Does The United Church of Christ (UCC) Have A Big-City, Big-Church, Liberal Bias?

(Originally published on December 5, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

Does the United Church of Christ (UCC) have a big-city, big-church, liberal bias? I’ve been hearing UCC lay people—and remarkably, pastors—level this charge, in three different Conferences and in various churches, since my “privilege-of-call” days in the Potomac Association of the Central Atlantic Conference in the early 1990s. Two recent instances:

  • This past spring, a UCC pastor acquaintance complained to me that “those folks in Cleveland” (i.e., our denomination’s national staff) “do small and rural churches a disservice” when they “push us to become Open and Affirming,” embrace the Black Lives Matter movement, and advocate for social justice.  He asked: “Why don’t they just stop talking and leave us alone?” For reasons I don’t understand, my colleague confronts and regales me with this message every chance he gets. Sometimes I succeed in avoiding him.
  • In April 2016, a respondent to one of my postings on this blog site wrote: “I’m a liberal member of a politically moderate congregation…. We recently voted to allow same gender marriage, but not to become ONA, a decision I supported. The attitudes of the conference and national UCC towards my more conservative brothers and sisters does nothing but alienate and disparage them, and certainly does not bring them to church. I agree with 99% of the social justice issues the UCC supports, but I am tiring of the condescension towards my brothers and sisters who believe differently than I do. We disagree on many issues but serve the same Jesus.”

Do these church leaders and pastors have a point? Does the UCC have a big-city, big-church, liberal bias?

These questions have particular salience because, by the UCC’s own admission, “nearly half (46.5%) of all UCC congregations have 50 or fewer people in worship each week, and nearly 8 in 10 [UCC] congregations (79.5%) have 100 or fewer people in worship.” Thus, “the United Church of Christ is a denomination of small churches”—and such churches are “more likely to have a majority of participants possessing conservative theological [and perhaps, political and socio-cultural] outlooks.” Moreover, small churches “adap[t] less readily to change”/are “not as willing to make changes,” and are “more uncertain about their future” (“FACTs on Smaller Congregations:  Findings from the United Church of Christ 2015 Faith Communities Today [FACT] Survey of Congregations”).

So, given this reality—that the UCC is made up predominantly of smaller congregations, and that such churches have conservative, risk-averse and resistant-to-change tendencies—why is our denomination so insistent on embracing a progressive theology, advocating for social justice, and speaking truth to power? Doesn’t that prove that the UCC has a big-city, big-church, liberal bias?

 

To read the rest of this article, click onto the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website,

Does The United Church of Christ (UCC) Have A Big-City, Big-Church, Liberal Bias?

How Our StillSpeaking God Is Transforming Her StillConsequential Church, But Church People Are StillResisting and StillTalking Past One Another

(Originally published on October 2, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

Churches and denominations are being buffeted by momentous social change—and many good church people are in denial about, or are resisting, what is happening all around them.

For example, recent Barna Group research suggests that “many of those outside [of] Christianity, especially younger adults, have little trust in the Christian faith” or in churchgoers. They view Christianity as homophobicjudgmentalhypocriticaltoo involved in politicsout of touch with realitynot accepting of others, and confusing. Worse, many Millennial and older churchgoers “share the[se] same negative perceptions” (David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, Unchristian:  What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters [Baker, 2007], pp. 9-32).

And Duke University’s 2015 National Congregations Study report on “Religious Congregations in 21st Century America” revealed that:

  • Most churches are small and getting smaller; “the average congregation in America is down from a median of 80 participants in 1998 to 70” or fewer today.
  • “All congregations are aging, but white mainline congregations are older,” and are aging faster.
  • Mainline Protestant denominations are losing members; meanwhile, the number of Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, and “nones” in the United States has grown precipitously since 1998.
  • “Congregations are less connected to denominations.” Churches’ “financial contributions to denominations have been in relative decline since 1998.
  • Many full- and part-time paid pastoral leaders are second-career. Sixteen percent of pastors serve more than one congregation; 34% are bi-vocational. Nearly 14% of congregations are led by unpaid pastors.”

But it’s not just the church that’s changing; dramatic transformations are occurring within even the most stable and conservative of American institutions—and their traditional patrons and defenders are struggling to adjust to the new realities.

Consider the proud tradition of U.S. naval aviation. Since World War II, American aircraft carriers have patrolled the world’s oceans, and aircraft flown by Navy and Marine pilots have owned the skies.

But on May 14, 2013, for the first time in history, an unmanned jet aircraft was successfully launched from, and recovered on, the deck of the aircraft carrier USS George H. W. Bush.

 

To read the rest of this article, click onto the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website,

https://carducc.wordpress.com/2016/10/02/how-our-stillspeaking-god-is-transforming-her-stillconsequential-church-but-church-people-are-stillresisting-and-stilltalking-past-one-another/

 

UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

(Originally published on September 5, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

Recently, some United Church of Christ (UCC) friends asked me what the difference is between Progressive and Evangelical churches and beliefs. With more passion than wisdom, I bit off on their bait.

I said that Evangelical congregations can be Southern Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran (Missouri Synod). They can belong to charismatic or Pentecostal fellowships like the Assemblies of God and the Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee). Or they can have the words, Independent or Bible Church in their names.

Mainline Protestant churches may be Presbyterian (USA), Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, United Methodist, Lutheran (ELCA), American Baptist, Unitarian-Universalist, and United Church of Christ.

I added that Black and ethnic congregations are often theologically Evangelical and socially Progressive.

Mainline churches (including UCC congregations) can be more or less Progressive or Evangelical, depending on their individual histories, cultures, and locations. In cities they tend to be Progressive; in rural America, they lean Evangelical. This can make it exasperatingly difficult for someone who relocates from, say, California or Massachusetts to Central New York, and starts visiting rural UCC congregations hoping to find a church like the one she attended in San Francisco or Boston!

My friends did not like my explanations. Annette, a congregant, said that all my talk about the differences between churches was divisive and upsetting to inclusive, ecumenically-minded UCC people. Besides, such comparisons would likely be imprecise—so wouldn’t it be better if I talked about churches’ similarities, instead?!!!

I responded that, yes, theological language and distinctions can be vague and confusing, but there is no other medium for learning about churches, dispelling misinformation, or coming to terms with our own religious beliefs and values.

 

To read the rest of this article, click onto the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) website,

UCC Evangelicals and Progressives: How They’re Different. Why It Matters.

 

Fear and Loathing in the Pastor’s Study: Can Authorized Ministers Learn Innovative, Risk-Taking, and Entrepreneurial Leadership Skills?

(Originally published on August 15, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

In 2009, Barna Group researchers conducted a survey-based study of “the state of mainline Protestant churches” in the United States. After extensive data-crunching, they concluded that “mainline churches have weathered the past decade better than many people feared they would, but serious challenges [threaten] continued stability. The quality of leadership—especially regarding vision, creativity, strategic thinking, and the courage to take risks—is the most critical element in determining the future health and growth of Mainline congregations” (“Report Examines the State of Mainline Protestant Churches,” December 7, 2008).

This finding was confirmed in last year’s United Church of Christ (UCC) report on “Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence.” Based on extensive surveying data gleaned from UCC congregants, the June 2015 report highlighted “four marks of ministerial excellence” that correlated most strongly to congregational vitality:

  • “The ability to mutually equip and motivate a community of faith”;
  • “The ability to lead and encourage ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation”;
  • “The ability to read the contexts of a community’s ministry and creatively lead that community through change or conflict”; and
  • “The ability to frame and test a vision in community.”

Curiously, these four marks “were the lowest-rated items by congregants.” Most respondents did not think their pastor(s) were proficient in the very skills and aptitudes that contribute directly to, and are most necessary for, church vitality!

This raises an obvious question: How can authorized UCC ministers “learn” or develop these essential marks of excellence?

 

Continue reading Fear and Loathing in the Pastor’s Study: Can Authorized Ministers Learn Innovative, Risk-Taking, and Entrepreneurial Leadership Skills?

Some Thoughts Regarding the Parameters of Diversity and Inclusion in the United Church of Christ

(Originally published on May 30, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

Fifteen years ago, when I was a pastor in the Southern Conference, I overheard someone remark that the trouble with the United Church of Christ (UCC) is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I’ve often thought about those words, and I’ve often recited them to others. More recently, I’ve wondered about their validity: How diverse is the UCC? How liberal (or progressive) is it? And what do we mean by diversity? Is UCC diversity just about ending racism and getting congregations to become Open and Affirming (ONA)? Is it about intergenerational worship? Is diversity about our churches’ different worship styles and theologies?

For starters, UCC diversity doesn’t mean that when our denomination advocates for social justice concerns, it speaks for every UCC congregation and member. Nor does it mean that because General Synod does not speak for everyone, it should remain silent and never take a stand.

And diversity doesn’t defy the laws of logic. A church cannot endorse and simultaneously reject a certain viewpoint or commitment. Nor can a theological idea or church practice be both true and false, or exist and not exist. Nor can a pastor embrace change and tradition at the same time. Nor can UCC leaders advocate for LGBTQ rights and racial justice in urban and multicultural churches—and not talk about these commitments in rural congregations.

There are many ways in which we are diverse.

Diversity is evident in the “radical welcome” and “extravagant hospitality” that UCC churches extend to all who come through their doors: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as white people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and the able; and saints and sinners of every kind. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, or Christ’s Table to the “saved.” Like the banner says, “Jesus didn’t reject people—and neither do we.”

Continue reading Some Thoughts Regarding the Parameters of Diversity and Inclusion in the United Church of Christ

Deconstructing the UCC Ministry Opportunities Webpage: What Kind of Pastor Do Churches Say They Want?

(Originally published on April 25, 2016, on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research, and Data (CARD) Blog site.)

What expectations do United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations that are currently engaged in search-and-call processes have of their prospective ministers? What qualifications are they looking for? Who do they say they want their next pastors to be, and what do they want them to do? And are their expectations realistic?

To begin grappling with these questions, I turned to the UCC Ministry Opportunities website and examined every listing—some 256 of them, representing 5 percent of the United Church of Christ’s 5,117 congregations—posted during the week of February 14-20, 2016.

What I came away with was a “snapshot” of the church—or rather, a snapshot of 256 UCC churches and their ministries—at one particular moment in their history. The following are the major themes and findings of this study. (You can read the full report here.)

Church Demography

Many listings on the UCC Ministry Opportunities website described churches that are small and/or populated with retirement-aged folks. The narrative of the United Church of Newport, in Newport, Vermont, could have been written by many: “We have an aging congregation, but occasionally [we] attract a young family to come and stay.”

Seventy-eight churches—just over 30 percent of the 256 listings—said that they were looking for part-time pastors. This finding dovetails neatly with the research of church leaders and consultants who tell us that in coming years, more and more American Mainline and Progressive Protestant churches, including UCC congregations, will be led by part-time clergy.

Continue reading Deconstructing the UCC Ministry Opportunities Webpage: What Kind of Pastor Do Churches Say They Want?

The Donald Trumpification of Authorized Ministry: Some Lenten Thoughts about Dying Churches, Congregational Resurrections, and Pastoral Leadership

This blog post was published in a slightly different form on February 4, 2016 on the United Church of Christ’s Center for Analytics, Research and Data website.  See https://carducc.wordpress.com/2016/03/20/the-politicianization-of-authorized-ministry/

In case you haven’t noticed, tremendous changes are taking place in the American church. A number of pastors, scholars, and leaders, both within and outside our denomination, have issued dire warnings about the future of the Mainline church and of the United Church of Christ. For instance,

  • Pastor Anthony Robinson writes that American churchgoing culture has shifted. Where once, churchgoers were motivated to attend weekly services by a culture of obligation (and the lack of alternatives to Sunday morning churchgoing), Americans now live in a culture of options and choices. Today, many people have stopped attending church, or go only once a month.
  • Columnist and blogger Rachel Held Evans tells us that increasingly, Millennials see the church as judgmental, hypocritical, detached from reality, and irrelevant to their lives. As a result, they are dropping out. In droves.
  • Pastor Molly Phinney Baskette predicts in Real Good Church that “something like 80% of mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years.
  • In his book, Beyond Resistance, UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer reveal that many UCC and Mainline churches are so financially strapped that “full-time, seminary-trained, ordained clergy are [now] an impediment” to their mission and outreach. In effect, the mission in these churches has become holding rummage sales and fundraising dinners “in order to keep paying a full-time pastor’s salary.”       Meanwhile, aging buildings—undoubtedly beautiful but expensive to maintain—hang like albatrosses around congregants’ necks. Increasingly, churches are faced with the Faustian dilemma of having to either get rid of their pastors so they can keep their aging buildings, or ditch their buildings so they can afford their pastors.
  • UCC Pastor and church historian Steve Johnson reminds older churchgoers that the halcyon days of the 1950s—when stores were closed on Sunday, worship services were packed, and well-scrubbed children wore nice dresses, white shirts, and ties to church—were an anomaly in American church history. The norm for religious institutions has always been a struggle for noses, nickels, and numbers. Yet many aging Baby Boomers persist in remembering the 1950s as the norm to which we must return.

How should we evaluate these claims? Are Robinson, Evans, Baskette, Dorhauer, and Johnson right? I suspect they are.

In June 2015, two important UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) studies (available on this website) confirmed these dire forecasts. The first, “Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections,” shows that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline from over 5,100 churches today to approximately 3,600 churches. Over the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents. Yikes!

A second CARD report on “Congregational Vitality and Ministerial Excellence,” was based on a national survey of UCC churchgoers. It identifies “four marks of ministerial excellence” as correlating significantly to congregational vitality:

  • The ability to equip and motivate a congregation.
  • The ability to lead ministries of evangelism, service, stewardship and social transformation.
  • The ability to read the contexts of a congregation’s ministry and lead it through change or conflict.
  • The ability to frame, articulate, and test a congregation’s vision.

Unfortunately, the report added, “these four marks were the lowest-rated items” of survey-takers’ evaluations of their churches’ and pastors’ ministries. Indeed, the skills and traits that are most directly relevant to congregational vitality and church revitalization seem to be the ones that UCC pastors are the weakest in! As Dorhauer put it,

“Clergy trained [as] pastoral counselors, preachers, and spiritual guides now have new expectations placed on them: raise money, market, and attract new members. As budgets shrink and membership rolls decline, we now want our clergy to become CEOs and growth strategists.”

Yet such leadership and entrepreneurial skills are “specialized fields” that require years of training and expertise, Dorhauer insists. “Even in their best weeks,” clergy won’t make these tasks “their highest priority”—not as long as there are sermons and services to prepare, sick people to visit, youth programs to organize, and classes to teach.

In a strange way, I wonder if what we’re seeing is not the Donald Trumpification of authorized ministry in the United Church of Christ. As you doubtless know, real estate and casino mogul Donald Trump is a political novice, but he has dominated Republican Party presidential politics over the past year. As of this writing it is uncertain how much farther Trump’s career as a presidential candidate will go—he just lost the Iowa Caucuses—but in a way that’s beside the point. I mean, aren’t Trump’s entrepreneurial verve, his brashness and cocksure confidence, and his “You’re fired!” decisiveness exactly the skills and traits that we pastors need if we are going to turn failing churches around? Our congregants don’t really care if we authorized ministers have studied the Bible thoroughly, or if we can parse Walter Brueggemann’s theology, any more than the Donald’s constituents care that he has held no previous political office, or that he is xenophobic, racist, and misogynistic—do they? If Trump doesn’t make it to the White House, wouldn’t he make an ideal revitalization pastor?

Alright, in case you’re wondering, yes, I did write that last paragraph with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek. I believe strongly that mastering theology and the Bible—the stuff of traditional seminary studies—is still vitally important for ministers. But it is telling that Dorhauer and other scholars and church leaders are openly wondering if, in the future, pastors who have entrepreneurial and organizational skills will really need seminary training or even ordination.

You may say that the Donald is a showman, and I will agree readily with you—I am no Donald Trump fan. But I will also tell you that good pastoral leadership—the kind that turns struggling churches around—contains more than a modicum of showmanship, and is not just a matter of administrative skills and biblical and theological knowledge.

The times, they are a-changing—and so is the church. But we pastors need to remain steady, stay confident, and know what we’re about. Here’s hoping we can improve our leadership skills, and begin to turn some of our declining congregations around. In the meantime, we can remember that not all change points to decline and loss. Some points to celebration.

  • We can celebrate the many things we do well, even as we strive to improve our marketing, fundraising, vision-framing, entrepreneurial, and leadership skills.
  • Some churches and Christian institutions will close. It is inevitable. We celebrate their legacy and faithful ministry over the decades—or centuries—of their continued operation.
  • We celebrate the new things that God is doing—even if we cannot see those new things yet, or tell exactly what it is that God is doing.

As Easter people, we celebrate resurrection. Jesus overcame the grave. New churches rise up and organize and begin to worship and thrive, phoenix-like, out of the ashes of their predecessor. The two stories are one and the same. Death is always followed by new life.

 

Remembering the Deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and of Dallas Police Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa

A Prayer for Reconciliation and Healing

(Adapted from the Reverend Canon Gregory A. Jacobs, “A Prayer for Reconciliation and Healing, July 16, 2013, The Episcopal Diocese of Newark, http://www.dioceseofnewark. org/canons-blog/prayer-reconciliation-and-healing)

O God of peace and healing,
 we come before you feeling powerless to stop the hatred that divides races and nations.

We come before you saddened and angered by the television images that we have seen this week, broadcast from Dallas and Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.

We come before you with wounds deep in our hearts that we long to have healed.

We come before you with struggles in our personal lives that will not go way.

And we pray Lord, How long?
 How long to peace?

And we hear, “Not long, because the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

How long for racial justice?  “Not long, because no lie can live forever.”

How long for our wounded hearts?  Not long, for I call you by name;  you are with me; you are mine.

How long for our struggles?  Not long, for my grace is sufficient.  I hold you in my everlasting arms beneath which you cannot fall.

How long for the healing of what is broken inside and all around us?

Not long, for together we shall overcome, black people and white people together in partnership, human holy partnership, together we shall overcome.

Amen.


Remembering the Deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, and of Dallas Police Officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa

(A sermon, adapted from Stephen M. Crotts’ sermon, “A Show of Hands,” based on the Common Revised Lectionary Reading of Luke 10:25-37 for the Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, Year C, in SermonStudio, CSS Publishing)

One of the most interesting things about the Good Samaritan story in Luke 10:25-37 is that it was scheduled as today’s Lectionary reading a long time ago.  Indeed, this scripture passage is the assigned reading for the eighth Sunday after Pentecost in Year “C.”  The Revised Common Lectionary runs on a three-year cycle, and this is Year “C,” and today is the eighth Sunday after Pentecost in Year “C.”

Indeed, the Revised Common Lectionary was designed in 1983, or 1974, or 1969, or much earlier than those dates, depending on how you look at its history.  How did those who created it that long ago know that we would need this particular story today?

It is a story about Compassion and neighborly love.  Christ’s definition of these terms does not come in abstract theological sayings, but it comes in the form of a practical application of human concern.  “What is compassion?  What is love for one’s neighbor?,” we ask Jesus.

And Jesus responds with a story:  “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and he fell among robbers, who stripped him and beat him and departed, leaving him half dead.”

Now, “by chance a priest was going down that same road;  and when he saw the man lying there he passed by on the other side.”

A second man passed by and did not stop.  He was a Levite.  He too, saw the victim.  And he too hurried along.

Perhaps the Levite had gone nearer to the man before passing on.  Perhaps his heart had immediately gone out to the man.  His first reaction was to stop and help.  But then he had second thoughts.  Bandits were in the habit of using decoys and working in groups.  Perhaps one of them would act the part of a wounded man.  Then when some unsuspecting traveler stopped to help him, the others would rush upon him.  The Levite may have thought of all this.  Involvement was risky business.

It’s the same way today.  Helping someone can get us into trouble.  We can be taken advantage of.  And many people simply stuff their hands into their pockets and quietly walk away.

Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot, characterizes modern society.  In it Vladimir nervously asks, “Well?  What do we do?”  His friend Estragon hangs his head and mumbles, “Don’t let’s do anything;  it’s safer.”  And so we fold our hands, or we stuff them in our pockets, and we pass by on the opposite side. It’s safer.

And then Jesus tells us about a Samaritan he calls good.  After the robbers, after the priest and the Levite, a Samaritan came to where the victim was.  “And when he saw him, he had compassion, and went to him and used his hands to bind up his wounds, he poured on oil and wine;  and then he set him on his own beast, and brought him to an inn, and took care of him.”

Here was a Samaritan, helping a man who was probably Jewish.  Jews had no dealings with Samaritans;  Samaritans were social outcasts.  So here we find a man who has borne the brunt of lifelong prejudice, helping a member of a society that has oppressed him.

The Good Samaritan met the victim’s needs.  He didn’t just pray for the man and walk away.  Nor did he give advice.  Instead, he gave of his time and his physical energies;  he gave the injured man his donkey (while he walked);  and he gave his money, and got the victim to an inn.  There he saw to it that the victim was nursed back to health.

So how does all this apply to us—to you and me, today?

When someone is injured or killed, our first reaction is shock and horror.  We are outraged.  Maybe that was the reaction of the priest and the Levite when they saw the man lying there–but they walked away.  Maybe that was the reaction of those listening to Jesus when he talked about an upstanding man, presumably a Jew, getting robbed and beaten.  Shock and horror.  It’s simply outrageous!

But Jesus’s story asks us other questions:  When there is violence, when someone is attacked, what does compassion look like?  Who avoided the beaten man?  Who walked by on the other side of the street?  Who didn’t want to get involved?  Who was afraid that if they tried to help, they might be the next victims?

And who was the neighbor who stopped and rendered aid?  In Jesus story it was a Samaritan — a member of an ostracized race.

This past week a series of horrible events took place in Baton Rouge, Minneapolis, and Dallas.  The senseless deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile left us shocked and horrified.  We were outraged.

And then we were shocked and horrified and outraged again by the deaths of Dallas police officers Lorne Ahrens, Michael Krol, Michael J. Smith, Brent Thompson and Patrick Zamarripa, as well as by the injuries sustained by other Dallas officers.

And I want to ask those same questions that Jesus’ story posed:  What does compassion look like, in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis and Dallas?  What does neighborly love look like in those places?

Who avoided getting involved?  Who was afraid to get involved?  I must tell you, I was.  Me.

Watching CNN and viewing the raw pictures out of Dallas the other night, I was sure glad I wasn’t there–in what has been described as a killing zone on the streets in downtown Dallas.  Two thoughts were dominant in my mind as I viewed those scenes with fascinated horror:  First, how terrified I would have been if I were standing there, being fired upon;  and second, how courageous those police personnel were.  I mean, while all hell was breaking loose, those officers were acting as human shields, protecting the public by putting themselves in between the shooter and any unfortunate person who happened to get caught in the crossfire–standing there at the wrong time and in the wrong place.  I would not have done that.  I would not have been that courageous.

And I must tell you that earlier in the week, when Alton Sterling and Philando Castile were killed, the thought crossed my mind more than once, that I was sure glad that through no merit or special accomplishment of my own, I was born white.  I know that that’s an ugly sentiment.  There’s something really wrong with my admitting that, but that’s how I felt!  I was thankful that I was born white.

So in Jesus’ story, I’m pretty sure that I would have been one of those who walked on by.

If you were to ask me, “Chris, are you a racist?,” I would love to say, “Heck no!”  I would love to deny it.  And as a liberal, I would be offended or insulted by such an insinuation.  But the more truthful answer is that yes, because of my white privilege, in subtle and overt ways, consciously and unconsciously, I am a racist—even though I don’t want to be one.

Feel free to criticize me for saying that–and I will readily agree with your criticism!  You see I’m really not trying to be provocative, or to shock you, or to make anyone feel guilty.  And I don’t mean to be race-baiting.  It’s just that, I’m asking myself, and I’m asking you, how does this passage about the Good Samaritan, how does it’s message of compassion and being a true neighbor, apply to me, and to you, and to the events of this past week?

May God forgive me for my cowardice, my fear, and my hesitation.  May God help all of us to answer the questions posed by Jesus’ story for ourselves.  And may God be present in a very powerful way, in Baton Rouge and in Minneapolis, and in Dallas in the coming days.  May God comfort all those who have lost loved ones this past week.

And Jesus said, “Which of these three do you think was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?”

And the man answered, “The one who showed him mercy.”

And Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise.”  Amen.


A Prayer for Hope and Healing

(Adapted from Dan Schatz (Unitarian-Univeralist minister), “Selma, Race and Racism—a Prayer for Hope and Healing,” March 7, 2015, The Song and the Sigh blog, https:// songandthesigh.com/2015/03/07/selma-race-and-racism-a-prayer-for-hope-and-healing/)

God of love and justice,
 we cry out in hope and grief,
 mourning the hard realization
that violence and racial strife have again bloodied our land and shattered our illusions of peace.  We confess that our nation has not yet fully come 
to live out the ideals of justice and equality, 
of hoping and working for the justice that is to come.

We cry for our lost heroes in Dallas, and also for our lost brothers, sons, and husbands in Baton Rouge and Minneapolis.  We pray for their families and loved ones and friends.

Help us to heal.  And as we heal, help us not to forget or become complacent;  help us rather to resolve to work even harder for justice and for peace.

Help us to remember the spirit of love, 
that fierce and urgent kind of love
 that accepts no falsehoods or easy answers, 
but calls us onward,
 that gives us the strength to face what we do not wish to see, 
and to hear what we do not wish to be told.

Finally, help us to reach out to one another, 
and beyond our personal circles, 
so that we as a nation may come to greater understanding.  Where we see injustice, 
may we find the courage to lift our voices and to engage our hands and move our bodies for what we believe in,
 reaching out and reaching forward 
in hope and healing.  Amen.


 

The Labels and Doctrines That Unite and Divide Us (Part II)

In Part I of this blog post, we highlighted some of the terms and labels that are commonly used to distinguish American Protestant denominations, churches, and beliefs from each other. In addition, we noted several reasons why it is important to understand and be conversant with these terms and labels, as well as with the ideas and doctrines they connote.

Now, in Part II, we will examine these ideas and doctrines. We will consider succinctly how Evangelical Christians and Mainline or Progressive churchgoers think and talk—what they actually believe—about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission.

But first, some caveats. In our discussion of churches and theologies, we would do well to avoid using the term, conservative (which is commonly used to denote Evangelical and fundamentalistic congregations and theological perspectives) and the word, liberal (which is often applied to Progressive and Mainline traditions and groups). In the United States these terms have unfortunate (and confusing!) political connotations, and many American churchgoers assume—wrongly!—that “conservative” churches and theologies are attended and favored exclusively by members of the Republican Party and the “religious right” (and analogously, that all conservative and Republican Party policies and ideas are fully supported in “conservative” churches), and similarly, that “liberal” congregations are made up of Democratic Party loyalists (and that all Democratic Party ideas are embraced in “liberal” churches).

In truth, some Republicans and political conservatives are theological “conservatives” (that is, Evangelicals and fundamentalists), and some people who attend “liberal” churches also support the Democratic Party and liberal political causes—but the correspondence is very inexact. There are rock-ribbed Republicans who are theologically progressive and attend UCC churches, and there are Evangelical Christians who are Democrats.

Speaking of fundamentalists and fundamentalism, I will not use these terms in this blog post; instead, I will use the terms, Evangelical and Evangelicalism. During the early- to mid-twentieth century, these words had starkly different meanings: Evangelicalism described mainstream, inclusive, and traditional Christian beliefs and churches; fundamentalism, on the other hand, was thought to refer to an extreme, literalistic, and exclusive variant of Protestant Christianity. Thus, theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, who was no devotee of fundamentalism, could assert confidently that the United Church of Christ (UCC) was characterized by its “liberal evangelicalism.” And as recently as 2007, Sheldon Culver and John Dorhauer of the UCC’s Missouri Mid-South Conference fully embraced Niebuhr’s characterization in their book, Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, largely because, for the purpose of their argument, they wanted to place the United Church of Christ squarely in the mainstream of historic American Protestant tradition (where I too believe it belongs).

The trouble is, words change over time. Thus, the terms, fundamentalist and fundamentalism, enjoyed broad public acceptance in the early Twentieth Century, but have fallen into disfavor since the end of World War II—even among fundamentalists!—and are rarely if ever used. Similarly, Evangelical and Evangelicalism no longer mean what they did in Niebuhr’s day—and they don’t even mean what Culver and Dorhauer thought they did in 2007. Today these terms are synonymous or nearly synonymous with fundamentalist and fundamentalism. Thus, no one uses the expression, “Liberal Evangelicalism” to define the United Church of Christ nowadays—and I don’t believe that there is anything Evangelical about our denomination. Nor should there be. So despite Niebuhr’s (and more recently, Culver’s and Dorhauer’s) appropriation of the terms, Evangelical and Evangelicalism, to describe the UCC, I will only use these terms in reference to exclusive, literalistic, and extreme Protestant theologies and churches—the kind of teachings and congregations that once were thought of as fundamentalistic.

 

THE BIBLE

Many Evangelical churches believe in the “verbal plenary inspiration” of scripture. They say that every single word in the Bible is “God-breathed” (almost dictation-style), and they insist on reading the Scriptures literally. Of course, when pressed, many Evangelical Christians will admit that if any biblical writings are truly inspired, it would have to be the original Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek texts which most of us cannot read, not the English translations that are in the pew racks of virtually all American churches, and which most of us have common access to. Some Evangelicals also realize that many alternative Hebrew and Greek texts are extant—and that there are just as many ongoing controversies over the question of which alternative texts, and which readings of those texts, are the most authoritative and inspired.

Evangelicals do understand that some parts of the Bible text are allegorical, and/or contain metaphors and figures of speech that make little or no sense when read literally. Thus, in Mark 9:43, when Jesus said that it is better for a person to cut off her or his hand than to go to hell with two good hands, he was not actually advising his followers to go off and maim themselves!

In contrast to this Evangelical approach to the Bible, many Progressives say that they take the Bible seriously but not literally. They say that while the Bible is the Word of God, it is not a science textbook. It gives us general faith principles for guidance, but it does not give us detailed prescriptions for dealing with complex social, political, and economic problems, like whether to vote for a particular political candidate, or whether the United States should go to war with Iran, or whether a caregiving wife should ask doctors to disconnect her terminally-ill husband’s breathing tube and life-support system.

 

JESUS

Many Evangelicals try to harmonize the four Gospel accounts of Jesus’ life, ministry, and teachings—and they view the writings of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as historically factual and accurate. They echo the Chalcedonian Creed’s declaration of 451 A.D., that Jesus is fully God and fully man, deserving of humankind’s worship and allegiance as Lord and Savior.

Most Evangelicals believe in Jesus’ “vicarious substitutionary death” on the cross. Citing such scriptures as Galatians 3:10 and 13 (“All who rely on the law are under a curse; [but] Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law, having become a curse for us—for it is written, ‘Cursed is every one who hangs on a tree’”); 1 Peter 2:24 (“He bore our sins in his body on the tree, that we might die to sin and live to righteousness”); and 1 Peter 3:18 (“Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, that he might bring us to God”), they insist that Jesus was punished by God and “died in our place,” and they emphasize the blood of Jesus—indeed, they say that the wrath of God against humanity could only be appeased by the shedding of Jesus’ blood. Thus, Calvary was the reason Jesus was born. He came to “die for our sins.” In effect, God was enraged over human sinfulness, and wanted to destroy humankind, but killed Jesus instead.

Progressives disagree with much of this. Many agree with leading Jesus Seminar theologian Marcus Borg, who distinguished between the “pre-Easter Jesus,” or the Jesus of history who was a finite, mortal, and somewhat mysterious figure we don’t know much about—and the “post-Easter Jesus” of Christian experience and tradition, who is eternal, divine, and fully knowable through faith.

Many Progressives insist that the sacrificial atonement doctrine was a minor theme in Christian theology until St. Anselm began emphasizing it in his teaching sometime around 1000 C.E.  Before then, the early church fathers thought of Christ’s work primarily in terms of his victory over death.

Drawing on the teachings of Thomas Aquinas, many Progressives assert that God did not need the cross, or for that matter the shedding of Jesus’ blood, in order to forgive human sin. God’s forgiveness of sin was simply the product of God’s merciful and sovereign desire to forgive sin. Period.

Thus, some Progressives suggest that the substitutionary death doctrine amounts to little more than cosmic child abuse. It is based on the premise that sin needs to be punished. This idea of a great cosmic balance sheet that must somehow be balanced is both un-Christian and un-Biblical, they say.

Progressives believe that Jesus’ arrest, torture, and death were acts of scapegoating—in the sociological sense of that term, in which a group of people punish or lynch an innocent, vulnerable person, for perceived offenses which are really projections of the group’s own failures. Examples of such scapegoating can be found throughout the Bible, from the story of Joseph and his brothers, to the accounts of Daniel and Susanna, to Jesus—and whenever scapegoating occurs in the Bible, the Biblical narrative sides with the victim.

Most Progressives agree with blogger John Petty, who noted in his Progressive Involvement blog that “the God of Jesus was not a wrathful God itching to get even with sinful people.  In fact, according to Jesus, God rather liked people.  Sinners didn’t bother Jesus all that much.  Quite the contrary.  Jesus always seemed to see people in a better light than they saw themselves.”

 

SALVATION

Many Evangelicals believe that making a “one-time decision for Christ” is the most important responsibility that every person has in her or his life. Often, that decision is made at a spouse’s or parent’s urging, but it could be made during an “altar call”—that is, by raising one’s hand or walking forward to the front of the church, in response to a pastor’s or evangelist’s appeal, at the end of a worship service or evangelistic meeting, at a church camp, or in a youth group meeting.

Many Evangelical churches emphasize that humans are sinful by nature (or, in the phraseology of John Calvin, are “totally depraved”), and are destined to spend eternity in hell unless they become “born again.” Often, Evangelical churches and their adherents refer to this spiritual responsibility, which they insist that all people have, in an almost formulaic way, as “getting saved,” or “receiving Christ,” or “making a decision for Christ,” or, “asking Jesus to come into one’s heart.”

Many Evangelicals believe that such a spiritual encounter with Jesus, along with an orthodox understanding of Christianity, and a literal understanding of the Bible, are the only means of salvation. Didn’t Jesus say, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me” (John 14:6)? Thus, non-Christians, followers of other spiritual teachers and traditions, devout Jews who are not followers of Jesus, and faithful adherents of other world religions will not go to heaven, even if they live lives of great moral virtue, and perform deeds of kindness and service for the poor and the unfortunate. They are destined for eternal punishment because they did not “invite Jesus into their hearts.”

By contrast, most Progressive or Mainline churches and congregants insist that they are just as concerned about people’s relationship to God as Evangelical churches and their followers are, but they understand salvation to be ongoing—it is a journey rather than a destination. Further, since the Christian journey is a common or a universal human experience, many progressives would say that “there are many different roads that lead to God,” and that all of us are being saved every day. Indeed, some Progressive Christians reject the concept of hell altogether, and say that a loving God saves all people—even if they do not “make a decision for Christ”—indeed, even if they are Jewish or Buddhist or Muslim or Atheist.

Many Progressive Churches emphasize that salvation is not a formula, and that there is no special power or magic in the expressions, “getting saved” or “being born again,” or “asking Jesus into one’s heart.” Indeed, when one studies the scriptures, she discovers that there is great variety in how the Biblical writers advised their readers to deepen their relationship with God and with Christ: The Christian scriptures refer variously to loving and trusting God, doing God’s will, following Jesus, becoming disciples of Christ, doing good works, believing, persevering, being righteous (or practicing righteousness), being a devout God-fearing person, suffering for Jesus’ sake, remaining faithful, walking with Christ, walking in the light, abiding in Christ, and embarking on a spiritual pilgrimage. Thus, a saving encounter with Christ does not only happen one time, and it does not happen only by walking down the aisle to the altar, or only by praying the “sinner’s prayer” that is printed on a tract or suggested by the pastor.

 

THE CHURCH’S MISSION

Many Evangelical efforts at mission are prompted by Jesus’ Great Commission, in which he told his disciples, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always, to the very end of the age” (Matthew 28:18-20). Impressed by these verses and by Biblical references to, and teachings about, Jesus’ Second Coming, many Evangelical Christians believe that those who have not heard the Gospel message (in effect, all non-Christians and non-church-goers, and all persons who, they feel, do not espouse or exhibit proper Christian values and behaviors) must be told about Jesus and given a chance to repent and seek the salvation that can only be given by Christ, before the Second Coming or the “rapture” of Christ’s body, the Church—at which point it will be too late for repentance or salvation.

More than anything else, this twin idea—Jesus Great Commission and the belief that God’s divine clock is ticking, and that Jesus is coming back very soon!—animates the Evangelical idea of the Church’s mission. The Church’s imperative is not to feed the hungry, house the homeless, visit the prisoner, or alleviate suffering; rather, the Church’s imperative is to preach the Gospel and invite as many people as possible to “receive Christ” before it is too late.

In addition, many Evangelical pastors, leaders, and congregants ascribe to a thinly-Christianized version of Plato’s notion of the body as the prisonhouse of the soul. According to this idea, matter is temporal, and is subordinate to spirit which is eternal; thus, the human body and all of its passions, hungers, and needs are far less important than the human soul. It follows from this idea that the work of the church must focus on worship, on the care and nurture of the soul, and on basic Christian formation—on teaching congregants about the Bible, Jesus and God—and not on providing or advocating for social and economic justice.

Some Evangelicals believe that since getting and staying “right with God” is the paramount human responsibility, every worship service, class, or event that is held in the church should offer people an opportunity to make a “decision for Christ.” Thus, many Evangelical churches see the ultimate goal of their outreach programs, church suppers, food pantry and clothing-giveaway ministries, and missions as “winning souls for Christ.” Relatedly, some Evangelical pastors consider it their duty to give “altar calls” at the conclusion of every worship service and church event—even at weddings and funerals!

By contrast, Progressive and Mainline Christians are more favorably impressed by Jesus’ Great Commandment: “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (Matthew 22:37-40).

Progressive and Mainline Churches and congregants assert that God is concerned with everyone and with everything—with the whole person and with the whole Earth; thus, salvation is communal and global, it is not individualistic. It follows that the Church’s mission must not only be about getting people “saved.” It must also be about protecting the environment, promoting global peace and justice, helping feed the hungry, and improving the lives and promoting the dignity of all people—including those we might think of as foreigners, enemies, or otherwise different from us.

 * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Each of these topics—and each comparative discussion of what Evangelicals and Progressives believe—deserves a much fuller treatment than we can entertain in these two blog posts. If you are interested in further explorations of these topics, a good place to begin studying might be Marcus Borg’s excellent Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time.

A final word. If you are anything like me you hate to be labeled. So be aware that the theological words (Progressive, Evangelical, Mainline, Charismatic, Independent, and the like) that I have used to describe churches and their congregants (as well as the various discussions in this blog of how Evangelicals and Progressives think about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission) are not prescriptive but descriptive. I am not telling you or your church what to believe, nor am I telling you by what label you must call yourself. Rather, I am reporting what I see, what is out there. I invite your disagreement and discussion. Post a comment!

The Labels and Doctrines That Unite and Divide Us (Part I)

Recently, I engaged in a series of conversations with friends and congregants who had asked me what the difference is between United Church of Christ (UCC) congregations and theology, other Progressive or Mainline Protestant churches and teachings, and Evangelical faith traditions and doctrines.

I offered a simple answer—which quickly became complicated (and inadvertently misleading). I said that quite often, Evangelical churches and beliefs are associated with Southern Baptist, Reformed, Wesleyan, and Lutheran (Missouri Synod) denominations, or may have the words, Independent or Bible Church in their names.

I added that nowadays Fundamentalistic churches and traditions are theologically similar to Evangelical congregations and theologies. Or perhaps I should say it the other way around: Evangelical churches and teachings are hard to distinguish from fundamentalistic ones.

Charismatic fellowships include churches and doctrines that are affiliated with the Assemblies of God, Pentecostal, and Church of God (Cleveland, Tennessee) denominations.

Mainline or Progressive Protestant congregations and beliefs (I use these two terms interchangeably) may be Presbyterian (USA), Congregationalist, Episcopal, Disciples of Christ, American Baptist, Unitarian, and UCC.

I also said that United Methodist and ELCA churches and theologies can be either Evangelical or Mainline: In rural America and in the South, they tend to be Evangelical, while urban congregations and their teachings often lean Progressive.

Black and ethnic congregations and their doctrines are often (but not always) theologically Evangelical and socially Progressive.

Perhaps it was inevitable that most of the friends and congregants I said these things to were not entirely pleased with my explanations. In particular, Annette, who attends a church I pastor, said she did not like to think of her church as Progressive. The term, Progressive, sounds, well, liberal—and even though it is a United Church of Christ congregation, she did not think it should be liberal. Annette added that any attempt I made to highlight the differences between other churches and theologies (be they Evangelical or Mainline) and our own congregation and beliefs would be divisive and upsetting—especially to inclusive, ecumenically-minded UCC people. Moreover, such comparisons would inevitably be imprecise—so it’s better not to draw any distinctions between various churches and their doctrines!

I agreed that yes, theological language and discussions can be confusing and vague, but unfortunately, there is no other medium for communication, for learning about other churches and their teachings, for dispelling misinformation, and for coming to terms with our own religious beliefs and values. I even quoted those great poets and philosophers of love, language, and life, the Bee Gees: It’s only words, and words are all I have to take your syncretism away—at least, I think that’s what Barry was singing!—to say that not all Christian beliefs fit together, and that churches don’t all teach the same things. Without language and discussion, and without drawing sharp distinctions, we lose all understanding and comprehension. And besides, education and awareness are their own rewards.

To be sure, the differences between churches—even churches in the same denomination—can be significant, and are not always tidy. A congregation’s history and culture, in addition to its geographic location, and whether it is urban, suburban, exurban, or rural, can make it more or less “Evangelical” or “Progressive.” For example, some UCC congregations, located in rural communities throughout Central New York, are quite Evangelical in character—and ignore (or openly defy) the Progressive theology and ethos of the United Church of Christ and of the New York Conference of the UCC. This can make it maddeningly difficult for someone who moves from, say, California or Massachusetts to a small village in Central New York, and starts visiting rural UCC churches hoping to find a congregation that is similar to the one she attended in San Francisco or Boston!

But why should congregants and church leaders pay attention to these terms and labels, and to the diversity of congregational cultures and beliefs that they signify? And why is it important to talk about our differences? For lots of reasons. First, we UCC’ers say that our unity as a denomination and as congregations is not based on our uniformity; rather, it is based on our diversity. Indeed, the United Church of Christ has a variety of Progressive, Mainline, and quasi-Evangelical churches in its 39 Conferences, and many if not most of these churches have Progressive Christians worshipping side-by-side with more traditional and Evangelical Christians every Sunday. This fact in and of itself is bound to cause confusion—and refusing to discuss our differing perspectives, or pretending they don’t exist, only exacerbates the confusion.

(It is highly questionable how diverse the United Church of Christ really is, and what we UCC’ers mean when we say that we are a diverse church—but that is a different discussion for a different blog article. See my October post, “How Diverse Is the United Church of Christ?”)

Second, many church people are genuinely confused by the religious and theological language that we preachers use—it is a kind of jargon, and it is almost never explicitly defined or explained. Churchgoers and leaders say that they would benefit greatly if women and men of the cloth would explain what they are saying, and what they and their churches believe, in simple language.

Third, many people—including a sizable number of church people—believe that the theological differences and denominational distinctives among churches do not matter, and that one church and one set of beliefs is about as good as another. Indeed, some openly admit that they don’t care what is taught by the church they attend or by its parent denomination; others say that they started going to a particular church because it was the closest one to their house or apartment. Similarly, some church people, and even church leaders, believe that a pastor is a pastor is a pastor—essentially that all ministers are the same and believe the same things. They are not and they do not.

Such confusion can be especially problematic when a church is looking for a new minister. Typically, when this happens in a United Church of Christ congregation, an Associate Conference Minister, or some other Conference official, will drive over and provide resources for that church’s search committee, answer questions, and begin to help the congregation find a suitable Interim Minister, and eventually, a new pastor. The denominational person may also bring along reflective self-analysis guides, “church profile” templates, “search and call” information, and, when appropriate, the names and profiles of appropriate pastoral candidates. Usually, this happens quickly, automatically and seamlessly. All Progressive and Mainline denominations have processes that are approximately similar.

But what if a church does not have any denominational affiliation? What if a church’s relationship with its denomination is estranged? Or what if a denomination ceases to exist, as some small denominations have in recent decades? What if the middle judicatory of a particular denomination goes bankrupt, disappears, or becomes inaccessible? (Such an occurrence may seem unthinkable, but at least one UCC Conference Minister announced recently that his Conference’s finances were stretched impossibly-thin, and that if donations and other income did not go up, that Conference could cease to exist in four years. One certainly hopes that the good Conference Minister was exaggerating when he said this, perhaps in an effort to encourage churches and members to increase their giving to the United Church of Christ!)

Might there come a day when denominational assistance and resources are not available to Mainline congregations that are looking for a new pastor? I don’t know. But if such a day comes, search committees will be on their own and will need to know how to distinguish an Evangelical minister from one with a more Progressive theology. If they can’t make such a basic distinction, they may “call” or hire a minister who is not a good theological fit.

A number of bad things can then happen, in rapid succession. The newly-hired minister may quickly become frustrated and quit. Or the new minister may frustrate the congregation and be fired. Or the new minister may try to “hijack” the church—that is, try to separate it from its parent denomination. There are other possible outcomes—but none of them are good.

To make matters worse, every church has at least one well-intentioned congregant who knows of an unemployed preacher, or has a distant cousin who “does a little preaching and pastoring on the side”—but rarely do such unaffiliated reverends and would-be reverends prove to be qualified or appropriate ministerial candidates. Ever hear the old saying, marry in haste; repent in leisure? It also applies to churches and to the pastors they call.

(A true story: I am familiar with one fairly small, fairly-conservative and fairly-independent-minded UCC congregation that recently found itself floundering after the departure of its pastor. And sure enough, a congregant at that church had a friend who he thought was some kind of a minister—so he called him. That friend turned out to be a Mormon Elder, who offered to come over and baptize the entire congregation en masse into the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints! As of this writing, that church has not yet taken up the Mormon Elder’s offer.)

Fourth, and most basically, despite the fact that we UCC’ers say that ours is a diverse and an ecumenically-minded church, and that we welcome and accept Progressive Christians, Mainline Christians, traditional and Evangelical Christians, fundamentalists, in short, everybody—and actually, because of this fact!—we do discuss and worry about theology; we do ask theological questions (“What’s the difference between what we believe and what that other church teaches?”); and we do make practical theological distinctions and value judgments all the time.

Fifth, the labels and terms we use, and the distinctions we draw between various denominations and their teachings, are like maps and GPS devices that help us find our way. As such, they are essential. I am someone who gets easily lost, so I am quite fond of that GPS ap on my iPhone that tells me where I am in relation to where I want to go. I also like those big kiosks on university campuses and in shopping malls, that tell me what other buildings or stores are in the vicinity. In much the same way, it is useful to be aware of the full range of theological beliefs, and to know where we are in relation to them—even though we may be very happy in the church or denomination we are in.

I am interested in your thoughts and ideas.  This discussion raises all sorts of interesting questions:

  • How would you have answered the person who asked me, “What’s the difference” between UCC churches and theology and the teachings and religious practices of other denominations? Do you think there are any significant differences? If so, what are they?
  • How committed are you to your particular church or denomination—can you say that the church that you now attend, or its parent denomination, is “better” than other churches or denominations? Why or why not? And in what sense is it “better”?
  • Should we talk about, or emphasize, the differences between various churches and denominations?  Why or why not?
  • How would you have answered Annette’s concern that talking about our differences is divisive, upsetting, and ultimately imprecise—so it’s best not to even try?

Evangelical and Mainline or Progressive churches can be distinguished in terms of their teachings about the Bible, Jesus, salvation, and the church’s mission.  We will examine these differences in Part II.