What does it mean to be church in the era of President Trump? What does this mean for Mainline/Progressive Christians?
In the days following the Inauguration, I was less worried about the new President. It doesn’t mean I wasn’t concerned: but he was chosen in an election and should be allowed govern. It might be the same as giving him a chance, I don’t know. But I didn’t want to fly from the reality that Donald Trump won the election.
But I was always waiting if he would cross a line that would be unacceptable. Would he do something that seered my own conscience? When would he do it?
The line I was worried he would cross was how we deal with refugees. I think it is a good thing for America to welcome those fleeing from horror. I believe we have a stringent vetting system that could help make us secure and allow those who need shelter to find it here in the US.
Well, I now see that Trump did cross that line. He has issued an executive order that would suspend entry of immigrants from seven countries, stops the US from accepting refugees for 4 months, and permanantly keeps Syrians refugees out.
The protests have been swift and the actions of the EO have been devastating. Church leaders accross the spectrum are condemning this order. Demonstrations have taken place at airports around the nation. Immigrants on their way to the US or just arriving have been blocked from entering.
Meanwhile my Facebook feed is filled with people who seem to freak out about everything the new president has done, some of which isn’t that unusual from what other presidents have done. Some progressives are going after Trump voters and it’s not to give them a hug. It’s to call them out, to shame them for voting for a man that has said so many racist, sexist, and every other -ist in the world. It’s to state that one can’t follow Jesus and support Donald Trump.
It’s suffice to say that Trump is keeping us all on our toes. But how does the church respond in this new era?
I think the first thing is to realize what we are dealing with. Progressive Christians like to talk about the concept of Empire and it has at times left me rolling my eyes. But the role of “empire” in theology does have a place in our discussions about church and state: if we are willing to apply to all of our government and not just when the government doesn’t agree with us or is not from the same political party. The question we don’t ask, at least not when Democratic Presidents are in power is how the church should relate to Empire? Presbyterian Michael Kruse wrote back in 2010, about the totalizing agenda of an empire and it is the same no matter who is in charge:
The defining feature of Empire is its totalitizing agenda. Everything and everyone must come under the service of the Empire. That certainly has implications for how and empire relates to those outside its immediate influence but it equally involves how it subjugates those who reside in the empire.
Liberals have used the Empire motif for American international interventions under Republican leadership. It is a characterization worthy of reflection. But what about the Empire building of progressivism?
Not long before being elected senator, Obama talked of a Second Bill of Rights … channeling FDR. It is a common mindset shared by the left. The original Bill of Rights lists “negative” rights, telling what the government will not do. The Second Bill of Rights would be “positive” rights guaranteeing everyone a home, health care, education, recreation, and so on. In other words, government moves from being a referee for free and virtuous people taking responsibility for themselves and their communities to government being the direct or indirect provider of every aspect of our basic existence. Every sphere of life … business, education, medicine, compassionate care … becomes an extension of government management used toward government’s guarantee of positive rights. All institutions and traditions in our various spheres of life are made to serve the Empire.
Yes, President Trump is lifting up the agenda of Empire, but so did President Obama. Sure it might have been for Obamacare instead of immigration restrictions, but both work to being all spheres of life under the Empire.
None of this means we exit society and stop voting. It does mean that we need to be aware that both an executive order banning certain people and a health care bill providing universal access can be tools used by the Empire to pledge total allegiance. We always need to be aware in our dealings that our first allegiance is always to Christ and that sometimes the two things don’t always sync up, especially when we agree with today’s “Ceasar.”
But screaming “empire” has a way of legitimizing your political agenda, while demonizing the other side. It also has a way of airbrushing inconvenient truths about our favorite Ceasars. Have you ever noticed that progressives will talk about the internment of Japanese Americans, but never talk about the fact that Franklin Roosevelt signed the order that made this happen? Roosevelt is a hero of the left and is airbrushed out of the history of this sad chapter in American life.
To be church in this era means being willing to challenge all Caesars not just those we don’t like.
The second thing we need to do is to find ways to seek and dialogue with those who voted for Trump. Unless your congregations are made up of just one political party, they are probably in your congregation or they are your friends and family.
But for some progressive Christians, that might be easier said than done. There is a lot of anger out there for people who voted for Trump. Every article that I’ve read in this vein, tends to list Trump’s sins probably in an attempt to say that it was so obvious that this was a bad man. I’ve shared what John Pavolvitz said shortly after the election. Zack Hunt also brings up the list to hold up to Trump voters, especially evangelicals:
He said his personal motto is “eye for an eye.”
He unrepentantly declared he doesn’t ask for forgiveness.
He said he wants to bomb half of the Middle East until there’s “nothing left.”
He proposed a tracking system to monitor immigrants.
He exploited the poor to build his empire.
He said it was fine to consider his daughter “a piece of ass.”
And bragged about his ability to sexually assault women.
None of that is reconcilable with the Christian faith.
And that was just the campaign.
Yet, none of these deeply anti-Christian things stopped 81% of evangelical Christians voters from casting their ballot for Donald Trump.
In trying to defend their spiritual adultery, they told us – shamed us would probably be more accurate – to give him a chance as if we were just supposed to ignore literally everything he had said and done before the election, as if a vain, temperamental, 70-year old demagogue would magically and radically change who he is, how he behaves, and what he believes the moment he was sworn into office.
We did not owe him a chance, but even if we did, he’s proven after less than a week in office that he didn’t deserve it.
The problem with this kind of article is that it doesn’t even bother to get to know why some people voted for Trump. They tend to act as if they know these people and view them with contempt, seeing them as wild-eyed nationalists bent on making this world worse off.
But there are a lot of reasons people voted for Trump, such as economic issues. Read J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy to understand what life is like for the white working class, the group that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
But there is another issue that makes sense and is important during the era of Trump: the church needs to be united.
I am not saying the church must have one mind, but it must be a united in that we are grounded in Jesus Christ. In some of the books like John Nugent’s Endangered Gospel and Scot McKnight’s Kingdom Conspiracy, the church is the “model home” of the Kingdom of God, a place where the world can see God’s kingdom in action. If it is a taste of God’s kingdom, it should be a place where people from different backgrounds and viewpoints will come together, maybe to show a way in this divisive time how all of us can come together in Christ. Maybe if the church was a place where people from various racial and ideological backgrounds joined through the observance of communion, it might be an example in our current context how people can come together in spite of our differences.
Finally, how the church should live in the Trump era calls on the regular practice of church life. Writing in the magazine First Things, Reformed Scholar Carl Trueman writes about the importance of maintaining the regular acts of church life even in the midst of a changing world:
As I drove back from visiting the elderly congregant, I thought about how all of the recent changes in wider American society will affect my ministry. Yes, they might make it financially harder and they are already making it socially less acceptable – but they will not really change it at any deep level. Regardless of SCOTUS or the 2016 election, as long as I live I will still be baptizing the children of congregants, administering the Lord’s Supper, preaching week by week, performing marriages, rejoicing with those who rejoice, burying the dead, and grieving with those who grieve. The elders will care for the spiritual needs of the congregants. The diaconal fund will continue to help local people—churched and unchurched—in times of hardship, regardless of who they are. In short, the church will still gather week by week for services where Word and sacrament will point Christians to Christ and to the everlasting city, and thus equip them to live in this world as witnesses to Christian truth.
None of these things will change, even if they do become financially and perhaps legally harder. The world around may legitimate whatever sleaze, self-indulgence and self-deception it may choose. It may decide that black is white, that up is down, and that north is south, for all I care. The needs of my congregation—of all congregations—will remain, at the deepest level, the same that they have always been, as will the answers which Christianity provides. The tomb is still empty. And my ministry will continue to be made up of the same elements as that of my of spiritual forefathers: Word, sacraments, prayer.
This might seem pointless in a time when we have a president that seems to cause chaos with every step. But things like communion are there to prepare us, to stregthen us as we enter the world and join the fight. Disciples pastor Doug Skinner wrote recently:
But “when done well,” there are very few things that we do as a church each week that are more instrumental in spiritually and morally forming us at the Lord’s Table to be the kind of people that God can then use in the world to “sow love where there is hate; to sow pardon where there is injury; to sow faith where there is doubt; to sow hope where there is despair; to sow light where there is darkness; to sow joy where there is sadness.”
And so when the question is – What does the church need to be giving her attention to in the coming days? My answer will be – The Lord’s Supper… for when people come to the Lord’s Table
to receive God’s grace in Jesus Christ, they will then be sent from the Lord’s Table as God’s agents of the grace that they have received in Jesus Christ into a world that desperately needs the fruit of that grace right now — Justice.
The Trump era is going to test the world in ways it has never been tested. It will bring disruption. It could bring terror attacks. It could get the US involved in a war.
But in all times and places, the church is called to be the church. We are not to be wedded to the power structures of the world, we are to be agents of reconciliation and we will continue to do the work of the church day in and day out, so that our people will have the grace needed to work for justice in this uncertain time.
Every so often, I’ve heard an argument that goes like this: “the press only talks about the Christians vs. the gays as if all Christians are against being gay. Don’t they know that there are Christians who support gays?”
The frustration comes from being ignored by the wider culture, especially the media. When we think of Christians, we are more likely to think of evangelicals or Catholics, but never liberal Protestantism. This has long been a problem. Some, including former evangelical-turned liberal Christian Randall Balmer, think there is a conspiracy afoot inspired by groups like the Institute for Religion and Democracy.
I will agree that liberal Protestantism does get ignored in society. While groups like the IRD tend to go after liberals, I don’t think they have as a big as an impact as we would like to think. I think that there is something else going on, something that we in progressive churches are doing to ourselves and it is this: I believe we are so uncritical of socially liberal society that we blend into the woodwork. In essence, when you say the same thing the wider society says, you tend to cancel yourself out.
I’ve been think about that after reading Ross Douthat’s latest piece for the New York Times. In this essay, he focuses on Pope Francis and the hopeful revival of liberal Christianity. Could it happen? Douthat says yes, but it has challenges:
But there are deep reasons why liberal Christianity has struggled lately, which a Francis-inspired revival would need to overcome. One is the tendency for a liberal-leaning faith to simply become a secularized faith, obsessed with political utopias and embarrassed by supernatural hopes, until the very point of churchgoing gradually evaporates. (It’s not a coincidence that the most resilient of left-leaning religious communities, the African-American church, is also the most frankly supernaturalist.)
The other is religious liberalism’s urge to follow secular liberalism in embracing the sexual revolution and all its works — a move that promises renewal but rarely delivers, because it sells out far too much of scripture and tradition along the way.
The first tendency is one that this pope’s example effectively rebukes. However “left” his political impulses may be, they are joined to a prayerful and devotional sensibility, an earthy, Satan-invoking zeal that has nothing arid or secularized about it.
The second tendency, though, is one that Francis has tacitly encouraged, by empowering clerics and theologians who seem to believe that Rome’s future lies in imitating the moribund Episcopal Church’s approach to sex, marriage and divorce.
I don’t agree with everything Douthat says here, but he is on to something. Douthat says that religious liberals have sold out to the sexual revolution and that has cost it in many ways.
And I think he’s right.
Now before the pitchforks come out, I should explain. Being gay, I am thankful of having a church and denomination that welcomes me. The sexual ethics I grew up with was not something I would share with others, at least the ways it was taught. The problem is this: liberal Christianity asks nothing of us when it comes to our sexuality. It never asks how we should live as Christians when it comes to sex. It never asks when abortions are necessary and when it is morally questionable, it just follows the line that comes from secular feminists. It talks about same sex marriage as “love wins” but doesn’t ask what is marriage for as Christians.
I’m not urging that we create a lists of dos and don’ts when it comes to sex. But like so much of the modern liberal church, we don’t think theologically about sexuality. What liberal Christians have done is just tacitly accept what the wider liberal culture has accepted with out thinking about it critically.
So, if a journalist is writing a story and he or she has a choice to talk to either a liberal pastor who supports abortion on demand or the local abortion rights activist, they are going to go with the activist. Why go to a pastor who will say the same thing when you have the real thing?
I will say it again: I am not advocating for liberal Christians to give up their support for a more liberal attitude towards sexuality. What I am calling for is to start to think about the whys more often. We need to be thinking theologically and not culturally.
Having been trained as a journalist, I can tell you that writers want to get an interesting angle and we don’t have one. And part of the reason is that liberal Christianity has lost or squandered it’s theological tradition. In it’s place we have used culture-talk or politics, which make us sound like the Democratic Party at prayer. If that is what we are, then I can see why people would rather stay in bed and get some extra sleep than go to church.
If mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity, especially the Protestant kind, wants to stand out more, then it needs to be a unique voice in society instead of an echo.
I wrote this post in the summer of 2011. The trend has continued in the succeeding years. I will write something more current on the issue, but this old posts still stands.
I’ve been noticing lately within Mainline Protestant circles, the rising use of the word “progressive” as a way to describe Christians who might have once used the term “mainline Protestant.” The biggest change to note is over at the religion megasite Patheos, which changed the name of one of their religion portals. What was once called “Mainline Protestant” is now called “Progressive Christian.” That change has brought about a discussion of the term and there have been some fairly good posts about name change.
That said, I’m also a tad bit wary of the term.
Continue reading “Repost: “Progressive Christians” and Yours Truly”
A friend on Facebook linked to an article in First Things by Mark Regnerus. Regnerus is an interesting fellow. He is a sociologist at the University of Texas and has been at the center of some controversy in recent years over a study he released on gay parenting that did not put same sex families in a positive light. Knowing that, I was a little hesitant to share this article because so many will dismiss this article at first read because of who wrote it.
I disagree with Regnerus, but his article on diversity in mainline churches did hit at something I’ve been thinking about. If you can read past the triumphalism of the post, he shares that for all the talk within mainline churches about diversity, there just isn’t that much to be found vis-a-vis Pentecostal or Catholic churches:
There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”
In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.
But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.
By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.
I think there is truth to be found here. I’ve heard more than enough stories about mainline clergy who are persons of color and how they are treated. I know some of the hidden racism I’ve faced over the years from people supposedly committed to social justice. There are problems within other sectors of American Christianity, but mainline congregations have never seemed to me to be naturally diverse in a way that I’ve seen in Catholic or some evangelical communities. We are good at talking about race and racial injustice, but I think we aren’t that good when it comes to living it.
To add to that, Regnerus’ joke about Episcopal plumbers shows another embarassing truth about most, but not all of the mainline: there are almost no working class folk in the pews. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the mainline congregations in my hometown of Flint, Michigan as well as here in Minnesota that are closed tended to be less middle to upper middle class and more working to middle class. When I think of some of the strongest mainline churches, they tend to be large urban congregations that again have few working class people. Regnerus’ quip about rich and poor Catholics taking communion together is very true. My years attending Catholic schools and having many Catholic friends have shown me congregations where doctors and carpenters worship together. My Catholic high school in Michigan had a mix of people from various economic classes. Maybe that’s because I came from a working class town where General Motors had a big influence, but I don’t think I’m far off.
In contrast most of the mainline churches I’ve been involved in tended to be folks that were professionals of some sort. Nurses, teachers, middle management folk are what make up some of the Disciple, Presbyterian and UCC churches.
Three years ago I wrote about the fact that the white working class are few and far between in mainline churches. I wrote in 2012:
The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much. I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure. I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them. The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well. As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of. As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description. How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it. A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes. We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.
A recent online conversation has led me back to the old debate about the phrase “hate the sin, love the sinner.”* As I said back in 2012, I’ve never had the reaction that other mainline/progressive Christians seem to have about it. Blogger Ben Godsen shares why he feels we need to kick this phrase to the curb:
See here’s the thing, you can’t “love a sinner” without getting to know the person. But you can hate the sin without ever knowing the person. So if we don’t really know a person but we do think you know about their sin, then we’re just trying to find a “bless their heart” way of saying we don’t approve of whatever it is we think their sin is. That way the real guilt remains on the other person and not on our judgmental view of that person. It’s a phrase that gives us the right to declare what’s right and wrong with the world without ever having to invest in the lives of another person and especially a person who might be different from us. It’s a phrase that gives us permission to guard ourselves against encountering the grace and humanity in others and thus preserving our own sense of superiority.
I’ve been wondering why I don’t have as much a problem with the phrase that others seem to have. As I mulled it over, I came to a conclusion: I saw this practice lived out in the life of my mother.
Mom has always been someone that seems to balance sin and grace in a way few do. I remember Mom talking about her two younger brothers who at the time were living with women without being married. She thought that was sinful, but she never stopped loving them. She never stopped helping them out when they needed help. Contrary to the belief of some that this phrase is used to express moral superiority, Mom never saw herself as better than her brothers. She had her belief that what they were doing was in her eyes sinful but it didn’t keep her from loving her brothers. Love, not counting sin was what mattered.
Mom showed this same love of sinners and hating sin in other occasions. Mom used to see homosexuality as sinful, but that would never stop her from caring for people no matter who they were.
This new conversation has me thinking more about sin in American society, namely how much we don’t talk about it. A lot of the discussion around “hate the sin…” is focused on telling people to focus on their own sin and not the sins of others. That makes sense to a point, but here’s the thing: we don’t really focus on our own sin. We really don’t want to focus on our sin, let alone the sins of others. How many churches really do confession and forgiveness on Sunday mornings?
Maybe that’s what bothers me about some of the criticism; it doesn’t talk about sin in our own lives and the lives of others in our communities. The alternative vision offered seems to look like cheap grace more than anything else. I might be wrong, but it feels that way.
I’m not advocating that we start acting like Puritans and placing Scarlet Letters on people. I don’t doubt that there are people who want to offer backhanded comments that put down people instead of lifting them up. But I wish that when we think about this phrase, that we be more thoughtful about how it is used.
*The funny thing about “hate the sin…” is that I’ve never, ever heard anyone utter those words. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t happened, just that I’ve never heard it in my own life.
This weekend will be an interesting one for me.
No, nothing really special is happening. It’s just that this weekend I will be preaching from a passage that many progressive Christians take to heart: Micah 6:8 (Actually I’m going to preach on Micah 6:1-8).
You know the passage:
He has told you, human one, what is good and
what the Lord requires from you:
to do justice, embrace faithful love, and walk humbly with your God.
-Common English Bible
A lot of people who are into social justice issues love this passage and I can see why. Micah 6:8 is probably one of the most well-known verses in Scripture. It is used especially when talking about political and social issues. More often than not, the verse is used to address the whole of our society. It has been used when, for example there are planned cuts to a welfare program or for things such as the raising of the minimum wage.
But is this what that passage is all about? Are we saying that God supports the Affordable Care Act or raising the minimum wage to $15/hour?
I’ve been thinking for a while that we are doing this wrong.
Progressives get on conservative for cherry-picking Bible verses to suit their worldview. While I think that is a legitimate complaint, progressives don’t have clean hands on this either and Micah 6:8 is evidence number one.
People use this verse separated from the rest of the book of Micah. It is taken out of any context and people unwittingly use it to support their own political agendas. We forget that this passage was written to a society in Israel that had fallen away from God. Chapter 6 shows a God in pain, wondering why the people of Israel have gone their own way. In verse 6 God is saying to the people that grand displays of piety are not what God is interested in. God doesn’t need a large sacrifice. What God wants is found in verse 8: God wants the people to act just, be kind and be humble. God is calling the people of Israel to repent and follow God. It’s difficult to use this passage to speak to 21st century American society, because that is not what it was intended for.
Methodist pastor Allan Bevere has made this misuse of Micah and other prophetic verses the subject of many blog posts and one book. This is what he had to say last year in response to a progressive Christian’s blog post:
If the religious right and the left want to get the target of their hermeneutic correct, they need to understand that the commands of Scripture in the Old Testament are, by and large, directed toward the people of God Israel, and in the New Testament it is the church. It is the people of God that is to embody the prophets’ concern for justice and the Torah’s concern for morality and purity. And it is by that biblically based way of life that the church engages in the politics of witness that it is God and not the nations who rules the world. The church by its example bears witness to the nations what God wants of them as well. The church by its witness is not a prop for the state, but its alternative. Once the nation becomes the primary hermeneutical target of Scripture, the primary community of faith becomes the state. The church is eclipsed in this world and so is the kingdom of God, and thus Christians will in the end functionally identify more with what it means to be progressive or conservative than with what it means to be the church.
So, this passage is not about getting universal health care any more than 2 Chronicles 7:14, a passage used by conservatives to justify their agendas.
If verses like Micah 6:8 have a purpose today, it is relating to the church- the inheritors of God’s covenant with the Israelites. So, we aren’t using this to go against Republicans, it was meant for all of us in the pews and those in pulpit.
In America today, we are good at using Bible passages to justify are own views and condemn others. It is another thing to really sit down and think about what this passage is saying and what it has to say to me and to the church.
Progressive Christians misuse of this passage has in many ways weakened us. We have used it to justify our progressive politics and dress up God in left-leaning garb. We end up worshipping the state (at least when it agrees with us) instead of worshipping God.
None of this means people shouldn’t be concerned about health care or war or what have you. But we can’t just take a passage that was meant for a different people in a different time to justify our own agendas. Because when we do that, we threaten our witness in the world.
Writer’s note: I was going to write another post about church planting in Mainline churches, and I still plan to, but I think this post sums up a lot of what I am feeling still. One update: I am not leading the new church team anymore.
As most of you know, I’ve been the head of a new church ministry in my Region. There have been some good and not so good developments in the area of church planting last year, though for the most part it was a down year in many ways. The good news is that our group got bigger as a few more people expressed interest in being involved. The so-so news is how I’m leading. I want to give people the chance to step up and take part, but I have to balance that with the need to just get something done.
The not-so-good things is the fact that a lot of potential church plants just died on the vine. One planter looked like he was going to plant a new community in the eastern suburbs of the Twin Cities. Things seemed to be moving ahead and then he back out…
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When I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention. It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night. At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”
I really didn’t know what it meant. I originally thought it was nice to talk about God. I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God. God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.
I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post. Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio. In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians. The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil. Watson writes:
Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.
The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:
One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?
For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.
God is a concept. It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking. When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.” We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come. But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come. We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world. We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.
As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.
Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places. More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.
The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.
About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation. The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life. I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met. I wish I had a chance to get to know him better. During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful. The priest was surprised to hear this. As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response. Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times. How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?
Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world. Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard. We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world. There is evil out there. There are men knocking their wives unconscious. There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body. There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys. There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children. Yes, there is evil. But God is also present. God hasn’t given up on creation. God has already overcome the world. THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.
I’m not leaving the mainline church. I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to. I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed. But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.
I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity. We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.
I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.” Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.
“Aslan is on the move.” It’s time we believe that again.
This 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?
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.