Category: new churches

Here I Am. Send Someone Else.

New Property Sign (1) [800x600]I came back from the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a week ago.  I got some great ideas about revitalizing First Christian of St. Paul, but there is still this desire to be part of planting a new church.

I tend to believe that the Twin Cities and Rochester are poised for new Disciple congregations.  But while I believe this and feel that we need to get on the ball, I also know not everyone feels the same way, which only makes me more anxious to see something new.

Whenever I bring this up, everyone to a person seems to think I should be the one planting a church and my reaction is…mixed.

You see, I’ve planted a church before and while I had a good time, it was hard to get people to take part in the life of the church.  Gathering a church can be a challenge.  That and if I did it, I’d be on my own.

But it’s not just competence that keeps me from doing this- it’s also the fact that I’m busy trying to help revitalize a church and that takes time.  I want to help, but I just don’t have the time to start a church.

Which is why I pray that God will lift up people who want to plant a church.  I can’t do it now.  But I have to believe there are maybe first call pastors or young adults that would like to try something different.

I want to believe that, because I think the harvest is ready and we need some laborers.

Volunteers Needed: Church Launch/Re-Launch Team

First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this Mainline Protestant congregation as well as launching a preaching point somewhere in the St.Paul area.

The Re-Launch/Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you know of someone who feels called to redevelop or develop a congregation, please pass this along.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact the pastor. We will contact you shortly!

Adventures In Church Planting: 2013 (REPOST)

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.

The Clockwork Pastor

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.

church planting quoteThe 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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Work with a Church Rising from the Ashes in Minnesota

The following is something I wrote on the First Christian website.  As some of you know, First-St. Paul is down to a few faithful members.  We are starting to venture forth into the community, but it would by helpful if we had a few more people.  Share this with your friends.  To contact me, go to the bottom of this post.

IMG_0033First Christian Church of St. Paul is looking for the curious, the energetic, the adventurous and others who are interested in relaunching this congregation.

First Christian is a 132-year old congregation. The congregation is affiliated with the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) a mainline Protestant denomination. Until 1996, the congregation was located on Marshall Avenue in the Cathedral Hill area. In that year the building was sold and a church building was purchased in Mahtomedi, a St. Paul suburb. Like many urban congregations, First Christian lost membership until the church was left with a handful of members. While the current congregation is small, they have great faith and seek to be church. The members are open to new ways of doing ministry as much as being in community with each other. Changes have been made in worship, administration and mission. We are slowly but surely connecting the surrounding Mahtomedi/White Bear Lake community. The congregation works with ministry partners like the Mahtomedi Area Food Shelf and Hope for the Journey Family Shelter in Oakdale. We are working with other Disciples of Christ congregation to have a presence at the Twin Cities Gay Pride Festival, reaching out the LGBT community. God truly has been at work in this community. While there is great energy and faith, the congregation realizes the need to have a critical mass of people involved in our faith community.

First Christian is in many ways being rebirthed. The process is not unlike a church start, which is why we are looking at creating a launch team to join us in the rebirthing process. The Re-Launch Team is the group of people who are simply saying I want to be a part of what God is doing in and through this church. It’s a group of people willing to walk with those already here and see what God is doing. You don’t need any special gifts or skills but an attitude that says I will do whatever is needed.

If you are interested in this journey, please contact Pastor Dennis Sanders at info@fccstpaul.com or by phone at (612) 568-4576. We will contact you shortly!

Sunday Sermon: “No Do Overs”

This is a sermon I preached in 2007 for the Baptism of Our Lord which is next Sunday.  I happen to be preaching next Sunday.  No, I won’t be using this sermon.

“No Do Overs”
Isaiah 43:1-7, Luke 3:15-22
January 7, 2007 (Baptism of Our Lord)
Community of Grace Christian Church*
Minneapolis, MN

Did you ever have one of those experiences where you are playing a board game and you made some kind of mistake? Someone usually has pity on you and you get what is called a “do-over.”

I live for those moments.

Do overs can be great, I mean you get another chance. I really like them when I was playing some kind of athletic game as a kid. Since I was not blessed with physical prowess, this meant that I had another shot at getting it right.

Getting a do-over in say, kickball, is a good thing, but do-overs don’t work so well in the life of faith. In fact, they might do some damage.

Today is what is commonly called The Baptism of Our Lord. It is on this day, that we read about Jesus, the Son of God, the one who had no sin, coming forth to be baptized. Baptism has always been a touchy subject for me. As many of you know, I come from the Baptist tradition, so people tend to get baptized later in life than someone from a tradition that practices infant baptism. Baptists as well as Disciples believe in something called “believer’s baptism,” which means that the person usually makes a profession of faith before they are baptized. I got baptized in December 1976 at New Jerusalem Baptist Church in my hometown of Flint, Michigan. I was seven years old and didn’t understand everything that was going on. Anyway, I did get baptized and went on to grow up in the church and learn about God and about how God loved me.

As I got older, I started to have doubts. I would hear many preachers talking about making sure we were saved by God and I would fret about this. Did I really believe? It didn’t get any better when I was in college. Back then, I shared my concerns with my campus pastor. His belief was that in my case, I might want to get baptized again since I wasn’t sure. When I shared this with my mother, she looked at me as if I had just turned purple. I never went through with it and over time, I put my fears to rest. That was until about five years later when I was looking to join a Baptist church in Washington, DC. I was chatting with the pastor, and he asked if I had been baptized. I said yes “Was it a believer’s baptism?” he said. I tensed up. All the doubts came back. You see, he believed that the “believer’s baptism” was the only true way to be baptized and had “re-baptized” those who came from traditions where they were baptized as children. Despite my doubts, I told him I had been baptized. Continue reading “Sunday Sermon: “No Do Overs””

Mainline Churches Don’t Give a Rip About Church Planting.

As 2012 draws to a close, I’m taking some time to reflect on the new church ministry in the Christian Church in the Upper Midwest and the hopes for 2013 and church planting in within Mainline Protestantism as a whole.

Earlier this year, I kind of fell into leading a ministry team of people interested in planting and sustaining new faith communities in my Region.  In some ways, I don’t know how wise it was to have me leading this, since I’m not a great leader, or at least have some traits that make it difficult to provide visionary leadership.  But I have stepped into the role and did the best I could with what I have.

This past year has been both uplifting and frustrating.  Uplifting because I see people who are called to plant new church communities accross the Region.  Frustrating, because it seems that such work brings shrugs from the larger church.

In my talking and meeting with people, I’ve encountered folks who tend to not care so much about new church when they hear the phrase.  Some have said it is a waste of money while others remain quiet or change the conversation to focus on justice issues or practical tips to help churches.

For someone like me who has a passion for new church,wants to support new church pastors and wants to tell the world about it, this apathy/hostility just makes me mad.

This is not just a problem among the Disciples.  Accross the mainline denominations church planting is viewed as the red-headed stepchild, if that.  Within the bodies of these denominations, there have been campaign after campaign to trumpet the need for planting churches and time after time again, those campaigns peter out and are forgotten.  The Presbyterians latest push is 1001 New Worshipping Communities and while it looks promising , there’s a part of me that thinks this push will fall by the wayside like so many other campaigns.

The thing is, while new church campaigns come and go, mainline churches are declining at a fast pace.  Earlier this year, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post related to his work on the Mid-Council Commission, which was an attempt by the PC(USA) to restructure the church for the current age.  In that post, Vest shares the sad news:

It is well known that practically every mainline Protestant denomination—and increasingly, many of the evangelical denominations—has experienced a significant decline in membership and overall strength since the middle of the 20th century. The experience of the PC(USA) is consistent with this overall trend. The membership of the PC(USA) is now half of what its predecessor denominations were in 1965, a loss of over 2,000,000 members. (emphasis mine)

In 2008, as the PC(USA) celebrated the 25th anniversary of Reunion, the denomination had experienced a net loss of almost 1,000,000 members since the 1983 merger, from 3,131,228 to 2,140,165. By 2010, our membership had further dropped to 2,016,091—a decrease of almost 36% over the course of 27 years. Though the rate of decline is less severe, the number of PC(USA) congregations has also dropped from 11,662 in 1983 to 10,560 in 2010, a loss of nearly 9.5%. In every year since Reunion, we have lost more congregations than we have gained.

For the congregations that remain, the situation is often dire. We are an increasingly aging denomination, with a median age of 61. The average size of PC(USA) congregations has been significantly reduced over the past quarter century. It is now the case that half of all congregations have a membership of 100 or less. During this same time, average worship attendance has also dropped significantly. The percentage of these shrinking congregations that can afford to employ an installed pastor has decreased dramatically. In 2010, 44% of PC(USA) congregations had no installed pastor…

Most significantly, however, is the reality that we are not reaching out to newcomers or investing in new church development. As a denomination, across all geographic areas, we are not planting enough new faith communities. Between 2000 and 2010, only 226 new churches were chartered. This is simply not sustainable. (emphasis mine) The Presbyterian Church of the 21st century must be a denomination that encourages and nurtures new church development.

I’m not trying to dump on the Presbyterians (they do, after all, keep me employed).  But the Presbyterians do show what’s going on in the wider mainline church.  Most mainline denominations are closing churches faster than they are planting them.  But why is this?

I’m beginning to think that the problem here is baked into the modern mainline Protestant church.  I think in some ways what has happened is that many mainline churches have become places where the folks in the pews are nothing more than customers and we really don’t know what the church is for, let alone why it matters to be a Christian.  I think the problem here is that the mainline church has forgotten who it is and who it belongs to.  Until pastors and the laity know why being a Christian matters and how it changes us, until we know what they church is for and about, until we see a life of faith as less about being affirmed and more about taking up our crosses, until we realize that we are called, gathered and sent, then church planting will be a losing proposition.

Episcopal priest Robert Hendrickson notes that many liberal Protestant churches are places that have become devoid of the mystery of the Christian faith, let alone stressing the fact that being a follower of Jesus changes us:

Current trends in the Church point toward a revolution of profound and disturbing significance. We no longer seem able or willing to say how it is that God transforms us as individuals and as a Body because we are uncomfortable with difference. The underlying message of the Diocese of Eastern Oregon’s proposal to endorse Communion without Baptism was first that we have failed to bring new people to the Church and second that the failure really isn’t that important because people are fine as they are and not in need of Baptism.

The message of the Church cannot only be “you’re fine as you are.” This kind of undifferentiated affirmation results not in an inclusive community but in a community without an understanding of its own purpose, message, identity, or goal.

I am not advocating that we return to fire and brimstone or rest our teaching on moralizing about private lives but I do think we need to be honest that God is calling us to be different, to change, to be transformed. Christ’s message was not one of affirmation alone but an invitation to die. It was an invitation not to live today as we did yesterday but to know our old selves as dead. This was the invitation of Baptism. This was the difference.

The Church comes together to celebrate Sacred Mysteries. It exists to say the Mass together and share in the sacrifice of praise and thanksgiving – in Communion with Christ. It exists to baptize new believers into the Body. It exists to be a Body of reconciliation and forgiveness. It exists to call people into union with one another in Christ. It exists to heal and to offer hope for the life to come.

The Church exists to change us and all those around us in sacred moments by sacred mystery. It exists to make us different – to make us one in Christ.

I agree.  Too much of liberal Protestantism is all about affirmation and to little about invitation.  There is an important place for being affirmed and reminded we are loved by God, but our faith, our churches can’t simply be places where we come to feel good about ourselves.  They also have to be places where people are discipled in the ways of Jesus. They have to be places where the folks in the pews realized that they are called to share the good news as much as any clergyperson.

I think I and others have our work cut out for us.  While I will still advocate for new churches, I am realizing that the mainline church needs to be re-planted; because I think it has been uprooted for a long, long time and needs to the good soil and water of Christ to grow again.

Slouching Towards Detroit

Fellow Disciples pastor Steve Knight shared a good post yesterday on the need for more missional communities, which is a fancy way of saying we need more new churches.  Why?  Beside that whole Great Commission thing, it’s also because at least in mainline churches, we are growing smaller and smaller.  Here’s a graph that Steve showed about our denomination, the Disciples of Christ, over the last decade:

The picture it shows about the denomination is not pretty.  (It’s even worse for Episcopalians.) It shows at least over the last decade a steady decline.  As Steve notes, it doesn’t show the number of new congregations added (which is now over 700), but you can’t really deny that things in the Disciples of Christ are not well.

Steve starts talking about how the Mainline churches are a lot like Detroit, something that I commented on back in 2009.  As I thought about that more and more, I’ve started to think that if this analogy is true, mainline churches are in big, big trouble.

Comparisons to the largest city in Michigan hit home for me because Detroit is only an hour south of Flint, where I grew up.  I’ve seen the decline of the auto industry close up and I’ve seen how cities like Flint and Detroit have slowly declined and lost their luster, becoming shattered hulks of their former selves.  I’ve seen how these places knew the decline was happening and half-heartedly tried different schemes to bring back the shine, only to have those attempts fail.  I’ve seen the hope that somehow, the glory days would come roaring back, not knowing how, but just believing that it would.

The thing is, you tend to get used to the decline.  Things get a little shabby here and there, but we trick ourselves into thinking everything is okay…until it isn’t.

Something similar is happening among the mainline churches.  We see the decline happening,  and we try again and again to try this scheme or that scheme in the hopes that it will right the ship.  But we really don’t try hard and in someways we just expect that somehow, someway the glory days will come back.

What does this have to do with church planting?  Everything.  I’m not advocating we plant churches for the sake of saving mainline churches, thought that could be a result.  I am advocating planting churches to spread the good news of Jesus Christ.  But the problem here is that in some ways we in the mainline stopped believing in spreading the message of Christ.  We got comfortable and pursued of other agendas.  We plant churches, but sometimes the whole endeavor seems half-hearted, like we are doing something just because it seems right.

I’ve noticed over the years how hard it is to get people in mainline churches animated when it comes to new churches.  Plans to give money to church plants are met with skeptism.  If we have a meeting dealing with homosexuality? We get a full house and people getting all passionate.  Talk about new churches?  Crickets chirping.

This is not me just spouting off.  I’ve seen how people have responded in my various roles when we start talking about new churches and it seems that people just don’t seem when it comes to new churches.

None of this means I’m going to give up.  I’ve seen utter decline and I want to see mainline Protestantism be vital in the coming decades.  But, mainline churches have to stop being comfortable with decline and be willing to give up everything to save themselves- not in the hope of getting back to the glory days, but to something new and better than before.

One more auto story.  In 2006, Ford decided to place everything it owned, down to it’s blue oval logo, in hock in order to get a loan to keep the company going.  

That move was prophetic.  Two years later, the economy tanked and Ford’s crosstown rivals, General Motors and Chrysler were bankrupt and running to Washington to be saved.  Ford was able to weather the storm.  Earlier this week, Ford’s credit was raised from junk status and scion Bill Ford was able to get his family’s logo back.

Ford was willing to let go of everything in order to survive.  It was a risky move for this century-old company to do something so bold, but it paid off in the end.  Ford is a much stronger company, more competative, coming up with some cool cars that people want to drive.

Are mainline churches willing to do something that ballsy?  Are we willing to sacrifice, to lose ourselves for God’s kingdom?

I don’t know.  I hope so.  Let’s not get to comfortable with decline or expect easy solutions.  That roads leads to Detroit and well…you don’t want that.  Trust me.

Photo: Areial view of Michigan Central Station, Detroit’s main train station from 1913 until the end of Amtrak service in 1988.  The intervening 25 years have not been kind of the grand building. The website seedetroit.com notes, “Most of the interior has fallen victim to ‘urban miners’ who break in to steal any stone accents, wire and even copper tubing and bricks to sell as scrap. The removal of these materials causes extensive damage throughout, resulting in the interior being completely destroyed. Urban guerrilla artists have taken advantage of the vacant wall space.” You can see more photos of the building by going here.

Called, Gathered and Sent (Or, Why Mainline Protestants Suck at Church Planting)

I’ve been what could be considered a Mainline Protestant for 20 years.  In those 20 years, I’ve learned something about mainliners:

We really suck at planting churches.

Let me back up a moment. I started attending Calvary Baptist Church in located in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC in the fall of 1992.  It was and is an American Baptist congregation and like many mainline churches was active in the community.  Since I darkened the doors of Calvary, I’ve been part of Mainline Protestantism.  I moved to Minneapolis and joined a Disciples of Christ congregation which became my denominational home.  Today, I work full-time as a communications specialist for the local presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and part time as the Associate Pastor of a local Disciples of Christ congregation.  So, yeah, I’m a Mainline Protestant.

If there’s a theme that has been running in the background all these years, it’s the one about liberal Protestants being in decline.  All of the major Mainline Protestant denominations keep experiencing decline, with more and more churches closing and the surviving congregations growing grayer and grayer.

I’ve been around enough to see how we deal with this issue.  Sometimes we ignore it and talk about the potential problems with evangelicals, sometimes we talk about “transformation” and about changing the church (but never seem to make any real changes), and sometimes we seek to blame someone or something for the decline. 

What we don’t do, or don’t do very well is planting new churches.  All of the mainline churches have some kind of new church planting movement to get local judicatories and congregations to get involved in new churches.  While I don’t think they are absolute failures, they aren’t always astounding successes.  New churches get planted, but not at the rate that we are closing churches. 

 

There are good reasons to start churches, but for whatever reason, the general populace in mainline churches are not that excited. (I’ve shared my own experience with this.)The same goes for pastors.

Why is this the case?  Why do we suck at planting new communities of faith?

I think it comes down to one word: eccesiology, the understand of who and what is the church. Wikipedia describes ecclesiology as such:

In its theological sense, ecclesiology deals with the church’s origin, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership.

The problem here is that we have lost the sense of what the church is and how it related to Jesus and to God.  If we don’t know why we have churches, then why in God’s name would we plant any?

What does it mean to be a church?  Why should people belong to a faith community?  How does that congregation relate to the community around it?

These are questions we need to be asking, but in many cases haven’t.

Since we don’t have a language to describe church, other things fill the void which frankly do a bad job.  In writing on the future of the Mainline Church, James Wellman notes that the emphasis on social justice might actually be harming mainline churches more than helping them:

The ‘former’ Protestant mainline churches show no signs of stopping their decline. The emphasis on an educated clergy has created an elaborate system of bureaucracy that tends to repel entrepreneurial personalities and attract introspective intellectual types that are more comfortable in the classroom than in the pulpit. Moreover, the growing movement to ordain gay and lesbian men and women, while noble from a liberal and progressive perspective, tends to shift the focus of attention away from family ministries. Without an emphasis on families, churches tend to decline rapidly. Liberal Protestantism, statistically, does not keep their children and youth in their churches. The aging of these churches is also well known.

These churches focus most of their energies on ministries of social justice, particularly on meeting the needs of the homeless. This group tends to advocate inclusiveness and tolerance, making clear what they reject, but they are often unclear as to what they support religiously. As a small subculture, they will continue, but no longer, in any sense, as a mainline. Ironically enough, in some ways, their marginalization is a function of their success in ministries of justice. Most of their causes are already a part of the American mainstream, for example: women’s rights, abortion rights, and even, to some extent, gay rights. Many Americans ask, then, why even go to these churches? (emphasis mine)

 

Contrast this with how Evangelicals see the church:

The future for Evangelicals appears to be more open and perhaps expansive. Evangelicals, again broadly speaking, tend to see the Bible as inerrant; they counsel conversion and look to Jesus’ blood atonement as the requirement for salvation. They also tend, stylistically, to be much more deliberate in using modern and contemporary methods of music, worship, and, more broadly, communication. Some have argued that they are accommodated to the culture, but when interviewed, Evangelicals argue, “No, we use modern methods to reach out to those who are lost in order to share the love and salvation of Jesus Christ.” That is, Evangelicals argue that they are “less” accommodated then what they call “liberal or progressive Christians.”

In general, however, Evangelicals rarely talk about the ‘former’ mainline; they talk much more about how to reach those who are unchurched and who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In large part, because they are so structurally decentralized, they have become fragmented and entrepreneurial. Because of this ethic and ethos, young leaders with entrepreneurial personalities are drawn to this kind of Christianity, which ensures, in part, that their dynamism will continue. As to whether Evangelicals are now the mainline is simply a question they don’t ask. They are far less interested in dominating economic or political institutions then in evangelizing young people. Indeed, Evangelical youth are much more likely to stay in the church than those in the liberal or ‘former’ mainline churches. The growth of Evangelical churches, at least from their present state, seems to be assured.

 

The Lutherans have this phrase that sums up what it means to be a Christian and what the church is for: called, gathered and sent.  Evangelicals know they are called by God to spread the gospel.  They get it.  We don’t really know if we are called, don’t know why we gather or why we are sent.  We’ve lost that language and replaced it with talk of justice.  I’m not saying that we should all become conservative churches and drop issues like gay rights or poverty.  But those aren’t the reasons we are church.  As Wellman notes, as society becomes more accepting of gays, why go to church.  If I can get all that I want from a Democratic caucus meeting on poverty or the environment, why the hell plant a church? 

If Mainliners want to grow again, then we need to go back to basics: we need to know why we are church.  We need to be develop again the sense of being called by God, gathering together for common fellowship and prayer and being sent to preach the good news of Jesus. When we can actually name why we want to plant churches, hell why we are church, then maybe we will stop our decline into irrelevance. 

Repost: Why Church Planting Matters

Jim, left and my partner, Daniel, right.

From August 2010.

As First Christian plans its future, a constant among the plans is to leave some money aside for to plant new churches. Both the Senior Pastor and I have made this a priority in what ever decisions are made.

That has been met with some resistance. One person wondered why we weren’t spending some of the money on mission. Others have thought the same thing. (It’s funny that people all of the sudden care about mission when it comes to using money for church planting.) I’m always a bit angry at the resistance to planting churches. As someone whose position involves mission, I get wanting to support mission, but church planting is part of that mission.

Of course, I have a strong belief in planting new churches, because I planted one. Yes, it failed but it also made a difference in the life of one man, my dear friend Jim.

Jim came from a Catholic and Anglican background, but because he was gay, he never felt welcomed in those churches. When Community of Grace came online, he was able to reconnect with God in a way that continues today.

I don’t know if Jim would have come back to the church if it was an existing church. But because there was a new church that welcomed him regardless of his sexuality, he could come on in and meet Jesus.

I know that at First part of the resistance is that many of churches planted by the congregation have since closed. But just because a congregation is no longer in existence that doesn’t mean that planting it was in vain. Countless people were able to learn the stories of old, feast at the table, make a baptismal covenant and meet Christ. That matters.

I wonder at times if part of the resistance to new planting new churches comes from what has happened to mainline Protestant churches over the last 50 years. Walter Russell Mead writes that as the fundamentalists/evangelicals split from the modernists in the early 20th century, it was the modernists that ended up much poorer:

In a sense, the mainline churches today suffer because they never took stock of the costs of modernism in quite the same way that evangelicals came to terms with some of the shortcomings and one-sided characteristics of the fundamentalist movement. Beginning really with Billy Graham’s pilgrimage, for two generations evangelicals have been working to free themselves of cultural detritus (culturally determined views on race and on the place of women in society, for example) while holding on to the vital principles of the fundamentalist core — doctrines like original sin, the atonement, and a strong belief that God, however mysteriously, acts in history.

The heirs of the modernists, I fear, have not really had this ‘second stage’ movement. If anything, the most noticeable trend in many mainline denominations has been to go farther down the road of the modernists. Reinhold Niebuhr, a figure who in many ways came closer than any other to the kind of review and renewal that mainline Protestantism needs, would be politically and theologically isolated in the mainline churches today. His stance suggested a rigorous and critical approach to the limits of liberal theology, but that side of his legacy has been largely ignored.

Niebuhr in a sense has had no heirs. His effort to synthesize the core vision of historic Protestantism with a contemporary sensibility did not capture the imagination of subsequent generations of mainline church leaders. The mainline churches seemed to feel that little of value was really lost when the fundamentalists left. The modernists won the fight with the fundamentalists, after all. They ended up with the big buildings, the prestigious and academically well respected theological schools, the patronage of the social elite, the bully pulpits that commanded attention and respect, the control of the denominational machinery. Why look for anything more?

In truth, the split impoverished the mainline churches as much as it did the fundamentalists. Modernity in religion became progressively unglued from the foundations of Protestant faith; the mainline churches lacked the kind of compelling, burning message of faith that would have kept new generations of educated, thoughtful believers engaged in the church. For too many mainline congregations, faith faded into a habit, and the habit faded away.

While many people in the mainline churches continue to live rich and intense spiritual lives, the mainline churches as a group seem to have lost both the urge and the ability to communicate a message of urgency about the need to people to, as the old spirituals put it, “get right with God.” They have lost the ability to make the Christian life and a Christian commitment the vital center of community and family life — even for many of their own members.

Mainline churches have always been good when it comes to social justice, but when it comes to what drives us, the passion of Christian committment, well, not so much. I think part of the reason there seems to be little urgency when it came to church planting is because it seems so old fashioned. We mainliners don’t want to look like those fundamentalists, trying to shove their faith down people’s throats.

And of course, please have done that. But our approach hasn’t been a whole lot better. At times it seems like we have no passion, that we are going through the motions.

This isn’t what I’m used to. I grew up in the African American church and I can tell you that they had a lot of passion. And yet, that bothers white mainline Protestants. Yes, the will try to enjoy a black church service, but the urgency, the passion is just not there.

I came accross this post a few weeks ago by Presbyterian pastor John Vest explaining his experience at Presbyterian Youth Triennium:

For the most part, I really enjoyed Triennium. I found a lot of it very inspiring and energizing. I enjoyed meeting and reconnecting with youth ministry friends. It was a great opportunity for me to feel the pulse of Presbyterian youth ministry around the country. Yet, some of it just didn’t connect for me. Though I approached this experience with an open heart and an open mind, I have to say that some of it was just not my cup of tea—and it wasn’t always a great fit for the youth I brought from Chicago.

Part of this is a cultural thing that I think is more regional than anything else. By and large, Chicago Presbyterians are not accustomed to this kind of flashy, semi-evangelical youth conference. I think this is why we have (in my opinion) a hard time putting on Presbytery youth conferences back home: we use this same model but it doesn’t connect with the youth group experiences of most of our churches.

But part of it is also a theological difference, or at least a difference of emphasis—which is probably connected to these regional cultural differences as well. Our kids have not had a lot of exposure to youth that wear Christian t-shirts, listen to Christian music, and “talk the talk” of (semi-)evangelical youth culture. They were a little weirded out by all the screaming and shouting about Jesus. In general, the constant emphasis on Jesus in worship, music, and small groups was more than they are used to.

As a recovering Southern Baptist who used to very much inhabit this culture and who left it for many good reasons, it was all a little more than I was interested in as well. I was most troubled by the music during daily worship. The rock band was excellent. And overall, worship was very creative and was quite inclusive and in some (sometimes subtle) ways progressive. But the music and the music leaders used pretty much exclusively male language to talk about God. Most of the songs were more christocentric than theocentric, and usually really christocentric. There was a whole lot of what I began thinking of as “Jesus, bloody Jesus”: a high christology that was almost exclusively informed by a theology of bloody, sacrificial atonement. This kind of christology was so thick that when Tony Campolo preached about a radical, earthy Jesus (you know, the one we read about in the synoptic gospels) during our final worship service, it almost seemed to me like a different Jesus than the one we had been singing about all week. (You can guess which Jesus I found more compelling.)

All of this stirred within me thoughts I have been having for a while about what I think is an idolatrous attitude toward the worship of Jesus in most circles of the church today. I’ll write more about this later, but here is the tension I felt at Triennium: there seems to be a huge disconnect between the Jewish peasant that preached humility, servanthood, and a paradoxical embrace of power through weakness and 5000 youth in an auditorium using flashy rock music, t-shirts, and signs to worship and exalt a Christ that reigns in power and is somehow involved in every aspect of creation. Would Jesus point to himself in this way, or would he instead point us to God? This, of course, is a sticky question of christology, a question I fully intend to return to. But for now, I have to confess that this kind of Jesus worship just doesn’t seem to me like the kind of thing Jesus lived and died for. If Jesus wanted this kind of worship, he could have asked for it while he was with us.

Now, I get and appreciate the “earthy Jesus” he is talking about. I think it is incredibly important to understand the life of Jesus, not just his death.

But I also understand the “Jesus, bloody Jesus” as well. The life of Jesus tells us how we should live. But it is the death of Jesus that allows us to follow Jesus. Following the earthy, Jewish peasant is something we can do, kinda like I can choose to become a vegetarian. Both are good, but they aren’t necessarily passionate. But there’s a reason the crucifixion and death of Jesus is called “The Passion.” There was emotion involved. It affected people, it changed them. It still does today.

In the African American church, we sing songs that talk a lot about blood, the blood of Jesus. It might seem goulish, but we realize that it was this blood that saved us, that saved us all to be servants to each other. I don’t know, but maybe the experience of slavery made us less squeamish about blood and make Christ seem more urgent.

So, what does this little theological trip have to do with church planting? Well, if Jesus is just the earthy prophet, then I don’t really see the need to plant churches. Hell, I don’t even need a church. I can just give money to an agency and spend time at a soup kitchen. But if Jesus is the One who came and lived among us, cared for the poor, healed the sick, made the blind see and also died for us and rose up to defeat the powers of death, well that sounds a lot more exciting, doesn’t it? Kinda like you want to be in church.

Church planting matters because Jesus matters. Jesus changes lives. He brought my friend Jim back to a church. Jesus matters. Let’s plant churches.