I personally believe that twenty years from now most churches will welcome gay and lesbian families, will call gay and lesbian people to live lives of faithfulness and sacrificial love in their relationship just as they call heterosexual couples to do, and that they will see the passages on same-sex attraction as reflecting cultural norms just as the passages on slavery and on the subordination of women reflected cultural norm and not God’s heart and timeless will.
Southern Baptist blogger Jonathan Merritt has a pretty good article about his denomination as it deals with a decline that is not unfamiliar to mainline Protestants. He offers a few ideas on how to stem the decline and the one that gets the most attention is where the he faults the SBC for mixing religion and politics or more specifically, conservative politics:
Tony Campolo once said that mixing the church with government is “like mixing ice cream with horse manure: You will not ruin the horse manure, but it will ruin the ice cream.” I’ll let you determine which one is the ice cream in his analogy.
During the last 25 years, the Southern Baptist Convention has rushed headlong into conservative politics, often parroting Republican talking points and baptizing the GOP’s agenda. Just last year, Richard Land, former head of the SBC’s political arm, broke tradition and publicly endorsed Mitt Romney for President.
Of the 117 resolutions passed by the denomination at their annual meeting since 2000, a breathtaking 70 of them have been political. This includes a 2003 resolution endorsing President Bush’s war in Iraq, a 2008 resolution taking a position in the so-called “War on Christmas,” and a 2009 resolution titled “On President Barack Hussein Obama.” I keep waiting for a resolution naming Sean Hannity as an honorary fourth member of the Trinity.
American evangelicalism is becoming more politically diverse and nuanced than it once was, particularly among young people. If the denomination continues to operate like a Republican lapdog, it can expect to be seen as a polarizing political institution. If they can learn to speak truth to power on both sides of the aisle, the SBC stands a chance of restoring its image. Americans want a Church that is prophetic, not partisan.
Having been raised in an evangelical background, I can agree with Merritt that there conservative Christianity has basically gotten in bed with conservative politics. That was part of the reason that I left the evangelicalism of my youth and joined mainline Protestantism. I was leaving the partisan in favor of a church that wasn’t in the thrall of the Republicans.
And the mainline church isn’t carrying the water for the Republicans, no sir.
They are carrying water for the Democrats.
Merritt is probably right that the SBC’s willingness to align itself with the GOP has turned off potential members. They seem to waste a lot of time passing resolutions on whatever conservative cause du jour. But having been a part of mainline/progressive Christianity for two decades, I would posit that the left-wing agenda of mainline churches has also turned off potential members. I’ve heard enough “sermons” from pastors that are basically Democratic speeches with “God” tossed in a few times to know that the mainline is playing the same game conservatives churches are doing.
Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead, who is Episcopalian, wrote a modern-day jeremiad against the mainline churches for their willingness to basically be petty prophets for what he calls the “Blue social model,” the operating model of governing starting at the middle of the 20th century. He accuses mainline churches of confusing the Kingdom of God with the Blue Social Model:
The problem is that the contemporary mainline churches have confused the Blue social model with the Kingdom of God. I’ve written about this model before — what the Blue model is and why it is breaking down, why the breakdown has impaled contemporary liberal politics on the horns of an impossible dilemma, and how the Blue Beast is sucking the life out of the mainline churches today. Historically this is not surprising; the blue social model was in large part formed by thinkers from the mainline churches in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Somehow the mainline churches came through the violence and the upheavals of the twentieth century with their faith in liberal progress largely intact. Neither Stalin nor Hitler nor Reinhold Niebuhr could convince us of the power of original sin; neither Hiroshima nor the Holocaust shook our faith in the ability of good government programs to remake mankind.
To mistake an ideology or a social model for the transcendent and always surprising (and irritating!) Kingdom of God is, technically speaking, the sin of idolatry. It is to worship the work of our own hands. What makes it worse is that to some degree in the mainline churches we have replaced faith in the scripturally based and historically rooted doctrines and values of the Christian heritage with faith in progressive social thought.
Instead of proclaiming a gospel of salvation that still brings lost sinners streaming through the doors (ask the Pentecostals and evangelicals who have continued to grow even as we shrink) we issue statements urging the federal government to fulfill its contributions to the Millennium Development Goals and to raise the minimum wage. They preach and plant churches; we have professional development workshops for diocesan employees.
It’s hard for me to not to look at Merritt’s suggestion with a bit of suspicion. It’s not that he’s wrong; I think he’s spot on. What makes me skeptical is that I fear he is asking people to give up one idol and fall for another one.
I wasn’t expecting him to also call out the mainline church. But I do wish that those who look at the sin of conservatives in walking too close to the ways of the world, are willing to look at their own heart and actions .
I end this with a quote from Methodist blogger Alan Bevere:
I must confess as a mainline Protestant who has come out of evangelicalism, I find it almost tragically humorous when the religious left accuses the religious right of wanting to institute a theocracy in America when they have their own theocratic vision they are working to bring to fruition. It reveals the truth of the statement that when you point your finger at someone there are three pointing back at you. The way around the errors of both, of course, is for the church to recover its primary work of embodying the gospel in its corporate life and bearing witness to the ways of God in the world. That is the central way the church is to be political in the world. As I continue to say, the church is where the politics of the kingdom resides and comes to fruition, not in the halls of nation state power.
A recent post by Methodist pastor Chad Holtz got me thinking again about feelings and faith.
As a kid, I was always nervous when it came to my being a Christian. I grew up in evangelical and Black Protestant churches where there was a lot of emphasis placed on emotions. I didn’t understand it then, but I was having to deal with being autistic and understanding my faith. Because so much was placed on how one felt, I was always wondering if I really did believe. I didn’t always feel anything. I knew certain things. I knew Jesus died for me. I knew about heaven and I knew that God loved me. But I was always told that knowing things isn’t enough. One has to experience God, which meant one had to feel God, which was something that was hard for me.
I can’t speak for everyone that is on the spectrum, but I do wonder if other people have a hard time with faith. Since I can’t see God, I have to just trust that something is there. Thank God for imagination, which can help give some flesh to faith and allow someone like me to understand everything. My love of all things supernatural, talk of zombies or vampires is a way of understanding that there are some things that don’t make sense.
I believe it was Martin Luther that once placed a marker of some kind that served as a reminder that he was saved by faith. It was a visual and concrete reminder. Now that is something I can grab on to and make sense. In fact, it is a window on how I’ve learned to come to some peace about faith and feelings or lack thereof. I might not always feel “strangely warmed” but I do know that God loves me. I’ve learned to trust God even when I can’t feel God. I’ve learned to be religious but not spiritual.
Hey, it works.
“E Pluribus Unum”
Matthew 28:19-20, II Corinthians 13:11-13
May 18, 2008 (Trinity Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
As some of you know and are probably well sick of me telling you, I love science-fiction. What I love about this genre is that it present modern problems in futuristic garb. And I know that are also know and are sick of me telling you that I love Star Trek for especially, that reason. The groundbreaking television series, with a multicultural cast, dealt with many modern issues, such as war, racism, drugs, sexism and other topics. In the late 80s Star Trek came back to television in the version of Star Trek: The Next Generation. With a new series came new enemies. In the original television series, we had the Romulans and the Klingons. In the new series, we had an even more menacing villain: the Borg.
The Borg are a race of beings half-humanoid, half-android. There is no such thing as individuality or uniqueness among the Borg. They are soulless beings that work as one. They fly around in a ship that looks like giant cube and their job is to assimilate other species into their own collective. Whenever the meet up with a ship, such as the Enterprise, they “greet” their soon to be prey with these words: “We are Borg. Lower your shields. Your biological and technological distinctiveness will be added to our own. Resistance is futile.”
Today, the first Sunday after Pentecost, is commonly called Trinity Sunday, the day we remember the concept of God as Three in One; God the Father or Mother, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. This is always an odd day for Christians and for those of us who are part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in particular. For one thing, this is day devoted not to something in the Bible, but to doctrine, something that came along long after the Bible was written. For Disciples, this is also perplexing, because most of our founders were not considered what some would call Trinitarians. Because people like Barton Stone and Alexander Campbell placed an emphasis on restoring the church to what it was in the first century and because the word “trinity” is not found in the Bible, they did not place a whole lot of emphasis on it. That’s not to say they didn’t believe in God the Son or God the Holy Spirit, it’s just that they wouldn’t call that Trinity, nor would they make that a precursor for someone to become part of a faith community.
So, what do we do with this day? Do we ignore it? We could do that. But I think that there is still much to be mined from this day and from the Trinity. I think there is much to learn about who God is and how we can be church in this world. I think the Trinity is less of a doctrine that one must believe than a way to live life.
Now today’s texts have nothing to do with the Trinity. I am not going to try to say they uphold the doctrine of the Trinity, because no one was thinking in those terms yet. But they do give some clues about God and about us.
In the closing chapters of Matthew, Jesus tells his disciples to go and teach and baptize in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. He also tells them that he will always be with them until time ends.
Paul ends his second letter to his problem church in Corinth by saying that they should put their affairs in order, be agreeable with each other and greet each other with a holy kiss. And then he ends by saying a phrase that I know that I have heard often: “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with all of you.”
The scriptures today remind us that we have a job to do. Jesus calls us to go into all the world and make disciples. Not make church goers, but disciples: people who will be followers of Jesus, not simply pew sitters. This text is commonly called the Great Commission many a pastor has preached on this text, to tell people to go and tell others about the Good News of Jesus. Congregations are urged to tell people about Jesus and pastors and churches get busy in the work of evangelism. There is nothing wrong with this, provided we don’t forget what else Jesus is saying here. We are to go and make disciples and also teach and baptize. We are called to help others understand the ways of Jesus and what it means that God loves us. And we are called to baptize, to formally welcome them into the larger faith community and into the life of being a follower of Jesus.
This seems like a tall order. How can we do this all? The sad fact is that many churches and pastors get involved in trying to be Christ in the world, and forget to take Christ with them. Jesus tells his disciples that he will be with them and God will be a work along with us as we preach, teach and baptize. It is not all on our shoulders. Christ is with us working in the lives of others and sustaining us when the road is long and hard.
If Jesus is giving us a charge of action, Paul is giving us a charge of character. Paul is telling the Corinthians to be in agreement with each other. Now, at first blush, this seems to mean that all the Corinthians must think the same way. The sad thing is that throughout church history, followers of Jesus have decided that everyone must have the same beliefs. People were forced out of churches for not sharing the same views on things as everyone else. That is not what Paul is saying here. Instead, Paul is saying we should not be divisive, or to put it in another way, to disagree without being disagreeable. He then ends it with the “trinitarian greeting.” What interesting here is that within God there is difference and yet unity. The love of God, the grace of Jesus, the communion of the Holy Spirit. Three different aspects of God and yet the same God, all in agreement.
As I said, the Trinity isn’t a doctrine to be believed. But I do think it is a way of life to be lived. Within God is diversity. Father/Mother God, Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit. Some people refer to the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer. When Paul tells the Corinthians to be in agreement, he wasn’t calling for them to think the same and be the same. He was calling for this community to be united and yet different.
That is what we are called to be today. We all come here with as unique individuals. We all come from different backgrounds, with different life experiences and different religious and political beliefs. What binds us together, is the love of God, the grace of Jesus and the communion of the Holy Spirit. The church is called to be a place where there is diversity in every way imaginable and yet there is unity as well.
The fact is, the world sorely needs to hear this message. We live in a world where there is a spirit of sameness that is afraid of difference. We sort ourselves out into Republicans and Democrats, straight and gay, black and white and so on. We like to be in communities where everyone things like we do. In a way we are like the Borg, wanting to have a community where difference is not tolerated.
But God is calling us to be a place where we are different. We are called to be a place where we have a common purpose and goal, but where we are different as God is different.
The thing is, this diverse and yet unifying God is with us everywhere. We are reminded of God the Creator in the beauty of creation, we see God the Redeemer, when we receive communion and know that we are loved, no matter what. We see God the Sustainer, when when this diverse bunch of people gather together every Sunday to worship and bear each others burdens. God is with is, God is around us, and God is in us. We are never truly alone and we are called to be welcoming to all we meet.
You don’t have to believe in the Trinity. But I do think it is a lesson in how we are to be church: we are to be a community that knows God is with us and that is welcoming to all, even those people that are very different from us.
The fictional Borg, like to say “resistance is futile.” But I think in a world that demands conformity, we can respond with the old Latin phrase, “e pluribus unum,” out of many one. Out of many ways of being, we are united in Christ.
Maybe resistance isn’t so futile after all. Thanks be to God. Amen.
Here’s a sermon I preached in 2007 on Pentecost Sunday.
“Waiting to Exhale”
May 27, 2007 (Pentecost Sunday)
Lake Harriet Christian Church
When I was about two years old, I was diagnosed with asthma. From about age two until maybe age 9, I dealt with constant asthma attacks where I had hard time breathing. I can remember sitting in the doctor’s office of Dr. Cory Cookingham, who was my allergy and asthma doctor, who would sometimes have to give me a shot of adrenalin to open up my constricted lungs. More than once he worried if this didn’t work, that the hospital would be the next stop.
Growing up as a kid with asthma was not fun in the early 70s. I still had a pretty full childhood, but there were things I was limited in doing. My made sure all the schools I attended were clean and not dusty so as not to trigger an attack. I remember when I was very young, not playing outdoors again for fear of an attack.
As I got older the spectre of asthma grew smaller. I was able to play outdoors and have fun, no longer fearful for another attack. In fact I went without an asthma attack for eight years until the summer I graduated high school. I still have attacks few and far between, but I do carry an inhaler just in case. Read More…
An interesting meditation on the role of the tragic in life of Christian worship and in modern culture:
The problem with much Christian worship in the contemporary world, Catholic and Protestant alike, is not that it is too entertaining but that it is not entertaining enough. Worship characterized by upbeat rock music, stand-up comedy, beautiful people taking center stage, and a certain amount of Hallmark Channel sentimentality neglects one classic form of entertainment, the one that tells us, to quote the Book of Common Prayer, that “in the midst of life we are in death.”
It neglects tragedy. Tragedy as a form of art and of entertainment highlighted death, and death is central to true Christian worship. The most basic liturgical elements of the faith, baptism and the Lord’s Supper, speak of death, of burial, of a covenant made in blood, of a body broken. Even the cry “Jesus is Lord!” assumes an understanding of lordship very different than Caesar’s. Christ’s lordship is established by his sacrifice upon the cross, Caesar’s by power…
Of all places, the Church should surely be the most realistic. The Church knows how far humanity has fallen, understands the cost of that fall in both the incarnate death of Christ and the inevitable death of every single believer. In the psalms of lament, the Church has a poetic language for giving expression to the deepest longings of a humanity looking to find rest not in this world but the next. In the great liturgies of the Church, death casts a long, creative, cathartic shadow. Our worship should reflect the realities of a life that must face death before experiencing resurrection.
As they say, read the whole thing.