"How can Christians hear the cries of wounded people who’re forced to live in fear, adjusting themselves to our view of a safe and just world . . . how can we hear those cries and think only about which symbols will be powerful enough to drown them out—just because we find those cries inconveniently challenge the world we’ve built for ourselves, cries that plead with us to adjust ourselves to a different world than the one we’re comfortable with—to see things through someone else’s eyes?"
Here is a copy of the interfaith position statement, signed now by over 175 clergy, supporting the welcome Syrian refugees to Louisville. Together faith leaders from the Muslim, Jewish, Christian, Buddhist, and Hindu traditions have linked arms to speak of our support for the welcome of Syrian Refugees. My hope for this position statement and the press conference announcing our solidarity, among other things, is that it might offer a template for other faith leaders in other communities to follow.
LOUISVILLE (Dec. 2, 2015) Faith leaders from across the Metro Louisville Community, whose religious traditions contain explicit teachings about welcoming the stranger, and who collectively have decades of positive experience with the refugee community, wish to express our solidarity and pledge our support for those fleeing war and brutality—particularly, those seeking to escape the conflict in Syria. That being the case, we recognize as a moral imperative the continued need to welcome refugees. And though we acknowledge the anxiety present in our culture, as people of faith we resolve not to live in fear.
Therefore, we announce our intention to continue raising awareness of the plight of Syrian refugees by the means available to us not as potential threats to be feared, but as sisters and brothers deserving of our compassion and protection.
We also announce our intention to encourage our separate faith communities to work together to provide the financial and material support necessary to the local agencies whose priority of care extends to the refugee community.
In addition, we call upon our neighbors and fellow citizens to join us in demonstrating compassion and hospitality to refugees, and upon our civic leaders to support such demonstrations of compassion and hospitality.
Without question, much of what binds us together as representatives of various religious communities is our shared commitment to advocating on behalf of those who are most vulnerable. Such a commitment expresses not only the most profound aspects of our faith traditions, but also our conviction that faith itself can bind us together in our common humanity, motivating us to pursue justice and peace for all God’s children.
(Here's a link if you'd like to go online and endorse it: https://dbcc.wufoo.com/forms/s1bsoziq1b9cjwt/)
By Derek Penwell
So, I'm sitting here writing a sermon, when I chance to look at my Facebook wall—which can be a really bad idea, especially during times of global distress. Nevertheless, all the noise on social media got me to thinking.
The sermon I'm writing is from this Sunday's lectionary reading from John. It's the story of Jesus standing in front of Pilate, being asked if he is indeed the King of the Jews. Jesus responds to this interrogation by saying, "My kingdom is not from this world. If my kingdom were from this world, my followers would be fighting to keep me from here" (John 18:36).
And Jesus, who is about to be killed by the state out of fear, is right. Only, we tend to think that "my kingdom is not from this world" is a reference to some celestial dominion, far removed from the world in which we live. And immediately, people's eyes glaze over as they think of streets of gold.
"My kingdom is not from this world," Jesus says.
So, where is Jesus' kingdom from? We've tended to think of Jesus' response as a reference to a different place, as an answer to the question "where?"
Out there, where the roll is called up yonder. In the sweet by and by. "This world is not my home, I'm just a passin' through . . . "
But I remain more and more convinced that Jesus' mention of a "kingdom not from this world" isn't a spatial question, a question of "where?" I think the appropriate question to pose to Jesus' claim of a "kingdom not from this world" isn't "where?" but "what?"—more specifically, "what kind?"
The kingdom to which Jesus refers is from a different world, not in terms of spatial location, but in terms of quality and character.
Pontius Pilate deals with Jesus from fear, as a threat. And how do we deal with threats in this world?
We isolate them, dehumanize them. We stick them in ghettos, put them in prisons, sequester them in internment camps. But for God's sake, keep them away from us. And if none of those things work, we invest in ever more ingenious ways to kill them.
Same as it ever was.
But Jesus doesn't deal with others first as threats to be feared; he embraces them as sisters and brothers created and loved by God, and therefore, deserving of our profoundest attempts at love and welcome.
So, when Jesus says his "kingdom is not from this world," he ain't kidding. The kind of realm over which Jesus reigns appears unintelligible to a world that believes threats are to be eliminated (by violence if necessary). Any kingdom that takes as its guiding principle the need to "love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you" is bound to appear alien to this world.
Following Jesus is risky. Indeed, his "kingdom is not from this world"—a world in which fear of the "other" drives us to deal with threats in deadly earnestness. Consequently, the domain his followers serve isn't "from this world" either.
So, if you want to follow Jesus, risk is what you signed up for.
Syrian refugees. Muslims. Transgender people.
If you're afraid, that's fine. Fear is something that just is. But if you're going to follow Jesus you're going to have to learn how to be faithful in the face of your fears. You're going to have to learn how to love those whom you don't understand, those whom you fear—not as abstractions, not as categories, not as threats—but as individuals, as human faces, as children of God.
Fear and violence cannot define our relationship to those who are different from us, in the same way that fear and violence cannot define Jesus' "kingdom that is not from this world."
I don't make the rules. I'm just telling you that if you call yourself by the name of Christ, there are some.
My recent conversation with Laurie Beth Jones about The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World. Check it out, and let me know what you think!
My back hurts. I sit with the laptop resting on my knees, and all I can think about is how much my back hurts. And the second toe on my left foot feels numb and tingly.
I should write but the world impinges. Or perhaps it’s not the world I’m in so much as the world that’s in me that sets up obstacles to the work I claim to want to do, but seem so often incapable of pulling off.
I know the rules about showing up and getting to it. But no matter how often I remind myself of them, I often can’t quite manage to do it. Why is that?
I’d like to say that I’ve figured it out, which is why I’ve determined to set down that hard-won wisdom here. But the truth of the matter is, I’m not sure why I can’t always seem to do what I know I need to do, what I say I really want to do. So I’m writing this morning not because I’ve discovered some truth, but because I hope that the process of writing will help me suss out what truth there is to be had. (I fear you'll find these musings merely an exercise in self-indulgence, but when I lower my bucket into the well, this is what I come up with.)
I don’t know why I go through these huge swings, arcing between focused motivation and fuzzy lethargy. I do know that I’m a strong starter, an idea person, but I’m often a bad sustainer. I don’t want to sell myself short and give you, dear reader, the idea that I’m all talk and no show. I can get things done. I have a pretty good reputation for doing stuff that I say I’ll do. But often, I lose interest at some point and want to move on to the next thing.
I can write a book—not effortlessly, but with the motivational momentum necessary to do the job, and do it passably well. But writing the next book … that’s a tough one. (The prospect of admitting that for you to read sends cold stabs of fear through my chest.)
Man, my back hurts. And my mouth is dry. I think I need something to drink. (See how easily it happens?)
I’m very competitive, by nature. So, if there’s something to be proved, I’m your man.
Nobody else has been able to do this? I’ll bet I can do it. In fact, I’ll kill myself to do it—not just to prove that it can be done, but to prove that it can be done by me. (I find sharing this kind of disclosure extremely uncomfortable—as, I suspect, in some way, in reading it do you.)
Climb that mountain? Fell that tree? Fix that broken thing? Person? Community? Earn that degree? Write that piece? Pass that initiative? Here I am. Look no further.
But after that? Climb that mountain again? Already did it. No adventure left in it.
Besides, my back hurts. And I could really use some coffee. And these kids … they make so much noise; it’s hard to concentrate.
I’m in Mexico at a children’s home. Kids everywhere. Playing soccer. Eating popcorn. Pushing a broken paint roller through the dust and dirt. And they seem so happy.
I come down every year. Juan and Selene, my uncle and aunt, run the Casa Hogar de San Juan—which takes in children that other people, for whatever reason, can no longer raise. They have twenty children here now—down from thirty last year. Once, in the mid 1970s, when my grandparents (who founded the home and operated it for almost forty years) were running things, they had fifty-five children. Twenty isn’t fifty-five, but it’s not nothing either.
Over 250 children through the years. I know enough about how these children got to be where they are not to romanticize life in a children’s home, but happiness springs up with amazing regularity here at the Casa Hogar. Having very little, the children seem to find what they need in the lives they lead here.
Idealizing the simple life of the poor and downtrodden is a temptation the well-situated ought assiduously to avoid. But identifying joy in simplicity seems virtuous to me. And so I’ll risk looking like the American lout I so often fear I am, and marvel at these children’s enthusiastic embrace of the life they’ve been given, not to mention the life they give back.
My back hurts. And I have a piece of the popcorn that Pancho gave me stuck in my teeth. The soccer announcer blares in the background, in the way only Spanish-speaking announcers can.
But I’m determined not to be distracted. I’m determined not to let the world tell me there’s something else.
I suspect that’s at the heart of my problem: I labor under the illusion that for life to have meaning there must always be something else, some new mountain to climb, some new language to master, some different obstacle to conquer. What I have in front of me, the experiences I’ve already collected hold too little fascination for me. I’m too easily distracted from the work I have been given to do, unless it carries with it the promise of something new and different, something few others are capable of doing.
And even as I write it, I know how self-absorbed and narcissistic it sounds. So much so, in fact, that I’m not sure I want this particular facet of my personality revealed to the world.
But I believe that writing is a search for truth—even (perhaps especially) truth that discloses that which we might otherwise wish to hold close, hold closed. Interesting word, “disclose”—a kind of backhanded way of saying, “lay bare,” “open up” … literally “un-close.”
So, I lay bare, open up, “un-close” in hopes that the truth I find will offer insight to me, and perhaps, by indirection, to you.
I set down the truth, as much as I know how, but not nearly as often as I should—perhaps in some way hoping to connect to the world that I—like the children laughing around me—happen to inhabit, rather than the world on the top of the next mountain. Because I can’t inhabit that world. I can only inhabit the anticipation of that world, which is not really a world at all, but merely a semiotic placeholder for a world that exists in the space between my abilities and my capacious need to win.
My back really hurts, but I’m writing—which means I may be close. I don’t know.
Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while.
Want to know how I know?
I got another anonymous letter sent to me today. Actually, it wasn’t a letter at all; it was a tract. Turns out, they still make those. (Which makes sense, because who hasn’t been confronted by a second rate black and white cartoon carrying the grim warning of impending damnation, then fallen down in a tangle of wayward limbs and humiliated repentance?)
The title of this magisterial work of theology? Reverend Wonderful.
In it our protagonist, the sardonically named, Rev. Wonderful (Haha!, Get it? ’Cause he’s really not “wonderful?”) enjoys the untempered adulation of the adoring masses. He’s introduced as the "most loved man in America."
So what makes the “Reverend” so “Wonderful,” so nationally beloved and respected? He’s theologically liberal, of course. (Because, you know, all the famous preachers are liberals. They all have megachurches and television empires and political machines.)
Unfortunately, though, it’s precisely his theological liberalism that leads God to run Rev.’s sorry butt back through the pearly gates and cast him “into the lake of fire forever.”
So, you might be wondering just what is this liberal poltroon’s great sin against God and the Christianity on behalf of which this tract offers its voice? What has consigned the Reverend to eternal perdition? Why, it’s his preaching, of course. Just listen to the evil spewing from his mouth:
“Yes, God cares about souls, but He [sic] also cares about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy! We must UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry” [emphasis in the original].
That’s right. R.W. gets crosswise with God because he can’t, as Stephen Covey suggested, “keep the main thing the main thing.” Instead of spending his time out hawking Christian bumper stickers and waylaying the unsuspecting with the middle school aesthetic of evangelistic tracts in an effort to “get people saved,” he foolishly pays too much attention to “the poor and needy!” No wonder God has to ice the guy! I mean, come on. All that soft-hearted liberal Jesus-y stuff be damned.
The tract I received in the mail today represents, admittedly, a somewhat caricaturized version of Christianity. But let’s be honest, it is a popular version of Christianity--one in which following Jesus’ commandments about doing “unto the least of these” is seen as a distraction from the true thrust of Christianity, which has to do with making certain that people believe the right things and that they allow Jesus into their hearts. The inescapable irony in this dismissal of tending to the needs of those on the margins is that when Jesus talks about judging those who will “go away into eternal punishment,” he never mentions as a reason for their condemnation any failure to “ask Jesus into your heart.” Instead, when Jesus speaks most powerfully about sitting in judgment on the nations, he reserves his ire for precisely those who fail to care “about SOCIAL JUSTICE … the poor and needy” (see Matt. 25:41–46).
So, back to my original assertion: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while. He has a way of completely screwing with a popular view of Christianity in which what’s thought to be important is the finely calibrated modulation of the individual soul, rather than the “works righteousness” involved in actually living like Jesus said to live.
Jesus can’t help but be a disappointment to Christians who would rather not be bothered with the world God created--the one with traffic jams and dirty socks, with ballet and waterfalls, with love and generosity, with the poor and needy--than with the one to which they’ve been promised platinum membership passes at some future eschatological reckoning.
No, if you’re committed to a Christianity in which God is opposed--decidedly, angrily, cast-you-into-the-eternal-lake-of-fire-forever opposed--to any ecclesiastical effort to “UNITE to fight ignorance and bigotry,” the Jesus you find caring for the the poor and needy in the Gospels is going to pose an insuperable obstacle to your Christianity.
The Reverend Wonderful would never say it (because apparently, he’s too inoffensively nice), so I will: Jesus is the worst thing to happen to Christianity in a while. But I suspect the poor and needy are just fine with that.
Hey, he’s not my straw man.
This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.
Well, it appears that we’ve gotten Millennials (that generation born 1980-2000) wrong.
Jean Twenge has famously tried to make the case that Millennials are lazier and more selfish than previous generations. In books like Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic: Living in the Age of Entitlement, Twenge has argued that today’s young people have grown up coddled, having been nurtured with an inflated sense of self-worth in an “every-kid-gets-a-soccer-trophy” world.
Dr. Twenge’s research, though, has been controversial among social scientists for some time. Up until recently the counterargument to Twenge’s assertion of Millennial narcissism centered on the idea that Millennials, far from being more narcissistic than their generational forebears, are just motivated by different things. What has sometimes been taken as laziness or a lack of ambition in the workplace is instead a refusal to chase money in favor of looking for happiness and flexibility.
However, it turns out that even happiness isn’t exactly the right description of what drives Millennials in their career choices. In an article in The the New York Times Emily Esfahani Smith and Jennifer L. Aaker argue that happiness isn’t a precise enough explanation of what Millennials seek. Instead, the data show that “Millennials appear to be more interested in living lives defined by meaning.”
Meaning, of course, is a slippery word, since the range of its possible significance seems so personal. Smith and Aaker, however, identify meaning as present in those whose “lives feel connected to others, to work, to a life purpose, and to the world itself.”
This got me to thinking about the church.
Every time I write about emerging generations, I get email about how Millennials get too much attention, and about how they’re lazy, whiny attention-hogs (unlike Baby Boomers, apparently, who’ve historically suffered a deplorable lack of attention), and about how I need to stop acting like they represent the salvation of moribund mainline denominations.
Look, I don’t think Millennials are anything more than young people trying to make a go of it in a world where the economic deck has been decidedly stacked against them.
I don’t think there’s anything magical about them (being in their presence won’t cure Lumbago or pacify psychopathic serial killers).
I don’t believe that if we could just figure them out the church could reengineer its post-war hegemony in American culture.
But I do think they’re worth paying attention to.
Here’s my assumption: If mainline denominations have taken a nosedive in membership, money, and influence (which they have), and if you want a chance to figure out why (which I do), it seems like a good thing to start looking at the age demographic where the losses have been heaviest.
Care to venture a guess as to where that might be? Yep. Millennials. (Bet you didn’t see that coming.)
Oh, I know that’s oversimplifying, and that there are any number of people out there itching to tell me why looking for answers among those who are bugging out at the fastest rate is a lousy idea. But, you’ve got to start someplace, right?
An increasing number of young people have found organized Christianity scandalously underwhelming. Why?
Like much of the rest of culture (following Twenge’s lead), the church has tended to answer that question by assigning blame to Millennials: “Those selfish little narcissists just don’t appreciate what we’ve got here, what we’ve tried to do for them. They only care about themselves.”
There are holdouts, of course--those who’ve adjusted their approach to appeal to the immature impulse to “happiness” that they believe drives Millennials. There are churches who’ve tried to appeal to Millennials, believing that if they could just find the right mixture of “hip” music and upbeat theology, that they will have hit the happiness sweet spot. Believing (perhaps unconsciously) that young people care less about the more difficult aspects of following Jesus than with being entertained, popular Christianity has pursued what I prefer to think of as the “sitcom-ification” of faith -- that is, the life of faith should be presented as a series of challenges in an upbeat atmosphere that can be resolved in a half hour, and will include enough comedy to keep the laugh-track engineer appropriately occupied.
But what if the church quit worrying about whether there is enough carmel for the lattes in the church café or enough hair gel for the praise band?
Or what if the church quit whinging about how “these-kids-just-don’t-appreciate-the-church-we’ve-worked-so-hard-to-bequeath-to-them?”
What if the church took Millennials seriously?
What if the church viewed Millennials not as petulant narcissists or vacuous amusement hounds, but as serious adults living in an uncertain world, who are searching for something meaningful to which to give their lives?
What would we have to do to be that kind of church?
Whatever happens, I suspect that any chance mainline denominations have of surviving can be found somewhere in the answer to that question.
Newsflash: Technology Changes!
In the book I spend some time talking about disruption theory and disruptive innovation, detailing the fall of the telegraph. I talk about, what I take to be, the inevitability of disruptive change–technological and otherwise. So, it should come as no surprise that I might lead with the commonplace, “Technology Changes!”
Ok. So, I know everybody is already aware that technology is constantly changing, being persistently threatened by new innovations. Witness the rise and fall of the compact disc, the cellular pager, or whatever particular iteration of the new game console that threatens to harden the commercial arteries at Walmart during the Christmas season.
Moreover, the rate of technological change is rapidly approaching geometric proportions. Moore’s Law of computer hardware, for example, states that the number of transistors that can be fitted onto an integrated circuit doubles every X number of months (18–24–depending on who you’re asking). The practical upshot of Moore’s Law, from a consumer perspective, is a description of the reason that the shiny new gewgaw you just bought will be obsolete by the time you get it home.
But here’s a little wrinkle that might have escaped your attention: Not only does technology change at breakneck speed, but the knowledge necessary to produce technological change also changes at breakneck speed.
“Man, you are full of great information—and by ‘great,’ I mean ‘painfully obvious.’”
Stay with me for a moment because this last proposition drastically alters more than the technical know-how necessary to produce iPads. The rate at which knowledge changes, prompted by technological innovation, completely reshuffles our relationship to our vocations–even those beyond the world of technological design and production.
For most of history, people learned a vocation—most often by apprenticeship of a formal or informal nature. Whether or not the economic environment for a particular kind of work was stable, the kind of knowledge one needed to do the work was stable.
Let’s say that you were a bricklayer. You spent however many years it took to become a competent layer of bricks, after which time, you had a vocation–presumably for the rest of your life. Even if the place in which you lived fell on hard economic times, you could expect at some future point to practice your craft again—whether because you moved to a new place with more work, or because the economy recovered.
With perhaps only minor technological innovations in the baking of bricks or the ingredients to mix mortar, the craft of making things with bricks has stayed relatively stable over the years. Even now, if you become a bricklayer, you can be relatively certain that if you could somehow fast-forward to the end of your career, laying bricks will look remarkably like it does today.
However, more and more of the labor market works, at least tangentially, with technology. Time-honored repositories of knowledge curated and protected by craft guilds are constantly undergoing revision—growing obsolete.
Consequently, starting a brick-laying business is an altogether different proposition in the world we inhabit today. Though bricklaying remains much the same, almost every other part of the vocation looks amazingly different—from invoicing to accounting, from communication to marketing. You may very well be the world’s best layer of brick, but still be unable to keep your head above water.
Think about it. If you graduate from medical school in 2014, having inherited the knowledge base of the craft of medicine, with all the technological and intellectual advancements available to a finely trained modern physician, is it realistic to think that you will still be doing the same job at the end of your career?
“Oh, you’re talking about how people can’t count on staying with the same company (or even vocation) over the course of a career.”
Yes and no. Yes, it’s true that retiring from the company you broke in with doesn’t happen much anymore. Although it’s not clear how many careers you can expect to have over the course of your working life, chances are pretty good that you will have multiple employers across a broad spectrum of jobs. For a variety of reasons there seems to be high occurrence of second, third, and fourth-career people, looking to start up in some completely new area.
No. I don’t just mean going from being a lawyer to being a career coach. I mean that the work physician’s do will be so radically different that, if you were privileged enough to get a glimpse of it now, you probably wouldn’t even recognize it.
But here’s the thing: If your job changes enough over the course of your working life, you are going to have to change along with it just to stay in the same career. In other words, people entering the workforce today—even if they never change careers—can’t count on acquiring a stable base of vocational knowledge usable over a lifetime. I’m not talking about continuing education–which has always been an important part of refining your craft—but about the possibility of having to be completely retrained just to be able to stay in your field.
If you graduate college today, get a job tomorrow in your chosen field of widget maintenance, chances are pretty good that the widgets you’re called to maintain may not even exist in a few years.
Question for another post: What kind of pressure does that put on young people coming into the workforce—young people, many of whom have accumulated soul-crushing debt to work jobs that allow you and I blithely to skip through life with expertly maintained widgets?
The church possesses a vocation to equip disciples for the reign of God. Like laying brick, the basic nature of the vocation remains stable. If you could fast forward a generation, a lifetime, a thousand years, what the church is called to do (viz., do justice, love mercy, walk humbly with God) will look familiar.
However, because of the rapidly changing nature of the world we inhabit, the work the church engages in to accomplish its vocational goals is liable to look remarkably unfamiliar.
Think about it. Over just the last twenty years, the landscape of parish ministry (along with most of the rest of work life in America) has shifted dramatically. Here’s an edited version of a conversation with the board chairperson I had in 1993:
Me: “We need a computer.”
Board Chair: “Why? What would a church ever do with a computer?”
Can you imagine having that conversation today?
“So, all right, ministers coming out of seminary today need to be on ‘the Facebook,’ and need to know about the ‘electronic mail.’ Of course.”
But there’s more to it than just knowing how to create a Word document. Knowing how to negotiate a culture in which people (especially Millennials and younger generations) whose interaction with the world is increasingly digital is more a part of a minister’s job every day. If you went to seminary and the most sophisticated piece of technology in your repertoire was an IBM Selectric, you are operating in a brave new world. The job you trained for isn’t the job you have.
It strikes me that this is the problem many churches face today.
On the one hand, traditional churches hear about some of the things that emerging churches are doing (e.g., funding ministry by running a small business, having floating venues in which to gather, online church communities), and this stuff doesn’t even sound like church. It’s so radically different that traditional churches often have a hard time imagining they share any common vocation with emerging churches.
On the other hand, many traditional churches realize that what they’re doing isn’t working–that the churches that have nurtured generations through the maintenance of stable structures are declining rapidly enough to raise questions about survival.
How can you discount the fear of those countless congregations who survey the landscape and have a hard time imagining how they’ll last under their current organizational structure, but who feel like the alternatives offered by Emergence Christianity aren’t even “church,” properly defined–or that, even if they are prepared to call these new initiatives “churches,” can’t see how–given their location and ecclesiastical constituencies—they could ever pull off leaving the flannel-graphs behind and moving out of their buildings?
“We’re not asking for much. Can’t we just lay brick?”
I’d love to answer with a simple “yes.” The fact of the matter is, though, moving forward the church is going to have to be much more nimble and creative in sustaining its desire to do the simple and historic work of laying brick.
In fact, at times, it will cease to feel like bricklaying at all.
But that’s ok. The house we’re seeking to build doesn’t belong to us anyway.
Ok. So this is pretty cool. Not only did the UCC tweet the link to the HuffPost piece I did last week . . . they commented. Take a look at the quote: "Maybe we shouldn't worry about how to stop it." Indeed.
I have often thought, and sometimes said, that when I’m writing regularly, everything seems worth writing about. But when I’m writing only when I get the “urge,” nothing seems worth writing about.
When I’ve reoriented my schedule around writing, I find it odd how often things present themselves to me as inspiration for a post or an article, almost like tiny little gifts from the muse. Something one of my kids says. An odd choice of words by a newscaster. An infuriating bit of logic by a politician. Some craziness on Facebook or Twitter. Virtually anything can get the gears spinning.
On the other hand, when I’m not remaining diligent about managing my writing life, it seems that events have to hit me square between the eyes before I notice them as as things upon which it is worth remarking. Of course, this kind of “stuck” is its own disincentive to writing; it’s an appeal to the distractions to “please come take my attention, since I can’t seem to get it to focus on what I’m supposed to be doing.” I’m convinced that what we call “writer’s block” is simply getting out of the habit of writing regularly, which means that the ideas dry up, which means that you can’t write (because you have no ideas), which means that ideas have almost no chance at penetrating the thickening shell of non-writing, which means … It’s its own kind of literary vortex, from which escape seems almost impossible.
Why is that? I think it has something to do with awareness. Have you ever watched Jeopardy, and the librarian from Altoona says, “I’ll take literary terms for $1,000, Alex?”
Then Alex says, “The answer is “synecdoche.”
And our librarian friend pipes in with “What is a figure of speech in which a part is made to represent the whole or vice versa?”
Ding! Ding! Ding!
And you say to yourself, “You know, I’ve never heard that term before in my life.”
But next morning, as you’re poring over the New York Times book review, you see synecdoche in two different articles.
And when you come home from work, you’re fifteen year-old is sprawled out on the couch with five books, two empty cans of Dr. Pepper, and a pile of shredded candy wrappers. You say, “What you doing?”
The mumbled reply comes back, “English.”
“What are you studying in English?”
The fifteen year-old looks up casually and says, “Synecdoche,” like what else would he be studying?
And your spouse says, “Yeah, I hated synecdoche. I always got it confused with metonymy.”
The fifteen year-old nods sagely and says, “Oh man, I know what you mean. I hate that!”
And you look at your family like they’re pod people, alien replacements for the (mostly) normal folks whose stuff you’re always tripping over on the way to your Captain of the Universe Chair in the family room.
That ever happen to you?
I know. It’s kind of freaky. Not just the pod people thing—the sudden multiple appearances in your life of a word you’d never heard of before.
The thing is, “synecdoche” didn’t just spring up from nowhere to wreak havoc on your self-confidence; it’s always been there. You just didn’t notice it. Your attention gets refocused, and all of a sudden you start seeing things you never saw before, hearing things you are certain have never crossed your path before.
That sort of awareness adjustment happens to churches too.
Declining congregations have a tendency to be inward-focused.1 I don’t know of any research to support such a claim, but based on observation, I don’t think that’s a controversial assertion. Congregations are made up of people who, when things seems to be falling apart, naturally focus their attention on themselves.
“Why is this happening, and how can we stop it?”
The temptation when the downward pressure mounts is to start asking questions about how to fix the situation, generally coming up with all the wrong answers:
- Maybe we just need a younger minister.
- If we could only get some young families in.
- We need a praise band.
- We haven’t had a new evangelism program for years. Maybe that’s the answer.
- The Baptists have a basketball league.
- I noticed the narthex needs a paint job.
- We ought to be careful not to spend money on somebody else that we might need for ourselves.
- The youth need more trips to Six Flags. That’s guaranteed to get folks back.
What’s the common theme in the usual answers to the problem of decline?
They’re all focused on “us,” on “our congregation,” saving “our community” from extinction.
Someone might argue that “evangelism” isn’t inward focused; it’s about reaching out, right? And I might be inclined to agree if the purpose of evangelizing had something to do with anything other than just re-stocking the membership pond. Unfortunately, and all protestations to the contrary notwithstanding, the primary motivation for evangelism in declining congregations has little to do with the people being evangelized and everything to do with the shrinking size of the faith community doing the evangelizing.
Healthy congregations always seem to find something outside themselves on which to focus their attention. They start out by asking a whole different set of questions from “What’s in it for us?”
- How can we do more for the neighborhood in which we live?
- Who from outside our congregation could use the extra space we have in our building?
- Is there a way to help other people’s children?
- What kinds of harmful issues plague those people outside our walls, and how can we be a part of the solution?
- Who has needs we are uniquely able to meet?
- Can we partner with other congregations, social service agencies, non-profits, our city to do something meaningful on a big scale?
I’m not saying don’t paint the narthex or re-stripe the parking lot. I’m not saying that we shouldn’t be good stewards of the resources God has given us. I’m saying don’t always make “our stuff” the most important thing, offering up the leftovers to others only after taking care of our own interests.
Here’s the interesting question: How do we find these new things to do for others? We’ve been looking after our stuff for so long that we don’t have a whole lot of contacts in our community.
Answer: Start looking. I mean actively looking for opportunities to help, to give yourself away. Ask around. Keep your ears open and your eyes peeled for a chance to do something meaningful for someone else.
And here’s the thing: Once you start getting in the habit of looking for ways to help, they start to materialize out of nowhere. When you’re actively seeking ways to be compassionate, just, peaceable, you start to notice new ways you can be a part of things that you never even knew existed. New organizations. New partnerships. New programs. New relationships. New opportunities.
When you turn outwards, the congregational radar gets recalibrated. What looked before like an empty field or, perhaps worse, a field of noise, becomes a field of possibilities. You notice patterns and relationships that were previously hidden to you. The world doesn’t change; you do.
In Christianity we call that kind of movement from death to life good news.
- One might be able to say the same thing of declining denominations—although at that level, you’re supposed to have people who know better. Perhaps the pressure to engage in obsessive introspection is too great to overcome even for the best among us. ↩
Holy Crap! It’s All Falling Apart!
I received my copy of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory yesterday morning. After lunch I picked it up, as I always do upon first receiving it, to look at Douglass Blvd. Christian Church’s entry—just to make sure, you know, that they got everything right. It’s not like the folks who put the Yearbook together have ever gotten it wrong (at least with regard to the congregation’s I’ve been involved in). But it’s a habit. So I looked.
Sure enough, our information had landed in this big fat book just the way we’d sent it. But after taking a look at DBCC’s entry, I glanced around at the other churches in Louisville. Then, I looked for my friends’ congregations. I looked for congregations I used to serve. Habit.
Then I started noticing something that hadn’t really ever caught my attention. I realized that I was looking at, what at least struck me as an inordinately high number of ellipses where numbers are supposed to be. Total Membership: … ; Participating Membership: … ; Average Worship Attendance: … ; Local Operating Receipts: … —well, you get the picture. Nothing. No report.
So, I started going through region by region, just glancing. Same thing; which is to say, an awful lot of nothing. And I felt the dark edges of panic curling at the edges of my consciousness.
Then I started focusing on Local Operating Receipts (i.e., the amount of money a congregation has received to pay for things like salaries, programming, maintenance, utilities, insurance—that sort of thing). And in the places where there were actual numbers, and not just dots, I realized how many congregations are getting by on relatively little money, given all those financial responsibilities I just named.
Then the panic really started to crowd my mind. What about all those young ministers—seminarians and recent graduates? Where are they going to go?
What about my friends who are looking to move to another church, most of them because they have to for one reason or another? Where are they going to go?
And then I thought, “What if DBCC gets really ticked at me, or just gets tired of my sarcasm and flippancy, figures they’ve heard enough of my dog and pony show? Where would I go?”
A sudden cloudburst outside my office window put an exclamation point on—what had already become—a grim afternoon.
A Conspicuously Creepy Coincidence
Just then—in what I would never presume to attribute to God’s providence, but which seemed at least like a conspicuously creepy coincidence—a good friend of mine sent me an email, saying that he’d just gotten done poring over the same new 2014 Yearbook and Directory. Unlike me, he did more than an anecdotal survey; he started crunching numbers. He sent me the accompanying spreadsheet. (By the way, if you ever get a “conspicuously creepy” and coincidental email from me, you will never be able to type the sentence in reference to that email: “He sent me the accompanying spreadsheet.” Just so you know.)
He noted that, year-over-year, our loss of Total and Participating Membership sits close to 20%, but that our Average Worship Attendance is only a little over 4%. That is a shocking loss to absorb in a single year!
He then went on to point out that over the past ten years the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) has declined by 35% in Total Membership, 38% in Participating Membership, and 28% in Average Worship Attendance (it’s on the spreadsheet). Obviously, you don’t get to have many more decades like that and expect to survive.
We had some email discussion about what might be at the heart of the this precipitous decline, but that’s a topic for another day. The upshot of the conversation, though, was something like: “So, Mr. Post-Denominational, with the book being released on Friday, maybe you ought to have something to say about this.”
See, this is the “conspicuously creepy” part: The whole time I was looking through the Yearbook, getting a little freaked out, I kept thinking to myself, “So, Mr. Post-Denominational, you wrote a book on this, about how just this kind of information shouldn’t freak the church out. And here you are kind of freaking out, doing the same thing you tell other people to quit doing.”
Duly chastised about my own hypocrisy, after I said I’d write about the latest distressing news, I quieted my mind for a moment and composed myself. Here’s what I think:
1. Responding in fear is fine. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” isn’t saying that you shouldn’t ever be afraid. Fear is an instinctual reaction to stimuli in the environment. You can’t stop the initial irresistible urge to respond in fear any more than you can force your salivary glands not to start cranking out spit when you walk past a Krispy Kreme, and you get a whiff of that fresh batch of deep fried goodness that’s just come out, with all the gooey (What is that stuff? It’s not really frosting, is it? Icing?) slathered all over … Sorry, where was I? Oh yeah, fear.
2. Living with fear is an affront to the gospel. Saying “Fear not! God can bring life out of death” is calling for a more permanent orientation to your environment. It says that while I can’t resist the instinctual fear of the moment, I will not live there. I will not let the fear define my embrace of the present or my hope for the future.
3. Some of this is on God. This is God’s church … all of it. It’s not my congregation, not my denomination, not my Protestant mainline. As such, God gets to take the credit and the responsibility for what ultimately becomes of it. When it goes well, Christians are prone to saying things like, “God has blessed us,” or “We give God the glory.” But when things go in the toilet, very rarely do I hear Christians say anything so honest as, “We worked our butts off, but God saw fit to curse us,” or “It sucks being us right now, we’re happy to give God the blame on this one.” I suspect I’ll get nasty emails about this, but if we’ve done the best we know how to do and the whole thing caves in over the next ten years, that’s on God. I know that sounds kind of harsh, but you don’t get to have it both ways: Good = God; Bad = our screw up.
4. The church is a tool of ministry. The church is not the gospel. The gospel is the gospel. For good and for ill, the church is the current framework through which the gospel is embodied (or is not embodied) in the world. Whereas the good news of the reign of God is necessary, the church is not. The church is a delivery system for the gospel. Whatever happens to mainline Protestant denominations in general, or individual congregations in particular, God’s determination to reign over a just and peaceful world is inexorable. In the end, God will get what God wants.
5. There are different kinds of growth. The kind of growth that makes the work congregations do interesting often eludes the people doing the evaluation because those kinds of growth defy quantification. That is to say, there any number of areas of growth that are qualitative, which—because evaluating them is impossible to reduce to statistical representation—means they get overlooked as meaningful indicators of health. By what algorithm, for instance, do we judge whether our people are being better parents? Children? Partners? Spouses? Friends? Bosses? Employees? Students? Just because the numbers aren’t what they used to be doesn’t mean that God isn’t doing some amazingly cool things through us right now.
6. There are different kinds of decline. In the same way that not all growth is good, not all decline is bad. Sometimes having people move on in order to find a place that better meets their spiritual needs is healthy. Nobody should be in favor of running people off just because they disagree. However, there are issues of justice about which a failure to compromise is a faithful response. Again, if we’re living out our commitments as faithfully as we know how, then we’ll have to believe that God is there leading us in the midst of it all, and that God’s present in the fallout as well as in the success.
7. If these numbers actually do signal some kind of death, so what? We’re followers of Jesus, so death is what we do best. We know what those laboring under a perpetual cloud of fear cannot know: God’s favorite artistic medium is corpses. Resurrection is nothing but the cosmic joke of ripping life from the cold, firm grasp of death. How can a people who gather every week around a table that reminds us of the ultimate nature of our commitment, that institutionalizes our embrace of powerlessness, be afraid of death? How can we Disciples of Christ, who were founded upon the revolutionary claim that our highest desire is “that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large,” have our sphincters clench up at the thought that we might cease to exist?
So, the numbers look bad.
If you want to be afraid, be afraid. Believe me, I completely understand.
But if you somehow think that living with that persistent hand-wringing fear is going to help you through the next ten years, and wind up on the other side with everything you care about still intact, then I don’t know how to help you.
It’s an exciting, if sometimes harrowing, time to be the church. But when has that ever been anything other than the case?
I’ve been on vacation with my family at the beach this past week. Great time. We always love the ocean.
Walking back to the car from the beach last evening, the wooden plank walkway took us through about 300 yards of marsh. Lots of lizards, snakes, and bugs. In particular, there were tons of dragonflies … and mosquitos—which, if you know much about entomology, makes sense, since dragonflies (or “skeeter hawks” as they’re sometimes called down South) love mosquitos. Dragonflies feast on mosquitos. Some species of dragonfly can eat hundreds of mosquitos a day.
So, dragonflies are a good thing, right? I know in my mind they are. I can read Wikipedia just like anyone else. I’m a rational human being with a Ph.D and a library card. But dragonflies make me cringe. I have this thing when dragonflies are around, a thing that apparently comes from someplace deeper than my prefrontal cortex.
When I was six years-old, Danny Gray told me that if you get bit by a dragonfly, you can become paralyzed.
Yep. That’s it. I don’t think with wonder about the prospect of wholesale mosquito assassination when I see a dragonfly. In fact, I don’t think at all, I react. My body, without any input from the cognitive portion of my brain, responds to the signals sent from my Amygdala (the so-called “lizard brain,” or, as I’ve termed it, the “chihuahua brain”). When I see a dragonfly, I don’t see—as most rational people who don’t carry my emotional baggage—a mosquito hit man; I see a paralysis delivery system.
Some work with a cognitive therapist could help me recalibrate my emotional response to dragonflies, but it’s not particularly debilitating, not something that affects my life much. So, unless I wanted to become an entomologist, I don’t suppose there’d be any reason to overwrite my emotional hard drive in this case.
But there are some imprinted emotional responses it might be worth it to overwrite, somehow to recalibrate the fear imprint.
I’ve been thinking a lot about religion and politics lately—as you do. As ever, I’m struck by the intensity of the debate. (I know, I know. I contribute to the noise, too. Please don’t email me.) People feel strongly about this stuff, emotional really: Central American children seeking asylum, poor families on food stamps, the prospect of same sex marriage.
What I find troubling is the fear imprint. Here’s what I mean: I can’t quite get over the panicky reactions with which some people confront their religious beliefs and their politics. They seem to assume that some dastardly plot is at hand, which will somehow reward the undeserving and punish the righteous.
But I’m having a hard time figuring out how a theology or a politics that starts with the sneaking suspicion that somebody’s trying to game the system or to take something (e.g., money, honor, tradition) from me can be squared with a commitment to following the one who says, “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it. For what will it profit them if they gain the whole world but forfeit their life? Or what will they give in return for their life?” (Matt. 16:24-26a).
[Oh, I know this is “mixing religion and politics,” a charge that, when leveled by religious people, usually means: “You’re interpreting political issues in a theological way I don’t approve of.” But see, the question is never, “Are we going to mix religion and politics?” (we are) but “Are we going to mix religion and politics honestly and with the requisite amount of humility?”]
Just listen to how this religio-political lizard brain fear sounds to ears untrained by a particular kind of socialization:
1. Illegal immigrants. The “illegal” is all we need to know. No matter the reason, no matter that they’re children, they’re illegal. Period. And if that weren’t enough, they’re stealing from us … our jobs, our children’s education, our social welfare services. These people are subverting law and order, taking advantage of the system for stuff that rightly belongs to us.
- It doesn’t matter that crime hasn’t risen when the undocumented have been given amnesty in the past. It doesn’t matter that the undocumented don’t take jobs from unemployed Americans.
- It doesn’t matter that the undocumented pay taxes that provide the systems of education and healthcare systems from which we all benefit; we’re still pretty sure that somebody’s screwing with the system, and it’s costing us money.
2. Poor families on food stamps. They’re all drug addicts and welfare con-artists. We shouldn’t be supporting people who choose not to work.
- It doesn’t matter if there are three unemployed people for every open job already.
- It doesn’t matter that 87% of people on food stamps live in a house with children, the elderly, or people with disabilities.
- It doesn’t matter that people on food stamps don’t use illicit drugs at a significantly higher rate, or that food stamps only comprise 2% of the Federal budget; we’re still pretty sure somebody’s cheating at something, and it’s taking money from us.
3. Same sex marriage. Traditional marriage between a man and a woman has been the normative civil arrangement Biblically and throughout most of history. We shouldn’t be throwing over millennia of interpretive tradition and historical convention just to please the politically correct masses clamoring for it. They’re weird. They pose a threat to traditional marriage. By giving them a seat at the ecclesiastical and cultural table, we’re risking having our children molested … and if not molested, then proselytized to adopt the “gay lifestyle.”
- It doesn’t matter that Biblical interpretation has evolved on any number of issues over the years [e.g., slavery, women’s role in the home and the church), or that the idea of “traditional marriage” as the voluntary relationship between a man and a woman for the purposes of love and not for economic or political stability is a fairly modern arrangement—without the weight of tradition.
- It doesn’t matter that LGBT people do not molest children at a higher rate than heterosexuals.
- It doesn’t’ matter that you can’t convert straight people. It doesn’t matter that not one heterosexual marriage is threatened by same sex marriage, that “the sky hasn’t fallen” in the nineteen states that allow same sex marriage; it seems certain that somebody’s getting something they don’t deserve, and it’s costing the rest of us.
I could go on: The questioning of Israel’s contribution to the civilian casualties in Gaza, opposition to the Affordable Care Act, opposition to any gun control legislation, denial of climate change science, etc. You get the point. Regardless of the issue, some people’s position on it is formed by the lizard brain fear that somebody is getting something they don’t deserve … and that it’s coming at my expense.
Look, I’m not saying there aren’t things to be afraid of. There are. But if you happen to follow Jesus, shouldn’t the things you’re most afraid of be that you’ll get yours at the expense of someone else?
We all have fears we react to. It’s the way we were created. But some fears should be recalibrated, some emotional hard drives should be overwritten.
All I’m saying is: If we claim to be on Jesus’ team, shouldn’t we be afraid that the fears we have imprinted on our brains run contrary to the movement of the reign of God—a reign in which we seek to deny ourselves in favor of others, in which we cease worrying about securing our lives rather than laying them down?
I sometimes get labeled “anti-fundamentalist,” which I find unfortunate. Some of my best friends are fundamentalist.1 I know some people who are amazingly good people who are fundamentalists, people who put the “fun” in “fundamentalist.” So, I reject the assertion that I’m somehow against fundamentalists.
Instead, I prefer to think of myself as anti-Fundamentalism, particularly Christian Fundamentalism.
There, I said it. I think Christian Fundamentalism fails in so many ways to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ. The “war on religion” is a war being waged by Christian Fundamentalism.
I want to be quick to point out that I don’t think I’ve got the whole Jesus-thing locked up myself. I’m open to the critique that I get things wrong about Christianity … perhaps even regularly wrong. However, I want to suggest that Christian Fundamentalism gets the gospel fundamentally wrong.
What do I mean?
Here is a list of popular charges leveled against Progressive Christianity, charges that, in many people’s minds, have ceased to be controversial. Christian Fundamentalism has successfully dominated the conversation about the nature and purpose of Christianity to the extent that these charges are viewed (by the culture, as well by other fundamentalists) as largely self-evidently true; they’ve graduated to tropes.
1. Progressive Christianity actively seeks to make America a less Christian nation.
Let me suggest that, as has been stated by finer people than I, America isn’t, nor has it ever been a Christian nation—a point even most Evangelical Christians concede).
On what basis do I say that America isn’t a Christian nation?
Notwithstanding the historical criticisms of a Christian America, politically and theologically the idea holds no water. For America to be Christian, a whole different set of politics would have to be in play than could possibly exist in a liberal democracy—namely, a theocracy, in which God appoints the political rulers and not the citizens.
The idea of an American theocracy fails the smell-test, since if it were actually a possibility that God determined American political life by divine fiat, presumably God would be good enough at the job that Christian Fundamentalists wouldn’t be fuming over America’s misplaced “Christian heritage.”
Additionally, though, the whole Christian America-thing doesn’t work from a theological standpoint. Christianity, in the person of Jesus, had an implicit anti-nationalist bent. Jesus, because of his proximity to historic nationalist messianic expectations, continued to be a source of disappointment to his followers, and a threat to his Roman enemies. In the end, Jesus’ failure as a nationalist cost him his followers (at least initially) and his life.
The thought, then, that the very nationalism Jesus walked away from in his own time ought to characterize the common life of his twenty-first century followers is the height of anti-theological presumption. Jesus didn’t look to ascend the throne in the ancient Near East. Why should he want to do so now in America?
Fundamentalism’s claims about the “Christian” nature of America is not only clumsy theology, but dangerous. Despite casual fundamentalist insinuations to the contrary, “Christian” and “American” aren’t interchangeable terms. A cursory glance at history demonstrates that every time Christianity gets too cozy with Caesar grave mischief inevitably follows.
2. Progressive Christianity’s emphasis on social justice isn’t Christian; it’s Marxist.
The fundamentalist belief that social justice is merely warmed-over Marxism is an intellectually lazy charge. If you can read the Gospels and come away believing that Jesus cared only about people’s spiritual health, you’re more intellectually nimble than I am.
The concern for just and equitable systems that tend to the day-to-day physical and social needs of people occupies a great deal of Jesus’ time as he wanders around the Judean outback. Like the prophets before him, Jesus saves his ire and his disappointment for those whose primary concern is their own spiritual aggrandizement (see, for example, the Pharisaic “woes”—Matthew 23; the rich young man—Mark 10:17-31).
This denunciation of “social justice” as Marxist takes as its counterpoint the “personal relationship” in which Jesus is concerned foremost about the state of your heart, while the state of your stomach is merely a distraction.
But don’t I think that God’s concerned with the state of people’s hearts?
Of course, but not conceptual”hearts” as abstractable from human existence. God cares about the state of our souls, yes. However, God didn’t create us as compartmentalized beings where body, soul, and mind are discrete entities, separable from one another and capable of being tended independently.
Fundamentalism’s emphasis on the “personal relationship with Jesus” in which the “heart” occupies the foreground at the expense of the rest of God’s creative handiwork serves to underwrite the Capitalist presumptions of a consumer society, which say that my primary obligations are to myself and my own happiness. If I can help some other people along the way, that’s gravy. However, I have a responsibility to get my own celestial bus pass stamped first.
What about loving brother and sister? The author of 1 John says, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen” (4:20), which is not an admonition to muster up the proper emotions toward other people. It’s entirely practical.
What do I mean?
The author asks, “How does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother or sister in need and yet refuses to help?” (3:17). In other words, love is not only a disposition to feeling a particular way about another; it’s a disposition to acting in particular ways toward or on behalf of another.
Contrary to popular assumption, caring for the needs of others isn’t just feeling nice things about them, nor is it “communistic redistribution”; it’s the gospel in work clothes, with dirty hands and sweat stains. That is to say, social justice is the heart of the gospel, not just something to consider after you’ve fine-tuned your soul.
3. Progressive Christianity supports obviously anti-Christian political agendas like same sex marriage.
The rub here comes not in the “supports … same sex marriage” part but in the “obviously anti-Christian political agendas” part.
There’s a story I heard a long time ago about Tony Campolo. Whether it’s true or not, I can’t say. If it’s not true, though, it should be.
The story goes that Campolo was speaking at a conference about some topic or other, when he was asked about his views on abortion. He demurred, saying he’d rather stick to the topic at hand.
The person persisted, wanting to know what sort of stance he took on the issue of abortion. Again, Campolo said that it was inappropriate to raise the topic here, since he was asked to speak about something else.
Not getting the message, or perhaps, not caring about it, the person asked again about what Campolo thought of abortion, since whatever he had to say on other topics would surely be interpreted through the lens of his abortion politics.
Campolo said: “All right. You’ve asked me three times. So, I’m going to tell you. What do I think about abortion? I think it’s an issue dreamed up by rich Christians to distract themselves from the fact that they drive Mercedes Benzes. Because whereas there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that talk about people’s relationship to money, there isn’t a single one that deals with abortion.”
The same thing can be said about same-gender marriage, a modern issue with which, I would argue, the Bible seems equally unconcerned, or at least unaware. That’s a whole different post.
Fundamentalism, though it claims to take the Bible seriously, if not literally, has an uncanny ability to be distracted from the central issues with which the Bible concerns itself, choosing instead to dwell on peripheral issues—many of which are embarrassingly preoccupied with what people do with their genitalia.
4. Progressive Christianity rejects the Bible.
In a nutshell the standard indictment of Progressive Christianity seems distillable to this: “The problem with Christians who don’t read the Bible according to the assumptions of Christian Fundamentalism is that they don’t believe the Bible at all.”
That a commonsense literal interpretation of Scripture is a relatively recent phenomenon in the history of Biblical interpretation is a fact that escapes most fundamentalists. The mistaken assumption that the Bible has always been read in the same fashion fundamentalists would claim to read it today is a fact that goes largely unnoticed in Christian Fundamentalism, where the underlying belief is that the Bible is a static document, the interpretation of which is, for the most part, straightforward, and can be undertaken by anyone absent individual preconceptions—an assumption that is most often asserted, rather than defended.
What I find so galling, though, is Christian Fundamentalism’s inference that holding Progressive Christian positions is somehow an accommodation to the culture in ways that holding Fundamentalist Christian positions is not. I reject the notion that whatever Progressive positions I hold, I hold in spite of the Bible and not because of it.
My positions aren’t a rejection of the Bible, but an embrace of the gospel I find pervading it. The danger of Christian Fundamentalism is that it believes a simplistic, surface-level reading of Scripture is sufficient, unfortunately missing the fact that a fundamentalist ability to focus on the spirit of the gospel is almost always compromised by its supposition that the good news Jesus announces is mostly private, concerned primarily with making sure my bacon gets snatched from the fire.
Progressive Christianity actually takes the Bible more seriously than its fundamentalist critics do.
So Here’s What I Think
I think that Progressive Christianity should quit deferring to Christian Fundamentalism as the de facto voice of Christianity.
I think Progressive Christianity should quit being cowed by charges of Marxism. The most damning criticism of a follower of Jesus isn’t “You’re a socialist,” but “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me” (Matthew 25:42-43; a charge that has the virtue of actually being in the Bible).
I think Progressive Christianity should embrace its love of the Bible, not as a repository of theological and ritual laws, but as the narration of God’s continued pursuit of humanity through the establishment of God’s reign of justice and peace.
I think Progressive Christianity should actively paint a picture of that reign for a world threatening to tear itself apart, due to injustice and violence.
Humility, in this endeavor, is a virtue.
Timidity, however, is unacceptable.
- See what I did there? ↩
The war for same gender marriage has been won. I received the news today. I didn’t read it in the newspaper, didn’t see it on the news crawl at the bottom of the screen on CNN. I heard the announcement from a 17 year-old kid, out in the middle of the rural midwest.
I was standing on the courthouse steps in Metropolis, Illinois, trying to get out of the sun, my black clerical garb making me uncomfortably warm. A couple of other kids were standing next to me, smoking cigarettes.
From behind I heard a woman, also smoking, say to the young man next to me, “Hey, you better put that thing out. It’s almost time for you to see the judge.”
“He can wait. I’m not finished yet,” grumbled the young man to my right.
The woman, his mom, apparently, stubbed out her cigarette and went inside.
Just then a police officer walked out the door of the courthouse, and started down the steps. My young friend said, “Hello, there Mr. Ossifer.” He elbowed his friend after the officer moved out of earshot, and said, “Did you hear that? I said ‘ossifer.’”
His friend snorted, and said, “Yeah, that was good.”
I know my new friend was seventeen because he told me that his dad lives in Princeton, Kentucky (maybe I might know him, because Kentucky, right? Turns out, I don’t know him.) And apparently, his dad owes $50,000 in back child support, and when the young man turns eighteen soon, he told me he’s going to “go kick my dad’s ass, and get back my money.”
The reason I was making friends among the cigarette smoking population of Metropolis, Illinois had to do with the fact that we’d traveled with a lesbian couple, Kristy and Sarah, on a bus from Louisville, Kentucky, so that they could be legally married in a state that recognizes same sex marriage. We’d gone to the county clerk’s office in Louisville in the morning, so that they could apply for a marriage license. When Kristy and Sarah were denied the license, we boarded a bus to Metropolis, Illinois -- just across the Ohio River from Paducah, Kentucky. We wanted to highlight the inequity in a system that recognizes same gender marriage in some states, but not in others -- and we wanted to see the giant Superman statue at the courthouse … because Metropolis.
So, as I and my new buddies on the smoking veranda were standing there, Kristy and Sarah started walking up the steps of the courthouse, a stone’s throw from the city’s huge Superman statue -- situated on Justice Street, between Truth Street and American Way (I am not even kidding) -- and somebody mentioned that the newly married couple was approaching.
My new almost-18-year-old pal took his cigarette out of his mouth, leaned over and asked, “Them two ladies just got gay married?”
“Yep,” I said without benefit of tobacco.
It was then he announced to me in my clergy collar that the war on same gendered marriage had been won: “That’s cool as f%@&!”
“Yeah,” I said, “it is.”
Another cigarette smoking young woman standing with us (this was apparently the place in Metropolis to satisfy nicotine cravings) nodded her head and agreed, “That really is cool.”
My young friend continued,“People ought to be able to love whoever they want. It’s love. Why should anyone care?”
I immediately understood the significance of his declaration. If the spontaneous reaction of a kid in Metropolis, Illinois (a place that is “heavily Republican and conservative,” at least according to the reporter who covered the story for the local NBC affiliate) is a joyous release of profanity, then the war is over. Oh sure, we’re going to be fighting rearguard actions for a while, but the war over marriage equality is over.
The announcement of this victory will come as bad news to some, I imagine. And I’m trying not to sound triumphalistic when I say it, but the inevitability of same gender marriage is now a settled matter. It’s a numbers game at this point. Demographic shift. People on the older end of the age spectrum being replaced by younger people.
In other words, no matter where you’re from or what your religious or political affiliation, the younger you are, the more likely you are to say upon hearing about the marriage of two people of the same gender, “That’s cool as f%@&!”
And guess what? I’ve got it on good authority from the 17 year-old bellwether of a new age: You’re going to be hearing it a lot more.
Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.
“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”
“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”
Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.
My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.
Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.”
But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.
Mainline denominations are dying. If the trends hold true, as they have over the past forty years, we’re careening toward a post-denominational world—a world in which the structures that supported progressive theology, a social justice orientation toward faith, and institutionalized mission and administration is crumbling before our eyes; a world in which the printed media that has supported denominational ministry (publishing houses, curricula, magazines, journals, etc.)—over which denominations could exert control—is being overtaken by electronic media (ePub, blogging, social media)—over which denominations exert only minimal control; a world in which mainline cultural ascendancy and domination isn’t only a relic of the past, but no longer even a desirable goal for the future.
The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live.
After all, the gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of the crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.
Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.
[Note: This is an excerpt from my book, The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, by Chalice Press, which will be in bookstores on August 15th—though I know people who've received it already via online orders (*winks slyly*). You can order it here and here and here. If you're a blogger and would like a review copy, email me at email@example.com.]
“What’s the one thing you’d like to do before you die?”
That’s what I asked them. Five of us sitting around a table in a bar after a wedding. You know how those conversations usually go. Besides my wife, I hadn’t met any of the other people until the day before. But having learned that one woman was a marathoner who expressed no interest in running another one since she’d already accomplished her goal, it got me to thinking. I wondered if she had other big-ticket items on her life to-do list. So I asked everybody what big thing they’d like to accomplish before shuffling off this mortal coil.
One person said, “Play the piano.”
Another said, “Do a hand stand in yoga.”
Still another said, “Be published.”
All of these seemed like reasonable aspirations—not outrageous, like becoming an astronaut or becoming a pediatric neurosurgeon (which aspirations aren’t outrageous either, unless you happen to be on the downward side of middle age). “Doable,” I thought.
So, we talked in a meta-way about accomplishing goals—about how hard you have to work, and how consistently you have to show up. Generalities. It was a bar conversation, after all.
But if it had been in another setting—one that didn’t include a long day, a night of dancing and drinking—I probably would have said, “Ok. So, how are you going to accomplish your goal?”
Look, I’m nobody’s life coach. But I know how this stuff works. Having a goal and accomplishing a goal are the same distance apart as fireflies and fire.
Usually, when I ask that question, “How are you going to accomplish your goal?” what I get is the econo-size box of hesitation. “Um … well … ”
So, the next step (there almost always has to be) is to ask, “What’s the first thing you’d have to do to achieve your goal?”
More hesitation. People find abstraction much more comfortable to live with, since it doesn’t really cost anything to think big thoughts. “Well, I guess, I’d have to … um … well … “
Simple. Just keep it simple. Practical. What’s the first physical thing you’d have to do to start following through on your goal?1 If you’re going to learn to play the piano, what’s the first thing you’d need to do?
“Find a piano teacher?”
How? You need to be specific. Ask a friend? Call the local music shop?
“Call the local music shop.”
“On the phone.”
You’ve got the number of the local music shop on speed dial?
“Oh, I’d have to look it up.”
How? In the Yellow Pages? Google it?
There you go. If you’re going to learn to play the piano, the first step is to Google the phone number of the local music shop.
Now, you think I’m a pedantic twit. You’re not alone. Believe me.
But until people get that specific, they’ll never learn to play the piano. Because playing the piano is hard. You learn step-by-step, day after day. Most people know that, which is why they either put it off, or they keep the idea of learning to play the piano conceptual (which might just be the same thing).
Congregations are really good at abstraction. What would your congregation like to accomplish?
“We’d like to grow.”
Without getting too deeply into what you mean by “grow,” how are you going to accomplish that? (What congregations mean by “grow” will generally be evident in their answer about how they intend to grow. Usually, they mean something having to do with bodies and cash.)
“Um … well … we could get some young families.”
How do you propose to “get” these young families?
“We could hire a young minister.”
What do you suppose your “old” minister would say to that?
“Good point. We could have more programs that appeal to young families.”
Ok. What kinds of programs? Vacation Bible School? Upward Bound Soccer League? Day care?
“A family movie night. And we could invite people from the neighborhood.”
Now we’re cooking with gas. What would you have to do first?
To show a family movie?
“Fine. We’d need to decide on a movie.”
“The fellowship committee.”
I would think choosing a movie wouldn’t need a motion in a committee meeting, but it’s your church. How are you going to get the committee to decide on the movie?
“I guess I could just email them and ask.”
So, at least in this person’s mind, the first physical act necessary to help your church grow would be writing an email.
I know that sounds overly fussy, but ideas (even good ones) will remain ideas until somebody bothers to pick up the phone, or send out an email, or shop on the Internet. Worthy aspirations are even worthier if you actually pursue them. And to pursue them you need to break down a big idea into manageable actions.
The larger point, though, is that congregations are notorious for keeping things vague. There’s safety in vagueness, in never starting. It’s difficult to fail at something you never actually try.
The secret: If you’re ever going to do anything interesting, personally or corporately, you’re going to have to plod through the valley of abstraction and set up camp in the world of actual work, where practical things like attending to details actually matters.
- Just so we’re clear, I’m not an organizational genius. I get this “first step” thing from David Allen’s, Getting Things Done. Do yourself a favor, and read it. It’ll change your game. ↩
By now you’ve probably heard about the Supreme Court decision in the Hobby Lobby case. The Christian owners of the Hobby Lobby chain of retail stores filed suit, seeking an exemption from paying for health insurance under the Affordable Care Act that covers contraceptive methods it deems in opposition to the Christian beliefs of the owners. The Supreme Court sided with Hobby Lobby, saying in the majority 5–4 opinion that it doubted “the Congress that enacted [Religious Freedom Restoration Act] -- or, for that matter, ACA -- would have believed it a tolerable result to put family-run businesses to the choice of violating their sincerely held religious beliefs or making all of their employees lose their existing healthcare plans.” Because family-run businesses.
Now there’s all kinds of debate about whether the SCOTUS decision infringes on a woman’s right to make medical choices in consultation with her doctor, absent the interference of her employer. There’s also debate about the extent to which this opens up a religious can of worms, allowing for arguments for exemption from a broad swath of laws based on personal religious conviction. All important stuff.
But what caught my attention was a piece on a conservative religious site, arguing that liberal opposition to the Supreme Court ruling was a baseless set of “ridiculous lies liberals are spreading about the Hobby Lobby victory.” In particular, I was struck by the writer’s claim that:
“The justices did not launch an attack on women. Women can still buy birth control, Plan B or whatever abortifacient they want with a doctor’s prescription. There’s just no reason a Christian company should be forced to pay for it.”
It’s kind of small, tucked in there at the end … the assertion of something called a “Christian company.” The author argues that Christian companies, like Hobby Lobby, should be allowed to express their religious convictions by avoiding paying for insurance that contradicts those convictions.
But, simpleminded as I am, I just kept tripping over those two words: Christian company. That sounds an awful lot like Citizens United on ecclesiastical steroids.
[Note:This article originally appeared in the Huffington Post.]
I used to work with a guy who had a gift for breaking up with girls. He was so genuine and kind that afterward the girls would invariably leave feeling affirmed and cared for, like George Clooney had just fallen apart on them, relating how unworthy he was of their affections. Masterful. He was the ultimate “it’s-not-you-it’s-me” guy.
If you’re going to get dumped, that’s the kind of person you want lowering the boom, isn’t it?
But most people can’t pull off that level of empathy. Most people struggle between the poles of blame, between “your fault” and “my fault” -- all too aware of the other person’s problems, but also painfully suspicious (if not quite aware) of their own complicity. It’s normal.
Then there are the people at the other end of the spectrum, unencumbered by the decided disadvantage of ever entertaining the possibility that they’re wrong. This is the “it’s-not-me-it’s you” person. These are the folks who believe that no problem is too big or too complicated that -- with the application of a little intellectual candlepower -- it can’t be successfully blamed on somebody else.
Now this shedding of responsibility can come in two different forms. The first type is what I call “the slippery blame-caster” -- able to weasel out taking responsibility for anything that goes wrong by deflecting it onto someone else. This is the person who always seems to be standing behind you when the boss is around, pointing a finger at you when she thinks you’re not looking.