What Is Mission First All About?

 

At the 2015 General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus, Ohio, those gathered heard about a new initiative being rolled out called Mission First.  Mission First seems to be a way to retool the denomination for the 21st century.  A central part of this initiative is to have Mission Gatherings in 2016.  My region is having its Mission Gathering later this month.

While the website for Mission First has some background on the idea, a certain question keeps coming to the fore: what is this all about?

I get that this is kind of a churchwide visioning process, but what is the endpoint?  What does this mean for churches?  What is the theology behind it?  Does this mean a refashioning of our agencies and regions?  I’m not sure.  How does this inspire the local church in its own mission and ministry?

This is how Mission First is described on its website:

It’s likely your faith community has done some visioning in the last few years. The general expression of the Church is doing the same. As the year 2020 nears, it is time to listen for God’s continuing call and to seek together where God is calling Disciples next in our shared mission and ministry.

Addressing the 2014 General Board, General Minister and President Sharon Watkins set out a challenge:  “The time has come to lighten our load and tighten our focus – on mission!  I am inviting our church, in all its expressions, to join in a conversation on God’s mission for Disciples today.

Okay, but why are we doing this? Is it because it’s time have a new one? And what are things weighing us down?

It seems that Mission First is trying to outline some new priorities:

Mission First! addresses the need to find a new shared focus in mission. We are not setting aside pro-reconciliation/anti-racism, new and transforming churches or leadership development. Mission First! seeks to help Disciples identify the next mission priorities God has for us as we move toward the year 2020 and beyond.

And it is also listening to what is going on in the churches:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

But it also seems to call for some reorganization:

At the heart of this process are Mission Gatherings where we hope you and your leaders will participate in sharing what your congregation is passionate about doing in the mission field. These gatherings may take place at your 2016 regional or racial/ethnic assemblies or at camp or other places where Disciples gather. A Church-wide Mission Council will receive the information from the gatherings and identify a mission focus for a specified time.

So, we have a few objectives going on here, but it feels to me somewhat disjointed. I think this is about developing a new vision, and mission priorities and quite possibly restructure, but it never feels like these objectives are linked.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America is also going through a visioning process. Called Forward Together in Christ  is the name of their initiative and this is how it is described on its homepage:

The ELCA is a young church at only 28 years old. It is a good time to take a look at where we are as God’s people and try to understand what God has in store for us. And we think it is an exciting time to be looking forward together as we approach the 500th anniversary of the Reformation in 2017.

We want to create a vision for the future ELCA – as a church with solid foundations sharing the Good News of Jesus Christ and making a difference in the world locally and globally. And as a church that we can be proud to pass on to our children.

We want to discover how we can continue to faithfully serve God’s mission in the years ahead and reach a shared understanding among church leaders about the ministries that are most important.

And we want to assess whether the structures that were set up for this church are right for the future, and as part of this consider how we use our resources in the best possible way. There are many challenges.

This description seems far clearer of what they are all about and where they are headed.

Now, I think Mission First is needed. The Disciples are a denomination for the 29th century and needs to be retooled for the 21st century in how it spreads the gospel. It’s been nearly 50 years since Restructure and it is probably way past time to have the church reflect our present age and not what church was in the late 1960s.

But I think the execution has not been focused and at times seems very light on theology. Do people in the pews understand what it means for the church in mission? What does this have to do with how the Disciples started, out on the then-frontier?

Hopefully, I will learn more about this process later this month.  Maybe I can get another view that I’m missing.

First Comes Marriage, then Comes Grace

dde07baf134d52714f503dfb792443f9Well, it finally happened. After a decade or so of amendments, court challenges, referreudum and the like, same sex marriage is now legal accross the United States.  The 5-4 decision by the Supreme Court was a momentous day for many LGBT Americans, myself included.

Of course, this news is personal for me.  Like a lot of gay couples, I’ve had to say my wedding vows twice.  The first time was at my church wedding in 2007.  Then in 2013 same sex marriage became legal in Minnesota, and on Labor Day 2013, my husband Daniel and I had our civic wedding.  The result of that one meant that in the eyes of the state of Minnesota, we were married just like any other couple.

But there were still problems.  For example, if Daniel and I went to our home states, North Dakota and Michigan, we would not be recognized as a legal couple because those state had banned same sex marriages.  Now, we can go and visit any place in the USA and know that are rights are the same everywhere.

But while I along with millions of LGBT Americans and their allies rejoice, I am well aware that there are those that are not happy.  Some of these people are my friends even though we disagree.  They fear that America is losing its spiritual moorings and they fear that they will be forced to break their consciences into doing things that goes against their faith.

When social conservatives start bringing up the religious liberty argument, it doesn’t take long for the eyes of many an LGBT supporter to roll.  The claims of religious liberty are viewed as silly by gay marriage supporters and even progressive/liberal Christians make fun of these social conservatives and dismiss their arguments.

But what if there is something to those complaints?

Most of my fellow progressives ignore social cons, seeing them as backward homophobic hicks.  We tell ourselves that no one will force a conservative pastors to marry a lesbian couple, and they are probably right.  But the religious liberty argument is far more complex than this.

Damon Linker, who is not a conservative in any sense of the word, explains that there is something to the concern of some about religious liberty:

There’s very little chance that the government will force a church to marry a gay or lesbian couple, or forbid a priest or pastor from preaching from the pulpit against same-sex marriage….

But what about when that priest or pastor, or a conservative member of the parish or congregation, leaves the doors of the church? Throughout American history, the First Amendment has been understood to permit these Christians to act in the world as moral representatives of their faith communities — to exercise their religion by forming and joining groups in civil society that are affiliated with their churches or advance their moral vision of the world. These might be private schools, colleges, and universities, or hospitals, soup kitchens, and other charities. They might be think tanks or lobbying firms. They might be businesses whose owners want to express their Christian faith (as they understand it) in their dealings with customers.

…what about a conservative Christian college that seeks to conform to historic Christian teachings about sex and marriage? Should it be forced to allow same-sex married couples to live in married housing? Should the college lose federal funds for refusing? Lose its accreditation? Its tax-exempt status? Any one of these consequences could drive the college out of business, or force it to abandon the religious beliefs that define it.

Now, I would disagree with Linker about the businesses, but what about church-run schools? What about church-run colleges? Does the changed climate conflict with their beliefs?

What about the employee that might say they think same-sex marriage is wrong? Would they then be fired?

None of this means that I believe social conservatives are being persecuted, per se, but it does mean that the religious liberty argument isn’t as cut and dried as we would want to think.

My belief in loving the enemy, means I have to see my enemy as a child of God.  I don’t think most social conservatives are bad people.  Which is why I want to at least listen to them.

My guess is that most of us don’t want to be nice to social cons for very obvious reasons.  When one has been hurt by words that are supposed to heal, it can be hard to forgive that person, let alone see them as human being.

But I would also add that if social conservatives want to be respected, then they too must show respect.  Some have, but others haven’t and as Canadian evangelical Carey Neiuwhof notes, that isn’t good witness to Christ:

Even the first 72 hour of social media reaction has driven a deeper wedge between Christian leaders and the LGBT community Jesus loves (yes, Jesus died for the world because he loves it).

Judgment is a terrible evangelism strategy.

People don’t line up to be judged.

Indeed.  If social conservatives want respect, they have to show it as well.  No one is asking them to change their views on homosexuality.  If you’re understand of the scriptures lead you to conclude that homosexuality is sinful then believe this.  But remember, Jesus didn’t banish sinners; he hung out with them.

I am happy that same sex marriage is now legal all over the place.  But I won’t make fun of those who disagree.  I will also try to listen to them and seek to treat them as a child of God.

I pray for a little grace on both sides.  But I know grace will be very little indeed.

Fear Factor

indianaLike a lot of folk I’ve been interested in the goings on in Indiana.  As you know, the state legislature passed and the Governor signed a law called the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Depending on who you talk to, the law is no different from the federal version of the law passed in 1993 or will allow religious owners of businesses to refuse service to gays.  I’m frankly a bit confused as to what the bill will actually do. Proponents see it as a bulwark against a radically changing culture.  Opponents see it as the second coming of Jim Crow.

As I was discussing this with a Methodist minister, he used a word that seemed to describe the whole situation: fear.  It’s not a surprise that I tend to think the proponents of the law are fearful of a changing culture, one where homosexuality is becoming accepted and where their views, which once ruled the culture are no longer in vogue.  But I also think my side of the debate is also operating on fear and distrust.  Like a lot of oppressed groups, it is hard to have any concern for your former oppressors.  As I’ve read responses, the attitude seems to be “let the bigots hang.”

What is interesting about all of this is how much this seems to have become a zero-sum game.  Religious conservatives seem intent on gumming up the works of progress on same-sex marriage.  Gays and liberals seem to not want to give religious conservatives any inch on religious practice.  Both sides seem to think that to win, one side must lose.

David Brooks wrote a couple of weeks ago that we live in a more uncertain age and that has changed the tone of politics.  Gone are win-win situations where compromise was possible, and coming in its place is the quest for power.  Here’s what Brooks says:

National elections take place within a specific global moment. In the 1990s, there was a presumption that we were living in an age of rapid progress. Democracy was spreading. Tyranny was receding. Asia was booming. The European Union was building. Conflict in the Middle East was lessening. The world was cumulatively heading toward greater pluralism, individualism, prosperity and freedom.

Today it’s harder to have faith in rapid progress. Democracy is receding. Autocrats like Vladimir Putin of Russia are marching. The European project is decaying. Economies are struggling. Reactionary forces like the Islamic State and Iran are winning. The Middle East is deteriorating.

In this climate, the tone and focus of politics change. Politics is less about win-win situations and more about zero-sum situations. It is less about reforms that will improve all lives and more about unadorned struggles for power. Who will control the ground in places like Ukraine and Syria? Will Iran get the bomb? Will the White House or Congress grab power over treaties and immigration policy?

It’s hard not to see the fight that is taking place in Indiana and many other places as tribal battles.  Religious conservatives feel under fire as liberals go after bakers and wedding photographers.

This clash of rights, between the right to marry and the right to religious freedom has always been difficult for me.  I have fought for the right to be able to marry my husband Daniel and to have that recognized by the state, which is what happened when we had our legal marriage in 2013.  But as a Christian, I also think people should be able to follow the dictates of their faith without interference from the state.  So on some level, I’ve never been as bothered by bakers not wanting to bake my wedding cake.  I just thought I’d go to another baker.  The baker had the right to refuse service, and I had the right to not go to that baker and tell others not to go either.

I know that it bothers some of my compatriots that I might sympathize with folks who don’t think I should get married to my partner.  But two things have guided me on this issue: my belief in Jesus dictum to love our enemies and my libertarian belief in liberty; that I can do what I want and you can do what you want so long as my rights aren’t curtailed.

Loving my enemy means that I have to look at that person as human being.  I have to at least try to understand their viewpoint and give them the space to do what they see as right, so long as I am not profoundly impacted.

Of course, my enemy should be able to look at me as a human being, a child of God and give me the space to do what I think is right.  (Translation: If religious conservatives want to be treated with respect, treat those you disagree with the same respect.)

As the various RFRA laws come up in various states, both religious conservatives and LGBT communities have to find a way to make room for each other.  Not because they like each other.  Not because they agree.  But because for a democratic society to flourish, we have to find ways to accomodate the Other. Because we must heed the call to love and respect our enemies.

Before all of the focus was on Indiana, some media attention was given to what was happening in Utah.  Dubbed the “Utah Compromise,” gay rights groups and the Mormon Church came together to support legislation the protected LGBT persons and also offered exemptions on religious grounds.  It is far from a perfect law (but what compromise is perfect).  But this seemed to be a place where the culture wars made a truce. A Wall Street Journal column explains how the Mormon Church, who not that long ago was bankrolling the effort to ban same-sex marriage in California, reached out the LGBT community:

The Mormon leadership reached out to the LGBT community, which was willing to reciprocate despite initial doubts. Although there were roadblocks early on, trust gradually developed. Neither side allowed the best to become the enemy of the good. Both came to see that protections for LGBT individuals and for religious conscience needed to be enacted simultaneously, as a package.

There is a lesson here for both sides.  For religious conservatives, it is to at least acknowledge LGBT persons.  You don’t have to approve of what we do.  But you do have to at least see us as persons created by God and deserving of respect.

For the LGBT community and our allies, it means respecting the faith of religious conservatives.  Within reason, no one should have to compromise their faith to live in the wider society.  We need to honor their consciences even if we think that their beliefs are wrong.

In late 2010, libertarian writer Jonathan Rauch wrote about how the tide was turning in the favor of those of us who support gay rights.  Because we were no longer on the defensive, our tactics must change.  He wrote:

…we—gay Americans and our straight allies—have won the central argument for gay rights. As a result, we must change. Much of what the gay rights movement has taken for granted until now, and much that has worked for us in the past, is now wrong and will hurt us. The turn we now need to execute will be the hardest maneuver the movement has ever had to make, because it will require us to deliberately leave room for homophobia in American society. We need to allow some discrimination and relinquish the “zero tolerance” mind-set. Paradoxical but true: We need to give our opponents the time and space they need to let us win.

Not giving them that room to deal with the changed landscape has its consequences:

…gay rights opponents have been quick, in fact quicker than our side, to understand that the dynamic is changing. They can see the moral foundations of their aversion to homosexuality crumbling beneath them. Their only hope is to turn the tables by claiming they, not gays, are the real victims of oppression. Seeing that we have moved the “moral deviant” shoe onto their foot, they are going to move the “civil rights violator” shoe onto ours.

So they have developed a narrative that goes like this:

Gay rights advocates don’t just want legal equality. They want to brand anyone who disagrees with them, on marriage or anything else, as the equivalent of a modern-day segregationist. If you think homosexuality is immoral or changeable, they want to send you to be reeducated, take away your license to practice counseling, or kick your evangelical student group off campus. If you object to facilitating same-sex weddings or placing adoptees with same-sex couples, they’ll slap you with a fine for discrimination, take away your nonprofit status, or force you to choose between your job and your conscience. If you so much as disagree with them, they call you a bigot and a hater.

They won’t stop until they stigmatize your core religious teachings as bigoted, ban your religious practices as discriminatory, and drive millions of religious Americans right out of the public square. But their target is broader than just religion. Their policy is one of zero tolerance for those who disagree with them, and they will use the law to enforce it.

At bottom, they are not interested in sharing the country. They want to wipe us out.

Of course, this is exactly what religious conservatives are doing now.  So maybe the best way to defeat this kind of thinking is by not trying to shut them up, but by acting differently.  Maybe if we show that we will give them the respect they never gave us, maybe things could change for the better.

I don’t know what will happen in Indiana.  I do know I can do something to hopefully lessen the fear and increase the peace.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me.”

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.

What Are We Being Inclusive For?

inclusivecommunity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo by Matt Meltchley.

 

Praying for Revival (I Think)…

IMG_0021A few years ago, I was at a local  gathering of Disciples (my denomination) in Minnesota.  It was a good event overall, a time when our small tribe could gather to worship and fellowship.  Somewhere early in the event, there was a slide that showed all of the Disciple congregations in Minnesota that no longer exist.  The speaker wanted us to honor the work that these former faith communities did and I was in agreement.  They had for a season, been a small example of God’s kingdom.

As much as I wanted to honor these congregations, I also felt a sense of annoyance. Not with these congregations, but the fact that we Disciples in Minnesota are a smaller groups of people.  In the last 15 years or so, a number of congregations in the state have closed.  Churches in Rochester, Mankato and Fridley (a suburb north of Minneapolis).  Some of these congregations had simply reached the end of their lives and that is understandable. No, the frustrating thing is that we aren’t replacing those churches and it seems at times like most people don’t care.

A century ago, it was not uncommon for local churches to plant new churches.  First Christian in Minneapolis (where I used to serve) planted a number of churches over the years.  They looked to see an area where there was no Disciple church and a number of people would go to start a Sunday School class that would be come a church.

Over time, our churches have lost that evangelical drive.  We have become risk-averse. People have become skeptical that investing money in church plants actually makes a difference.  Better to spend it on a needy social service agency.  Some pastors from outside the area have said they were interested in church planting, but only if they were given money to support them.

I don’t say this to trash talk or to speak ill of folk.  But I do think there is a problem here when it comes to planting new churches.

I have had an interest myself in planting a church, but I already have a church that is in a transformation process, so I don’t know if I have the time to do this.

What is needed is for their to be a revival of sorts, people who feel called to help plant new communities.  I pray for the Pentecost winds to blow among our small Disciple tribe in Minnesota to have a passion to tell the good news of Jesus that translates into new churches.

I think we can say “well done” to those churches that are no longer with us.  But we should also be busy planting new communities, places that can reach the Minnesota of 2015.

I pray that this might come true.

Sermon: Out of the Saltshaker

Matthew 5:1–20
Work of Christmas Series
Third Sunday of Epiphany
January 25, 2015

First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

“Those of us who follow Jesus are called to leave the saltshakers of our own making and do good works for the glory of God in the wider world.  We don’t do good works to find God, we do good works to honor God.”

Click here to continue reading the sermon text. To listen to the sermon podcast, please go here.