Monday, January 30, 2012

Personal Jesus

One thing that I've noticed over the years is that mainline Protestants don't seem to take God very personally.  Growing up as I did in the evangelical world, God and Jesus was up close and personal.  A lot of the songs we sung in college intentionally changed the words of some songs from something like, "God is so good to us," to something like "God is so good to me."

 In many ways, Mainline Protestants tend to think of God in more communal or corporate terms.  We tend to use words like "us" and not focus on a personal Jesus.  Our belief in social justice makes us wary of something that might be considered private and not beneficial.  So, we might make fun of those who talk about a personal Jesus thinking this is  rather silly and behind the times. But do we lose something when we see Jesus in a more personal way? First off, I think Mainline Protestants, (myself included) tend to confuse "personal" with "private."  Personal is something that is intimate; like a relationship- private, is something that is for you and only you.  The God that we serve is a public God that judges the nations , but God is also one that is in relationship not just with the whole of humanity, but each and every one of us. The thing is, the Bible is full of examples where God and a specific person spoke to each other face-to-face- sort of.  One example is from Exodus 33 where Moses and God talk about life- their relationship and what really bugs them at times:
7 Moses took the tent and pitched it outside the camp, far away from the camp. He called it the meeting tent. Everyone who wanted advice from the LORD would go out to the meeting tent outside the camp. 8 Whenever Moses went out to the tent, all the people would rise and stand at the entrance to their tents and watch Moses until he had gone into the tent. 9 When Moses entered the tent, the column of cloud would come down and stand at the tent’s entrance while the LORD talked with Moses. 10 When all the people saw the column of cloud standing at the tent’s entrance, they would all rise and then bow down at the entrances to their tents. 11 In this way the LORD used to speak to Moses face-to-face, like two people talking to each other. Then Moses would come back to the camp. But his young assistant Joshua, Nun’s son, wouldn’t leave the tent. 12 Moses said to the LORD , “ Look, you’ve been telling me, ‘Lead these people forward.’ But you haven’t told me whom you will send with me. Yet you’ve assured me, ‘I know you by name and think highly of you.’ 13 Now if you do think highly of me, show me your ways so that I may know you and so that you may really approve of me. Remember too that this nation is your people. ” 14 The LORD replied, “ I’ll go myself, and I’ll help you. ” 15 Moses replied, “ If you won’t go yourself, don’t make us leave here. 16 Because how will anyone know that we have your special approval, both I and your people, unless you go with us? Only that distinguishes us, me and your people, from every other people on the earth. ” 17 The LORD said to Moses, “ I’ll do exactly what you’ve asked because you have my special approval, and I know you by name. ” 18 Moses said, “ Please show me your glorious presence. ” 19 The LORD said, “ I’ll make all my goodness pass in front of you, and I’ll proclaim before you the name, ‘The LORD .’ I will be kind to whomever I wish to be kind, and I will have compassion to whomever I wish to be compassionate. 20 But, ” the LORD said, “ you can’t see my face because no one can see me and live. ” 21 The LORD said, “ Here is a place near me where you will stand beside the rock. 22 As my glorious presence passes by, I’ll set you in a gap in the rock, and I’ll cover you with my hand until I’ve passed by. 23 Then I’ll take away my hand, and you will see my back, but my face won’t be visible. ”

-Common English Bible
Note how Moses wasn't relating to God as something far off and distant, but as a personal being that is right here, right now and in relationship with him. This wasn't a private God, but it certainly was a personal God. In the Gospels, we see that Jesus also had this kind of relationship with God. Here's and example from Mark 14:
32 Jesus and his disciples came to a place called Gethsemane. Jesus said to them, “ Sit here while I pray. ” 33 He took Peter, James, and John along with him. He began to feel despair and was anxious. 34 He said to them, “ I’m very sad. It’s as if I’m dying. Stay here and keep alert. ” 35 Then he went a short distance farther and fell to the ground. He prayed that, if possible, he might be spared the time of suffering. 36 He said, “ Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Take this cup of suffering away from me. However—not what I want but what you want. ”

-Common English Bible
Jesus is facing the cross and his death. He pleads to God, using the Abba, a very intimate term for God (akin to calling your father daddy). The God we serve is not some mysterious force that is far away or distant, but very near. So why do we liberal Christians try to keep God at arms length? We don't have to talk about God and Jesus in the way evangelicals do, but it does seem like we should be able to talk about how this God of the universe cares for us and knows us. Conservative evangelical Timothy Dalrymple wrote last fall about his experience while at Princeton Seminary. He shares what was going on his life as he prepared for a upcoming surgery and how that strengthened his relationship with God:
Let me tell a little story — for this series on The Future of Seminary Education – that illuminates some of the critique I’ve already shared, but also some of why I nonetheless enjoyed my seminary years. I’ve mentioned that there came a time, one month before a spinal fusion surgery, and about halfway through my M.Div., when I was confronted with the fear of death.  Recently married, I was lying in bed beside my wife after she had fallen asleep.  I thought of how much pleasure it brought me, simply to lay beside her.  I envisioned lying beside her as the seasons, the years and the decades passed by, as our bodies changed and we grew older together.  Then, I thought, we would pass away, and eventually we’d be buried beside each other as well. That’s when I sat bolt upright with waves of scalding heat rolling across my skin and a heart that felt like it would pound its way through my chest.  It literally felt as though the sky was falling down toward my head.  I was suffering a panic attack.  I had thought of a wall of earth separating me in my coffin from my wife in her coffin — and the thought of the separation death would impose filled me with terror.  I had not been afraid of death for years.  Yet now I was married.  Now I had something to lose, something from which — or someone from whom — I did not want to be separated. By then, my spiritual life had already been in decline.  I had strayed from God in my first couple seminary years.  I had largely abandoned my vision of intimacy and faithfulness with God.  But when life was easy, the cost of my infidelity to God had not been apparent.  Yet now I needed God, and it felt as though he were miles away, not because he was unfaithful but because had been unfaithful.  I had neglected the fundamentals of my faith, the spiritual disciplines, the basic everyday faithfulness, the impassioned pursuit of God and not merely the study about him.  I never had sex or did drugs in those years, but when it came to drinking I was very much a part of an unhealthy, un-Christian culture.  Even as I ministered in my internships, as a youth pastor and a prison chaplain, I partook in the drinking culture at seminary, and in foul language and unclean talk.  Those internships were the most spiritually edifying parts of my seminary experience, but they were not enough. Suddenly that decline became a steep and dizzying downward spiral.  The month before my surgery was filled with doubt and fear and more panic attacks.  Was God trying to tell me that I was going to die?  That I needed to prepare my heart?  Then came the surgery, and a horrific recovery experience that was badly mismanaged by my medical team.  I spent the first two days after the surgery with no pain medication, and then got so much medicine that it proved toxic and plunged me into severe dysphoria.  It was the most profound experience of hopelessness and godlessness that I had ever known.  It felt as though my faith was broken into a million pieces and I had to put it back together again — or else leave it behind. I sought encouragement from the professors.  They were kindly available, and offered answers that were nuanced and theologically respectable — but missed the mark.  I sorely missed the extraordinary James Loder, one of the professors I had grown close to, but who had died by then from a brain aneurysm. But the benefit of my PTS years was not only in the faculty I came to know, but also in the students.  At about this time, one of my best friends, J., had gone to a month-long Ignatian retreat.  When he returned, we got together.  As he described his retreat, I kept hearing a particular word — a word that surprised me, a word that I had not heard or spoken so openly and frequently for years. Do you want to know what the word was?  Jesus. I had stopped saying the word “Jesus.”  95% of the time, I only spoke of “God.”  Or if I had to speak of him, I referred to God the Son, the second Person of the Trinity, the Logos…names that sounded intellectual and sophisticated.  If I had to speak of the Son incarnate, then I spoke of Christ, or the God-man.  Never Jesus Christ, and certainly never just Jesus.  Loving Jesus, following Jesus, seeking Jesus — these were the province of fundamentalists, Bible thumpers, Jesus Freaks, crude Christians who wore WWJD bracelets and listened to Michael W. Smith and read Max Lucado instead of Jurgen Moltmann.  We had even begun to subtly mock Jesus by talking of “Jeebus” or mocking the way certain preachers shouted “Jesus!” in their sermons, or by laughing at Jesus action figures and the other strange cultural artifacts emanating from Jesusland. But now, here was this friend of mine, whom I admired, and he couldn’t stop talking about walking with Jesus and talking with Jesus.  He spoke of Jesus telling him something, or showing him something, or holding him.  It was striking only because I had not heard language like that since I had come to seminary. As I sat there and heard my friend talking about Jesus-this and Jesus-that, I realized that Jesus was speaking to me through him.  Wasn’t there a time when I, too, walked and talked with Jesus?  Wasn’t there a time when I lived in fellowship with Jesus?  And wasn’t that, after all, the very point of Jesus?  That he is “God with us,” God made present and available and redemptive among us?  Because of Jesus, God is a Person-for-us, God is personally available, and we can indeed have a personal relationship with him?  Isn’t that the point of the incarnation?  Isn’t that, in some sense, the point of our faith — that God came to us in Jesus, and bids us come and die with Jesus, and calls us to be Jesus in the world and to love Jesus in the least of these? For two years I had scoffed at things like this.  It seemed simplistic and sentimental.  But really, it’s the simple, heart-changing truth, a truth that confounds the wise and lifts up those the world calls fools.  I had left behind the language of Jesus, the spirituality of Jesus, and I had certainly left behind the imitation of Jesus. That was the beginning of my long climb out of the pit.  I began once again to talk with Jesus throughout the day, to find him sitting in the chair beside me, or walking with me down the side of the street, or speaking to me in the words of a stranger or in the music played at a youth group meeting or in the sunlight that filtered through the trees or just in the stillness of my heart.  I had to trust my imagination, put aside my corrosive skepticism, and just experience Jesus (and God in Jesus) again.  And I would never have known J., never would have heard his story, if it were not for PTS and the extraordinary group of men and women it brings together.
Tim's experience at Princeton is not necessarily a normative experience in mainline seminaries, but I do think it sheds light to something I've noticed in the circles I run in: a tendency to keep God at a distance. God and Jesus are something to be studied and maybe to follow as a nice leader, but they are not considered to be as close as a friend or lover . But that seems to go against what we see in the Bible and have learned through the Trinity and the Incarnation. There has to be a way that we can have the corporate God that loves all of creation and the God that cares for each us personally, not privately. Because a God that is kept at arms length is a God that we can't reach for when we are at our darkest hour.

Epic Fail

I love the fact that there is a conference called Epic Fail Pastor's Conference.  I am tempted to go to it.

This gets me thinking about how pastors are loathe to admit failure.  We don't like to look like a complete ass in front of others.  We feel that we always have to have an answer to life's questions. And we don't ever tell people when we come up short. But the fact is we are human and more than likely we will fail at something.  We won't always have answers to the big questions in life. As a pastor, I've had more than my share of failures.  As a pastor with autism, I tend to come across at times like a bull in a china shop.  I know that I have burned bridges way too often. I'm not ashamed to admit that I have failed and screwed up.  This isn't to say that I am lazy or just want to do a poor job in ministry.  It is saying that I am not perfect and most people who know me know I have some rough edges to deal with. But the thing that is amazing is that even with all my shortcomings, God still uses me to do God's work.  God isn't finished with me.

So, it's okay to fail at planting a church.  I failed, but I learned more than I would if I was perfect. And it's okay to be a less-than-perfect pastor.  Just shows how God really works through me to do some wonderful things.

 Update: Rachel Held Evans reminds me that I'm not the only one that didn't do so well at church planting.

Saturday, January 21, 2012

How I Totally Failed in Planting a New Church (And Why I'd Do It Again)

Presbyterian pastor and blogger Landon Whitsitt shares two ways that a church plant can fail. The second one is trying to do it like you would staring a business. The first one kind of takes a motto from a certain athletic company as gospel:
For folks in the circles I typically run in (read: postmodern young adults) anything that seems like it comes from the immediate past era of church work is anathema. This especially includes strategic plans, goals, and objectives. We don’t like quotas. We don’t like benchmarks. We don’t like deadlines. And, because most of us want to do something fun and creative, we incensed at the idea that our funding will get shut off after 3-5 years. “They can’t expect us to be ‘self-sufficient’ in 3-5 years! This new kind of church doesn’t work that way!” The way churches begun by this kind of person usually gets started is the “Nike Method:” just do it. When we begin churches of this kind, we just jump in. We don’t think. We don’t plan. We just do. We live in the moment. We have fun. We talk about communities growing organically, and of trying to not stifle the Spirit. This means we don’t press too hard on one another. We don’t hold one another accountable for anything, because, usually, there’s nothing to hold each other accountable for. Why? Because we’re trying to find that one thing we can all agree on, and there’s always someone who “doesn’t feel called to that.” Believe me, I’ve sat through these marathon meetings. They suck. Hard.
As many of you know, I planted a church once. It worked for three years. And it failed. Spectacularly. I tried planting a church on the "just do it" model. I just asked some people to come together and they did. And we met together for worship for quite some time. But for a lot of reasons, this community could not sustain itself. Maybe it was too organic, but it did fail and for quite some time I felt that I had failed. I know there are those around me who tend to believe Community of Grace wasn't a failure and I get where they are coming from. But it was a failure in the sense it died shortly after its birth. I'm willing to own up to the fact that there were a lot of things I did wrong and a lot of thing I needed to learn from that experience. But even though it failed, I would do Community of Grace all over again, though I would hopefully be smarter about it. I would do it again, because I heard the call from God to start something. I would do it again because it made a difference in people's lives. I would do it again because it help me become the pastor that I am now. I would do it again because it provided insight to an existing congregation when I became their Associate Pastor. There has been a lot of talk about new churches from various leaders (here and here for example) and how they can be church. I've seen new plants that were carefully planned and fail and those that had no thought and also failed. I've seen also seen new churches thrive and grow. I think at times that what matters is not so much that a new church be successful but that we are faithful to the call. That doesn't mean that we do half-a**ed jobs, but it does mean that sometimes we will fail in sharing the good news. A lot of new churches die within a few years, but as the Apostle Paul has said, Christ was still preached. So, yeah, following the "just do it" model is probably not the way to go in church planting; but if I had to do it all again, I wouldn't change a thing.

Friday, January 20, 2012

A Table, A Cross, An Elephant and a Donkey

Christ of the Polls by Stushie.
There was a time in my life when I really loved talking about politics. I come from a family where my mother talked about politics constantly and still does.

But these days, I don't enjoy politics as much as I used to. I still enjoy and I still blog about politics, but something has changed over the years, at least within me.

I think I know why. It's that people take politics way to seriously. So seriously, that we don't know how to be friends with those we might disagree with. The 2008 bestseller, The Big Sort goes into detail how we have become a nation that has segregated itself into ideological ghettos where we never encounter those who might have a different political outlook than others.

While the larger story of how society has sorted itself is disturbing, what's even more troubling to me is how Christians have segregated themselves into like-minded groups. Evangelicals started first, with their flirtations with the Republican Party and in more recent years, Mainline Protestants have become more explicit in their support of Democrats. This new segregation has made it very easy for Christians to be nasty to others. Since I'm a Republican that is a pastor in a Mainline denomination, I've seen how my fellow clergy, who can preach tolerance until the cows come home can say some of the worst things about Republicans.

I tend to think that it has to be the same thing only in reverse in evangelical circles. Either way, the idea is that the other side is filled with horrible people who run over dogs and cats and take candies from babies. While all of this postering and fearmongering makes each team feel better, I wonder what its doing to the Body of Christ. Both liberal and conservative Christians think they are doin' the Lord's work; standing up for family values or caring for the poor. But frankly, I don't think either side is doing a lot to further the cause of Jesus, they are just whoring themselves for their masters.

I can't say anything about what happens in evangelical circles, but I can speak to my own tribe and I have this to say. Stop it. Just stop it. I'm tired of all the political mudslinging in the name of Christ. You see, I am one of those horrible Republicans you talk about and the fact is, some of the people in your churches are Republicans too. You have the right to share your opinions, but remember that there are others who believe in the same God you do and have very different opinions on government and society. That doesn't make them wrong, it just makes them different.

But this really has to be about more than partisan politics; it has to be about being the church- the Body of Christ. In my Disciples tradition, we place a lot of emphasis on the Table. It's at the Lord's Table that everyone is welcome and everyone is equal. Distinctions end when we come to God's table. I tend to believe God isn't asking for party affiliation when we come to have communion.

My Lutheran friends remind me that the Cross is also a great leveler. We are all sinners, all of us. We are all in need of grace and love. We are all damned by the cross, but it is also in the cross that we are saved and made whole.

So when we read or watch the latest "outrage" on Fox or MSNBC and you are ready to hit the "send" button and share your two cents on how bad the other party is, I want you to stop and think for a moment: how is this building up Christ's body? How is it showing that we Christians are different? Do we really need to dress up our partisan leanings in God talk to make it look pretty? Can we find a way to remember the Table and Cross as much as we hold fast to Donkeys and Elephants?

Monday, January 09, 2012

Repost: The Church, Autism and a place of Welcome

From July 2010:

When I was a kid , I spent several years on the junior usher board at church. Of course, back in the 70s, neither I nor my parents knew I was autistic, but they knew things were a bit off with me.

Anyway, being an usher in the African American church is an artform. You wear certain uniforms and there were certain hand signals that you would use to indicate a certain need. When the time came for prayer, you were supposed to cross your arms over your chest and bow your head. I can remember the feeling of cocooning myself into this little ball and it felt good. Once I was in that position, I would start twisting or rocking my torso, to the left and then to right. Back and forth, back and forth. It felt good to me, but it must have looked damn weird to the people in the pews. I can distinctly remember one day being in my happy place and rocking back and forth until a pair of hands touched my shoulders indicating that it was time to stop.

Looking back 30 years later, that was a vivid example of kid with autism in the church. I don't know if what the person did was correct or not, but I do wonder if people were disturbed at what I was doing.

Now that I am a pastor and someone with autism, I have started to wonder how those with autism are treated in the church. In talking with a good friend who has two children on the spectrum, I have found out that churches have a long way to go in welcoming people and families where one or more persons are on the spectrum.

I stumbled upon this blog post by a special-ed teacher in Georgia, who shares the struggles he and his wife have faced when it comes to the church accomodating his son who is autistic:

One would think that the safest place in the world for children with disabilities would be in houses of worship, among people dedicated to God, love, mercy, grace, compassion, faith, and forgiveness. But this is not true at all. The worship service itself, with constant demands for compliance and conformity, is hostile for those who are inherently different from everyone else. Anyone who is unable to conform to the structures of the service is not welcome and asked to leave. The larger the church, the more true this will be.

I may editorialize more on my feelings toward church and those with disabilities later, but I want to talk a bit about how churches attempt to deal with this unique and growing population. In this particular church spoken about above, they attempted to recruit helpers in order to help Thomas participate in the same activities as his peers. I think the intent of the program was excellent, and it started out well enough. But without diligence by a committed coordinator, it becomes just another chore to dread like ushering, parking lot duty, being a greeter or assorted other mundane tasks and ministries in the church. Yes, we are the boy’s parents and he is our responsibility which we take seriously. But no one was caring much about our own spiritual growth or struggles. Staying home is a more Holy, peaceful and rejuvenating experience for many families that have children with disabilities. Church is often a hostile, hellish experience where families are segregated or ostracized. I don’t think Jesus would approve.


The thing is, a lot of this rings true. There are many churches where the worship service is meant to be a time of silence and decorum. God help you if a kid gets cranky. But it's one thing if grown people are talking out of turn; it's another if a kid with autism is having a meltdown.

Churches have to be more aware and willing to find ways to welcome special needs persons. Of course, being a pastor I also know that isn't so easy to do, especially when it comes autism. There isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. But no one ever said being church was easy.

When it comes to this family, I wonder what would have happened had the pastor worked with family and other leaders to make church a more welcome place, not only for the kid, but for the parents. It is interesting that in all of this, it seems that the Senior Pastor was absent.

Raising a kid with autism can be challenging for parents. They love their kids and will do what it takes to make sure they are well-cared for. But it can also be draining for them as well and it seems like in this case, no one seemed to care about the spiritual and emotional health of Thomas' parents.

Maybe the problem here is that church is so formal. We treat it like we are watching the symphony. We want to hear the music and the choir, but we don't want to hear babies crying; that just ruins everything.

I'm not saying that church needs to be a rock concert, but what it we allowed a bit more informality?

I don't know what I can do to make church more welcoming to my fellow aspies, but I will try. I want church to be a place where freaks are welcomed.

Sunday, January 08, 2012

Remember An Apsie on the Sabbath

Sundays for a pastor can be long and grueling.  For someone on the spectrum they can cause a meltdown or a shutdown.

Now, I have to say first off that I love being a pastor.  I love being of service to God in this way.  But having Aspergers means that I have limits to what I can do pastorally and some days, I get stretched to those limits. 

Part of what stretches those limits include is having lots of facetime with folks.  In the few hours I am at church, I spend a lot of time greeting folks and engaging in small talk (something I've had to learn over the years which I still don't get).  Throw in an occasional meeting after church and I'm running towards home and a nap (decompression time).

I've been thinking what church can be for other persons on the spectrum and I have to think that it can be equally tiring if not moreso.  Any type of religious gathering, be it in a mosque, synogogue or church is a communal event and that means meeting people.  It's a lot of sensation that hits you in the face and can not only be draining, but probably overwhelming.

There's really no other point to this article except that when we think of persons with autism who go to church, we might want to be mindful of them as they try their best to worship with others. 


Tuesday, January 03, 2012

Called, Gathered and Sent (Or, Why Mainline Protestants Suck at Church Planting)

I've been what could be considered a Mainline Protestant for 20 years.  In those 20 years, I've learned something about mainliners:

We really suck at planting churches.

Let me back up a moment. I started attending Calvary Baptist Church in located in the Chinatown area of Washington, DC in the fall of 1992.  It was and is an American Baptist congregation and like many mainline churches was active in the community.  Since I darkened the doors of Calvary, I've been part of Mainline Protestantism.  I moved to Minneapolis and joined a Disciples of Christ congregation which became my denominational home.  Today, I work full-time as a communications specialist for the local presbytery of the Presbyterian Church (USA) and part time as the Associate Pastor of a local Disciples of Christ congregation.  So, yeah, I'm a Mainline Protestant.

If there's a theme that has been running in the background all these years, it's the one about liberal Protestants being in decline.  All of the major Mainline Protestant denominations keep experiencing decline, with more and more churches closing and the surviving congregations growing grayer and grayer.

I've been around enough to see how we deal with this issue.  Sometimes we ignore it and talk about the potential problems with evangelicals, sometimes we talk about "transformation" and about changing the church (but never seem to make any real changes), and sometimes we seek to blame someone or something for the decline. 

What we don't do, or don't do very well is planting new churches.  All of the mainline churches have some kind of new church planting movement to get local judicatories and congregations to get involved in new churches.  While I don't think they are absolute failures, they aren't always astounding successes.  New churches get planted, but not at the rate that we are closing churches. 


There are good reasons to start churches, but for whatever reason, the general populace in mainline churches are not that excited. (I've shared my own experience with this.)The same goes for pastors.

Why is this the case?  Why do we suck at planting new communities of faith?

I think it comes down to one word: eccesiology, the understand of who and what is the church. Wikipedia describes ecclesiology as such:

In its theological sense, ecclesiology deals with the church's origin, its relationship to Jesus, its role in salvation, its discipline, its destiny, and its leadership.

The problem here is that we have lost the sense of what the church is and how it related to Jesus and to God.  If we don't know why we have churches, then why in God's name would we plant any?

What does it mean to be a church?  Why should people belong to a faith community?  How does that congregation relate to the community around it?

These are questions we need to be asking, but in many cases haven't.

Since we don't have a language to describe church, other things fill the void which frankly do a bad job.  In writing on the future of the Mainline Church, James Wellman notes that the emphasis on social justice might actually be harming mainline churches more than helping them:

The ‘former' Protestant mainline churches show no signs of stopping their decline. The emphasis on an educated clergy has created an elaborate system of bureaucracy that tends to repel entrepreneurial personalities and attract introspective intellectual types that are more comfortable in the classroom than in the pulpit. Moreover, the growing movement to ordain gay and lesbian men and women, while noble from a liberal and progressive perspective, tends to shift the focus of attention away from family ministries. Without an emphasis on families, churches tend to decline rapidly. Liberal Protestantism, statistically, does not keep their children and youth in their churches. The aging of these churches is also well known.

These churches focus most of their energies on ministries of social justice, particularly on meeting the needs of the homeless. This group tends to advocate inclusiveness and tolerance, making clear what they reject, but they are often unclear as to what they support religiously. As a small subculture, they will continue, but no longer, in any sense, as a mainline. Ironically enough, in some ways, their marginalization is a function of their success in ministries of justice. Most of their causes are already a part of the American mainstream, for example: women's rights, abortion rights, and even, to some extent, gay rights. Many Americans ask, then, why even go to these churches? (emphasis mine)


Contrast this with how Evangelicals see the church:

The future for Evangelicals appears to be more open and perhaps expansive. Evangelicals, again broadly speaking, tend to see the Bible as inerrant; they counsel conversion and look to Jesus' blood atonement as the requirement for salvation. They also tend, stylistically, to be much more deliberate in using modern and contemporary methods of music, worship, and, more broadly, communication. Some have argued that they are accommodated to the culture, but when interviewed, Evangelicals argue, "No, we use modern methods to reach out to those who are lost in order to share the love and salvation of Jesus Christ." That is, Evangelicals argue that they are "less" accommodated then what they call "liberal or progressive Christians."

In general, however, Evangelicals rarely talk about the ‘former' mainline; they talk much more about how to reach those who are unchurched and who have not heard the gospel of Jesus Christ. In large part, because they are so structurally decentralized, they have become fragmented and entrepreneurial. Because of this ethic and ethos, young leaders with entrepreneurial personalities are drawn to this kind of Christianity, which ensures, in part, that their dynamism will continue. As to whether Evangelicals are now the mainline is simply a question they don't ask. They are far less interested in dominating economic or political institutions then in evangelizing young people. Indeed, Evangelical youth are much more likely to stay in the church than those in the liberal or ‘former' mainline churches. The growth of Evangelical churches, at least from their present state, seems to be assured.


The Lutherans have this phrase that sums up what it means to be a Christian and what the church is for: called, gathered and sent.  Evangelicals know they are called by God to spread the gospel.  They get it.  We don't really know if we are called, don't know why we gather or why we are sent.  We've lost that language and replaced it with talk of justice.  I'm not saying that we should all become conservative churches and drop issues like gay rights or poverty.  But those aren't the reasons we are church.  As Wellman notes, as society becomes more accepting of gays, why go to church.  If I can get all that I want from a Democratic caucus meeting on poverty or the environment, why the hell plant a church? 

If Mainliners want to grow again, then we need to go back to basics: we need to know why we are church.  We need to be develop again the sense of being called by God, gathering together for common fellowship and prayer and being sent to preach the good news of Jesus. When we can actually name why we want to plant churches, hell why we are church, then maybe we will stop our decline into irrelevance. 

Wow, People Do Read my Blog!

It turns out that I had one of the most popular posts on Christian Century's Network Blogs in 2011!  I just happened to stumble on it.  The post was about the church as a social network and why it needs to be more than that.  You can read the post by going here.