Tag: mainline churches

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.

Diversity in Name Only

diversityA friend on Facebook linked to an article in First Things by Mark Regnerus.  Regnerus is an interesting fellow.  He is a sociologist at the University of Texas and  has been at the center of some controversy in recent years over a study he released on gay parenting that did not put same sex families in a positive light.  Knowing that, I was a little hesitant to share this article because so many will dismiss this article at first read because of who wrote it.

I disagree with Regnerus, but his article on diversity in mainline churches did hit at something I’ve been thinking about.  If you can read past the triumphalism of the post, he shares that for all the talk within mainline churches about diversity, there just isn’t that much to be found vis-a-vis Pentecostal or Catholic churches:

There’s a mainline congregation I walk past on my way to the local Starbucks. The church’s advertising signals a key priority: “We value our inclusivity—whether you are young, old, gay, straight, single, married, partnered, all walks of life and all backgrounds and cultures—we welcome you!”

In a world where our devices, apps, and sites foster narrow social circles based exactly on such categories, it’s refreshing to know that Christian congregations are mindful of their call to reach the spectrum of souls.

But it’s not happening, at least not within the mainline. Data from the 2014 Relationships in America survey reveal that mainline churches are anything but diverse. They’re whiter (84 vs. 64 percent), older (43 vs. 28 percent are ages 50-60), more apt to be married (49 vs. 43 percent), have a college degree (52 vs. 31 percent) and are “straighter” (91 vs. 88 percent heterosexual) than the national population. Have you met an Episcopalian plumber? If you ever do, remember it, because it won’t happen twice.

By contrast, 54 percent of American Catholics are white, and 39 percent Latino. Pentecostals are a shred under 60 percent white, with an additional 23 percent African American and 14 percent Latino. Even evangelicals are less white—at 76 percent overall. And Pentecostalism and Catholicism, by comparison with the mainline, are veritable youth movements (26 percent each vs. 16 percent between ages 18–32). Evangelicals even more so—at 30 percent. Only 28 percent of American Catholics have a college degree, slightly below the national average.

I think there is truth to be found here.  I’ve heard more than enough stories about mainline clergy who are persons of color and how they are treated.  I know some of the hidden racism I’ve faced over the years from people supposedly committed to social justice.  There are problems within other sectors of American Christianity, but mainline congregations have never seemed to me to be naturally diverse in a way that I’ve seen in Catholic or some evangelical communities.  We are good at talking about race and racial injustice, but I think we aren’t that good when it comes to living it.

To add to that, Regnerus’ joke about Episcopal plumbers shows another embarassing truth about most, but not all of the mainline: there are almost no working class folk in the pews. I’ve noticed over the years that a lot of the mainline congregations in my hometown of Flint, Michigan as well as here in Minnesota that are closed tended to be less middle to upper middle class and more working to middle class. When I think of some of the strongest mainline churches, they tend to be large urban congregations that again have few working class people. Regnerus’ quip about rich and poor Catholics taking communion together is very true.  My years attending Catholic schools and having many Catholic friends have shown me congregations where doctors and carpenters worship together.  My Catholic high school in Michigan had a mix of people from  various economic classes.  Maybe that’s because I came from a working class town where General Motors had a big influence, but I don’t think I’m far off.

In contrast most of the mainline churches I’ve been involved in tended to be folks that were professionals of some sort.  Nurses, teachers, middle management folk are what make up some of the Disciple, Presbyterian and UCC churches.

Three years ago I wrote about the fact that the white working class are few and far between in mainline churches. I wrote in 2012:

The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
My own opinion is that the mainline church has a class issue and we don’t know it or at least don’t want to acknowledge it.  A good number of the mainline churches I know exhibit the values of the middle and upper middle classes.  We don’t have any way to connect culturally with the working class.
I also tend to think mainline churches tend to not welcome those of differing political and theological views.  Every so often I notice how some of my pastoral colleagues will say something about conservatives and libertarians.  Now, both political persuasions don’t always adhere to the gospel and they should be called out on that.  But the chatter in I see on Facebook sometimes go further.  They seem to show Republicans as heartless monsters.  In many ways some in mainline churches have adopted the language of politics instead of the language of theology and God’s grace.  So when one hears a pastor rip on Republicans, someone who might lean that way may think that this congregation isn’t really for them.  When an evangelical hears their beliefs and practices being mocked, they might think this church is for them. As someone who leans right, I’ve wondered at times if I’ve really found a home in the mainline.*
I think that mainline/progressive Christians really need to think about who is really welcomed at the table of Jesus. We need to examine our own biases and preferences to discern how inclusive we really are. We need to think about what it really means to say “all are welcome.”
Unlike Regnerus, I am not writing off the mainline church.  I believe it can become once against a Broad Church, but for that to happen it needs to take a good, long look at itself.

God Is A Concept.

johnlennonWhen I was in journalism class in high school, I remember seeing a poster in the teacher’s classroom that caught my attention.  It was one of those posters that shows something like a big sky or the stars at night.  At the bottom of the poster were these words: “God Is A Concept.”

I really didn’t know what it meant.  I originally thought it was nice to talk about  God.  I remember talking to the teacher about it and while I can’t remember the words she said, the point was made that we didn’t have the same view of God.  God wasn’t as much of a person in her view, but an idea.

I thought about that as I read David Watson’s recent blog post.  Watson is a Methodist minister in charge of United Seminary in Ohio.  In this blog post he talks about the “starting point” for mainline churches and theologians.  The starting point or organizing principle is the nature of evil or more to the point our response to evil.  Watson writes:

Much mainline Christian theology in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries has been a response to the problem of evil. For liberal Christian theologians of the mid-twentieth century, two world wars and the Holocaust made any strong notion of divine action unbelievable. Unlike evangelical cessationists, who believe that miracles ceased after the biblical period, liberal theologians, who were extremely influential in mainline Protestant schools of theology, simply held that these so-called “miracles” never took place. They were the product of an ancient worldview, one that modern people could no longer hold credible.

The result was that mainline Protestants ceased believing in any kind of divine action:

One result of this liberal theological position has been that mainline Protestants have by and large ceased to expect any significant type of divine action. If someone in our churches received a world of prophecy that he or she wished to share with the congregation, would we receive this as legitimate? Would we take the time to test the prophecy against scripture and discern its truthfulness within our ongoing life together? Would we let the person speak at all? Or, as another example, when we pray for healing, are we taking a shot in the dark when all other hope is lost, or do we pray with the expectation that God will show up? Another example may hit closer to home: when we receive the Eucharist, do we believe that we are changed in that moment, that we have really and truly received the spiritual presence of Christ into our bodies and that the work of sanctification is taking place within us?

For many mainline Protestants, God has essentially become a construct. God gives weight to our ethical claims, credence to our feelings about social justice. God is not, however, an agent who can directly and radically change the course of events in our lives.

God is a concept.  It’s funny, as much as I don’t want to believe this way, the fact is it has seeped into my way of thinking.  When you pray for a sick friend, you don’t pray believe healing just might happen, instead we pray for “spiritual healing.”  We don’t talk about any kind of afterlife and tell ourselves that we have to focus on this life more than the life to come.  But deep down, we really don’t believe there is a life to come.  We feel leery about the whole Jesus dying a bloody death at least as a way to bring salvation for the world.  We love to ask questions, which is a good thing, but behind our seeking is the feeling that all of this is not real, that it doesn’t really have any impact in changing us and our world.

As Watson notes, God and Jesus or the idea of God and Jesus gives weight to our beliefs in social justice and inclusion, but God in no way makes a difference in our lives.

Watson notes that the result is that many mainline churches aren’t exciting places.  More to the point, Watson says what is missing in so many of our churches and in the lives of those who sit in its pews is…joy.

The thing is, if you believe in a God that “woke me up this morning, started me on my way” then you are going to be joyful even when times aren’t so good.

About a month ago, I went to the funeral of member of the congregation.  The service was held at the senior living facility where he had spent the last five years of his life.  I only met this man a few times, but he was the most joyous 102-year-old I ever met.  I wish I had a chance to get to know him better.  During the service in the chapel, the Episcopal priest noted that this man saw his Christian life as joyful.  The priest was surprised to hear this.  As I thought about her reaction more and more, I was a bit surprised at her response.  Even I’ve read Paul’s letter to the Phillipians which is a letter of joy even in the darkest times.  How could a pastor NOT know about the joy that the Christian life brings?

Like David Watson, I don’t want to minimize the role of evil in our lives and in the world.  Mainline Protestants do well in pointing out that life can be hard.  We can do well in saying that all is not right with the world.  There is evil out there.  There are men knocking their wives unconscious.  There are parents discipling their children to the point of severe injuries on the child’s body.  There are police who are so scared they use full force on black men and boys.  There are priests who abuse their office and inflict unspeakable crimes on children.  Yes, there is evil.  But God is also present.  God hasn’t given up on creation.  God has already overcome the world.  THAT should bring people joy; a joy that endures even in the midst of suffering.

I’m not leaving the mainline church.  I couldn’t go back to my evangelical beginnings even if I wanted to.  I bear no ill will to my evangelical sisters and brothers, it’s just that my views have changed.  But even though I am not in that camp anymore, there is much to learn from my former home, one of which is to believe in God that is present and alive, one that is most definitely not a concept.

I think it’s way past time for some sort of revivial in liberal Christianity.  We need to pray and believe that God is active in our churches, in our lives and in the world.

I believe it’s in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe that someone says “Aslan is on the move.”  Aslan, the God-figure in the novel is making himself known again in the land of Narnia.

“Aslan is on the move.”  It’s time we believe that again.

 

Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End

I Kings 19:1-18 and Matthew 14:22-33
Fourteenth Sunday in Ordinary Time
August 10, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

Listen to the Podcast.

YMCA
A postcard of the YMCA in Flint, MI. I took swimming lessons here in the 1970s.

I’ve shared some stories in the past of my taking swimming lessons when I was growing up.  I would take lessons sometimes at the local YMCA and at the YWCA which was just down the street.  Most of the time we took lessons, we practiced in the shallow end.  Being seven or eight meant that the shallow end was already a challenge.  But at least I could touch the bottom of the pool.

What scared me was trying to swim in the deep end.  I can remember treading water out towards the middle of the pool feeling the pool’s floor slipping away from me.  At some point, I couldn’t touch anything other than the water that was surrounding me.  It felt like I was like an acrobat; working without a net.

Then there would come that day when we would work at the deep end, learning how to dive into a pool.  I would make my dive, scared that I wouldn’t be able to get to poolside fast.

But I was able to do my dives on the deep end. Albeit with me probably bawling up a storm.

As much as I hated swimming in the deep end, I had to learn this skill.  I had to learn this because the reality is that we will spend a good majority of our time in waters that can be very deep.  We have to stop clinging to the pool floor and step out in faith.  You have to believe that the skills you have learned will keep you afloat will be enough. Continue reading “Sermon: Swimming in the Deep End”

Yet Another Post on Church Planting

It’s been a bittersweet time for me.

sixfour_333_ChurchPlantingOn the one hand, I am excited of being pastor at First Christian.  There are a lot of challenges; the church is down a faithful few and we are starting to find ways to grow numerically and spiritually as well.  Most churches that are down to a handful would just close and that was suggested to the folks at First.  But they decided to stick together and keep on keeping on.  I am amazed at their faith and feel honored to journey with them as First-St. Paul becomes something new and yet the same.

But there is also a lot of frustration when it comes church planting.  As many of you know, I was heading up an unoffical group in my Region dealing with new church.  Without going into much detail at this point, the New Church Team is on hiatus.  I’m not heading it up anymore (though I’m still on the team) but I don’t know when if ever the group will start up again.

As I’ve said before, last year was a dissapointing year when it came to church planting.  There were a number of people who expressed interest in church planting, but for the most part all the talk was just that…talk.  Add to that is the failure of a Region-sponsored church plant in Rochester, MN and 2013 just seemed bad.

It’s not all a failure.  Our joint ministry with the United Methodists in North Dakota is doing rather well. I am thankful for Ward and Theta Miller and their heart and passion for ministry.  I’m also thankful for having the chance to help the Millers make their dream a reality.  The success with New Roots in North Dakota, made me hopeful and looking forward to helping birth another faith community.  I was hoping to help my Region have a better track record with starting new churches and at least from my vantage point, I failed.

My passion (actually, it’s my aspergian obsession) with new churches is part of a bigger passion that is only now coming together in my mind.  You see, I am passionate about new churches, but I am also passionate about keeping churches open.  I don’t believe that you should never close a church.  As a mentor once said, there are no churches around that have existed since that Pentecost Sunday.  But I think that Regions and other middle judicatories need to think long and hard before shuttering the church’s door.  Church should be a place where God’s people gather, remembering their calling and being sent into the world to preach the good news.  We can’t do that if we aren’t learning how to be a faithful living community of believers. We really can’t do it if we lack a passion for evangelism and that is something that is found in spades in mainline churches:

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

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

 

We seem to have a hard time starting churches, but we seem to be able to close long-standing congregations such as those in Fridley, Rochester and Mankato.  In some cases, these churches had outlived their ministry, so I can understand closing a church.  But we aren’t planting new churches in these areas and other parts of the state.  The reason we plant new churches is  to create communities where people can see what God is all about.  To be blunt, churches exist to show the wider community the love Jesus.  Do we understand that?  Do I?  This is what Episcopalian Robert Hendrickson said in a blog post from 2012:

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

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

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

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

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

In some of my discussions about church planting, a few fellow pastors have suggested that I plant a church.  I am giving it some throught.  However, I am already working with one church and I feel I need to let them know I am with them as they try to survive and thrive.  I will see how God leads.  I don’t know if I could do two churches at the same time, but who knows.

With only a handful of Disciples churches in Minnesota, I want to see new churches.  But I am wondering if this is the time to give up, or take a “sabbatical” and start again.  Maybe this is a sign that I need to take a break.

I just hope at some point there is a passion at the Regional Church and congregational level to start new communities that will reach out to the growing diversity that is the Upper Midwest.  All I can do is trust that God will work through me and others.

God help me.

Why is the Mainline Losing Young Adults?

On Saturday, Methodist pastor Alan Bevere wondered why mainline churches are losing their young adults.  This was my response.

This is probably going to be a future blog post, but I will offer a few observations. First, mainline churches have done a poor job when it comes to campus ministry with one exception: the Lutherans. When I was working for the local Presbytery, there was one church that was heavily involved in campus ministry at the University of Minnesota, but it was on the conservative end and therefore not given much attention. That church is in the process of leaving the denomination. There is another church nearby that could have a bigger presence and we will see if it does anything. I think that there has been some presence at that church in the past but not much. But most mainline denominations have not invested in campus ministry, which has to be a way to keep kids in church.

Which I think leads to number two; a lack of young adult ministries at the judicatorial level. The big downtown and suburban churches like Hennepin Avenue UMC in Minneapolis (where I work now) or Fourth Presbyterian in Chicago, have thriving young adult ministries, but that is because there is staff dedicated to that sort of ministry. However, small churches don’t have the resources to reach out on their own. Middle judicatories need to either create resources to help small churches do effective ministry, or work to gather churches in one area to pool their resources and do ministry together.

There is also no talk about young folk as they enter careers. Michael Kruse is better at explaining this, but there needs to be some way that the young Christians learn of the importance of vocation. We pastors have to help them see the connection between their work and their faith.

Finally, there needs to be more expansion of Americorps type programs. The Lutherans have Lutheran Volunteer Corps which again is a breeding ground for new leaders. A few Presbyterian Churches in the Twin Cities are coming together to operate something similar.

Okay one more thing. Mainline churches need to make the main thing the main thing. Too often what we offer is something that is watered down and frankly no different than what is heard at a Democratic party convention. Young people are wise enough to know that if this is what they are getting in their churches, then they don’t need to come to church. They can get their politics from a plethora of places that do it better. We are called to make disciples, not Democrats.

 

Sermon: “Do You Remember?”

Isaiah 58:1-12 and Matthew 6:1-21
Ash Wednesday
March 5, 2014
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

1977-hostess-reggie-jacksonIt’s been nearly 20 years since Ken Burn’s documentary on the Great American pasttime aired. Baseball talked about the early beginnings of the sport, what impact it had on American society and how it was impacted by American society. There was a certain poignancy in watching this mini-series in 1994, because during that fall there was no baseball due to a strike. For the first time since World War I, the bats of October would fall silent; there was no 1994 World Series.

There are a number of memorable moments from that documentary, but the one that most interested me was footage of a reporter interviewing Reggie Jackson sometime in the late 1970s. Supposedly during this time, Jackson had found faith and become a Christian. The interview had Jackson speaking like a choirboy, telling the reporter the joys of being saved. When the interview ended, Jackson changed. He started swearing up a storm and talking about what you had to do in front of the cameras. I can’t make a call as to whether Jackson’s faith was real, but it was easy to see that the piety was just an act for the cameras. Of course, while Jackson now being himself, there was a camera on taking all this in.

The passages we read this evening talk about worship and how people were basically doing things for show. They would do everything for the cameras, but when the light went off, they treated their fellow person poorly.

It would be easy to look at the passages and simply say that we shouldn’t act that way. I could tell you that we need to care for the poor more than how we look during worship. But that is not what these passages are about. At least not on this day.

Ash Wednesday is a day when we are reminded of how finite we are. It is a day to remind us that we are imperfect, as the old pop song goes, “we’re not that innocent.”

Do you remember? Do you remember that you are finite? Do you remember that you are not perfect? Ash Wednesday is a call to remember our baptisms as children of God, a call to remember that our worship is only as good as how we treat our neighbors, a call to remember that God doesn’t want an act, but an honest heart.

I’m not going to urge you to do good. That’s not the point of this day. I am asking that you remember who you are and whose you are. When you do that, everything else will fall into place. Thanks be to God. Amen.

All Means Almost

all means allI’ve never watched Duck Dynasty.  I didn’t really know about Phil Robertson until he uttered his beliefs on homosexuality and race. It’s no surprise that I don’t agree with either of those views.  But there is a question that keeps rumbling in my mind.  It’s not directed at Robertson, it’s directed to my fellow Christians in mainline/liberal Christianity:  would we welcome Phil Robertson into our churches?

I tend to believe that the answer, the true answer, is no.  We won’t say that out loud of course.  We will look at Robertson and hear his views and will promptly write him off.  We won’t bar the doors to our churches, but we just won’t extend the right hand of welcome.  Because he and his kind are rednecks and have outdated and hurtful views of gays and blacks we will use words like ‘bigot’ as an excuse to not reach out to them.

About two years ago, I wrote a post called “Learning to Love Bubba.”  In that post, I said that mainline churches tend to not reach out to the white working class even as they face some tough economic challenges:

The white working class is getting some more attention because of the release of Charles Murray’s book “Falling Apart.”  As I read this article, I started to wonder about mainline churches and how welcoming they would be to the white working class.  My guess is that most of these folks wouldn’t feel that welcome in mainline churches.  In fact, these folks are more and more dropping out of churches as well.

The thing is, I don’t think the people who make up most mainline churches, who tend to be from a more professional background don’t like these folks very much.  I know this, because I hear how pastors talk about working class whites in meetings with other pastors, and I can tell you they aren’t looking at them as some kind of salt of the earth figure.  I’ve also heard it from people in the pews of mainline churches as well: this kind of contempt for them.
We look down at them because we see them as racist, homophobic, sexist and any other -ist and -ism that you can think of them.  The thing is that working class whites can be all these things, but they are more than that as well.  As Packer notes in his essay, these are people who see very little hope and take it out on everyone for their lot in life.
When we talk about planting new churches to reach young adults, we mostly mean reaching people of the same socio-economic class that we are a part of.  As much as we want to talk about caring about the poor and the workers, I sometimes wonder how accepting we are of those that actually fit this description.  How willing would folks be to accepting a man or woman that you can tell has lived a hard life and whose moral life is kind of a mess?
 
I explained why a black, gay man had a concern for poor white folk:
 
You probably are wondering why a black, gay guy is so interested in white working class people.  It’s a good question of which I have no good answer.  Maybe it’s because I grew up working class and there was always an uneasy tension between working class blacks and working class whites.  Maybe it’s that coming from Michigan, which has gone through so much as the economy change, you are more sensitive of those who lose good paying jobs and are trying pick up the pieces after the auto plant closed.
 
As far as I know, Phil Robertson hasn’t said he wanted to beat up gay people.  He expressed his interpretation of the Bible, which I don’t agree with.  Maybe if Robertson had a sandwich of a gay person he might change his views a little.  Or maybe not.  I have to think that meeting him would help me see him as a human being, a child of God, and not just a bigot.
 
Progressive Christians love to talk about how God’s table is for all and we go around talking about inclusion and that “all means all.”
 
Except we really don’t mean that.
 
Yes, we want to be inclusive of all the right kind of people.  But we don’t really want to include folks like Phil Robertson.  We wold rather just ignore them.  So, All Means Almost.
 
Anglican friar Trent Hale, who is also gay, shared his thoughts on the whole Robertson affair and had this to say:
 
A friar once told me: “Sitting down to a meal with someone is the most authentic and vulnerable action someone can do because we are eating in front of another person. Every time we place a piece of food in our mouths we are saying to the person across the table: ‘I am hungry. I thirst. I have needs. I am vulnerable. I am dependent. I am feeble. I am not indestructible.’” How much more appropriate it would be for us, then, to respond to theological disagreement (or disagreement of any kind for that matter) by coming to the table of Christ’s Body and Blood? In light of recent public debate, I have no desire to change Phil Robertson’s mind on any topic. My desire is to sit down and eat a meal with him. It is in that moment we can both realize the big issue–we’re both utterly lost and in need of a Savior.
 
There was a time in my life when I was interested in persuading folks to agree with me or at least respect me.  Now, I just want to have dinner with someone.  I’m not so interested in changing minds anymore.  I just want to try to be Christ to someone and that the other person that I might not agree with can be Christ to me.
 
First Christian rents out it’s building to a Baptist congregation that is more conservative than we are.  That can definitely be a challenge to me, since I’m pretty sure what their views are when it comes to homosexuality.  But I try as hard as I can to be hospitable and live in the tension.  I don’t do that because I’m a masochist, I do it because the people in that congregation are children of God.  I do it because I am trying to live out that whole All Means All, which is a lot harder to live out than we think.  I want to remain at the Table, God’s Table and I want them to be at the Table.  I want us to share the Bread of Life and drink from the Cup of Salvation. 
 
Learning to love the “Bubbas” in our lives is a challenge- a challenge that God call us to do.
 

Sermon: “There Goes the Neighborhood”

“There Goes the Neighborhood”
Luke 2:1-20 and John 1:1-18
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2013
First Christian Church
Mahtomedi, MN

there-goes-expressionSince I don’t have children, I’ve never seen the actual birth of a baby. But I have had the blessing of seeing a child hours after having entered the world. I remember seeing my nephew, John Luke, on a late May morning in 2008. I held him as he slept, he did have a busy few hours there, what with all the being born and all.

It’s fascinating to see someone at the beginning of their life. It’s also fascinating to see someone at the end of their life. In 2011, I got word that my Aunt Nora was being placed in hospice. She had dealt with Alzheimers for several years and had come to the point where she had stopped eating and drinking. The doctors believed that it was time. There was nothing else to do, but make sure she was comfortable. I was in Michigan to look after Dad as Mom was going to have her knee replaced. I made it a point to go to the hospice…to say goodbye. I secretly hoped she might get better, but I was realistic that she was nearing her end. Indeed a few weeks later she did die after being on this earth for 87 years.

Two years ago, Daniel and I took my parents to Puerto Rico, where my mother is from. We took time to visit relatives and do some sightseeing. I got the chance to go Arecibo Observatory, home to one of the largest radio telescopes in the world. At this location in Carribean, humanity could plumb the depths of space and still only understand a mere fraction of it.

I remember when I had the chance to travel to mainland China while in seminary. We had the opportunity to worship with our sisters and brothers in the remote southwest of the the nation…all under the watchful eye of the government, which had sent a long folks to “protect us.” I learned how it was to be faithful in a society where the government saw you as a potential threat.

Christmas Eve is always a challenge for pastors. We feel the need to preach, but the fact is, the message has been told again and again in the songs and the reading of Scripture. There isn’t much more to add, so my words are going to be short…hopefully.

The two gospel passages tonight look at the coming of Jesus in different ways. Luke talks about Mary and Joseph, a pregnancy, a census that the Romans wanted, and having to give birth to baby in smelly stable. Everything here is somewhat mundane, everyday. Yes, there is that whole angel thing with the shepherd, but even the shepherds were so plain. Luke’s story is about people, places and things. It’s concrete. John on the other hand, is a whole different animal. Where things are finite and ordinary in Luke, John tends to deal with the infinite. “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” says John 1:1. There is no Mary, no Joseph, no shepherds, no angels. Instead we have talk about the Word or Logos, about being rejected by people, about the Word being around since the beginning of time. In the midst of all this, verse 14 talks about the Word, the cosmic, the infinite taking on flesh and living among humanity.

Think about that for a moment. The infinite got involved with the finite. Here’s what John 1:14 says according to the Message translation of the Bible:

The Word became flesh and blood,
and moved into the neighborhood.
We saw the glory with our own eyes,
the one-of-a-kind glory,
like Father, like Son,
Generous inside and out,
true from start to finish.

This is what Christmas is about. God, the infinite, the all powerful and all knowing, became a helpless baby. God loved creation so much God decided to become one of us, to accept the limits of being human. God became Immanuel, God with us, by becoming one of us. God moved into the neighborhood.

As we get together with family and friends tomorrow, remember this: Christmas is about God getting involved in the life of the world for its salvation. God is about moving into our hearts and joining us in the good and the bad. Charles Wesley expressed this in his carol “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.” The third verse explains this wonderfully:

Hail the heav’n-born Prince of Peace!
Hail the Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all He brings
Ris’n with healing in His wings
Mild He lays His glory by
Born that man no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth
Hark! The herald angels sing
“Glory to the newborn King!”

God has moved in. There goes the neighborhood. Thanks be to God. Amen.

Faith and Spreadsheets

budgetI’ve been noticing something.

A mainline church either moves out of its current location or closes.  Soon there after, an evangelical church or an immigrant church buys up the property.

Here’s the interesting thing: the mainline churches moves out because the community is no longer sustainable or the building is too much for a shrinking congregation.  Long story short, the mainline community is low on finances.

But the evangelical community or the group of immigrants that want to start a church are not swimming in money either.  Most of these folk are working class.  But somehow they are able to purchase the building.

So what gives here?  How is it that groups that aren’t rich can buy property while another group can’t find the money to maintain it?

My theory is that one group looks at the spreadsheet and believes God can make this possible.  The other looks at the spreadsheet and concludes that nothing can be done except close and sell the building.  One believes in faith; the other doesn’t.

I don’t think that somehow money just appears when evangelicals pray.  What I do believe happens is that they believe God is with them and will do a mighty work.  So, they ask people to give, host bake sales and other events to raise the money and lo and behold the money has been raised.

One of the salient features of progressive Christianity is an emphasis on reason.  Now reason is something one needs, even in religion.  The problem is that progressive Christians seem to only use reason.  The de-emphasizing of the afterlife, the explaination of miracles, the resistance to the idea of atonement tend to have the effect of seeing church as nothing more than an NGO with really nice robes.

I’ve said it before: imagination is an important aspect of faith.  You have to believe that there is more to life than what we see.  You have to see the wardrobe as more than a wardrobe; you have to see it as a portal to something fantastic.

Mainline churches aren’t declining because of their stance on homosexuality; no, they are declining because somehow we stopped having a holy imagination.  We stopped thinking the wardrobe was more than a wardrobe.

For mainline churches to flourish, we have to be willing to have faith.  We have to see the little we have as more than what we see.  God seemed to do a lot with very little.

But of course to believe God can do a lot with little, you have to believe God can do this.

Church finances are more than numbers on a spreadsheet.  Mainline churches need to believe that those numbers don’t tell the whole story.

It’s time for mainline churches to start having a holy imagination again.