We should maintain that if an interpretation of any word in any religion leads to disharmony and does not positively further the welfare of the many, then such an interpretation is to be regarded as wrong; that is, against the will of God, or as the working of Satan or Mara.

Buddhadasa Bikkhu, a Thai Buddhist Monk

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Revisiting the "Something" That May Be Happening

In a couple of posts back in February (here and here), I speculated on the possibility that "something is happening" in our world, something good.  That "something" is a variety of trends that bode well for the future.  The trends I highlighted in those postings are that Germans are drinking less beer in an effort to become healthier and domestic violence in the United States has been dropping significantly.  The world of sports offers another instance, namely the growing concern with American rules football head injuries.

In an eloquent posting entitled, "Football getting harder to watch," sports commentator Rick Reilly admits that he has become ambivalent about his life-long love of football.  He writes, "Now I hear that sound [of players colliding at full tilt] and wonder how soon it will be before they can't remember where they parked, their sons' middle names, or where their families went last summer on vacation. I see too much sorrow and ugliness to love football like I used to."  He then surveys players and the injuries they have sustained, esp. those affecting their minds, and he confesses, "This is the game I've spent 36 years glamorizing. These are the men I've spent five decades lionizing. And it turns out I was part of the problem. Howard Cosell stopped covering boxing when his conscience wouldn't allow it, and yet I go on. I'm addicted." Reilly concludes his posting by drawing a parallel between ancient Rome's gladiators and modern-day football players and finishes up by writing, "We are all still in that Coliseum. We are still being entertained by men willfully destroying each other. It's just that now, the sword comes later."

Reilly's article mirrors the growing concern in football with the consequences of an admittedly violent sport.  The parallel with boxing is an apt one.  And while neither boxing or football are likely to go away anytime soon, the concern for the consequences of their violence is something relatively new.  Toughness is no longer quite as glamorous as it once was.  Big men beating up on other big men leaves us feeling ambivalent.  We are a little more sensitive for the need to take care of them by putting in place new rules, improving their equipment, providing better medical care for them, and conducting continued research on the impact of physical contact on players.

In the larger scheme of things, this is not a big deal really.  Syria is still Syria.  Poverty is still poverty.  Climate change is growing worse.  On the other hand, a better future is going to be built brick by brick, and this change in attitudes towards violence in football is one small, good change that in its own way foreshadows the Kingdom.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Free Speech vs. Social Justice

The TV reality show, "Duck Dynasty," as readers surely know has become embroiled in a controversy over the comments of one of its leading figures, Phil Robertson, has made about homosexuality and other subjects.  Robertson is a conservative Christian who hold views usually associated with the religious right.  The issues this controversy have spawned are complex and quickly take one into the heart of the culture war differences between Left and Right.  Robertson has been suspended from the show, and his supporters feel that he is being deprived of the right of free speech and charges the Left with censorship motivated by political correctness.  His detractors argue that his views perpetuate fundamental social injustices, and while he may have the right of free speech personally that does not mean that others have to help him infect society with his hate speech.

However the "Duck Dynasty" shouting match plays out, the controversy it has generated is a good thing.  As has been widely observed, we are going through a remarkable transformation in our attitudes towards the LGBT community, and this incident only works to promote that change.  It focuses our attention on the fact that this form of prejudice hides itself behind religious arguments that have nothing to do with the real lives of real people.  The religious right once again turns complex biblical issues into rigid dualistic talking points that ignore the way Jesus himself embraced those on the margins, offering the possibility of a loving relationship with God that the religion of his time denied marginal people.  The way to a less intolerant, more inclusive and just society is through just such public encounters of this kind.

In the long run, the statements made by Robertson and others who hold his views constitute defamation of character and promote hate speech, which in turn promotes social injustice.  The best way to deal with those who hold such opinions, however, is not by throwing them in jail or denying them the opportunity to say what they think.  At the same time, companies, communities, and the rest of us can't be forced to help them purvey their hate speech.  We have a right to disassociate ourselves from it—and to expose it for what it is.  The way forward toward great social justice is difficult and messy, but it is the path we seem to be on when it comes to prejudice in all of its forms.  We are learning, albeit too slowly and with too much pain, to be tolerant and even accepting of the superficial differences, such as skin color and sexual orientation, between us,  In this direction lies the Kingdom,  Amen.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

That's What They All Say (Decline & Renewal X)

Our series on church decline & renewal based on the longer series of postings on Jason Locke's Blog has thus far focused on the decline side of the equation.  Locke's series is made up of a guest editorialists who are all connected with Churches of Christ congregations on the West Coast, and collectively they have looked at the serious, long-term decline of those churches from a variety of perspectives. In a posting entitled, "Decline & Renewal, 19: Renewal Starts with Unknowing," Locke pivots to the theme of renewal.

It is a painful pivot.  According to Locke "almost all" of West Coast Churches of Christ congregations, "suffer from decline, fatigue, infighting and/or a general lack of leadership."  They are trapped in the past and most of their efforts at renewal are backward looking. In order to move beyond the past, he argues that the churches have to begin to act counterintuitively.  Locke speculates that only ten or fewer West Coast Churches of Christ congregations have "have maintained at least the appearance of vibrancy."  A few more are "are experiencing renewal out of the ashes of decay."  By my rough count from a directory of churches, there are 400 CofC congregations in California, Oregon, and Washington (source: church-of-christ.orghttp://church-of-christ.org).  Less than 5% of their churches, thus, show even minimal evidence of a vibrant life.

 The only way they can experience renewal, according to Locke, is to accept decline and "to relinquish the old days and old ways of high performance." They have to stop trying to recreate what they once had. All of this means that the churches have to be willing to "embrace the crisis of confusion, uncertainty and struggle." If the local congregations can do this, then they will be able to experience a renewal of the Spirit and a renewal of mission. This will require "the right leadership," and given that leadership they can "eventually experience healthy transition and renewal. New systems and structures will eventually emerge, but those will come out of a reemergent leadership and a renewed church that live into fresh ways of doing things."

There isn't anything new here.  The massive literature on church renewal is filled with similar visions and advice, all well-meaning, all well-and-good, and all likely to be ignored or rejected at the local level—mostly.  The great majority of churches are not inclined to engage in renewal seriously.  Many are fearful.  Others are convinced that if they just do a better job of what they're doing they will reverse the decline.  And others are just plain dysfunctional organizations.  To call on them to think and act counter-intuitively is hardly likely to result in their doing so.  And, besides, what does it mean to break with the past?  How does a church mired in the past and lacking creative leadership even begin to complicate such a task?  These are hard questions, not easily answered.  Most mainline churches, thus, are just as locked into the past as W. Coast Churches of Christ congregations, carrying year after year the burdens of their buildings and inherited programs and structures.  Many of them are not willing to even have the conversations about decline that they need to have if anything else is to happen.  Most pastors find it difficult to cope with decline because most of what they have learned through training and experience doesn't work very well anymore.

In sum, while there is a good deal happening that gives cause for hope, Locke's analysis here is not particularly helpful and expecting churches to make a break with their past is in-and-of-itself a low percentage strategy.  While dealing with decline does require acknowledging its reality and actually talking about it,  the way out of decline requires much more than expecting churches to break with their past.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

All About Christmas in America

The Pew Research Center has just released the results of a survey on the ways Christmas is celebrated in the United States.  It is entitled, "Celebrating Christmas and the Holidays, Then and Now."  The survey covered a wide variety of topics related to Christmas and found that fully 92% of respondents reported that they celebrate Christmas and that large percentages of them still celebrate it in the ways they did as children. Younger people, however, are less inclined to celebrate it as a religious holiday and just 11% of all of those who took part in the survey see it as a time for religious reflection and worship in church.  On the whole, only 51% of them celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday while 32% consider it instead as a cultural holiday.  It is particularly interesting, in light of these figures, that some 73% of those surveyed agreed that Mary was a virgin at the time of her son's birth with even 66% of younger people ages 18-29 holding that belief.  The data makes it clear that Christmas is esp. a family holiday and the great majority of the respondents exchange gifts at Christmastime.  Nearly 8 in 10 said that they put up a Christmas tree, which is still lower than the 92% who said they did so as children.

If the Pew poll's figures accurately reflect what Americans think about Christmas and what they do at Christmastime, it is clear that the general social trend is away from Christmas as a religious holiday and toward its being a cultural event.  Evidently, however, there is also a trend away from believing in Santa Claus and pretending that he will visit on Christmas Eve.  In sum, there is little in the Pew findings that are startling, which suggests that they very probably accurately reflect what we think about Christmas.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Apples & Churches ("Decline & Renewal" IX)

In recent postings, I have been exploring a series of editorials on the theme of church decline and renewal that were posted earlier this year in Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition.  The series raises important questions from perspectives outside of the mainline, ones that can help mainline churches better wrestle with the shared issues of decline and renewal.

The fifteenth posting in the series is entitled, "The View From Rick Gibson," by Rick Gibson.  Gibson presents a graphic (below) comparing Apple Inc., one of America's most successful corporations, to the Churches of Christ on the West Coast.  Based on Apple's success, he then raises a series of questions: "...Can declining West Coast Churches of Christ find a compelling story that excites and motivates the communities they serve? What do great brands [do]? How can we learn from them? Can we reshape our identity so that the world can see Christ more clearly when it enters communities of faith called Churches of Christ?

I have in my office a shelf devoted to books telling all of the secrets of corporate America (and Japan) and filled with a wealth of how-to advice.  Their value for those of us in the church is that they raise questions and encourage us to look more realistically at ourselves.  We Protestants in particular tend to focus on issues of ideological purity and live in the normative world of should and ought to, which can blind us to spiritual as well as cultural realities.  Examining the ways in which successful businesses deal with reality can expose hidden assumptions, bad habits, and unhelpful attitudes as well as point out directions for possible change.

Yet, the one program for local renewal that I know of that "really works," Unbinding the Gospel, took a very different approach in its program development.  Martha Grace Reese, the author of the UTG process, went to pastors and churches that are growing both spiritually and statistically and studied the reasons for their success, and she then devised a simple program that can be used with relative ease in any church of any size.  It uses small groups and encourages faith sharing and spiritual growth.  It is not what works in corporate America that holds the keys to churches' futures.  It is, instead, what is already working in churches that holds the keys to those futures.

Source: Jason Locke's Blog
This is not to say that Gibson's graphic is useless.  The value for the church of corporate America's success stories is the questions that success raises.  How do we create "deep communities" and great experiences?  How do we move churches from a commitment to the status quo to a commitment to change?  How do we empower people?  How do we become a fun people?  The thing is that some of us are already answering these questions.  More of us need to learn how from the experiences and examples of those who already are.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

On Asking Hard Questions (Decline & Renewal VIII)

The series of guest postings coming out of the Churches of Christ on Jason Locke's Blog, raises important points concerning church decline and renewal.  This is true of the seventh article in the series written by Aaron Metcalf, which is entitled, "The View from Aaron Metcalf."

In a nutshell, Metcalf points to two consequences of decline that promote continued decline.  They are a distrust of new members and a disinclination to ask difficult questions.  It is this second consequence that I would like to zero in on here.  Metcalf explains,
Declining membership can also stop us from asking risky questions or engaging in risky dialogue. We become consumed with finding stability for the purposes of retention and therefore stay on the safe side, lest we rock the near-empty boat. Sadly and ironically, one of the major reasons young people leave churches is because of a lack in risky, authentic dialogue. They desire an integrated faith that addresses our complex contexts. It’s hard to find our way forward when we are too afraid to ask the hard questions.
He goes on to note that asking hard questions can lead to new understandings that in turn can lead to new directions.

The real question posed here is this: how do we overcome the disinclination to ask hard questions?  This may be another way of asking, how do we overcome the fear, discomfort, and even embarrassment  that are a part of decline?  How do we look at it with a balanced dispassion that allows us to treat it critically (and self-critically)?  There are no easy answers to these questions, but in denominations such as the Presbyterian Church (USA) perhaps one place to begin is in the higher councils of the church.  If the councils can model and promote critical reflection, they may well be able to plant the same questioning spirit in churches.

It is not wise to leave this task solely to pastors.  Some themselves are afraid of the questions.  Some don't know how to raise them.  Some encounter serious push-back from the churches they serve.  It is not easy to find that combination of receptive congregation, supportive lay leadership, and willing pastor when it comes to the asking of these difficult questions.  It generally is still more difficult to find lay leaders who are in a position and able to address the issues of decline.  This may well be one of the key roles that districts, classes, presbyteries, synods, and other higher councils can play in finding the way into the future.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Always Local (Decline & Renewal VII)

The series of guest postings coming out of the Churches of Christ tradition on Jason Locke's Blog, raises important points concerning church decline and renewal.  The seventh article in the series is written by Brian Sandine, pastor of the San Leandro Church of Christ, a church in the San Francisco Bay Area,  and is entitled, "The View from Brian Sandine."

Sandine's posting reflects the specific experience of the San Leandro congregation and thus provides a good picture of the ways in which decline is always local, however much one congregation's decline reflects national and international trends.  In this case the church has declined for a number of reasons including: (1) the local economic and demographic situation of the church has changed over the years; (2) changes in lay leadership; and (3) conflicts within the church have damaged relationships and driven some people away.  Sandine feels that this third factor has been a crucial issue and writes, "In reflection, I would say that poor responses from our people to the challenges the congregation has encountered over time has been one of the most important factors in our decline. Our unchristian and unchristlike behavior has been damaging."  The consequence of decline has been to shift the focus of the church inward to its own concerns.  At the same time, there has been a growing laxity of seriousness within the church, which has led to a motivational problem.

What is perhaps most significant about Sandine's posting is the way it comes to a limp conclusion.  He says of all of this, " In response, I would say that we have the potential to turn the corner if we are willing to invest ourselves in God, and at the same time invest in people in order to bring them to God. Doing so may give us a chance to tell a new story in the San Leandro Church."  His posting is relatively brief, and there may be cause for hope that the church can "turn the corner," but nothing that he writes here points to that hope.  Rather, it summarizes a decades long declining trajectory that shows no signs of anything but continuing downward.  The factors of decline have all left their marks.

Herein lies the difficulty with church decline.  It is local, which means that it is hard to find some national program or national pill that will undo what has been done.  And it is cumulative.  If decline is not arrested relatively quickly it becomes reflexive  that is it bends back on itself and becomes both cause and effect.  Thus, for example, once a church loses its youth program for whatever reason it becomes all but impossible to attract younger families and young people in order to build a new one.  In special circumstances, yes, it can be done.  But generally the lack of a youth program becomes a continuing cause of the lack of a youth program.

 All of this sounds grim and hopeless.  And it is, so long as decline is not addressed and in a sense embraced.  If the factors of decline, however, are essentially local however much they reflect larger trends, then the factors of new life are also local.  And somewhere in the mix of renewal is a change of heart, whether it comes in one small group or in some larger segment of the church.  Such renewal does not necessarily mean that statistical decline is suddenly halted.  It does mean that it is transformed.  Easy to say.  Not easy to do.  But renewal can only happen when there is a spiritual rebirth among a few or many.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

A New Book Review

It has been awhile since the last review, but I have just posted a new book review at Rom Phra Khun Reviews.  It is a review of David Hackett Fischer's excellent biography of Samuel Champlain, Champlain's Dream.  You can read the review (here).

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

We Leave Because We Are Not Happy (Decline & Renewal VI)

The series of guest postings on Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition, raises as we have already seen important points concerning church decline and renewal.  This is true of the seventh article in the series written by Andy Wall entitled, "The View from Andy Wall."

In 2000, Wall conducted doctoral research "to figure out why former members of the Churches of Christ in Southern California had left their home churches," and on the basis of 299 respondents concluded those who left were disaffected with Churches of Christ congregations in three different ways.  Some were disaffected with the way legalistic and even arrogant church leaders and others expressed rigid beliefs.  Others were disaffected with "inconsistencies in attitudes or behaviors in church," which included unloving, unkind attitudes. Finally, some of those who left were disaffected with the relationships they had with other members including esp. pastors and other church leaders.

In the past, the sins of church leaders and members might drive members out of one church into another, but they did not provide impetus for the general decline in organized religious activity that is taking place today.  Staying home on a Sunday morning wasn't socially acceptable behavior, and at any rate many more people simply felt that they "should go to church."  Now, one serious church fight can send a church into a long-term tailspin from which it may never recover, and among those who flee are many who just stop going to church entirely.  Churches find it hard to be the loving, faithful communities of faith they are called to be, and when we fail in our love and faith the consequences are serious.  But, when we don't the results can be quite inspiring and even exciting.  It is just that our batting average isn't all that good.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Now, About the Bible ("Decline & Renewal" V)

A series of guest postings coming out of the Churches of Christ on Jason Locke's Blog, raises important points concerning church decline and renewal.  This is true of the fifth article in the series written by Dr. John York and entitled, "The View from John York."

York argues that the crux of the problem of church decline among Churches of Christ congregations is the way they read the Bible, which in the past was shallow and blinded them to the larger contents of the scriptures.  Pastors and other church leaders focused on proof texts and argued over inconsequential issues about what they could and could not do in worship.  He concludes, "Yes, one could certainly argue that Biblical literacy in the last 30 years has sharply declined among us. But I wonder if actual Biblical literacy—knowing God and the story of God revealed in ALL of scripture, not just privileged proof texts to support our particular practices—wasn't already in decline back in the heady days of packed auditoriums on Sunday."  York calls on Churches of Christ leaders and churches to go back to the Bible with fresh eyes that will lead to "more authentic ways of living the story of scripture."  Rather than using the Bible to justify and preserve the narrow concerns of the Churches of Christ tradition, he writes, "perhaps we should invest in the mission of reconciling all things to God. Perhaps then we could move beyond the noise of our arguments about silence to a healthier engagement with God, God’s story, one another, and the world."

One value of this longer series of postings on decline and renewal is that the various commentators throw a variety of issues and concerns into the larger mix.  It is a grab bag of ideas that invites us to look at decline and renewal with fresh eyes from a variety of perspectives without having to decide which issue or concern is the most important one.  That is to say that the way we read the Bible is an important issue but has to be considered in the larger context of the times we live in, the ways we embrace or fail to embrace change, and the depth of a congregation's spiritual life—among other things.  But, yes, the Bible is important.

Speaking from a progressive mainline perspective, the key idea in York's argument is his observation that Churches of Christ congregations are and long have been biblically illiterate.  That is certainly the case among mainline churches where there is a widespread disinclination to do the hard work of grappling with the meaning of the scriptures in their ancient setting and in our contemporary world.  And because we are biblically illiterate, we are content with a shallow faith that does not lead us toward deeper fellowship, more meaningful engagement with worship, and living the more difficult and exhilarating life of faith called for in the Bible.  In mainline churches, at least, biblical literacy of this depth requires engagement with biblical scholarship, group study, and a commitment to do the hard work of teaching and studying the Bible in its ancient and modern settings.  It also requires a dialogical attitude that seeks to bring personal, scholarly, ancient, and contemporary meanings into play.

Perhaps more than anything else, however, biblical literacy requires motivation and perseverance, which come only when churches and their pastors are on a deeper spiritual journey.  Renewal, that is, does not begin with Bible literacy.  It begins in revival of one kind or another and moves from that beginning point to a concern to know the Bible more deeply.  Or stated in another way, it is not the Bible that is inspired but rather the student who has been inspired to study the scriptures just as the original inspiration of the Bible's contents was in the hearts of those who wrote.  The Bible is inspired only to the extent that the Spirit has moved us to engage ourselves in its study and learn the hard and exciting lessons that study entails.  Amen.

Friday, December 13, 2013

On Not Keeping Up ("Decline & Renewal" IV)

In recent postings, I have been exploring a series of editorials on the theme of church decline and renewal that were posted earlier this year in Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition.  The series raises important questions from perspectives outside of the mainline, ones that can help mainline churches better wrestle with the shared issues of decline and renewal.

In the fourth posting of the Jason Locke's Blog series, "A Conversation with Lynn Anderson," the author, who is described as an "elder statesman of the Churches of Christ," offers a complex analysis of why West Coast Churches of Christ are in decline.  His opening words, however, start out with a couple of simple observations that sum up much more than just the decline of one group of churches in one region of the United States.  Anderson writes, "Churches are shrinking across the nation (with few exceptions), and not just Churches of Christ. Larger cultural trends are at odds of course, plus general recalcitrance among churches."

The reasons why any single church crosses over into the arc of decline are usually complex, having to do with history, pastoral and lay leadership, personalities, theology and ideology, local demographics, and so on through a long list of potential global, national, and local factors.  Lurking in the background, however, are two simple ones.  The times are changing.  And the churches aren't.  Or, more precisely, in the face of accelerating social and cultural change most churches and their pastors are not adapting effectively to the spiritual needs of today and are not anticipating effectively the needs of tomorrow.  The times are changing, and we aren't keeping up.  All the rest of anyone's analysis is commentary on change and the failure of churches and their leadership to change wisely and in a timely fashion.

Thursday, December 12, 2013

Sorting Things Out ("Decline & Renewal" III)

In recent postings, I have been exploring a series of editorials on the theme of church decline and renewal that were posted earlier this year in Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition.  The series raises important questions from perspectives outside of the mainline, ones that can help mainline churches better wrestle with the shared issues of decline and renewal.

The third posting in this series is by the Rev. Ben Ries, a pastor in the state of Washington. His posting is entitled, "The View from Ben Ries."  In it he recounts how he and the church's leadership have initiated significant change, which they felt was necessary for the health and well-being of the church.  Women have been given leadership roles they did not have before.  The church has sought to be more involved in its community.  Worship has been changed so that it is less old-fashioned and traditional.  The result has been, however, that some two-thirds of the church's membership has left over the last thirteen years.  Ries concludes,
So…here we are…a church that has grown from 325 to 125 in the span of 13 years. The question for us is no longer, 'Are we a dying church?' because we know the answer. The cold, hard facts speak for themselves as every day we seem to be moving closer to our own death. And so the new question we keep asking ourselves—the question that many suggest is ridiculous and na├»ve—is this: “Is there a chance that God will bring new life out of our death?” We're crazy enough to believe that he just might and, right or wrong, we are willing to die to see the answer.
Ries' counter-intuitive statement that the church "has grown from 325 to 125" is catchy and provocative, and it also stirs up a variety of thoughts.  In one sense, one cannot say that a loss of two-thirds of the membership in such a short period of time is growth.  Change has driven people away.  In a sense, the changes, however justified they were, were an exercise in power over the church, forcing on it things that the majority evidently did not want.  Forcing good on people is still a use of force.  If, at the end of the day, this use of force renders the church so weak that it becomes less able to minister to others and to each other then we have to question the whole point of going through all of the pain and the loss that has resulted.  What has been gained?  Have we moved a little closer to or a little further away from the Kingdom?  If, as Ries seems to imply, the demise of the church is the likely outcome of forced change then it would seem we have taken a step backward from the Kingdom.

In another sense, however, we might detect the presence of the Spirit working through our broken human ways toward a church that exercises greater love for Christ's followers who are women, reaches out to a world in need with greater love and effectiveness, and seeks new ways to praise God that have greater integrity and are more worshipful.  In the Presbyterian Church we are learning that the death of a church can in fact lead to new life where the church again becomes a matter of the Spirit rather than the institutional concerns,  irrelevant traditions, and financial straights of a dying ecclesiastical organization.  In this sense, perhaps Ries and his church are taking us a step closer to the Kingdom.

Is this church headed toward or away from the Kingdom, then?  Our answer to this question might well be, "yes."  That is the problem with the world we live in today.  There are no clear answers.  Sometimes "renewal" can be the death of a church, but sometimes it can be the rebirth of the church; and sometimes the death and rebirth are all mixed up together.  So, we're left with the condition we are generally stuck with anyway.  We do the best we can and trust the Spirit to sort it out.  Amen.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Fatigue & Decline ("Decline & Renewal" II)

We are exploring a series of editorials on the theme of church decline and renewal that were posted earlier this year in Jason Locke's Blog, which comes out of the Churches of Christ tradition.  The series raises important questions from perspectives outside of the mainline, ones that can help mainline churches better wrestle with the shared issues of decline and renewal.

The second posting in this series is by the Rev. Steve Martin, a Churches of Christ pastor in southern California, and is entitled, "The View from Steve Martin."  In describing the situation the church he serves faces in terms of decline and renewal, the word that sums things up best is fatigue.  The church is located in an area of high mobility, which means a high turnover in membership.  Part of its fatigue is trying to bring in more new members each year than those who are lost to attrition, and another part of the fatigue is the strain on personal relationships the turnover puts on long term members.  The result has been a slow but steady decline over the last decade-plus.

Martin points to one type of church fatigue, but the problem is more multi-faceted and broader than he describes it in his situation.  Churches burn out church members as well as pastors.  The concept of "Sabbath rest" is all well and good, but more often than not church is just another thing to be busy with.  Worship should esp. be a time for spiritual rest, reflection, and renewal, but too often it is none of these things.

The key to addressing church fatigue is finding ways to transform relationships within the church so that members take away renewed energy from their time at church with church people rather than feeling still further drained by church and church people.  In the church I serve, a suddenly active and significant small group movement is helping an important part of the church experience renewed energy from church.  In another congregation, it might be new directions in worship or study groups or an alive youth ministry or an inspiring mission trip.  In any event, one place where renewal begins is with renewed relationships within the church.  It is to such renewal that the Spirit calls us and through such renewal that it moves.  Amen.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

People Who Are Not Like Us ("Decline & Renewal" I)

It is becoming increasing clear that renewal is a challenge shared by churches across theological and historical differences.  Earlier this year Jason Locke's Blog, coming out of the Churches of Christ tradition, posted a series of guest editorials on the theme of "Decline & Renewal," which offers an interesting variety of takes on the challenge of church renewal.

The first posting in the series is by Sean Palmer, pastor of the Vine Church, a Churches of Christ congregation in Temple, Texas.  It is entitled, "The View from Sean Palmer."  Palmer speaks as a self-conscious conservative Christian.  At one point in his pastoral career, he served a church in liberal, secular California and discovered that he and the congregation simply did not know how to speak in a meaningful way with people who were not like them.  They felt alienated from the larger culture, and most of them did not even know well people who weren't conservative Christians like them. He says of  the church's secular, liberal neighbors, "We don’t know one another, therefore we cannot speak to one another."  The reason was that conservative Christians consciously lived apart from others and sometimes voiced venomous attitudes about "President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, depraved homosexuals and gay marriage, 'Obamacare,'" and liberals in general.  Palmer concludes,
"Largely, California Christians are a minority population. The majority of people do believe differently from Christians. But the gospel demands more from Christians than winning arguments. I call for winning hearts. Reaching the majority population, even if it disagrees with you, is the only hope for the church. This is not just about church growth, it’s about fulfilling God’s mission...It’s about whether the church will refuse its mission for the sake of other things. It’s about whether the church wants to make a difference or merely make a point."
Three thoughts:  first, progressive Christians for the most part grapple with the same fundamental situation of not knowing how to share our faith with people who are not religious.  We generally have little or no problem in talking about our faith with people of other faiths, but we don't do any better with "nones" than did Palmer's congregation.  For us, however, it is not a matter of antipathy but of shyness and disinclination.  We rightly reject hard-sell evangelism, but we have thrown the baby out with the bathwater in our failure to share our faith at all.

Second, it is fascinating to witness one of our conservative brothers struggle toward a more open, caring, and accepting attitude of those who do not share his theology and ideology.  He is reaching out for a less dualistic, more dialogical approach especially to people of no faith, but it is clear that the whole exercise is counter-intuitive for him.  It is a measure of Palmer's faith, however, that he is willing to contemplate new attitudes toward liberals and secularists for the sake of sharing Christ with them.  It is equally fascinating to see how he wrestles with the reality of how different his views are from other conservative Christians.  Non-dualism and dialogue come hard in his theological world, and one can only wonder how many conservatives are willing to embrace the idea of treating liberals and secularists with greater respect and acceptance.

Finally, I'm personally not convinced that the heart of the matter of church decline is that church people don't know how to communicate Christ with others.  In mainline churches, at least, there is something deeper, which is a superficial spirituality that focuses on ecclesial busy work largely to the exclusion of spiritual growth and a deeper fellowship.  My sense is that if congregations can plumb the depths of spiritual growth and renewal, the questions of sharing their faith and growing their churches statistically will become much less immediate.  Amen.

Monday, December 9, 2013

She, He, & Ze

Source: Claim the Rainbow
"Ze". The Urban Dictionary describes "ze" as being, "a gender neutral pronoun. It refers to someone who does not fit into the gender binary," and "A gender neutral word with the context of he or she; not meaning in the transexual form, but in the context of a simple neutral word," which is paired with "hir" (as in his, her).  According to an Associated Press article, "'PREFERRED' PRONOUNS GAIN TRACTION AT US COLLEGES," ze is one of several gender-free pronoun alternatives being explored on American college campuses.  The point seems to be to avoid the dualistic distinction between male and female when referring to oneself and to others.  It is, in other words, a different way of thinking about self that does front load identity with gender.

This attempt to reframe personal pronouns in this way, calls our attention to the fact that "sex" and "gender"don't actually mean the same thing even though we tend to use them interchangeably.  According to the Google dictionary, gender means, "the state of being male or female (typically used with reference to social and cultural differences rather than biological ones)." Sex, on the other hand, means, "either of the two main categories (male and female) into which humans and many other living things are divided on the basis of their reproductive functions." Sex is about biology. Gender is about society and culture. We are born one sex or the other, but we socially construct our genders.  It is an important distinction then because as a social construct "gender" is also about the way we imagine, understand, and value our being male and female.  Gender unavoidably includes power issues and prejudices long, long ingrained in us.  To put the matter bluntly, women and men are biologically different but otherwise without distinction while in terms of gender in most societies nearly all the time women are constructed as inferior.

Whether or not genderless pronouns gain currency in the future, what (some) young people on college campuses seem to be experimenting with has broader implications.  They are learning to think less dualistically, less in terms of rigid categories than is usual for Western cultures.  They are blurring the lines that separate us from each other, the lines that encourage us to put each other into categories such as black and white, straight and not-straight, as well as female and male, which categories inevitably are laden with judgments and invite unjust, debilitating power relationships.  There is much more at stake here than political correctness.  It is about how we craft a more just, loving, and peaceful world in which women and men are gendered equal as well as born equal.  Amen.

Saturday, December 7, 2013

God Calls Jonah to Preach to Nineveh, that Great & Wicked City

God called Jonah to preach to Nineveh, that great and wicked city.  And Jonah said,

I will not advertise
this crazy scheme
of Yours.

God, what a farce
that men should sin and find

I mean, of course,
not me
but all our mutual

Dear God, kind God, don't listen
to their prayers.

"Reprimand to a Naive Diety"
Thomas John Carlisle, You! Jonah!
page  7

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Fascinating Map

Source: pewforum.org
An interactive map entitled, "State Policies on Same-Sex Marriage Over Time," at pewforum.org demonstrates the significant and rapid changes taking place in the U.S. regarding same-sex marriage.  If one scales through the years from 1995 to 2013, several trends become apparent.  In 1995, the great majority of states are colored with a neutral white meaning they are "states where gay marriage is neither legal nor banned."  By 2013, only New Mexico remains white.

In 1996, the move toward statutory restrictions on gay marriage showed a strong upward trend, which continued in 1997 and 1998.  Meanwhile, in 1998, states began to constitutionally ban same-sex marriage with Alaska leading the way.  That movement picked up steam in 2004, apparently in reaction to the legalization of gay marriage in Massachusetts, which was approved in 2003.  In 2005 and 2006, more and more states put bans on same-sex marriage in their state constitutions.  Then, in 2008 Connecticut joined Massachusetts as a green state ("states where gay marriage is or soon will be legal").    The strong movement toward gay marriage began in 2011, and the last two years have shown more and more green states.

The map for 2013 is notable for the deep divide it shows in the nation.  The Northeast is green.  Vast stretches of the rest of the country are yellow-brown ("states with constitutional bans on gay marriage").  A few states still have statutory bans on gay marriage and as noted above only New Mexico has not taken a stand one way or the other, but evidently some local governments in New Mexico are taking matters into their own hands (see here) by issuing marriage licenses to gay couples.  So far, California is the only state that had a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage, which has since legalized such marriages.

In sum, this map provides graphic evidence of the deep divisions in our nation over same-sex marriage and demonstrates that both proponents and opponents have so far had their share of victories.  Given the evident difficulty of flipping states with constitutional bans on gay marriage, however, one has to wonder whether the state-by-state campaign for equality under the law has gone about as far as it can.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Just Plain Wrong

The wallpaper to the left presents a disturbing, theologically ignorant portrayal of Christ as a steely-eyed warrior doing battle toe-to-toe with the devil.  It is a dualistic vision of reality in which good and evil stand in stark and clearly differentiated contrast to one another.  Good is good.  Evil is evil.  Never the 'twain shall meet.  Jesus, just to cap things off, is clearly a north European—smooth-skinned but tough at that.  The picture says little about Jesus and much about one of our world's popular takes on him.  He is Jesus the Cold War Warrior.


At the very core of the biblical portrait of  Christ esp. in the four gospels, is the messiah who would not be a warrior and did not lead God's army into Jerusalem.  He did not go toe-to-toe with the devil but, rather, refused to play the devil's game (see Matthew 4:1-11).  He was not a tough guy, and he certainly was not a northern European Cold War Warrior.  The problem with the dualism portrayed in this picture, furthermore, is that the world is not neatly divided between the green pastures of paradise and a hell of molten lava.  The real world we live in is at once beautiful and polluted, home to gorgeous song birds and countless hordes of stinging, biting insects.  It is us at our best and us at our worst.  The world assumed by the picture, that is, doesn't exist except as an ideological breeding ground for prejudice and injustice.  This wallpaper, in sum, denies a core spiritual truth of the Christian faith, which is that we gain resurrection not through arm wrestling with evil but by learning to transform it through non-resistance, beginning with our own hearts and heads.  We are not called to go off to war but to come home to peace.

As popular a vision of Christ as it may be in some circles, then, this portrait of Jesus arm wrestling with the devil is unbiblical, unrealistic, and unfaithful to Christ himself.  It is just plain wrong.

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

Saturn as Space Tourists Will One Day See It

Source: nasa.gov
This is a photo of Satrun taken by NASA’s Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, which was launched in 1997 to study Saturn and its moons. It arrived at Saturn in 2004 and for the last nine years has been sending a wealth of data and pictures back to Earth from its orbit around Saturn.

In this photograph, we see Saturn as it actually looks from near space.  We see it, that is, as future space tourists and other visitors will see it.  We can't help but wonder what it will be like when views like this become commonplace, if they ever do.  As much wonder as we've discovered right here at home on Earth, it boggles the mind to think about how much more waits to be discovered just in our solar system.

Readers may want to go to Nasa.gov and view the full-sized copy of this photograph there (here, actually).  It is worth the time.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Standing with Jesus — Where?

As should be clear in this series of postings (beginning here), Tom Ehrich's article, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, has left me feeling hot and cold all at the same time.  On the one hand, it is thought provoking, which is a helpful thing.  Ehrich calls on churches, their leaders, and pastors to think again about what is important and not take for granted even something as central and basic as Sunday morning worship.  He points out alternative directions including one I haven't addressed in my responses but is vitally important: small groups.

On the other hand, his arguments leave much to be desired, which can be seen by the final point in his five point plan for the future.  Summing up the article in this fifth point, he counsels us to, "stand where Jesus stood: on the margins, in solidarity with people, speaking truth to power, risking everything to declare hope and healing. Such a faith experience would transform lives and heal a broken world."

OK.  On a first reading, that sounds good.  Bold.  Christ-like.  It has the right words in it: "margins," "solidarity," "truth to power," "risk," "hope," "healing," and "transformation".  Still, it feels trendy and filled with right-sounding jargon.  Discerning what it means in the real world where churches struggle to pay the pastor and heat the sanctuary is another thing entirely.

It is fine to challenge us to "stand where Jesus stood," but we live in a time radically unlike the first century faced with issues and circumstances that wouldn't have made sense fifty years ago let alone two thousand.  We have to find the place where Jesus would have stood had he lived in our time, which is not always an easy thing to do esp. for local churches each located in a unique place facing unique situations.  In those situations, the clarion call to "speak to power" is usually best done over lunch at the local diner depending of course on who the power is and what they hold power over.

And risk everything?  There is not a church in America and very few pastors that are going to do that, and they shouldn't.  It is bad advice at best.  Wisdom counsels us to manage risks and live to fight again another day.  We are called to walk that fine difficult line between compromise that is cowardice and boldness that is ineffective.  Ehrich seems to be enjoining his readers to risk big "C" Crucifixion like Christ, when the thing we all need to learn is how to embrace small "c" crucifixions that in one way or another will make a difference.  If the big "R" Resurrection is to have any real meaning in the world, it has to be through the small "r" resurrections wise and discreetly bold risk takers experience when they court crucifixions for the sake of the gospel.

It's not that Ehrich's advice on this final point is wrong so much as it is simplistic even for a brief article.  Following Christ in the real world requires wisdom, patience, and a perceptive understanding of local realities.  It understands that speaking to power can mean many different things and that there are varying degrees of risk, some of which are not worth taking and others simply need not be taken.

Friday, November 29, 2013

Downplaying Worship?

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich argues that Sunday morning worship is no longer as important as we think it used to be, and churches and their pastors should devote less time to it. He argues, "Sunday worship isn’t growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids’ sports and shopping. Young prospects want engagement, not pew-sitting." He continues, "Churches grow when they have active small group ministries, high-commitment mission work, lively online offerings, and activities beyond Sunday mornings."  Ehrich thinks that both churches and pastors resist the idea that they need to devote less time and attention to Sunday worship, and he esp. senses that pastors will feel remorse over the loss of what has been their primary function.  Nonetheless, the clergy must invest itself in more contemporary media and in small group ministry than in Sunday mornings. He insists that congregational worship "isn’t working and it probably never worked as much as we wanted."

Ehrich has a point but only up to a point.  While worship is apparently less well-attended today than it has been in the past, does this fact warrant reducing the time pastors, church staffs, and lay leaders devote to it?  We need to be careful here that we don't throw the baby out with the bathwater, as it were.

We should consider the following:  first, while church members are much more mobile today than they were fifty years ago and there is more competition for their time on Sunday mornings, Sunday morning worship remains important for them.  After an absence of a week or a month or the entire winter, it is the place to which they return to reconnect with the church.  It is the place that more than any other engages them with the fellowship of the church.  Beyond the time spent in the worship service, most churches use Sunday mornings for fellowship and often for meetings.  The morning is the focal point of congregational life and the worship service is the focal point of the morning.  It is what draws people back to the congregation.  Church members, moreover, still value quality worship even if their more mobile lives bring them to worship less often. It could be argued, then, that in a time of high mobility stable reference points are more important rather than less.

Second, Ehrich seems to be measuring the value of Sunday worship by how many new members it brings in, which if true is a concern, but that does not mean that worship is any less important for the life of the church itself.  He also fails to take into account the fact that for those seeking a church family Sunday morning worship is an important gateway into the life of a congregation.  It is where church shoppers get their first best impression of a church.

These are not minor considerations.  Ehrich himself raises a third concern when he states, "Sunday worship should be part of the mix and it should be done well."  How, we must ask, can it be done well while reducing the amount of time and effort devoted to it?  Perhaps in some churches the service could be less elaborate, but simpler services do not necessarily take less time and effort to plan, prepare for, and carry out.  The countervailing move in contemporary worship is toward services that involve more technology, newer songs, and creative styles, all of which command more time and effort not less.

In sum, Ehrich seems to have focused too tightly on the decline in Sunday worship attendance numbers as the single measure for its value.  We do better to weigh its significance in terms of its overall contribution to the health, vitality, and unity of the church as the single most important focal point of congregational life.  Perhaps there is a need for a new focal point or additional points of focus, but for the immediate future it is hard to see what it might be that will effectively replace or sufficiently augment the central role of Sunday worship.

Thursday, November 28, 2013

A Matter of Our Ultimate Commitment

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his fourth point, he advises them to, "break Mammon’s hold on Christianity by reconsidering facilities, staff and other overhead, and by teaching personal stewardship, not institutional fund-raising."

This fourth point offers mainline churches important advice that most will never take or even feel able to take esp. when it comes to their facilities.  Most mainline churches are invested in their buildings  in ways that have little to do with their actual utility.  Those buildings are old, historic, and beloved ones filled with cherished reminders of parents, grandparents, and one's personal heritage.  They are also aging, expensive millstones that distract churches from their core purpose of being Christ's body for the healing of the world, but most churches are unlikely to embrace this fact even where they are vaguely aware of it.  And, another truth is that it is their buildings that in a sense keep small, nearly dead churches going because they don't want to give up the cherished heritage embodied in the building.  It is true that churches generally function more as institutions than as movements, and one key factor is their need to maintain aging facilities—facilities that eat up a goodly portion of the annual budget.

It is also true, however, that the key in all of this is not the building or the budget or even the institutionalization of the church.  The key is the quality of life of the congregation that owns the church's property and spends its income.  Where the church is alive spiritually and in ministry, buildings and budgets can be used as tools for ministry.  In such churches, the staff facilitates spiritual growth, fellowship, Christian learning, and healing ministries.  Members offer each other needed life support, and newcomers find a community of faith that helps them live healthier lives.  The building may be important in such cases as a physical place that people come to when they are looking for such things.  When people church shop, for example, they visit buildings seeking a warm, vital community of faith.  Such faith communities use their facilities and budgets as tools useful to good ends rather than allowing them to be obstacles to being the best churches they can be.

In sum, on this point Ehrich offers a key piece of advice.  Mainline churches do need to rethink their commitment to facilities, staff, and other elements of the budget.  They do need to think again about the reasoning behind their stewardship and consider whether or not they operating essentially as an institution or as a spiritual movement.  Where, that is, is their ultimate commitment?  Is it to the church as a monument or club or museum—or is it to Christ?

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Getting the Message Right

Source: withheartsunited.com
In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his third point, he advises them to, "proclaim fresh messages that don’t reinforce negative perceptions of religion as judgmental, harsh, condescending, [and] overly concerned with institution."

This is good advice as far as it goes, but it doesn't go far enough.  For starters, it is important to remember that message, content, and actions are closely related.  Put somewhat crassly in marketing terms, in the long run you can't sell a product as being a good one if it isn't a good one.  Consumers will eventually figure out that your product is not as advertised.  Proclaiming a gospel of love, hope, and service effectively requires a congregation to be loving, hopeful, and given to service.  If, that is, a congregation preaches a message that is not overly focused on the institution of the church, it really does need to be a congregation that is not overly concerned about institutional issues and needs.  The truth is a good deal of a church's messaging is not verbal and not intentional.

While Ehrich's point is well taken, furthermore, it might be better stated as a positive than as a negative.  A church's message should be more about what it is rather than what it is not.  If a congregation is lively, generally warm and open, and engaged in vital ministries, its messaging will reflect these qualities and in the process avoid projecting judgmental, harsh, condescending, and self-serving ones.  Ehrich is correct, but it just seems wiser to focus on what the church should be rather than what it should not be.

Finally, a church's messages need to be vital as well as fresh.  The single most important element in effective preaching, for example, is the ideas that it communicates.  If the preacher has not invested studious reflection in her sermon, it is not likely to spark the interest of his audience.  If the content is not relevant and well thought it, it will communicate these negatives no matter how much attention is given to delivery.  That is to say, a church's message is not going to be fresh unless the church has invested itself in the message, given time and thought to its content.  To the extent that we are communicating ideas, they have to have depth to them as well as relevance.

If "the medium is the message," the message is also the medium, which is a cute way of making an important point.  The content of our messages inevitably has an impact, for good or for ill, on the manner in which we communicate them.  Medium and message are in a dynamic relationship with each other.  Fresh messages require an engaged and vital messenger, and such a messenger is far more like to send fresh messages.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Technology & Churches

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his second point, he states, "use today’s tools (especially technology) to reach today’s people, who are largely diverse, scattered, isolated and not joiners."  He is correct that use of technology in churches is important, so much so that the point almost seems to be a no-brainer.  It is a basic premise of church life that congregations must live in the age in which they find themselves, that we must be "in the world but not of the world."  In the early 21st century, being "in the world" means living in the world of communications technology.

A study release by the Hartford Institute for Religious Research entitled, "Virtually Religious: Technology and Internet Use in American Congregations," indicates that the majority of religious congregations "get it" to one degree or another when it comes to using that technology.  As of 2010, 90% of congregations used email, 69% had a website, and 66% used and had both.  Some 34% had both a website and a Facebook page, and 67% were using visual projection equipment of some sort in worship.  There are gaps in the use of modern media for congregational life, but the trend is clear.  Especially in the last 10 years or so, there has been a decided move toward modern technology.  The report also observes that there is a connection between the overall health of congregations and their use of modern communications technologies.  High technology churches tend to be healthier and more vital.

None of this is actually new.  In past generations, churches have adapted themselves to the printing revolution to such an extent that we don't even notice all of the print media we use in worship including esp. hymnals.  When "desk top publishing" became available with the invention of mimeograph machines, churches began to publish newsletters and use bulletins on Sunday mornings.  The development of audio technology led to the use of sound systems.  All of this is taken for granted today, but we should not underestimate the importance of the adoption of older technologies as forerunners of the use of today's technologies.

Looking forward, we had better get used to technological innovation in congregational worship and life.  The arc of technological change is trending upward at an ever increasing pace, and the truth is "we ain't seen nothin' yet."  The challenge of being in the world is only going to become more pressing in the days to come.

Friday, November 22, 2013

Church Renewal as Jargon

In his posting, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken, Tom Ehrich offers churches and pastors a five point program for moving forward.  In his first point, he states, "First, don’t expect to find a single answer that’s applicable everywhere. Be an entrepreneur, in the way Jesus was an entrepreneur, namely, adapting to the context; having a fervent vision but flexible methods; focusing on outcomes (transformed lives), not consistency of practice; working outside institutions; being a disruptive force."

For those of us laboring in the field, this type of trendy injunction is worse that worthless.  We already know our situation is unique and have found out that a goodly portion of the church renewal literature is based on case studies that don't fit our own situation very well.  So, we're supposed to be an "entrepreneur" like Jesus?  If we stick to the Google definition of the word, "entrepreneur" means, "a person who organizes and operates a business or businesses, taking on greater than normal financial risks in order to do so." OK, we more or less get what that means, but strictly speaking churches aren't businesses and pastors aren't in business.  We don't have an easily measured (or even measurable) bottom line, and it is not at all clear what a "normal risk" in church settings might be esp. when we have already been reminded that there is no such thing as a "normal" situation.  They are all unique.  Any pastor who has served in more than one congregation learns through trial and error that risky behavior in one church is hardly noticed in another—and there are no "normal" risks because all are uniquely risky.

So, yes, we have to adapt to each context, be flexible, and pay attention to what works.  That is called living and while entirely true doesn't help an individual church governing board or pastor figure out what to actually do to address the situation in which they find themselves.  These are just nice words that don't take us anywhere, and we esp. should be warned by fact that the Wikipedia article on "entrepreneurship" refers to it as a "buzz word" that has become recently popular.

Associating Jesus with entrepreneurship, furthermore, is silly and profoundly not helpful.  Jesus was not an entrepreneur.  He was a first century Jewish prophet.  He is for Christians the Christ, the messiah.  He didn't run a 21st century business.  He didn't even have an organization.  And of course he adapted to his context.  He was born into it, ate it, spoke it, lived it, and shared its values and ways.  The vast majority of us learn to adapt to our birth culture, and impressive numbers of people learn to adapt to a second culture.  The process is called socialization.

Ehrich's closing advice, namely that we work outside of institutions as a disruptive force, is particularly ill-advised.  Pastors are called by an institution to both serve and exercise leadership within the institution.  They are paid as members of the institution's staff.  In mainline churches, the challenge pastors face is that they are working within an institution and must.  As for being a "disruptive force," that is a dangerous piece of advice that any wise, experienced pastor or other church leader will treat with deserved suspicion.  There are times when a good leader challenges the flock and, perhaps, disrupts the normal routine.  In the great majority of circumstances and in the daily life of a congregation, however, the goal of all church leaders is to build up the community of faith, nurture it, encourage it to greater health, and provide support for its members.  In particular, pastors and other church leaders are not prophets in the Old Testament sense of the role.  Sometimes they have to behave prophetically, but not as a steady day-in-day-out way of leading.  Engaging in conflict, which is what "being a disruptive force" means, is always a tricky and dangerous thing.  It happens and can't be avoided sometimes, but as a steady diet is unhealthy and destructive.

In short, this first item in Ehrich's agenda is unhelpful and ill-advised.  It sounds profound, superficially, but in truth it is just so much jargon.  That is one of the problems with the literature on church renewal.  It is filled to over-flowing with advice that sounds profound but isn't really anything more than jargon in search of profundity.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

What to Do & Not Do

Adirondack Sunrise
Source: Travercial
In a piece entitled, "COMMENTARY: Sunday mornings are broken," commentator Tom Ehrich, argues that the path to local church renewal and growth does not lie through Sunday morning. He observes, "Sunday worship isn’t growing churches any longer. Sunday morning has become a time for sleeping in, kids’ sports and shopping. Young prospects want engagement, not pew-sitting. Churches grow when they have active small group ministries, high-commitment mission work, lively online offerings, and activities beyond Sunday mornings."  He goes on to note that in mainline churches both members of the congregation and pastors remain committed to worship as the centerpiece of congregational life and resist the idea of devoting less time and energy to it.   Such resistance, Ehrich feels, is misguided.  Instead, he offers five alternative areas to which churches and pastors should devote their energies, which are worth quoting in full.  He writes,
First, don’t expect to find a single answer that’s applicable everywhere. Be an entrepreneur, in the way Jesus was an entrepreneur, namely, adapting to the context; having a fervent vision but flexible methods; focusing on outcomes (transformed lives), not consistency of practice; working outside institutions; being a disruptive force.
Second, use today’s tools (especially technology) to reach today’s people, who are largely diverse, scattered, isolated and not joiners.
Third, proclaim fresh messages that don’t reinforce negative perceptions of religion as judgmental, harsh, condescending, overly concerned with institution.
Fourth, break Mammon’s hold on Christianity by reconsidering facilities, staff and other overhead, and by teaching personal stewardship, not institutional fund-raising.
Finally, stand where Jesus stood: on the margins, in solidarity with people, speaking truth to power, risking everything to declare hope and healing.
To this list should also be added the development of small groups as a key to congregational life in the future.  Ehrich twice mentions small groups as being important, and it is not clear why he overlooked it in his five point agenda for the future.  I've taken the liberty of including it as a sixth point to be considered.

This to do list is worth lingering over, and I plan to do just that in a series of posts over the next couple of weeks, but before jumping in there are a couple of things that can be said about the total package.  One is positive and the other not so much.  On the positive side, Ehrich offers a vision of what churches can be and the shape of what pastoral ministry is likely going to have to be moving forward.  We have to learn to be contextual, use modern technologies, provide a fresh message, divest ourselves of property, and address the powers that be more boldly concerning local issues.  It is not a given that churches and pastors who do these things, however, will necessarily be successful by whatever scale success is measured by.  And that leads me to my negative observation.

Ehrich's agenda requires a set of skills, attitudes, and level of creativity that are not going to be found in every church or exhibited by every pastor.  Indeed, they are daunting.  They require a radical reorienting of the values of local churches and fly in the face of what most churches expect of their pastors.  In most mainline churches, a pastor who presented this agenda to the congregation's governing board would likely meet with resistance more than support and encouragement.  The people who actually pay the pastor's salary are largely content with things the way they are and will esp. resist any suggestion that they divest themselves of their church's property.

That being said, Ehrich's to do list is worth lingering over.  If most churches and pastors will never take it seriously, it may still map for us the future of the mainline remnant that finds its way into the heart of the 21st century.  Stay tuned.

Monday, November 18, 2013

Putting Fun Back into CE

The website BBC Future offers intriguing insights into what the future could and might be like.  In a recent posting entitled, "Can games create an education fit for the future?," viewers are introduced to a potential educational advance using video games for teaching and assessment. The example given is of a new version of the popular game, SimCity, which is called "SimCityEDU: Pollution Challenge."  It teaches players how to manage pollution in a simulated city and provides teachers with a way to assess how well their students understand and are mastering such things as systems thinking, a skill required for doing well in the 21st century working world.  The goal, more generally, is to bring 21st century technologies into the classroom for 21st century education and learning.

That set me to thinking.  One of the greatest challenges for mainline Christian educators is to make the study of the Bible compelling for the folks in the pews.  Every church has a few members that are "interested in the Bible" and regularly populate its Bible studies.  Rarely is an entire church or even a significant slice of the congregation so interested, which leaves our churches depressingly biblically illiterate.  It is, furthermore, generally impossible to move beyond the Bible into such fields of study as Christian ethics, theology, and spiritual practices such as meditation.  But, if we had a set of games that would take us into the world of the Bible, perhaps the whole realm of grass roots Christian education could be transformed into something interesting and fun, as well as beneficial and informative—something that our young people would relish rather than resist, something that adults would look forward to rather than avoid.  And well-done Christian education games would make quality CE available to even the smallest of churches, to small groups within churches, and to individual members who want to strike out on their own.

In many corners of the faith, creative people are rethinking what it means to be a community of faith.  In that context, it is possible that in fifty years the traditional mainline congregation has gone the way of the wooly mammoth, and in its place we will find a variety of "churches" availing themselves of a variety of 21st century technologies.  Among those technologies, there will be creative and even inspiring learning games, which bring the faith alive in new ways.  Amen.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A Good Thing Is Happening

In a perceptive and controversial blog posting entitled, "It’s You, Not Me: Why More & More Ministers Are Leaving Churches of Christ", Sean Palmer argues that an increasing number of Churches of Christ ministers, especially younger ministers, are leaving their churches for pastoral ministry in denominations outside of the Church of Christ circle of congregations.  Palmer identifies three key reasons why they are leaving: (1) because women's roles are usually limited in Church of Christ congregations; (2) the churches are resistant to change; and (3) the churches tend to place more value on inherited traditions than on Christ or the scriptures.  Churches of Christ congregations, that is, are evidently mostly stuck firmly in the nineteenth century and can't escape.  This posting generated a great deal of heat, which prompted Palmer to write a follow up entitled, "Was It Something I Said?"  There he observes that there a good deal of division, conflict, and judgmental attitudes within the Churches of Christ circle of churches.

In some quarters on the Christian Right, there is a growing realization that traditional churches are drifting away from the vital center of American culture and society.  Many of them still limit the role of women and consider homosexuality a sin, while our society is racing at an almost astonishing pace away from  the injustices explicit in these views.   "Out here" in society we are learning to think at least somewhat less dualistically and less in terms of absolutes.  Apparently, meanwhile, the use of musical instruments in worship is still a controversial issue in many Churches of Christ congregations.  "Out here" in a the real world, such issues that seem to be so important to traditional church insiders are massively trivial, and it is not difficult to see why capable, creative leaders and esp. younger leaders are searching for some place else to do ministry.

My personal take on all of this is that something very good is happening to all of us.  We are being shoved rudely into the real world where we are called to be.  Churches are intended to be vessels of the Spirit, and where the vessel is broken the Spirit simply can't move with power.  In a rapidly changing world, traditionalism and resistance to change are spiritual death to churches no matter how meaningful or important they are to their insiders.  Only to the degree that we are able to come out of our shells and live with the rest of society in the real world are we able to remain God's agents of peace, love, and justice.

Tuesday, November 12, 2013

Are House Churches the Answer?

In ancient times, the earliest churches of the "Jesus Movement" were house churches, and in modern times there are those who have returned to this ancient form of Christian communal life and worship.  House churches can provide a depth of intimacy and mutual commitment not found in the average church, although in some churches small group experiences can to a degree replicate the house church experience.  Both the upsides and downsides of house churches are captured in a five minute video entitled, "Bearing fruit – the beginning and end of a house church." The long and the short of it is that while they can provide deep spiritual gratification house churches may also not last very long.  They are more fragile than established churches, which may not necessarily be a fault but is also not a mark of strength.  I would recommend the video for your reflection.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Tricks of the Trade

Losing weight and keeping the pounds of permanently involves a whole set of behavioral and attitudinal changes that amount to a fundamental change in one's life.  It helps to know the tricks of the losing weight trade, some of those tricks are obvious such as stay away from refined sugar as much as humanly possible.  Others are less obvious and there are ones that are even counter-intuitive.  Although nuts are high in calories, for example, there is now research (see here) that suggests that eating nuts contributes to weight loss.

A recent posting entitled, "6 Weird Ways Your Environment Affects How Much You Eat," provides another layer of insights and hints helpful to those who want to lose weight.  When we go to an all-you-can-eat buffet, thus, we do best by starting out by eating the healthiest foods in the buffet rather than the first ones we come across.  Doing so, reduces our total intake of calories.  Be aware of how our environment influences eating is also helpful.  Eating in a room with loud music and bright lights, for example, encourages us to eat more.  When eating in a restaurant, we do better if we don't let what others order influence our order, which is the tendency apparently.  Weirdest of all, evidently the shape and even the color of the wine glass we pour our wine into actually influences how much wine we consume.  Who woulda thunk!  Even how we place foods in the fridge influences what we take out to eat, which is less obvious but runs along the same lines as not leaving a lot of high-calorie snacking food laying conveniently around.

Losing weight is partly a motivational issue and regular exercise is important, but it is also a matter of managing our eating habits.  Tricks of the trade like these are a help!

Saturday, November 9, 2013

On Becoming Human

You can survive on your own.  You can grow strong on your own.  You can even prevail on your own.  But you cannot become human on your own.

Frank Buechner
Listening to Your LIfe, 13