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.