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

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

Friday, November 8, 2013

"A Rose by Any Other Name"

Back in September,Carol Howard Merritt posted an article entitled, "Why I refuse to use 'mainline' any longer," on the Christian Century website.  Merritt argues that we need to dispense with the term, "mainline,"for two reasons: first, the term does not reflect the actual sources of "mainline" faith, which is much more than the white, suburban, 1950s image suggested by the term.  Second, the word also fails to reflect the hopes and possibilities the "mainline" denominations have for the future.

In the introduction to his keynote address for the 2012 Craigville Colloquy, "Where is Mainline Protestantism Today?", William McKinney suggests one of the problems with discarding the term, "mainline," namely there is no good replacement for it. He observes,
“Mainline” is one of several labels (among them: “mainstream,” “ecumenical,” “modernist,” “public,” “established,” “old-line,” “progressive” and “liberal”) used to refer to Protestant churches and sensibilities whose experience in America dates to the early years of European immigration. Each of these terms is theologically and sociologically imprecise due in part to the fact that in the US setting today even the term “Protestant” is problematic. Sociologically and theologically, the term “Protestant” has little meaning beyond suggesting what one is not: not Roman Catholic, not Jewish, not Muslim, not a “religious none.”
And "mainline" adds to that list of things we are not namely, not evangelical, not fundamentalist, and not Mormon—among others.  The term, "mainline," is widely recognized and widely accepted.  In the face of the fact that no other term is really any better, the effort involved in trying to replace it with something else that is no better seems problematic.

More to the point still, in some real senses and perhaps sadly we still are mainline churches.  We are mostly white, stagnant, and still behaving institutionally as if we are the establishment churches of our communities long after we have ceased to be such.  There is, of course, much more to being mainline today than these characteristics, but by the same token the term mainline still resonates with our core identity.  If names matter and if we should call each card by its right name, then we remain mainline churches.

Rather than change the label, what we are learning increasingly is that we need to substantially transform the contents of the package.  In Britain, Anglicans and others call the process of discovering new ways to be the church, "fresh expressions."  In the PC(USA), a similar movement is called, "1001 Worshipping Communities."  The goal in both cases is to establish new-fangled churches that are viable faith communities within themselves and better able to share their faith with others.

In short, what we really need to do is to think about what it means to be mainline in new ways—own the label and really make it our own by redefining it.  Amen.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Two Separate Worlds

In a blog entry posted back April, Andrew Webb listed, "13 Differences Between the PCA and the PCUSA," that is between the Presbyterian Church in America and the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Writing as a member of the PCA, he presents a fair assessment of those differences, and in them there is little that surprises anyone who knows at least something about these two intensely different Presbyterian denominations.  The list includes the following:

  • PC(USA) ordains women and the PCA does not;
  • PCA adheres to biblical literalism and the PC(USA) does not;
  • PCA is "pro-life" and PC(USA) is "pro-choice";
  • PCA considers homosexuality a sin and the PC(USA) does not;
  • PCA adheres to a traditionalist Reformed theology and the PC(USA) does not;
  • PCA is committed to evangelism and the PC(USA) is not;
  • PC(USA) generally places more authority in the higher councils of the church while PCA is more grassroots; and
  • PC(USA) accepts theistic evolution while the PCA does not.
There are other points of comparison, but these are the major ones.  They point to the undeniable fact that these two denominations live in very different faith worlds.  From the perspective of most of us in the PC(USA), for example, ordaining women and accepting the LGBT community are matters of simple, Christ-like justice.  Being "pro-choice" does not mean that somehow we are anti-life but that we are pro-women.  We are pro-life, which is about much more than abortion.  And so on down the list, which in all reflects a different set of values, attitudes, perspectives, and a different spirituality.

Webb does note that on a few of the differences there is some movement in the PCA toward the views held in the PC(USA), for example on evolution and in worship.  What he does not say is that in most of the differences between the two denominations, the PC(USA) is demonstrating a greater ability to adapt to changing social values and attitudes than the PCA, which is becoming more and more culturally isolated.  In a posting entitled "The Future of the PCA," conservative blogger Marshall C. St. John, makes that point and observes in some detail its significance, namely cultural isolation and inevitable statistical decline.  That decline set in 2008.  PCA apologists, of course, will argue that being culturally unpopular does not make its stands on the issues wrong, but equally of course it does not make them correct either.

A couple of thoughts: first, it really is better that we are two separate denominations.  We have relatively little in common in so many crucial ways, and about the best we can do with each other is exhibit some degree of tolerance of each other while equally believing that the "other" just doesn't get it when it comes to faithfully following Christ.  Second, perhaps in the larger scheme of things the reality of having two denominations so different at so many points is a strength rather than a weakness.  People in general are very different, and in faith as in everything else one size does not fit all.  This isn't a cause of celebration, but it does recognize the fact that the Spirit has to move in us where we are and in ways that we can hear.  It moves liberal Presbyterians in ways that conservative Presbyterians simply can't accept and vice versa, always pushing and prodding us in the direction of the Kingdom.  The Kingdom is not a race.  We all make it there or none of us make it.  Amen.

Saturday, November 2, 2013

Beyond Modernity

Joseph Sold into Captivity
In his commentary on Genesis (Genesis, John Knox, 1982), Walter Brueggemann argues that the final narrative of the book, the "Joseph Narrative" (Genesis 37-50), is fiction rather than history.  It is a story or composite of stories written as a bridge to carry the Israel's story over the gap between Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and the Exodus.

By treating the Joseph Narrative as fiction rather than as history, Brueggemann does not lose the value of the stories in it.  He makes it possible, rather, to focus on the story itself rather than the actors.  The tendency otherwise is to give our attention to the actors and attempt to psychoanalyze them—figure them out.  The story, when treated as history, is not important in and of itself but for what it reveals about it characters.  If the story is fictional, however, our attention shifts to the author and the story itself.  It shifts to a deeper level of meaning in which the story becomes a witness to Israel's faith in the era of Exile when it was likely written.  And there is the added value of laying aside the need to defend the Bible's factuality at all points, which so often obscures its deeper meanings and spiritual value by forcing us to worry about superficial issues such as demonstrating that Jonah could survive for three days in the belly of a fish or proving that David really did write the psalms attributed to him in the Book of Psalms.

Equally to the point, the Joseph Narrative is just as historical whether it be treated as literature or as a factual account of actual events.  It gives witness to the faith of its author and its times and thus reflects the historical experience of the Jewish people.  It is as true spiritually and no less inspired.  Treating it as literature, in truth, helps to awake us from the dreamworld of modernity with its narrow understanding of reality and its obsession with factuality.

Friday, November 1, 2013


Last Saturday (October 26th), the Minnesota Gophers football team defeated the Nebraska Cornhuskers, a team that the  Gophers had not defeated since 1960.  Few saw this win coming.  Nebraska is the more talented team and has a solid, almost storied winning tradition.  Minnesota had not been playing well in Big Ten play up to last Saturday, in spite of an unexpected win over Northwestern. Jerry Kill, the Gophers coach, was on medical leave to deal with epilepsy.  And not only was the  victory unexpected, but even less expected was the fact that on Saturday Minnesota was clearly the better team on the field.  They did to Nebraska what Nebraska normally does to everyone else—pushed their opponents around and dominated them physically.

The question is, why?  The how is not as hard to explain.  Minnesota played a better game.  But, why?  In reading the various descriptions of the game, it becomes clear that the Gophers won and the Cornhuskers lost because of intangibles—metaphysical realities that cannot be measured and deny empirical analysis but are real for all of that.  Motivation.  Determination.  Loyalty.  Inspiration.  Team Spirit.  Attitude.  The Gophers played inspired football.  Jerry Kill was at the game and spoke to them several times; his presence was inspirational.  The players knew that Coach Kill is going through a hard stretch with epilepsy, and they didn't want to let him down.  His toughness and determination in the face of adversity, furthermore, was an inspiration to them.  All intangibles.  All real.

Now, the Gophers have worked hard on conditioning.  They are a generally well-coached team.  One can never overlook the physical nature of the game, and without all of the hard work and practice they couldn't even get out on the field let alone win.  Every Big Ten team works on conditioning and has a good coaching staff including Nebraska.  The Gophers won last Saturday because of the intangibles, which have to do with the human spirit.  It was a metaphysical victory won on the higher (or deeper) plane of the human spirit.

So, don't believe in God—or believe, but don't claim that spiritual realities are not real.  Don't look at the metaphysical as being phony or funny.  What is deepest in us and most compelling is a reality that is beyond the physical, cannot be measured, and defies empirical analysis.  It is the human spirit.  The image of God.  Amen.