Tag: mainline church

Table Talk: It’s Enough

Table Talk: It’s Enough

PHOTO BY JESSICA KNOWLDEN ON UNSPLASH

Then the Lord said to Gideon, “With the three hundred that lapped I will deliver you, and give the Midianites into your hand. Let all the others go to their homes.”
-Judges 7:7


Dear Friends in Christ,

One of my favorite Bible stories is found in Judges 7. Gideon, a man that was afraid of his own shadow is called to lead the Israelites against the oppression of the Midianites. In the preparation for battle, 33,000 men show up. God tells Gideon again and again that there are too many people. Gideon keeps whittling down the number for his army until there were 300 men left. Then God tells Gideon that their weapons would be trumpets and jars. Now, the Midianites had a large mighty, army. How in the world were 300 men with nothing but some musical instruments and clay pots are going to beat this mighty army?

We learn that God was with the Israelites and God would hand them the victory. That’s what happened. The trumpets and the smashing of the jars in the middle of the night scared the Midianites and they ended up fighting themselves until the big army was no more. The story of Gideon’s puny army is a reminder that God can use the smallest things to do “a mighty work.”

First Christian of St. Paul is a small church, maybe even tiny.  Our culture tends to put its faith in bigness and we suspect the small.  It’s easy to look at our church and think of all the things we can’t do, especially when we have a big church a mile or two down the road.  We don’t have enough people. We don’t have enough money.  We don’t. We don’t. We don’t. 

(Being a small church doesn’t mean people aren’t invited to join and be a part of our congregation.)

Of course, there are limits as to what a small church can do, but there are limits to what anyone can do.  When we think that we can’t do something at church, think about something: why do you go to First Christian?  You go here for a reason and you’ve stayed.  If you are here for a reason, then there have to be others out there that might want to come to this church. So, instead of trying to wish we were bigger and better, work at making this church a place you want to be at because when we do that, we are welcoming others who might need a community like this.

What does being enough in God look like?  Let’s look at it through our offerings. When we give our offerings on Sunday, we are giving our money to help do mission in our world. Your offerings have gone to support our worship ministry which helps us meet God in the Word preached, the songs sung, and in the weekly Lord’s Supper. They have gone to help our sisters and brothers through our Mission Partners like Feed My Starving Children and the Mahtomedi Area Foodshelf. They help us go beyond borders to support the ministries of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). The giving of what we receive has allowed this small church to take part in God’s mission in the world.

At the end of the day, we are enough. Gideon teaches us that we are enough because God is enough.  God has a history of using little things to do great things. If God can use 300 soldiers to go against an army of thousands, what can God do with us? I truly believe God can and will use First Christian Church to be a witness in Mahtomedi, the Twin Cities, the United States, and to the ends of the earth.

In God, we are enough.  Let’s just let God work through us as we give our offerings, take part in communion, and worship together.  Let us have faith in a God that can take the little things and do great things.


Godspeed everyone.

Dennis Sanders, Pastor

Dear God, help us to remember that we are enough.  Even when we are small, we can do mighty things in your name. Amen.

Finding God in the Drive-Thru Lane

Finding God in the Drive-Thru Lane

What is God up to?

I’ve been hearing that phrase over and over lately.  It’s the focus on a book I’m reading, the Crucifixion of Ministry by Andrew Purves.  It’s the sense that instead of engaging in the business of ministry as if it’s all up to us, Purves wants pastors to step back and let go.  God is the one that saves and redeems and it isn’t us.

I will admit, that frustrates me.  You are taught all these skills in seminary and the culture around us tells us very plainly that if we aren’t doing something that can bring in more people to come to worship, then it’s all our fault.  

I’ve been at my congregation now for seven years and in those years we haven’t really grown much over that time.  It’s hard for me to not wonder if I’m doing something wrong.  Am I praying enough.  How about reading the Bible.  I need to start a Faith on Tap!  

But wondering what God is both intriguing and maddening. It’s intriguing because finding out what God is up to means trying to be attentive to what God is doing in our world and especially in our neighborhood.  What have we missed by being so involved in busy work?

But looking for God is also scary, because it feels like quietism- meaning just end up doing nothing and waiting for God to do something.

Maybe that’s not what it means.  Maybe it means living our lives and observing how God worked in our lives and the lives of others. 

This past week, I was in a drive-thru lane waiting to get my food.  I come up to the window ready to pay for my meal when I find out that someone, probably the person that was ahead of me, paid for my meal.  It was fascinating that this happened to me once, but it happened TWICE.  Two times I was in a drive-thru lane and twice someone paid my bill.

I do wonder if I should have done a good deed and paid it forward for the person behind me.  I didn’t and I wonder if should have. What was God up to in those moments? What does it mean for my life or for the ministry I’m involved in.

Elizabeth Eaton, the Presiding Bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, wrote in early 2019 about the church is worried about our church.  Churches are shrinking, budgets are tightening, people are leaving.  We want to know what we can do and we spend time at conferences wondering what we can do to help our congregation grow. 

But Eaton thinks we are asking the wrong question.  We should be asking what God is up to. She quotes from Isaiah 43 about God doing a new thing and are we open to seeing it. Can we see that new thing happening or are we trying to recreate a past? Eaton writes: 

If we want to attract people to our congregations to rebuild a memory, God will not bless our efforts. But if we—grabbed by the Spirit in baptism, changed by the word, intimately and lovingly connected to Jesus and each other in communion, and set free by grace to serve the neighbor—invite all people into true life, then we shall become part of the answer.

This takes attention and devotion. Worship, prayer, Scripture study, generosity and service—not in order to save the church, but in response to the new life God has given us in Christ.

What we are being called to do is basically to live our lives faithfully.  Go to worship. Pray daily.  Serve others.  As she says, we don’t do this to save the church and we shouldn’t be spending time “saving the church.”  What we are called to do is live a life of thankfulness to the new things God is doing.

I still don’t know what that paying forward meant, but maybe it’s reminding me to be thankful to God’s work in the world.  

I pray that I not tie myself in knots in trying to “save the church.” I can’t save this congregation because it was never mine to save.  But I do want to take the time to live out my ministry and see God working in the world.  Who knows? It might lead to a renewal of my church and maybe your church as well.   

Hard Times for the Mainline

The-Third-Law-of-Mainline-ProtestantismWither the Mainline church?

It’s a question those of us who are part of a mainline/progressive denomination have been wondering for years.  Or, it is a question we continually hear about.  Our numbers continue to shrink, as does our monetary reserves.

Everyone has their reasons as to why mainline churches seem to be in sort of the death spiral.  I want to use this blog post to share some of those responses and what they offer to our churches.

The most common response to shrinking numbers in our churches is one of mild annoyance.  Fellow Disciples Pastor Derek Penwell, shares this view.  In a recent blog post he is upset at how some believe that the liberal churches are losing members is because of their socially liberal stances on issues like gay marriage.  Penwell sets up strawmen (one that is partially based on truth) that tells the mainline churches they are losing members because of their liberal views.  He writes:

If mainline Protestant denominations would just shut up about all that liberal stuff — the soft stuff that gives liberals a reputation for bleeding hearts (like caring about the poor and the oppressed), and start focusing on the real moral problems confronting American life — like gay marriage, or the loss of traditional family values, or “the war on Christmas” — then they wouldn’t have to worry about bleeding members at such distressing rates.

 

He concludes by dismissing the “we are too liberal” argument as one focused on survival and not faithfulness to Christ:

But distilled to its essence, the contention that liberal denominations are losing members because of their liberalness or because they don’t make one’s stance on gay marriage a test of fellowship can’t but appear to be an appeal to utility dressed up in ecclesiastic garb. That is to say, if you begin from the premise that the church’s primary function is to survive, then anything that threatens that survival is bad, while anything that promises to aid in keeping the doors open is good. If the primary question centers on figuring out what works, then whether liberal theology is a faithful reading of the vocation of following Jesus or that insisting on doing away with high-handed legalism better reflects the message of the gospel is largely beside the point. The primary consideration is whether a belief or practice succeeds in helping keep the doors open — or, if you’re the more ambitious type, allowing you to add to your church the qualifier “mega.”

Now, I agree with Penwell that I don’t think mainline churches are declining because we are too liberal. I also don’t think the answer is to not be open to LGBT folk or the ordination of women.  But Penwell never really answers the question about decline.  This is really happening.  Why is that?  And if the “we’re too liberal” is bunk, what is the explaination?  Why do mainline churches matter?  Can we be concerned about the health of an institution like the church without it being dismissed as only being concerned about survival? Instead he just trades in slamming evangelicals and talking about following Jesus means dying (another good idea on the surface, but what does it mean in this context).  Penwell’s response might appease liberal culture warriors, but it doesn’t help those in declining churches and seminaries figure out what’s next.

Penwell reflects a trend among some in mainline churches to ignore the serious injury that is causing blood to spout forth all the while proclaiming “it’s just a flesh wound!” We try to minimize the problems taking place either by saying we aren’t interested in survival or by looking for any chink in evangelicalism’s armor.  When attendance starts to slip in evangelical churches such as the Southern Baptist Convention, some mainline leaders latch on to this as proof that we aren’t the only ones declining.  That’s all true; but mainline churches are still declining more rapidly than those other churches.  Why?  Answering that means having to take a look inside and it might mean that we don’t do somethings so well.

Penwell’s view also reflects something else that I feel is going on within the mainline church: apathy for the tradition.  Over the years, I’ve heard how God doesn’t need (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  Or that we shouldn’t be so concerned about the survival of (insert name of religious denomination/institution).  I’ve noticed at times a disdain for any formal structure and no appreciation of where they have been.

Putting too much faith in institutions can bring about death, just ask the Catholic church in the light of clergy sex abuse scandals.  But as Allan Bevere notes, even the early church was formally organized.  What I get from Penwell and others at times is that this tradition doesn’t matter.  Of course tradition isn’t God.  But tradition matters.  It shapes us.  Tradition reaches back into the past to connect us to the present and the future.

Dwight Welch is concerned about the decline of the mainline.  In his recent blog post
, he shares how progressive congregations shaped him in the faith to become the man (and pastor) he is today.

He also shows that decline has consequences.  Smaller numbers means smaller budgets and that can rebverberate in ways people don’t realize.  Welch is concerned that the institutions that formed him are slowly disappearing:

We may be heartened by the rise of religious progressives among the young, but without institutional ways of relating, it’s hard to see how they will be organized. The loss of numbers means seminaries close, campus ministries shut down, the chance for a progressive church to be near by continues to diminish.

For example, In Indiana there were a dozen progressive and mainline campus ministries 20 years ago. Now there are 2, Butler and ISU. Notice that the largest universities in the state, including IU have no such presence. In Kansas we had a dozen ministries and in the same period we’ve been reduced to 2. Compare that to what evangelical para church groups and secular student organizations are doing.

I know from my own story that the reason I found a way to stay in the church was because there were religious progressive campus ministries where I found a way connect my values and faith. But given the expense of the old model, they required denominational funds that simply are not there, given the membership declines.

Many of the theologians I read, that opened up faith to me, taught at progressive seminaries, which are endangered. When I was first diving into progressive Christianity I read Christianity and Crisis, the Other Side, and other journals that don’t exist now. Mainline publishing houses face an uncertain future, a source of progressive ideas for the wider society.

While Dwight and I tend to have somewhat different political and theological views, I resonate with his view of the mainline. As much as I appreciate how evangelicalism shaped me, it was the mainline church that was able to intergrate my faith and my sexuality. It was the tradition that challenged my assumptions. But many of the institutions from publishing houses to denominations and seminaries are threatened due to the decline of the mainline.

I get that nothing lasts forever. I get that institutions can become gods to us. I get that we should trust God and be faithful even as our churches dwindle. But I am reminded of something Presbyterian pastor John Vest once noted: what is at stake for mainline/progressive Christianity? What makes mainline Christianity worth preserving for future generations? Can or should our seminaries and congregations help form tomorrow’s leaders? Do we believe this is a tradition that should be cared for? Or do we just dissolve and leave the defining of the faith solely to evangelicals?

I think one can work to preserve a tradition without it becoming their master. But we can’t do that until we understand why this tradition of the mainline matters. This tradition matters to me. It should matter to others as well- because Christianity will the poorer should this tradition wither.

Sermon: Out of the Saltshaker

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

First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

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

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

Sermon: “The Lord Is My Shepherd….at 35,000 Feet”

Psalm 23
Fourth Sunday in Lent
March 30, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

I can be a nervous flier.

My fear of flying hasn’t stopped me from getting on a plane on a regular basis. I’ve flown international flights to Europe, South America and Asia. You are really dealing with your fears when you take a 15 hour flight from Los Angeles to Hong Kong.

800px-Icelandair_Boeing_757-256_Wedelstaedt
A Boeing 757.

I think the reason I am able to get on a plane and go up into the air is because I’m fascinated with any kind of trasportation. When it come to planes, I love to learn about the different kind of aircraft, and getting wrapped up in seeing if the plane I’m flying; like if I’m on an Airbus A320 or a Boeing 757. It also helps that I I use a little physics to remind me what keeps the plane in the air, that and a short prayer as the door of the cabin closes and the plane backs out of the gate.

I’m not sure where this fear of flying came from, but I have to wonder if going to see a movie on the Hindenburg blip was what did the trick. I got scared when you see the blimp coming in for a landing in New Jersey and then seeing the aircraft incinerate in a few minutes. Mom probably shouldn’t have taken me to the movie. There was no sex or violence in the film, so I think Mom thought it would be okay. And it might be for other kids…but it wasn’t for me.

You know, the funny thing about my nervousness of flying is that it is really one of the safetest ways to get from point A to point B. New equipment and safety measures have made flying a piece of cake. I know that my fear is irrational. It’s really irrational when you compare it to the thing I do everyday; get into a car and drive. Far more people die in automobile accidents than they do in plane crashes.

I think the reason flying worries me is the fact that I am not in control. I get into a flying tube that travels at hundreds of miles per hour and about 4 miles above the earth. I have to trust the pilots and autopilot to make sure I get to point B…alive.

The car is a different story. I am the one driving. I am placing my own life in my hands. I am in control.

Or am I? I am starting to think that my control is a just an illusion. There are other drivers around me and one of them could end up hitting me, through no fault of my own. I can’t prevent the other car sideswiping me.

Psalm 23 is the most familiar passage in all of Scripture. We hear it everywhere. We hear it so much, we tend to forget what it says. When I was preparing for this Sunday, I didn’t plan on preaching on this passage. I mean, everyone knows this passage. It’s too easy for us pastor-types to ignore this passage that is so widely known. The reality is that we have heard Psalm 23 so much, we don’t listen to it. And we should.

The passage talks about God as a shepherd, actually as one who shepherds. The shepherd is the one who takes care of the sheep, protecting them from harm and leading through our journey. Right there in that first verse we see the words “I shall not want.” As a kid I didn’t know what that meant. Why would you say God is your shepherd and then say you don’t want him? I’ve since learned that it means that God is enough. God is all we need. Of course we are humans, so we are always in want. We want more money or a bigger house or what have you. Trusting that God is all we need is something to aspire to, but know that we are always tempted to place out trust in other things Why? We want control.

While this verse tends to evoke calm images, the God in this passage is an active God. God is shpeherding, God is the one restores or turns our souls to God. God is the one that protect us through the dark valleys of losing our job, or getting the cancer diagnosis or divorce. We are persued by God with goodness and love for our whole lives. This God is busy- working for you and me.

During this time of Lent, we are reminded that God came in the form of a human being-Jesus Christ- to demostrate that God indeed is the Good Shepherd. In Jesus, we see God active, teaching and preaching and healing, turning our hearts towards God.

Learning to trust God is a process. We will move forward and then backward. If Jesus’ own disciples can waver between trust and doubt, so will we. But maybe in our own journey in trusting in the Good Shepherd, we can tell others of the saving work of Jesus Christ. People learn about the Good Shepherd for our words and actions. This is what Jesus did, and then his apostles and now us. We go and tell of what God has done in our lives; a God that is with us through lush pastures and dark valleys.

Later this week, we will remember the assination of Martin Luther King Jr. There was a lot of talk about that event in 1968 last year on the 45th anniversary. I’ve always been fascinated by his last speech. It’s been called “I’ve Been to the Mountaintop” and it was given a church in Memphis, Tennessee. He was there to support striking garbage workers. The mountaintop speech is interesting because it seemed so prophetic. I want to share what is probably the most heard part of that speech, at the very end

It really doesn’t matter what happens now. I left Atlanta this morning, and as we got started on the plane, there were six of us. The pilot said over the public address system, “We are sorry for the delay, but we have Dr. Martin Luther King on the plane. And to be sure that all of the bags were checked, and to be sure that nothing would be wrong with on the plane, we had to check out everything carefully. And we’ve had the plane protected and guarded all night.

And then I got into Memphis. And some began to say the threats, or talk about the threats that were out. What would happen to me from some of our sick white brothers?

Well, I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter with me now, because I’ve been to the mountaintop.

And I don’t mind.
Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the promised land!

As Rev. King was heading into his dark valley, he knew that God was with him. I have to believe that he could only do what he did because he believed God was his shepherd.

I want you do something this week. Please look at Psalm 23 again maybe today, maybe tomorrow and think on what those words me. How is God a shepherd to us? What does that all mean for our daily lives?

The Lord is our shepherd. We are actively loved by God. And it’s enough. Thanks be to God. Amen.

What Does the Lord Require?

A few weeks back, I happened to be browsing the religious website Patheos and came accross a blog post by Greg Garrett called “God Commands Compassion, Not Evangelism.”  The title fascinated me and the excerpt was even more interesting: “Christianity is not about praying in a certain way, or believing a certain thing, or making converts, or building a nice cabin at church camp.”  The excerpt spells out what this post is about but here is a part:

In my book The Other Jesus, I talk about how Christians are called to do more than praise God, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than tell people what God has done and is doing in our lives, although I believe we are called to do that. We are called to do more than invite other people to be in relationship with that loving God, although I believe we are called to do that.

The larger message of the Bible is about participating in the reality that God wants to bring into being to replace the sinful mess we have made, and a large part of that participation is about reaching out to those who are in need. God’s advocacy for the downtrodden against the powerful is clear throughout the Hebrew Testament. A wonderful way to read the Old Testament’s sections on the patriarchs, the subjection of their ancestors in Egypt, and their deliverance in Palestine is through the lens of God’s choice of the poor, the outcast, and the unexpected to be the recipients of His love and grace. Youngest children (not the oldest sons, expected to inherit everything), women (of no social value), and exiles (not even part of a society) are chosen by God for special roles.

 

I would agree with Garrett that our faith is about a lot more than making converts or getting people to heaven.  I think that if we say we love Jesus, but don’t try to care for the poor or alien in our midst, well our actions speak a lot louder than our words.

Having said that, I do take pause with Garrett’s words.  I get the feeling from him that all that faith is about is social justice.  Again, working to help those who are homeless or making sure that all are welcomed at God’s table (the inclusion of GLBT folks) is important and valuable.  But our faith in God is about more than that, or at least it should be. In his latest column, Frederick Schmidt writes about the “Issue-Driven Church.”  This kind of church is one that is driven by the agendas of the day:

In many ways The Issue-Driven Church thrives at the denominational level, among judicatories, within church agencies, and Conventions, Conferences, and Synods. But local parishes are often drawn into the orbit of The Issue-Driven Church. And even when they aren’t, local congregations are forced to do their work in an environment that is often shaped by The Issue-Driven approach to doing church.

That’s part of the reason that an increasing number of churches are omitting any public indication that they are affiliated with a denomination. They simply can’t pay the price of owning an association that drives people away before they ever get acquainted with the community.

Now none of this is to say that the church doesn’t need to address issues. Anyone who has read the prophet Micah or heard the story of Jesus won’t think for a moment that you can take the Gospel seriously without finding yourself at odds with the world around you. The Christian life is not about hiding out with your rosary waiting for comforting moments of enlightenment while the world goes to hell in a hand basket. Speaking out against racism and sexism, the exploitation of the helpless—there’s a long list of issues that show up in what might be considered the contemporary business of doing justice and loving mercy. But there is a difference between speaking to issues and being issue-driven.

Schmidt then goes on to describe what is the big problem with issue driven churches or to put it more plainly, the logical result:

The problem, of course, is there is really no reason to be part of a church like that—apart from the opportunity to somehow engage the issues. And, if you reflect very deeply on it at all, you will eventually conclude that the church is a dispensable vehicle—even for engaging the issues.

In the meantime, as a result, life in the church has become like life everywhere in America, except for hymns and rituals: “Issues are Us.” Issues divide us and there is often little more that brings us together. The nation is facing the twilight of common dreams and the church is a house divided.

If a church is only about the issues, at some point people are going wake up and realize that the church isn’t needed.  Why be part of a faith community in order to support your favorite cause?

I don’t begrudge those who feel called to speak out on issues.  And while I lean more to the right, I have no problem with someone in a congregation who believes their faith calls them to urge for more government funding.

The problem is that churches and people can glom on to issues and make that the grounding of their faith rather than Christ.  Justice is important, but it flows from the life, death and ressurection of Jesus.  Christ has to be the unifying force in our community, not our stance on Social Security.

So much in our society is splintered and factured according to partisan lines.  The church needs to be a place where people can see a different vision, one where people come together despite different opinions and views and seek to do justice-not because it’s an issue, but because they are called, gathered and sent by the living God.

An Evangelical Looks at a Mainline Seminary

One of my favorite bloggers to read these days is Timothy Dalrymple.  He’s a social conservative and I, being a gay pastor am…not.  But even though we probably see things differently, his reasoning has always been solid and reminds me that social conservatives are real people and not simply caricatures.

He has an interesting column today about his experiences at Princeton Seminary.  He describes it as the one place where he felt he was an outsider.  This is what he says in summing up his experiences:

  1. While my Mainline Protestant friends are not going to appreciate this, I cannot help but suspect that the unhealthy part of the culture that permeated Princeton Theological Seminary is simply a part of the culture that permeates many Mainline Protestant bodies in general.  The faith and ministry that were modeled at PTS were too much about the aesthetics, the atmospherics, the experience, the rites and rhythms of church life, and not enough about plunging ever-more deeply into (to use the dreaded evangelical language) a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, by which I mean the day-to-day and moment-to-moment yielding-to and being-with Jesus.  Matters of form prevailed over matters of substance.  And when the theological inheritance of the Christian tradition is treated so casually, then so too are the moral teachings.  Our faith does not require us to believe this, we are told; our faith does not require us to do that.  Eventually it’s not clear what our faith really is anymore.  (To be clear, evangelicalism has its faults, but I hope I can speak with charity of a possible fault in Mainline Protestant circles too.)  So is it possible that Mainline Protestant seminaries are struggling, to the extent they are, simply because they belong to a culture that has slowly but steadily carved away the theological and moral commitments that teach us who God is and how he is best known and loved and served?  And since sex is one of the primary struggles for the young men and women who go to seminary, one of the most fundamental areas of life where we are asked to put aside our selfish desires and to remember our covenant with God, would a recommitment to teaching sexual integrity be a step in the right direction?
  2. I was recently asked to chart my spiritual life, and the three years I spent in seminary were represented as a steep downward arc.  Some seminarians will say the opposite, of course, but an alarming number of my friends saw their spiritual lives stall or digress or even disintegrate during their seminary years.  For me, the reason is clear: obedience.  (That was another word that often evoked bewilderment or eye-rolling amongst my fellow seminarians when I emphasized it as an important part of my faith life.)  I have always drawn closest to God when I have been obedient to him.  Why?  Because the act of submitting myself to God over and over again reminded me hundreds of time per day that God is — and the act of surrendering my will to him over and over again reminded me constantly that He is Lord — and the blessings and the companionship that came from having submitted and surrendered myself to him reminded me everyday that God is Good.  In my seminary years, I was far less obedient to what I understood as the will of God than I was in my high school or college years.  Is it possible that many seminarians see their faith suffer in their seminary years because simple, humble and thoroughgoing obedience is not sufficiently emphasized?  And how are just-minted graduates going to begin their church ministries when they have just spent 3 years disobeying and straying from God?
  3. Finally, if it’s indeed the case that there is an elevation of form over substance, and a jettisoning of some very important parts of the Christian tradition, then this will have consequences everywhere.  For instance, students (like myself) who had attended Bible churches or belonged to evangelical fellowships knew the Bible on the first day of the year-long survey course as well as the rest of the students knew the Bible on the final day of that course.  It often felt more important to have the right views on the hot-button issues like the ordination of gays than it was to truly understand central doctrines like the Trinity — much less to, well, love Jesus.

Now I didn’t go to Princeton, so I have no idea what it’s like there. However, I do know a number of folks who have gone to Princeton. So, I ask those mainline Protestants who went there: is Tim’s assessment correct? If not, why?

 

Repost: “Progressive Christians” and Yours Truly

From June of this year.

I’ve been noticing lately within Mainline Protestant  circles, the rising use of the word “progressive” as a way to describe Christians who might have once used the term “mainline Protestant.”  The biggest change to note is over at the religion megasite Patheos, which changed the name of one of their religion portals.  What was once called “Mainline Protestant” is now called “Progressive Christian.”  That change has brought about a discussion of the term and there have been some fairly good posts about name change.

That said, I’m also a tad bit wary of the term.

Continue reading “Repost: “Progressive Christians” and Yours Truly”

Repost: Notes from a Reluctant Liberal Christian

The following post is from January of this year.  I’ve been wanting to write more on this topic and hope to do so in the near future.  For now, there’s this essay.

A few years ago, a dear friend of mine described me as an evangelical turned liberal Protestant.  I remember blanching at that definition.  Politically, I tend to lean more center-right/libertarian.  Theologically, I’m pretty orthodox.

But the fact is, I am a liberal Protestant these days.  I’m ordained into a mainline Protestant denomination (Disciples of Christ) and I have standing in another denomination that in some cases is the very embodiment of liberal Protestantism (the United Church of Christ).

I’ve been a part of mainline Protestantism for nearly 20 years.  In the years after college, I found the evangelicalism of my youth wanting and left it seeking a better fit.  I found that in mainline churches.  I should add, that I never looked down on evangelical past; I think it is still a worthy tradition and it made me who I am.  But, my home is now in a different tradition.

And yet it has at times been an uneasy fit.  Don’t get me wrong; I am thankful for a tradition that honors diversity.  My evangelical roots would never accept an open gay pastor, but liberal Protestantism did.  It has also been on the forefront of issues such as civil rights and helped give women a more equal footing in America.

But while in many ways, I am liberal in my theology, I feel at times that the liberalism I am talking about is from another era.  Some of my uneasiness is reflected in Bruce Reyes-Chow’s excellent essay on the good and bad liberal Christianity.  Unlike me, he is way more comfortable wearing the liberal label, but he also able to be critical of it:

Over the past few months I have found myself frustrated a lot.  Sitting on the sidelines observing a few interactions between Christians with whom I find theological and ideological commonality, I’ve found myself whispering under my breath, “I love ya. I agree with ya. But you are really not helping.” It seems that in an attempt to respond to actions and words that we liberals feel are wrong, even destructive, we often do more harm than good.

Now I realize that for me to make such broad sweeping statements is pretty arrogant and I fully admit my participation in most of the following accusations in my life. But let me be equally arrogant in saying that if the liberal or progressive church – and we can fight over “liberal,” “progressive,” etc. definitions HERE – is going to lead the way forward in the church and be part of a larger cultural conversation about morals and faith, we have got to quit shooting ourselves in the proverbial foot and driving people away from our particular approach to faith and life.

His post reads as a love letter to his fellow liberals, telling them to do good work, but also calling them on where they fall short.

On the other hand, Walter Russell Mead’s essay from last year reads like a letter from a longsuffering wife to her cheating husband.  He rails against liberal Christianity’s willingness to get in bed with the political left at the expense of the life of the church:


In the mainline churches, which is what I know best, the political views leaders express are generally those of what could be called the ‘foundation left’ — emotionally grounded in concern for the poor and development, historically linked to the ‘new left’ mix of economic and social concerns as developed in the 1960′s, shaped by an atmosphere of privilege and entitlement that reflects the upper middle class background of the educated professionals who run these institutions.  The social sins they deplore are those of the right: excessive focus on capitalism, too robust and unheeding a promotion of the American national and security interest abroad, insufficient care for the environment, failure to help the poor through government welfare programs, failure to support affirmative action, failure to celebrate and protect the unrestricted right of women to abort.  I am of course speaking very generally here and there are lots of individual exceptions, but many of these folks are generally tolerant of theological differences and rigidly intolerant when it comes to political differences: they care nothing at all about doctrines like predestination but get very angry with people who disagree with them about issues like global warming or immigration reform.  Theological heresy is a matter for courtesy and silence, but political heretics fill them with bile.

Back in the days of the civil rights movement and the Vietnam war, it was news when Episcopal bishops sided in public with liberal causes.  It took real courage for bishops and priests to speak up in some cases; one of the clergymen in the town where I grew up had been driven from his last parish in Alabama because he spoke up for the Montgomery bus boycott led by Martin Luther King.  Other priests received death threats; some who participated in the Freedom Rides and other demonstrations were beaten by angry mobs.

But these days an Episcopal bishop would have to go to a lot of trouble to get into the news for backing a liberal political cause.  The headline says it all: Liberal Official of Small, Declining Liberal Denomination Endorses Liberal Idea.  This isn’t news for two reasons: it is utterly predictable and it doesn’t matter.  Trivial and predictable are not news, and the political stands that the mainline clergy take are almost always both.  A statement by an Episcopal bishop will not change one mind or one vote; at least in all my years in the pews I’ve never met a single Episcopalian who said that the opinion of a bishop does or should have the slightest influence on how Episcopalians vote and if the churchgoers aren’t paying attention to the bishops I can’t imagine anyone else is.

I’m not urging the bishops to change their politics.  I’m urging them to shut up.  More precisely, I’m urging them to base their ministry on a clearer understanding of their situation and their role.

It’s important to note that both Reyes-Chow and Mead are liberal Christians from mainline Protestant denominations.  Both talk about the decline of the mainline church.  But where Reyes-Chow has a more sunny and hopeful view, Mead is far more dire- his post is fire and brimstone.

In many ways, I feel that I have both views living inside of me.  There are days that I am more like Reyes-Chow, wanting to gently admonish people who I consider my friends, and there are days I want to rip them a new hole.

I would agree with Mead that liberal Christianity has become too chumy with the political left.  I’ve long agreed that American evangelicalism sold itself out to the GOP, but it didn’t take me long to figure out that mainline Christians had done the same with the Democrats.  What’s frustrating at times is to see Christians have mirrored the larger world: Team Red on one side and Team Blue on the other.

I’m not asking that liberal Christians who are politically liberal change their ideology, but could we not try to ape the larger society?  Can  we be willing to critical of the political left as we are of the political right?  Can we worry less about getting people to support this viewpoint and give people the tools to think as Christians in the world, influencing culture in different ways? Can we find a way to separate partisan politics from faith? Can the church be follwers of Jesus and not try to make Jesus the mascot of either party?

I guess what I’m asking is that we find ways to talk about justice without it devolving into some kind of pep-rally for this or that political party.  When I work on issues like homelessness or poverty, I want to help people think of how they can put their faith to work, not to tell them to support an agenda.

Blogger Nathan Gilmour had this to say about justice, the political left and right in a commentary on last Sunday’s texts:

…far too often any old cause of the New Left gets baptized in the name of being not-fundamentalist, and far too little inspection and criticism happens, especially when libertarian/capitalist categories of “choice” and “rights” rather than Christian practices like hospitality and thankfulness govern Christian discourse about “issues.” The univocality of Being once again threatens what I take to be genuine Christian reflection in these circles as well: throwing one’s time, effort, money, and sometimes more behind the DNC (just as much as the GOP) machine far too often requires participation in the Manichean machinery of American political discourse, and  such participation far too often loses sight of the common lot of mortals in light of the strong analogical difference between God and humanity.  (And there are few more dishonest moments than when a dedicated New-Left Democrat says that “this is not a left-right issue”: if I had money to gamble, I would bet every time that the next line out of the New-Left Democrat’s mouth is going to be party-line social liberalism.)  Not unlike the Right-Wingers that the Christian Left (rightly) holds in suspicion, the stance in favor of some kinds of Social Justice tends towards a strong division: contract-enforcement for one’s political enemies and seeking-for-shalom for one’s political friends.  The urge is neither inhuman nor unexpected, but it’s not all that different from its mirror image.  The hesed and the mishphat that Micah points to in this week’s reading call everyone to account and to repentance, not in the spirit of some flattened “moral equivalence” but in the realization that, when seen in the light of analogically different divine justice and kindness, no mortal’s sense of the good life should remain un-illuminated.  Perhaps the best place to start is indeed to walk humbly.

Walking humbly.  It sounds like a good start for all of us.

Life, Death, Steve Jobs and the Future of the Mainline Church

Steve Job’s commencement address in 2005 at Stanford University seems to be everywhere right now.  A whole host of media are sharing quotes from that speech.  Most of them are sharing this portion where he talks about death.  I guess I’ll join the throng and post that portion here:

“No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there. And yet death is the destination we all share. No one has ever escaped it. And that is as it should be, because death is very likely the single best invention of life. It is life’s change agent. It clears out the old to make way for the new. Right now the new is you, but someday not too long from now, you will gradually become the old and be cleared away. Sorry to be so dramatic, but it is quite true.

Your time is limited, so don’t waste it living someone else’s life. Don’t be trapped by dogma — which is living with the results of other people’s thinking. Don’t let the noise of others’ opinions drown out your own inner voice. And most important, have the courage to follow your heart and intuition. They somehow already know what you truly want to become. Everything else is secondary.”

Most people bring up this quote, because it seemed to forshadow Job’s fate.  But as theologian Susan Brooks Thistlewaite notes, there is something more going on here.  I think it has a lot to say about churches, especially Mainline Protestant Churches as they face an uncertain future.

For the last three years, I’ve been part of a church in decline.  When I came on staff in 2008, there was a lot of talk about closing the doors.  The previous 8 years had been ones of turmoil and loss.  The congregation seemed spent.  They had sold off their building and the new landlords (the Minneapolis Institute of Arts) graciously offered First Christian time to stay in the building as they decided their future.

For a while I thought that death was closing the doors of the church.  That is one form of death, but in some ways death was all around the church.  People were aging and dying.  Programs and ministries stopped.  People were going through the motions and not really living.

Jobs was correct, death is the ulitmate change agent.  Whether it’s physical or metaphorical, it comes.  What was once new, becomes old and is swept away. The way things were don’t stay that way.

For a long time, mainline churches have been trying to avoid death.  “Do this program and you will live,” says a bevy of folks ready to offer this method or that program to people afraid to die.

But the thing is, everything changes, everything dies.

Back in January, First Christian voted to join an ecumenical partnership with two other churches: one Lutheran and the other United Church of Christ.  The three churches will share a retrofitted church building.  I could look at this as a way to stave off death, but in some way it is a death all of its own.  We will be a different congregation in that setting.  What we used to do in our current space won’t take place in the new space.  Things will die and new things will come into being.

With all of this change, I think the second part of Jobs’ message comes into being; that is- live now.  It’s so easy for churches to get stuck in the past, to do something because it’s what we’ve always done.  Jobs talked about listening to our inner voice, but in the life of the church, we are called to listen to the Spirit of God;something we are not good at doing.  Churches spend too much of their time NOT listening to the Spirit.  Instead, we listen to old dogmas that might provide comfort but not much else.

I think about how the disciples of Jesus started to go into the known world preaching the gospel.  They took a risk to live bodly now.

I hope that the congregation that I am honored to serve at and countless others near and far will learn to live now and allow the Spirit to blow into our lives.  I hope we can see that death is part of the process and allow it to happen. I hope we can learn to be bold and take risks so that at the end of the day we can say: “what an awesome ride that was!”

Thanks be to God.