27 post was one borne of frustration with the church he loves:

I’m growing increasingly frustrated and impatient with mainline Protestant churches like the one I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA). At every level of our system, from congregations on up to General Assembly agencies, we keep missing the big picture. We measure our success by how well we manage and deploy an increasingly small pool of resources—people, money, influence, and relevancy. The things we do with these resources are often really great, but we consistently fail to reckon with the stark realities of mainline Protestant decline. We close more churches than we open. We lose more members than we baptize. And because of this, we have fewer and fewer resources with which to serve the world, yet we continue to follow the same basic game plan developed during the zenith of mainline Protestantism in the middle of the 20th century.

I’m not claiming to fully understand the reasons for mainline decline, nor do I claim to have solutions ready to roll—but I do spend a lot of time thinking about this. It seems to me that mainline Protestants have so closely identified our understanding of the gospel and the purpose of the church with social justice agendas that we are stuck trying to serve those agendas—worthy as they are—at the peril of church growth and vitality. I’m finding it harder and harder to be proud of our mission work when our church is marching steadily toward extinction. I’ve lost patience with General Assembly statements and actions about social justice that make us feel good but don’t really register a significant impact in the world. And I wonder what good it is to update our structures if we don’t shift our priorities and rethink our purpose.

I share John’s frustration.  Working for two mainline denominations, I think we are become experts at managing decline instead of finding a new way of being in a changed world.  I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people talk about how Mainline Christianity is the next big thing, or how we should ignore the naysayers.  Meanwhile we close more churches and seem to have lost any interest in reaching other folks with the good news of Jesus.

For some reason all of this talk about decline had me thinking of some of the oldline department stores.  Recently, JC Penney hired a new CEO, Ron Johnson, who cut his teeth at Apple and Target.  Coming from two of the hip and trendiest companies around, he sought to jazz up the staid retailer, with a different pricing structure, neater stores and a nice simple logo ala the bitten apple and the bullseye. So far, things aren’t going well.  Penneys has lost money and had to lay off thousands of employees.  The media is having a field day with all the bad press. Derek Thompson of the Atlantic has a good summary of the problems facing Penney’s

Maybe it’s too late to save big department stores like Penneys.  Maybe some of Johnson’s ideas don’t carry over well.  But I’m glad he did something because at least he tried even it didn’t work out as planned.  What’s worse is not doing anything and just stagnating.

Which is what has happened to Sears.  Being a child of the 70s, I remember how Sears was the place to go for about everything.  I still remember the old Toughskins and of course the special size for kids called “Husky.”  But it seems like the 1970s was the zenith of Sears because after that, it kind of went downhill- not all at once, but slowly.  It became a less attractive place to go to.

Of course, it wasn’t always this way.  A Chicago Business article describes Sears’ heyday and what caused its decline:

For nearly a century, the company was able to anticipate important changes in the marketplace and profit from them. It mastered mail-order when America was young and rural. Foreseeing the rise of the automobile and the shift to cities, it began building stores. Next came the suburban shopping mall revolution of the 1960s: Sears seemingly anchored every last one.

But like so many other once-unbeatable companies, Sears eventually turned inward, intent on maintaining its success by repeating what had worked before. As a mall-based mass merchant, Sears failed to specify a niche and articulate the well-defined identity necessary to compete with 21st-century rivals. Its mall-heavy real estate portfolio suffered as Americans flocked to stand-alone big-boxes like Target, Wal-Mart and Costco, while its stores, starved of capital investment, often felt dingy. It also failed to listen to customers — or to keep an eye on new competitors springing up in places like Bentonville, Ark.

By the time Sears realized the danger poised by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Best Buy Co. and Home Depot Inc., it was too late. Transformation efforts through the 1990s and early 2000s showed early promise but failed to gain traction. Ironically, what began as an attempt to keep pace with the big-boxes by buying bankrupt Kmart stores ultimately led to the 2005 Kmart-Sears merger under hedge-fund manager Mr. (Eddie)Lampert. Since his arrival, things have spiraled from bad to worse.

Now let’s move from the world of department store chains and head back to the church.  This is the latest news from the Presbyterian Church (USA):

In approving a new structure and leadership design for the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) on February 27, the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly (COGA) simultaneously approved the accompanying staffing rationale, which includes reductions in force.

“While the new structure will enable OGA to better serve the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) by being more focused, flexible, and intentional,” said COGA Moderator Vincent Thomas immediately after the vote, “we are very aware of our decision’s impact on the OGA staff, both those who will depart OGA and those who will continue, all of whom love the PC(USA) and view their work as a ministry.”

This is not to pick on the Presbyterians; my own denomination has gone through this.  But I’ve been around long enough to see denominations come up with some new vision or restructuring that is hailed as the new way of doing ministry, only to have it replaced a few years later with another one, not because it wasn’t working so much as the resources are growing smaller and smaller.

When it comes to the mainline church, we have become Sears instead of J.C. Penneys.  We aren’t really trying new things as much as we try to manage the decline, to not make it so messy.  We are good at cutting staff and closing churches, but we don’t invest in planting new churches or making disciples.  We are good at talking about social justice and it is one of our strong points, but we do it in a way that is so divorced from daily Christian living that it seems more like talking points from the Democratic Party platform than it is about following Jesus.  Just as Sears is slowly liquidating itself, we in the Mainline are doing our dead level best to make sure our demise is orderly.

So what to do?  I think what we need is “Corazón” or “heart;” which is something we don’t have right now.  I tend to believe most mainline churches have so prized the mind over the heart that we have become functional atheists-believing we and only we can save the church which this or that program.

But a new program won’t help us.  The only thing that will make a difference is placing our trust in God.

Last fall I read a story about how the Methodist church is growing…in Cuba.  The Cuban Bishop, Ricardo Pereira, came to the States and he shared through a translator what made the difference on that island nation:

“In the 1970s we tried every program that came along, but the church continued to grow older and decline. We had no other option but to pray and fast with all our power.”

And what happens when you pray and fast? Miracles:

Some of his statistics were staggering: There were 3,000 members in 1985, today there are more than 30,000. In 1999 there were 90 Methodist churches in Cuba; now there are 361. The church there has averaged 10 percent growth each year, but in the past quadrennium it has been more than 60 percent. When he was elected bishop there was a Methodist presence in less than half of the nation; now it’s up to 90 percent, “and I know we can finish the last ten percent before I end my episcopacy!” he said to much applause.

If the mainline church wants to thrive, then it needs to find that passion for God that I think it has lost.  If it doesn’t well we won’t be Sears any longer, but another famous retailer-Montgomery Ward, which closed all of its stores in 2001.