Category: Presbyterians

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Some Thoughts on the Frank Schaefer Case

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building a Bridge with Beer

beerA few weeks ago, I sat down for a beer with a fellow pastor.  Actually, I had hard cider- he had the beer.  The pastor is theologically conservative and sees me- a gay pastor with an orthodox theology as a bit of an enigma.

We had a very good discussion talking about church and life and where we might agree.  I had the opportunity to share why I am this odd duck.  There is always a bit of uncomfortableness in breaking bread with someone who disagrees with you, but it was a good time and I hope to do it again sometime.

The interesting about my experience is how rare it’s becoming.  The church is in many ways polarizing in the same way the American public is polarizing.  There is less that brings people together.  In many mainline denominations, you have liberals doing one thing, while conservatives do another.  Each side views the other with suspicion if not downright hostility.

Middle judicatories try using various tactics to bring people together.  But the fact is most of them are gimmicks and the two sides go back to arguing over time.

As we look at the mess that’s taking place in Washington, it would help to have some background.  Up until the 90s, work rules in Congress were such that the entire families of a Representative or Senator would move to DC and set up shop.  This allowed for more mingling with persons from another party, which in turn made for law based on compromise.  When the work rules changed, you had Representatives fly in on a Tuesday and leave Thursday/Friday.  Families now stay back home and there is little to no time for people of opposing views to gather socially.  As the institution of Congress waned, we start to see the rise of various outside groups that benefit from a hyper-partisan Congress.

Something like that has happened within churches.  Denominational bodies like the Presbyterian Church (USA) are deteriorating, while outside affinity grow in power and influence.  Liberals stay with liberals and conservatives with conservatives.  The end result is that we stare at each other accusing the other of being unfaithful to God.

As a gay man, I’ve been involved in the arguments concerning the role of gays and lesbians in the life the church.  While I’m still working for inclusion of LGBT persons, I have grown weary of not engaging the other side, of only seeing them as “bad” people and not trying to listen to what they are saying.  I’m trying to learn why a conservative believes the way they do.  I’m not going to change my mind, but I need to know why they believe something because I might find out points of agreement.

This past summer, an evangelical Presbyterian mused about the recent selection of a Transgendered person as the director of More Light Presbyterians, the LGBT group in the PC(USA).  Jodi Craiglow wanted to be angry, but realized the anger wasn’t there:

I’m SUPPOSED to be writing a thesis right now.  In fact, it’s due at the end of this week, and I’m only about a third of the way done with it.  The problem is, that story has been gnawing at the back of my head all day, and I won’t be able to concentrate on what I need to do until I work through my thoughts.  So, I figured I’d share them and see what happens.  I know that, by all rights, the news of a transgendered Presbyterian taking the vanguard in advocating for LGBTQ issues in the denomination should make my little conservative soul writhe in agony.  I should be ANGRY, darnit!

But that’s the problem… and that’s why I’m probably going to get in trouble for this post.  I’m trying to get mad — and I can’t.  I search my heart for righteous indignation, and time and again only come up with sacrificial love.  Do I agree with the lifestyle that Alex is holding?  No.  Do I believe that God calls us to uphold the sanctity of marriage between one man and one woman?  Absolutely.  Does that give me license to spew vitriol and drive even more nails into the body of Christ?  For the love of God, no.

I’ve thought and prayed and thought and prayed, and what I keep hearing is, “I love Alex.  And you should, too.”  Yep, there’s sin in Alex’s life — but there’s plenty of it in mine, too.  And for me to say that my sin is in any way less severe or makes me any less deserving of eternal condemnation is to set myself up as the arbiter of moral righteousness, a job that makes me quake in my boots just to think about.  God created Alex — and for that matter, all the folks over at More Light and Covenant Network and all those other affinity groups that I’m supposed to be at war with — fearfully and wonderfully as bearers of His image.

Does that mean that I’m going to spend every waking moment with the people with whom I disagree?  Probably not.  But, at the same time, I dare not retreat off into my little evangelical ghetto, surround myself only with people who think exactly the same way as I do, and complain about all those “liberals” (who, incidentally, I’ve never actually met) who are ruining my denomination.  If Jesus had only spent time with those who agreed with him, the incarnation never would have happened.  My sins would have never been purchased, and I’d have had to exist in eternal separation from the Source of Life.  Who am I to suggest a different course of action than the one espoused by my Lord and Savior?

Issues can and have divided congregations.  They tend to create gaps between people.  I don’t think we can avoid that there will be times when we will disagree with each other- when a gap appears.  The problem comes when we don’t try to build a bridge and reach out to the other.

It’s not easy trying to close the gap.  It’s far easier to stay in our respective ghettoes and it’s far more comfortable.  Except, I don’t think Jesus calls us to be comfortable.  We are called to stand in the gap and work towards building bridges.

I hope to have more occasions to share a beer with someone from the other side.  God seems to do awesome things in those liminal places.

Jesus Is Not a Fashion Accessory

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This Is the Perfect Time to Panic!

Things are not going well in American Mainline Protestantism.

Despite all the talk about how religious progressives are winning the day over the Religious Right, I tend to see a tradition that is in decline.  I see churches closing- the remaining members too tired to continue.  I see churches that are still going on, uncertain about how to be church in a different age.  I see middle judicatories- synods, presbyteries, classis, regions facing shrinking budgets.  I see the few new churches being planted that will have to find ways to be self-sustaining as they face a culture not used to giving to churches.  I see national structures saddled with structures designed 50 years ago in a blue model society– a society that no longer works.  I see pastors who have been through the ringer, dealing with large debts from seminary coupled with smaller salaries and shouldering more and more of the everyday tasks of running a church.

Back in early June, Presbyterian pastor John Vest wrote a post about how the situation in the Presbyterian Church (USA) is becoming rather dire:

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

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.

  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.

  • 86 churches were dissolved.

  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.

  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

At the recently concluded General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Orlando, I remember hearing that about 18 percent of all Disciple congregations are sustainable. Eighteen percent.

Now, this isn’t the case in all mainline churches.  First Christian of Minneapolis is a congregation that is thriving after a period of dormancy. But there are still tons of other communities that are still trying to figure out how to do ministry in the age of the iPhone and not the 8-track.

There are lots of reasons why mainline churches are struggling, I’ve shared those before.  But how to do we stop doing the things that don’t work and start seeking out what works?  How do we let go of our status in the age of Christendom and become the church of the Postmodern age?

I think part of the answer is not to look to our leadership for the answers?  As a Lutheran pastor once said, “Dumbledore is Dead.”  If we want to see change, it is up to local pastors and lay leaders to have the courage to try new ways of being church.  I think this is especially true of pastors and lay leaders from Generation X and the Millennials.  These two generations (at 43, I’m part of GenX) are the ones that entered adulthood in the postmodern age.  We are more aware of the age we live in, the world where are older Boomer and Silent Generation leaders are struggling to understand.  I think younger pastors should start coming together and talking about what works and what doesn’t work in a local congregation.  Pastors should also call young adults together and have them come together to dream and discern what God is calling their congregation to do and be.  Middle judicatories needs to be willing to get away from putting people on committees and more into joint mission.  Of course, you need some committees to do important functions in your synod or presbytery.  But even there, there needs to be more of a focus of joining God’s mission than the current understanding of serving on committee-which seems to much like sitting on the board of General Motors.

For all of this to happen, we in the mainline have to be willing to understand that the mainline is in decline.  Too often, leaders in mainline churches have tried to spin the situation and hide the fact that we are facing something rather serious. My guess is that mainline leaders don’t want to face the music because it might lead to more uncomfortable questions.  Also, mainliners don’t like being compared to evangelicals who seem to be more ascendant.  But we have to face the fact that we are in decline.  But once we face facts, we then need to be willing to think, dream and then do.

It’s time to panic a bit, but I also think it’s time to hope.  It’s not too late for Mainline Protestantism to right things and be the church of this time.

Panic at the Narthex

panicJust a bit of a warning here: I’m about to go all “get off my lawn” in this post.  I guess at 43 I do earn the right to be the cranky middle aged guy.

What’s getting stuck in my craw lately is the perceived lack of enthusiasm for the continuance of the mainline/progressive/liberal church.  Now,if you have read this blog, I’m basically ranting about what’s wrong within my theological home.  It’s not that it’s apostate and I want to leave to something more pure, it’s more that I want it to live up to its potential. I’m too loyal to leave, but too ornery to not be quiet about it.

Right now, the mainline church isn’t living up to its potential.  It’s not even trying.  It’s coasting on it’s past glories and learning to manage it’s decline, to slowly wind down its operations, so that when death happens it will be relatively painless.

Working with two mainline denominations, I have the opportunity to see how the once vital Mainline Protestant church works from the inside and it isn’t pretty.  What it comes down to is that we aren’t trying to seek new ways of doing things in a changed age.  Instead, we muddle through and try to keep from going into freefall.  Our pastors and other leaders have become hospice chaplains, trying to make sure people are comfortable as we slowly collaspe and die.

I get frustrated that we so easily allow churches to close.  Mainline churches sure know how to end a ministry with honor.  We are so good at it because we do it so damn much.  Presbyterian pastor John Vest shared a report on the lastest statistics on the Presbyterian Church (USA) in 2012 and the results were horrendous.  Here is the overview:

  • Our membership has dropped to 1,849,496.

  • This represents a decline of 102,791 members. About half of these are due to transfers.

  • 86 churches were dissolved.

  • 110 congregations were dismissed to other denominations.

  • While losing these 196 churches, we only organized 13 new congregations—quite a bit short of the 1001 goal we’ve set for ourselves.

As Vest notes, this is not sustainable.  If things go at their present rate then the Presbyterian Church (USA) would cease to exist in 2030, when his son turns 18.

Even in my own denomination there are challenges.  The oft tale is that the Disciples have planted over 800 churches since 2001, but little is known how many of the 800 still exist and how many are really involved in the life of the greater church.  (My own new church and two others that were started a decade ago, no longer exist).  Meanwhile, it seems that we Disciples continue to close churches and lose members.

Yes, as some note, evangelical churches are starting to decline as well.  But focusing on their recent and relatively slower decline is like worrying about the sliver in your friend’s hand while you have a gaping wound that’s gushing blood.

Now, I don’t think the Presbyterian Church is going away by 2030.  But I do think that it will be even smaller than what it is now.  I do think that these stats are cause for concern because it means that we are still heading in the wrong direction.

But the problem is the response to John’s post.  It’s a response that I’ve seen before; one that tries to look at the bright side and goes after the naysayers.  Reading some of the comments, I can see some of the usual responses.  We talk about all those churches doing cool things.  Jesus didn’t say anything about denominations so why care if the Presbyterian Church survives or not?  Maybe something has to die before something is born.  _____Church is just going through the normal life cycle.  (Not all of these appeared in the comments, but I’ve heard them before.)

The whole point is that things aren’t really so bad.  It’s basically whistling past the graveyard.

Sometimes I wish someone would say it’s okay to panic.  It’s okay to be scared, because things are desparate.  Sometimes a little panic is okay, because it means that you actually give a damn about all of this.

Back in 2010, Walter Russell Mead wrote a series of posts on the decline of the mainline church, especially his own Episcopal Church.  In one of his posts, he talks about the need for mainline churches to find ways to be sustainable and to answer a particular question:

The mainline churches do not seem to have thought through some of the basic conditions that allow religious organizations to thrive.  Religion will not long prosper as a luxury good; it is not primarily a way that comfortable people who are basically happy with their lives can make their lives even richer and more rewarding.  A sustainable religion must convince people that it is necessary to life, health and spiritual coherence.  A church cannot be one club among many or one leisure activity among many; it must present itself as a bedrock necessity.  Not all of its members will take the church at this estimate, but unless a critical mass of its members and leaders feel this way, a denomination (or a congregation) will be entirely dependent on outside cultural and economic forces for its health and even in the long run its survival.  A successful church is not one whose pastors and other leaders think a life in church is one calling among many; a critical mass must deeply believe that it this vocation is so critical that they would do it, if need be, for nothing — that they would do it if actively persecuted and flogged from town to town.

A ‘comfortable’ church can survive comfortably enough if the general social environment supports church membership and church pledging.  In Eisenhower’s America, it was the ‘done thing’ to belong to church, and people went, pledged and participated.  Moreover, the generation of people born around 1920 lived through the Great Depression, World War Two and the terrifying opening years of the Cold War before they turned thirty around 1950; these were serious people by and large who brought some strong convictions into the church.  They were a generation who sought order and were willing to pay a price to build orderly institutions. But times changed, and the confident, affluent mainline of the 1950s has never managed to adapt.

The great question for fundamentalist and evangelical religion is the relationship of revelation to modern science.  The great question for modernist and mainline religion is the ‘so what’ question.  If members are not sinners being saved from the flames of Hell, if Christianity is not the one path of salvation offered by a merciful God to a perishing world, if a relationship with God is not the only means to surmount the challenges of each day much less to meet the great tests of life — why go to church?  Why pledge?  Why have the kids go to Sunday school rather than soccer practice?

If all religions are more or less true (and, presumably, therefore, all more or less false), why pay particular attention to any one of them?  If the churches develop their ethical standards (sex before marriage, divorce, homosexuality, racial justice, political ideas) from secular society and the general American consensus, why go to church for anything except weddings, funerals and Christmas carols?  What do you learn in church that you can learn nowhere else?  What kind of relationships do you form in church that you can form nowhere else?

Why is churchgoing so important to you that you will not only go there no matter what — but that you will do everything in your power to encourage your friends and neighbors to join you?  Why is church the daily bread you must have, not a lovely garnish on an already full plate?

A sustainable religion must have answers to these questions.  Otherwise it will slowly fade away.

I think that is part of the reason we need to panic: we need to figure out if our church members, if those of us who call ourselves pastors, see church, see faith as something bedrock to life itself.  Does our faith matter at all?  As Mead notes, if we take our cues from secular society for social mores, then why go to church?  Why plant churches?  Why do we need Jesus? Do we need Jesus?

If something new is being born, what is it?  If something has to die, what is it?  If denominations don’t matter, why stay in one?  What does our particular faith mean in an interfaith world?

None of this means that conservatives or evangelicals have the answers (though there might be a few things we can learn from them).  What it means is that we are willing to be a bit anxious and less comfortable.  It means that we think faith communities matter and that they are vital to people’s lives.  We haven’t wanted to ask those questions.  Maybe because we still think of ourselves as living in 1950s Eisenhower America. Or maybe we just don’t want to look inward; afraid of what we will find.

My hope is that mainline/progressive Christianity will be brave and ask those questions.  I want us to think about what it means to be a Christian now, at this moment.  I want us to have a passion for our faith, one that’s powerful enough to be excited about planting new churches and seeking ways to revive dying ones.  I want us to learn that being a Christian matters.

Our answers won’t be the same as our evangelical sisters and brothers.  But we need those answers.  Even more importantly, we need those questions.

So my message to Rev. Vest is this: panic a little.  Ask questions.  Keep seeking answers.  We in the mainline need more people like you who are willing to make us uncomfortable.  Because that’s the only way we will carry this tradition into the future.

 

Repost: We Can’t Be Friends

First off, welcome to all the new visitors who saw my post on Freshly Pressed. Below is a post from last year. 

It was about 20 years ago, that I attended a large Baptist church in Washington, DC. The church was an odd mix, or at least it would be odd today. Evangelicals and liberals were somehow able to worship together, along side a healthy dose of members from Latin America and Asia.

The church decided at some point to hire a pastor to the join the good-sized multi-pastor staff. The person chosen was a woman with great pastoral care skills. At the time, there was a bit of controversy because she was pro-gay and some of the evangelicals in the church weren’t crazy about that.

I was at a meeting where a member of the congregation stood up. She was one of the evangelical members of the congregation and she had what could be considered a “traditional” understanding on homosexuality, but she spoke in favor of calling the pastor. You see, the pastor had been involved with congregation for a few years and the two had gotten to know each other. “We don’t agree,” I recall this woman saying when talking about the issue they didn’t see eye-to-eye on. But this woman was a good friend and she saw her as the right person for the job.

What’s so interesting about this story is that I don’t think it could happen today. Churches like the one in DC really don’t exist anymore. Evangelicals and liberals have sorted themselves into different churches and don’t really know each other. Which only makes it easier to highlight differences and demonize each other.

When it comes to the issue of gay rights the two camps talk past each other, having very different objectives that the other side just doesn’t get.

For liberals, this is about equality. Framed by the story of the civil rights movement, they see any attempt to block same-sex marriage or gay clergy as akin to denying African Americans the right to vote.

For evangelicals, this is about conscience. They feel they must be faithful to what they believe the Bible is telling them when it comes to sexual morality. They see any approval of gay sex as going against God’s commands.

These differences were there 20 years ago, but I think there might have also been more opportunity to come together and meet the other. Our self-selected society allows us to basically pick our friends instead of trying to build bridges with those who might be different.

Why am I telling this story? I don’t really know, except that maybe I would like us to find ways were we can learn to disagree without being so disagreeable.

Civility is all the talk in our political culture, mostly because it seems like we have less and less of it. We have made it a civic value, but I want to lift up the fact that it should also be a moral and biblical value. We have to learn ways to respect and honor one another; not papering over our differences, but finding ways to still care for each other even when we disagree. Evangelical church planter Tim Keller said it best a year ago:

AMANPOUR: You talk about polarization between left and right. It does seem to be extreme, at the moment, in the United States politically, socially. Is there any hope that that can change, do you think?

KELLER: It will start if we stop demonizing each other. I — my — my — my elderly mother once said that up until about 15 years ago, if you voted for a different person for president and the person you voted against became president, you still considered him your president. He said — she said 15 years ago, that changed, that if you voted against that guy and he became president, you actually act as if he’s illegitimate. And I’m not sure that is a big social and cultural difference. We — and it really means the other side isn’t really just wrong, they’re kind of evil. And that’s pretty bad.

MANPOUR: I have to say that many would say the church plays into this highly acrimonious debate — public debate, not all church, but certainly some parts of the church. What should the church be doing different?
KELLER: At the very least, we should be creating individuals who know how to talk civilly. The gospel should create people who say, I’m loved by God but I’m — I’m a sinner. So there — there should be a certain humility and graciousness about the way in which you talk to everybody. As an institution, most of the churches have lost a lot of credibility. So I think my job is to create individuals who can participate in civil discourse.

AMANPOUR: You’re saying institutionally, the church has lost credibility?

KELLER: The mainline church identified with liberal politics, the Evangelicals have identified, at least they’re identified in people’s minds, with conservative politics. The Catholic Church has had the sex scandals. And so institutionally, each church has lost credibility. So I think it’s our job as individual congregations to care for the poor, to produce civil — people who speak civilly, to just serve our neighborhoods and serve people and be careful about speaking ex-cathedra, you know, about these great political positions on issues.

I would disagree with Keller in that I do think the church has a right to speak out on issues and there are some issues where we have to be clear where we stand. But that doesn’t mean we don’t try to look at our sister and brothers as if they are evil. We can find ways to be civil in maybe in some way speak to people about what church is all about.

What a witness that would be.

On Monsters, Boston…and Daleks

A Presbyterian Pastor reflects on the British Science fiction series Dr. Who as a modern fairy tale about fighting monsters and then relates that to Jesus:

I remember after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 how much I wanted to just march into Afghanistan or Iraq or anywhere really, and just blow things up. I wanted to cause someone the pain we as a nation were caused. I think many people felt that way. Toby Keith certainly expressed it in his song Courtesy of the Red, White, and Blue. Do you ever feel that way? After the shootings at Newtown did you just want to cause that same kind of pain to the shooter? What about yesterday, did the monster come out in you in the presence of that monstrous act?

Jesus defeated the monsters in our life without becoming one. He stayed true to his identity in God. He loved. He had compassion, and suffered with us. He spoke the truth. He challenged the monsters but never became one. He didn’t take on the form of power, or revenge, or pain. He didn’t take the form of military might or monstrous fear. Instead, Jesus took the form of a servant. Jesus took and held the form of love and mercy and hope. Jesus was and is a light in the darkness, a light the darkness cannot overcome.

We are called to be lights too, and not give way to the darkness. We are called to fight the monsters without becoming one. We do that by following Jesus and his example. We do that by having a cruciform faith and living a cruciform life, and fairy tales like Doctor Who help remind me what that might look like today, Daleks excluded.

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

sears-move

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And what happens when you pray and fast? Miracles:

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

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

 

There’s Still Hope for the Mainline

Anyone who’s read this blog knows I tend to be critical of mainline Christianity.  It’s not that I want to leave what has been my theological home for two decades; it’s that I get frustrated at some of it’s shortcomings.

Despite all of that, mainline/progressive/liberal Christianity is my home.  As much as I respect my evangelical beginnings, I don’t belong there anymore.  My current home might be a fixer-upper, but it’s still home.

So, I get a bit sad when I hear stories about how Mainline Protestantism is shrinking.  People leave the church.  Congregations close.  Denominational offices keep cutting staff. Will this form of Christianity even be around in 20 years or so?

The thing is, I do see some signs of a church that is trying to keep the lights on.  My day job with the Presbyterians is located in the Minnesota Church Center, which is home to several denominations.  During the building-wide weekly Lenten service, someone from the Episcopal Diocese in Minnesota shared a unique way of studying Scripture that has been used among Native American Anglicans.  This wasn’t some of flimsy stuff I sometimes find in liberal churches.  This had substance.

Even in the church that I serve, I’ve seen signs of life and a church willing to live and be open to the Spirit.  There is still good things going on in mainline churches.

An article in the Orange County Register talks about the signs of hope taking place in Mainline congregations in the suburban California county.  The author of the article does a good job as he shares what is going on several congregations and helps us understand that in light of the recent decline among evangelical churches, that the reasons for decline among the mainline is not simply because they decided to have a more liberal theology.  The increasing secularization of American society has caused churches to adapt.  Here’s what one Disciples of Christ congregation did:

At Harbor Christian Church in Newport Beach, a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination, members solved the Sunday morning problem by shifting activities to Sunday evening or other days of the week.

Pastor Wes Knight said attendance at adult spiritual formation classes shot up when they were shifted to Sunday night.

Now, 30 people come weekly for a potluck supper and member-taught classes on topics ranging from forgiveness to the spirituality of pottery.

Knight said Harbor Christian, surrounded by several of Orange County’s largest churches, embraces its identity “as an alternative to the megachurch.”

There are no theological requirements for membership, and the roughly 70 worshippers who attend each Sunday are intimately involved in one another’s lives.

“They’re just like my own family to me,” said Mike Nelson of Mission Viejo who recalled being enthusiastically welcomed at the church when he arrived five years ago, even though he was struggling with a methamphetamine addiction.

“I tried the megachurches and didn’t find any sense of community,” Nelson said. Harbor Christian members “didn’t judge me at all.”

Read the whole thing.  It gives me hope that while the mainline churches might be smaller in the future, but by God we will be around in the future, preaching, teaching and welcoming the stranger.