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.

How Diverse Is the United Church of Christ?

Some years ago, when I was serving a church in the Southern Conference of the United Church of Christ (UCC), I attended a pastors’ retreat where I heard one of our Associate Conference Ministers, the Rev. Beth Kennett, suggest during a lunch table conversation that the problem with the UCC is that it doesn’t know whether it wants to be a liberal church or a diverse church. I have often thought about Beth’s words, and I have often recited them to others. More recently, I have wondered about their validity: Is the UCC really diverse? Is the United Church of Christ liberal (or Progressive)? Just how diverse and how liberal? As it turns out, the answer is complicated; it depends partly on how you think about diversity.

On the one hand, the UCC claims to be a diverse church—and most of us can agree that it is diverse, in at least four ways.

(1.) The UCC is diverse insofar as it advocates and works for social, racial, and economic justice, and embraces the poor, the LGBTQ community, the Black Lives Matter movement, and other historically disenfranchised and oppressed populations and groups.

(2.) The United Church of Christ extends “a radical welcome” to all who come through the doors of its churches, institutions, and denominational offices: first-time visitors and forty-year members; the young and the old; atheists, doubters, non-Christians, and true believers; gays and straights; people of color as well as White people; the poor and the rich; people of disability and those who consider themselves able; and saints and sinners. UCC churches do not restrict participation, membership, Christ’s Table, or the rites of the church only to the “saved.” As the banner outside our church building puts it, “Jesus didn’t reject people—neither do we.”

(3.) The National Church in Cleveland models diversity by inviting a broad cross-section of Christian denominations, groups, and churches into its inclusive fellowship. It enjoys full communion with its ecumenical partner, the Disciples of Christ, and through formula of agreement with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Reformed Church in America, and the United Church of Canada. In addition, the UCC is in discussion to establish full communion relationships with nine other Protestant and Anglican denominations.

(4.) The United Church of Christ is diverse in the sense that UCC churches are all very different from one another. There are Congregational UCC churches and Christian UCC churches. There are Evangelical and Reformed UCC congregations. There are White UCC churches, Black UCC churches, Hispanic UCC churches, and Native American UCC churches. There are Calvin Synod congregations, and Pacific Islander congregations. In addition, there are big-city UCC churches and rural UCC churches. There are big congregations and small congregations. There are Liberal (or Progressive) UCC churches and Conservative UCC churches. Each congregation has its own unique colors, textures, flavors, languages, and traditions, but the UCC welcomes them all into its expansive fold, and it tries to encourage them in their service to God and humanity, and in their continuing involvement with the denomination.

We may note parenthetically that many of these examples of diversity are not exclusive to the United Church of Christ. Almost every Liberal, Progressive, or Mainline Protestant denomination—and certainly the Roman Catholic Church—can say that it works for social, racial, and economic justice, and is welcoming to gays and people of color. And every denomination that has numerous churches (including the Assemblies of God and the Southern Baptist Convention!) can lay claim to the demographic diversity described in paragraph (4.). But UCC ecumenicity, highlighted above in paragraph (3.), is a genuine and undeniable United Church of Christ distinctive. No other denomination enjoys full communion with so many ecumenical partners. The United Church of Christ takes the “United” in its name seriously; following the teaching of Jesus (“That they may all be one”—John 17:21), it calls itself a United and Uniting church, and its vision can best be summed up in the motto, “In essentials–-unity;  in nonessentials-–diversity;  in all things–-charity.” As the UCC website notes, “Love and unity in the midst of our diversity are our greatest assets.”

On the other hand, despite these amazing manifestations of ecumenism and Progressive consciousness, when we look at the demographics of individual congregations, we see that far too many UCC churches are not very diverse. Indeed, many UCC congregations (including churches in racially-mixed urban communities) are monocultural: many if not most White churches are totally White, a lot of Black churches are almost entirely Black, and so forth. In addition, the median age of UCC congregants seems to be about 60, and their median hair color seems to be about…gray.  I hasten to add that there are many notable and glorious exceptions to this pattern—multicultural churches that sparkle with genuine social, economic, and theological diversity—but still, too often and in too many churches, we see more homogeneity than diversity.

Indeed, some UCC congregants, leaders, and pastors—particularly in small, rural, and conservative churches—are almost Evangelical in their theology and preferred worship style, and say that they feel uncomfortable with the United Church of Christ’s support of “gay marriage” and LGBTQ rights, its use of gender-neutral language in worship, its unwavering embrace of the Black Lives Matter movement, and its advocacy on behalf of other social justice issues.

To be sure, these are United Church of Christ people and churches—and we in the UCC try to demonstrate our diversity and inclusivity by the way we welcome these folks and congregations with open arms, and include them in our fellowship.  Even so, many of us hope that over time they will become more accepting, more progressive…and more like the UCC itself.

I believe that the United Church of Christ is neither as diverse nor as liberal as we like to think it is. I also believe that what many UCC people want most of all is for our Church to become more liberal (or progressive).

I do suspect that the acid test of our diversity as individual UCC congregants, pastors and leaders, and as a denomination, is in our hiring and employment practices at the National and Conference levels.  As I said, we spend a good deal of time and significant resources reassuring small, rural, and/or Conservative UCC churches that they have a home in, and are valued members of, our denomination—regardless of whether or not they become Open and Affirming (a UCC term designating LGBTQ-friendly congregations that welcome gay people into all phases of their ministry and service, including ordained pastoral leadership), because the United Church of Christ is diverse, and it welcomes all sorts of churches, theologies, and practices into its fellowship.  And we are sincere in offering them that reassurance.

Yet I wonder.  When the National Church and the Conferences engage in search processes to fill vacant staff positions, how many of the leaders (ordained and non-ordained women and men) who are eventually called or hired for such ministries and offices do you suppose are theologically conservative or Evangelical, embrace pro-life positions, are homophobic, and/or fly the Confederate flag on their porches?  You would probably be correct if you guessed zero, nada, zilch, no one.

You would not even be looked at, let alone called or hired for a National or Conference-level position in the United Church of Christ, if you were theologically conservative, or did not support our denomination’s commitment to social, racial, and economic justice, or did not embrace an open and affirming position.

And that is as it should be. A person who holds such views may be a leader in a small rural UCC church, but she or he cannot—and should not—work in the National “Church House” in Cleveland, or serve on a Conference Staff.

Indeed, under certain circumstances, the presence and involvement of theologically Conservative and Evangelical people in UCC church programs and services can incite controversy.  In their 2007 book, Steeplejacking: How the Christian Right is Hijacking Mainstream Religion, Sheldon Culver of the UCC’s Missouri Mid-South Conference, and John Dorhauer, formerly of the Missouri Mid-South Conference and now UCC General Minister and President, chronicled how “conservative renewal groups” affiliated with the Christian right have “infiltrate[d] mainline churches, and stir[red] up dissent” among congregants, “with the goal of taking over the leadership of th[os]e church[es], and ultimately, th[eir] denomination[s].”  Culver and Dorhauer noted pointedly that United Church of Christ congregations have been targeted by such attacks.

I don’t know if the Christian Right is still engaging in this kind of activity in 2016;  Culver and Dorhauer wrote their book ten years ago, and I suspect that mainline churches have gotten a lot smarter since then about not allowing “hostile takeovers” to get started. But I also suspect that the Christian Right’s “steeplejacking” activities were enabled, at least in some cases, by mushy thinking on the part of mainline church leaders about diversity, inclusivity, and toleration. It is one thing when our conversations about diversity are driven by God’s love and the demands of justice, and manifest themselves in efforts to create more multi-cultural, multi-racial, and open and affirming churches; it is quite another thing when leaders attempt, in the name of diversity, to please an entire spectrum of folks, from near-Unitarians to Evangelicals, all of whom happen to attend the same UCC church—or worse, try to mollify and hang on to congregants who have extreme and intolerant beliefs.

We in the United Church of Christ embrace all Christian people. We welcome all Churches and worship traditions into our fellowship. We are diverse in the sense that we want to encourage small, rural, and conservative UCC churches to stay in our denomination, to get involved with their sister UCC churches, and to acquire Christ’s passion for inclusion—for embracing and serving “the least of these” in the world. But we do not welcome or embrace sectarian prejudices and racist, homophobic, and exclusionary theologies.

I would never advise a rural, conservative UCC church to leave our denomination. I would never tell someone with Conservative or Evangelical beliefs that she or he should not attend or join a UCC church. And I would never discourage someone who did not have Liberal or Progressive theological and social values from applying for a ministry position in Cleveland, at the Conference setting, or at a local UCC church.

But why would a Conservative or Evangelical church that is unhappy with our denomination want to stay in the UCC? And why would an individual who thinks that the United Church of Christ is unacceptably liberal want to attend or pastor a UCC church (let alone join the staff of a United Church of Christ Conference or work in the “Church House” in Cleveland)?

This is not a matter of excluding anyone, or of being intolerant of Conservative churches, leaders, or congregants.  It’s just that people need to be happy with their church and denominational affiliations—or else, they should make whatever changes are necessary in order to become happy.  Life is too short to do otherwise.

 

Who Needs A Temple? Who Needs A Church Building?

          Then King Solomon summoned into his presence at Jerusalem the elders of Israel, all the heads of the tribes and the chiefs of the Israelite families.  And they brought up the ark of the Lord and the tent of meeting and all the sacred furnishings in it.  King Solomon and the entire assembly of Israel were before the ark, sacrificing so many sheep and cattle that they could not be counted.
          The priests brought the ark of the Lord to its place in the inner sanctuary of the temple, and put it beneath the wings of the cherubim.
          When the priests withdrew, the cloud filled the temple of the Lord.  And the priests could not perform their service because the glory of the Lord filled the temple.
          Then Solomon said, “The Lord has said that he would dwell in a dark cloud;  I have indeed built a magnificent temple for you, a place for you to dwell forever.  I have succeeded David my father and now I sit on the throne of Israel, and I have built the temple for the God of Israel.”                                                  

—1 Kings 8:1, 4-6, 10-12, 20

*  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *  *

Imagine this:

It is the year 2031—fifteen years from now.  Personal circumstances have made it necessary for you to move away from the town you have lived in most of your life.  Since leaving, you have become disconnected with your old friends and with day-to-day events in your old community.  You have stopped receiving news about who is doing what, what new shops are opening on Main Street, and who had divorced and retired and died.  And now it is August 2031, and you have just returned to your old hometown for a high school reunion.  It is your first time back since you left eight years ago.

On Sunday morning you decide to go to church—and your heart skips a beat as you approach the familiar old church building.  You remember going to Sunday School there as a child—and playing on the playground equipment.  But as you walk through those oversized front doors that you remember so well, you are greeted by . . . subdued lighting, smells of incense, and an elderly Asian man wearing a robe.  He greets you.  Welcome to the Community Buddhist Center!

“Wait a minute,” you protest.  You are here for the morning worship service!  “This is the church—!”

“Ahh!,” the man tells you.  “Old church does not exist anymore.  I’m very sorry!  This building is now a Buddhist temple.  Come in, please!”

These were the opening paragraphs in a sermon I preached recently at one of two churches I was serving.  My congregants hated the sermon—they despised it—largely because I asked them to imagine their church going out of business and selling its worship space to a group of Buddhists.  Like many struggling churches today, I knew that our congregation was anxious—both about its ability to maintain its large, aging building—and, relatedly, about its future viability as a church.  Not surprisingly, my sermon—or at least my first four or five paragraphs—aggravated both of those concerns.

Even so, I will ask you the same questions that I voiced in my sermon that morning—because they are important:  Would such a conversation at your church’s front door, with an elderly Asian man who is dressed in a robe disturb you?  Would it bother you or me if we moved away from our community, and returned a few years later only to find that our beloved church was now a Buddhist temple?

Or would it bother us if our church went on for a few more years, and then closed its doors shortly after we died?  I mean, it shouldn’t really upset us because we’ll be dead, right?  But would it disturb us if we knew before we died that this would happen?

I told my congregation that it would bother me a lot.  And then I added:  “I assume it would bother you a lot as well.”

But why would it?  Would it somehow lessen our faith, would it lessen our Jesus or our God, if our church sold its building to a local Buddhist group?  Or if our church went out of business entirely?

This was the dilemma that confronted Solomon as he and all of Israel gathered to dedicate the Temple, the house of God.  It is the dream of all political leaders to be remembered for outstanding accomplishments.  Almost as soon as Solomon became King of Israel, he began an extensive building program.  He built whole cities where once there was only desert.  But his crowning achievement was the building of the Temple.

There had long been talk of building a temple to the glory of God.  In Moses’ day, the Israelites believed that God dwelled in a tent.  Since the people were wandering through the desert and living in tents themselves, it made sense to regard God as dwelling in a tent;  that way, God would be accessible to the people.  But when the Israelites arrived in the promised land and began living in permanent houses in villages and towns, it no longer seemed right for God to dwell in a tent.  God needed a permanent home.  So Solomon assembled the world’s finest architects and builders to construct a temple unlike any structure known.  Many Israelites labored to finish construction in seven years.

Dedication Day was a special occasion.  The elders and the heads of all the tribes assembled, and there was much fanfare, as the ark of the covenant was moved into the Temple, its new, permanent home.

And then “a cloud filled the house of God, and the priests could not stand to minister there because the glory of God filled the Temple.”  It was said that at that very moment fire shot down from heaven.  Perhaps the only thing missing was a marching band!  Solomon—perhaps anticipating the bluster of American real estate developer and presidential candidate Donald Trump three millennia later—proclaimed boastfully, “I have built an exalted house, a place for God to dwell forever.”

Now, Temples are useful things.  So are church buildings.  It is comforting to know that there is a place where we can go to feel God’s presence.  Away from our problems, in the quietness of the sanctuary, we are able to search for peace of mind.  It is not unusual in city churches to find people who stop in during the day, seeking comfort.  When life gets rough, when loved ones die, or a marriage dissolves, or health problems ensue, many of us will sit in the church, hoping to feel God’s presence.

Perhaps that is why so many of us feel an emotional attachment to our church and to our church building.  Churches and church buildings are supposed to be permanent institutions—like God, baseball, Chevrolet, and the American Dream.  I certainly understand why people don’t want their church, their church building, or anything having to do with how they practice their religion, to change.  And I understand my congregation’s lack of enthusiasm when I asked them to imagine our church building becoming a community Buddhist center.

Even so, our reading from 1 Kings, as well as Bible history, raise complicating questions about Temples—and about church buildings.

We are in the habit of calling our religious buildings churches and “Houses of God;”  and it is convenient to focus on such building as the center of our spiritual lives.  But as Rev. Kathryn Matthews of the United Church of Christ asks in a “Sermon Seed” reflection (http://www.ucc. org/worship_samuel, Sunday, August 23, 2015), “where does God truly live”?  Is the brick-and-mortar (or the sheetrock-and-vinyl-siding) building really the church?  Of course not—the real church is the people who worship in that building!  And is the church building the only place where we can find God?  Surely not—for God “is” everywhere.  God lives within us—in our “hearts.”  And God lives in our church, as well as in other churches.  But God also lives in our homes, and God lives in the Adirondacks when we go camping or hunting there.  And God accompanies us to Disneyland when we take our children there.  And God rides with us in our vehicles, when we drive to work or go shopping.

The God who loves us can be found in church, but God is not limited to one fixed place.  Solomon realized this when he admitted in his prayer, “Even the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!”  God cannot be limited or inhibited by human hands or buildings.  God is beyond our control.

We also know that everything in this life, everything except God, is impermanent, and changes or wears out—and this certainly includes our cars, our human bodies, and church buildings.  Entropy is a basic law of the universe.  Can we live with that?  Would you and I be okay knowing that our church isn’t permanent?  Or that our church building will someday fall into disrepair, or get torn down, or be sold to a Buddhist meditation group?

A related question is:  How much Temple can we afford?  A magnificent building can cost tens of thousands of dollars (and in some cases, $50,000 to $60,000 or more) annually, to heat in the winter, cool in the summer, and keep in good repair.  The Rev. Dr. John Dorhauer, General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, tells us that more and more churches are being confronted with the unpalatable choice of keeping their minister but having to sell their building—or keeping their buildings but having to let their ministers go.  Increasingly, American churches are unable to afford both their buildings and their clergy.

The dedication of the Temple was Solomon’s finest hour.  Solomon anticipated that the Temple would inspire people in distant lands to learn of God’s power.  He imagined that foreigners would visit Jerusalem, see this magnificent building, and be converted to the God of the Israelites.  It sounded good.  “If you build it, they will come.”  An impressive building will draw people to God—who can criticize that?  But this extreme focus on the Temple was subtly insidious.  Over and over again, the Bible warns us against worshiping false images of God.  Was the Temple in danger of becoming an idol?  Can church buildings today become idols?  What do we worship—God or our building?

Over and over again in the Hebrew Bible, Rev. Matthews notes, we see a tension between the priestly realm which sought to maintain the institutions and the rules of Judaism—and the prophetic realm which recognized that God could not be contained in the dry traditions and rules of one narrow religion, but that God is present in each of us, and that true religion means going outside the Temple, outside the church building, and into the community, to care for the widow and orphan, to visit the sick and the prisoner, and to do good unto our neighbors.

Jesus represented that prophetic realm—that new way of thinking about religion.   “Consider the birds of the air, and the lilies of the field,” he said.  If Solomon’s temple represented the old system of worship, with its priests and sacrifices and rules, Jesus represented the New Covenant.  From now on, Jesus said, God will dwell within you.  Each of you is a temple.  No longer do you need to worship God only in one place, in one Temple or church.

Historians tell us that Solomon’s Temple was built in 832 B.C.E., and that it was destroyed 410 years later by the Babylonian King, Nebuchadnezzar.  It was rebuilt by Ezra and Nehemiah, but it was destroyed a second time in 70 A.D., and after that, it was never rebuilt.  Today there is no Temple in Israel.  Neither Jewish religious worship nor Judaism require a magnificent Temple in Jerusalem.

What about today?  What does God have in mind for your church and my church?  Could it be that God is doing a new thing that diminishes the importance of church buildings with their “buildings and grounds committees” and large “physical plant maintenance” budgets;  a new thing that eliminates the pressure of having to collect a lot of money every month just for institutional upkeep;  a new thing that frees up churchgoers and their dollars to engage in the work of outreach and mission?  I’m not sure, but I’d love to know what you think.

So I’m curious:  What has been your experience with churches and church buildings?  I began this blog by telling you about my disastrous sermon—the one with an imaginary story about our church being converted into a community Buddhist center.  Imagine that happening to your church.  How would you feel?  What does the church and its building represent to you?  Is it your home, or God’s home, or both?  What makes it a sacred space for you?

How much Temple can you and I—and church people throughout North America—afford today?  Think of this as an ongoing cost-benefit calculation:  Are the benefits of maintaining our churches’ aging buildings so important to you and me that we are willing to continue paying our fair share of the costs of building upkeep, in addition to the cost of salaries and programs, month after month?  In many cases such giving requires genuine financial sacrifice on the part of church members and their families.  Of course, as a pastor, I of all people can easily endorse the idea that we should give generously and even sacrificially to the church and to its ministries—and I would tell you to do the same.  But the reality is that many of us today are living on fixed incomes, and/or have numerous family expenses, and/or are unable to give more than a few dollars each week.  Can churches maintain their big buildings without gutting their worship, education, and missions programs, and losing their pastor(s)?  Is the old way of doing church sustainable?

In Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette, a UCC Pastor, predicts that in twenty years’ time, as many as 80 percent of currently-existing churches will be out of business.  From what you see of religious life and church attendance—in your own congregation, in your community, and across America—do you agree with Baskette?  Why or why not?  Is the problem churches face today just about a shortage of dollars?  What feelings does this possibility, of large-scale church closures, evoke in you?

So where is the Gospel in all this?  Where is the good news?  I see several things that are “good news:”
  • God is always with us.  God is not tied to one particular building or congregation or denomination.
  • There is a widespread sentiment throughout the church today that God is doing a new thing—even though, right now, many of us can barely make out the contours of what that new thing is.  It will be exciting to see how God transforms the church—and us—in the years ahead.
  • Jesus said that he is the vine, and we are the branches, and God is the horticulturist who prunes us with a cosmic pair of shears (John 15).  Pruning is always a good thing.  Some churches may die, but the remainder will be strengthened.
  • For the followers of Jesus, resurrection—new life—always follows death.

As Jesus’ followers, we say that we believe in resurrections.  But for resurrections to occur, deaths have to happen first.  I suspect that we need to stop thinking of the sale of a church building or the closure of a church (or even of many churches) as a failure.  If some existing churches sell their buildings or go out of business, perhaps their resources and buildings can live on . . . and bring blessing to other church groups and congregations—and yes, even to community Buddhist centers.

What do you think?

 

Is the American Church Going Out of Business? A Blog about Change and Church Decline

There are many things that I don’t understand very well:

  • The strange weather we’ve been having (I know about global warming and El Nino—but the weather these days has just been weird).
  • The persistence of racism and homophobia in America in 2015.
  • Uber, and the new on-demand economy.
  • ISIS (or ISIL).
  • Donald Trump.
  • The changes taking place in American religion—and in particular, the decline of the church.  Everything is in flux today;  change is happening faster than ever.  (The trouble is, I liked things the way they were.)

This blog is about change.  It is about decline, renewal, and transformation in the American church.  There’s much that we don’t understand about what God is doing, despite our many years of worshipping and Sunday-schooling and fellowshipping and praying and dish-to-passing and pastoring.

Now, I don’t want to overstate my case.  Many churches are not declining, and seem not to be getting rocked by change.  There are large and small churches that are reaching out to their communities and doing innovative and meaningful ministry.  By the same token, I have wonderful clergy colleagues who are enthused and excited about the opportunities they have to do ministry in new ways, and who view this as a kind of golden age of the church.

Perhaps you are one of these amazing pastors or church leaders who doesn’t know the meaning of the word, “decline.”  Perhaps your church is experiencing phenomenal growth.  If so, wonderful and amazing!  Both you and your church are blessed, and you are a blessing to others!

But chances are that you know of some churches—perhaps sister churches in your denomination, down the block, or across the street—that aren’t doing very well.  Perhaps you know some church leaders or pastors who are discouraged.  Many of us know such leaders and churches because, unfortunately, there are a lot of them—a lot of us—out there.  Perhaps your church and my church—perhaps you and I—are going through tough times.

One of the reasons I’m writing this blog is that I believe in the Biblical ethic which undergirds the story of Cain and Abel (Genesis 4:1-12).  Do you remember it?  After killing his brother, Cain asks God, “Am I my brother’s keeper?”  the text clearly implies that he is.  We are all our sisters’ and our brothers’ keepers!  If my church is doing well, and a sister church (or several sister churches) are hurting, I cannot in good conscience celebrate my congregation’s success.  It will not do for me to say, in effect, “Good for us;  too bad about them!”

These days, a number of pastors and church “experts” are talking and writing honestly about change in the church—about renewal, and about decline.  Numerous books, articles, workshops, and blogs are being produced on these topics.  Experts are lecturing on, and the rest of us are talking about, church decline.  These experts predict that some, and perhaps a great many, churches will soon go out of business.

For example, the Rev. Molly Phinney Baskette—a fellow United Church of Christ (UCC) pastor—predicts in Real Good Church (Cleveland:  Pilgrim, 2014), that “something like 80% of our mainline Christian churches will be dead” in 20 years (p. 11).  Can this be true?  Baskette makes this claim casually, almost in passing, but her assertion is unnerving.  I mean, won’t some churches—and even some small, part-time, chapel-type ministries—defy predictions and just go on living?  Incidentally, Baskette’s book is not about church decline;  just the opposite—the subtitle of her book is, How Our Church Came Back from the Dead, and Yours Can, Too.

Whatever it is that churches are experiencing today—renewal or decline—it is certain that powerful change is swamping all Christian denominations—the American Church as a whole.  It is happening in the two churches I serve, Groton City Church (UCC) and Groton Community Church (UCC).  And it is happening throughout the theological spectrum.  It is happening in Mainline Protestant churches, and in Catholic congregations, and in Evangelical-Conservative fellowships, and in Charismatic and Pentecostal houses of worship.

It didn’t use to be this way when I started out in ministry (but then again, I am something of a dinosaur).  Back in the 1970s and 1980s, hardly anyone was talking or writing about change or decline.  Instead, pastors and “experts” were writing books and leading workshops on “church growth.”  (In fact, Baskette’s subtitle perfectly captures what those books and workshops were all about.)  Back then, the United Church of Christ was focused on civil rights and fighting racism, on articulating its position on LGBT and ONA issues, and on its rich ecumenical dialogue with other Christian denominations.

Today, many in the UCC are talking about change.  They are talking about church revitalization, and while they are not dwelling or fixated on decline, they are talking openly about it.  The fact is that many UCC churches have plateaued or are declining.  Recently, Conference Minister Dave Gaewski reported that churches in the New York Conference are giving fewer and fewer dollars to Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM) and to other special offerings that support the Conference, and that if these trends of giving continue, Conference work will be impaired, and the Conference itself could be out of business in four years.  Ouch!

Within the Association of the New York Conference, in which I serve:

  • Three or four relatively large and/or affluent churches seem to float, like islands in a sea of smaller and poorer churches;
  • There seem to be fewer churches with “full-time” pastors.  Many churches have 30-hour-a-week, or half-time, pastors.  (Most part-time pastors work 40 or more hours per week—the only thing part-time is their salaries.)
  • Relatedly, there seem to be fewer seminary-trained and ordained pastors.  Those who are seminary-trained have student loans to pay off, and gravitate toward bigger or wealthier urban or suburban churches that can offer full-time appointments and larger salaries.  This leaves non-seminary-trained and non-ordained ministers pastoring smaller rural churches.

Beyond the New York Conference and the United Church of Christ, there are similar signs of change:

  • Somewhere between 4,000 and 7,000 American churches close their doors annually.  And these numbers may be conservative.  The truth may be more like 8,000–10,000 houses of worship disbanding every year.
  • In the Roman Catholic Church, “membership,” as measured by those who self-identify as Catholic, continues to grow, but participation, membership in religious orders, the number of seminaries, and the number of clergy have been declining since the 1960s.
  •  Fifty to seventy years ago, the church was one of the most highly trusted and respected institutions in the United States.  The parish pastorate was considered an esteemed profession and a noble calling;  the minister was on a par professionally with the physician, the lawyer, the tenured professor, and the corporate executive.  Today, neither the church nor the pastorate garner that kind of respect in society-at-large.
  • Over the past two years, the Alban Institute and the Bangor Theological Seminary have gone out of business.  Another seminary—historic Andover Newton Theological School in Boston—announced recently that it plans to relocate and scale down its operations.  Andover Newton is actively seeking a partnership with another mainline organization—most likely another seminary.  Without such a partnership, the first theological seminary in the United States may be forced to close its doors permanently.  
  • Many more seminaries are facing smaller enrollments and soaring overhead.  The average cost for a three-year Master of Divinity degree in North America is $100,000.  Most hard hit are Protestant mainline denominational schools, but Evangelical seminaries are also experiencing decline.
  • There has been a stark reduction in the number of women and men going attending seminary and going into the ministry right out of college.  Today, 23 percent of all seminary and divinity school applicants are over the age of 50 and are pursuing ministry as their second or third career.  The 50-to-64-year-old cohort is the fastest-growing population among divinity school students.  (Often, these older seminarians have private pensions and health insurance, and do not have young families to support;  consequently, they may be less expensive for churches to hire.)

Why is all of this happening?  It is not happening because pastors and church leaders are ill-trained, pessimistic, or lack a can-do spirit.  It is not happening because of bad, weak, or tired leadership.  It is not happening because church people, leaders, and pastors don’t have enough faith, or are not praying hard enough.  It is not happening because congregations are lazy, or because church leaders aren’t trying the old tried-and-true techniques.  It is not happening because God is punishing certain churches, or refusing to bless them.

Rather, these things are happening largely because of societal change.  As UCC pastor Anthony Robinson writes, our society has shifted radically over the past sixty years—from being a culture of obligation during the 1950s, in which people felt socially obligated to attend weekly church services—to becoming a culture of choice and non-affiliation today, in which people feel free not to attend, or even identify with, a church.

In addition, there is a sense that the old approaches, the tried-and-true techniques that used to work, aren’t working anymore.

As author and columnist Rachel Held Evans argued so convincingly a couple of years ago in a CNN blog (“Why Millennials Are Leaving the Church”), young adults—those in their twenties and thirties—cannot abide hypocritical institutions, and many see the church in those terms and are dropping out in droves.  This raises an obvious question:  If Millennials leave, where is the next generation of congregants and church leaders going to come from?  It is not at all certain that Millennials will return to church once they have children of their own or enter their ‘golden years.”  Is the church going the way of the dodo bird???

Of course, many of us are quick to compare our declining churches with the mega-church across town, which is bulging at the seams, and has overflowing crowds, multiple services, and a jam-packed parking lot every Sunday morning.  Don’t such burgeoning congregations disprove the “churches-are-declining” thesis?

Not really.  Often, these churches are Evangelical or fundamentalistic in theology, and feature charismatic leaders, constant entertainment, guilt-laden appeals (“God wants you to tithe ten percent of your income!”  “If you’re not in church every Sunday, God is not going to bless you!”), and negative, excluding messaging (“Gay marriage—or evolution, or Planned Parenthood, or Obamacare, or sex outside of marriage, or fill-in-the-blank—is an abomination before God!”).

These churches seem successful—and so congregants often ask, “What are they doing right that we are doing wrong??!!!”  I must confess that sometimes I am tempted to reply mischievously that, yes, of course, they are doing wonderful work!  And all of the starving-children charities appealing to us for money in those late night television commercials are also doing wonderful work just because they say they are!  And all of the investments our stock broker recommends are high-flyers that will make us crazy-rich once we put down a small $10,000 investment!

I mean, look.  Despite these churches’ apparent (and self-proclaimed) successes, there are serious questions to be asked about how well they are doing.  Many mega-churches have mega-mortgages, mega-budgets, mega-financial troubles, and mega-leadership problems.  Two notable examples are the Crystal Cathedral in Southern California (remember the Hour of Power TV show on Sunday mornings?) which went bankrupt and now houses a Roman Catholic congregation, and the Mars Hill mega-church, which went out of business and spun off all of its “franchised” congregations.

Even The Southern Baptist Convention, which has been the most insistent of all the Protestant denomination in boasting of how it, unlike the mainline denominations, has maintained its focus on evangelism and church growth (and has been carefully tracking such statistics as numbers of baptisms, attendance and membership figures, and amounts of giving for years), now reports that its churches are experiencing no growth or “negative growth.”

We don’t know for sure whether such declines are a temporary blip or represent a long-term trend—but church closures are, by definition, long-term in nature.

Perhaps we can better understand the decline that is plaguing the American church if we think about stewardship—what you and I put into the collection plate every Sunday morning, or on the Sundays we actually make it to church.  The inescapable truth is that the church runs on money.  We could all wish that fervent prayers and heartfelt blessings would be enough to pay the salaries, cover the utility bills, and foot the bill for building upkeep and maintenance, religious programming, and consumables like bulletins, communion wine, toilet paper, and coffee.  But prayers and blessings are not enough.  Dollars are needed, and the more people who attend church, the bigger the church budget will be, and the more dollars that will be required to support it.

Now think about your own level of giving.  And think about why most churchgoers don’t tithe 10% of their income to the church, and don’t give much money to their denominations.  It’s not because folks don’t love their church, or their Bishop or Conference Minister.   Rather, it’s because they are overextended financially.  Most of us are giving all we can.  Many older people live on fixed incomes, while younger congregants have families and tight budgets.  This is true in the New York Conference, and it is true in denominations and churches across America.

In Facing Decline, Finding Hope, Jeffrey D. Jones, associate professor of ministerial leadership at Andover Newton Theological School, suggests that instead of denying the reality of decline or struggling to “turn things around,” pastors and church leaders should reframe the questions that they ask of their congregations.

  • Instead of asking, “How do we bring them in?”, they should ask, “How do we send them out?”
  • Instead of asking, “What should the pastor do?”, leaders and congregants should be asking, “What is our congregation’s shared ministry?”
  • Instead of asking, “What’s our vision and how do we implement it?”, they should ask, “What’s God up to, and how do we get onboard?”
  • Instead of wondering, “How do we survive?” or “How do we re-structure?”, they need to be asking, “How do we serve?”
  • Instead of asking, “What are we doing to save people?”, the church should be asking, “What are we doing to make the reign of God more present in this time and place?”

Here’s what seems likely:  While some churches will die, the church as a whole isn’t going anywhere—it will endure.  But increasingly, it will be taking on new and less-institutionalized forms, and we will be encountering more virtual churches, more house churches, and more churches that are intentional about not owning their buildings (so that congregants’ financial donations can go directly into outreach and mission—rather than getting eaten by building maintenance).  Already some churches are meeting in bars, bowling alleys, and theaters—they are thriving!—and they have no intention of purchasing land and constructing ornate edifices.

Existing churches will not all go away—but some will get smaller.  Some will become “chaplaincies”—with tiny budgets, part-time (or very part-time) pastors, and no community outreach.  Many church buildings will fall into disrepair due to high maintenance costs.  Other churches will experience renewal, re-birth, and phenomenal growth.  Those of us who are churchgoers and leaders may well wonder what our churches and ministries will look like 30 years from now.  I ask those questions of the churches I have pastored.

Many of the shifts that churches are experiencing are cultural, and are impervious to “trying harder,” to new techniques, to slick stewardship campaigns, and to “Bring-A-Friend-to-Church” appeals or “Firefighters-and-Police-Officers-Sunday” type promotionals.  Adding younger people to committees and boards, and the last-resort solution of firing the preacher and bringing in a new minister who is younger and more dynamic do not seem to work either.

In the final analysis, what is happening in many of our churches may be what Sandy Gregory, our organist at Groton City Church, calls “a God Thing.”  We may not fully understand it, but God seems to be doing something new.  For this reason, we should not despair.

What do you think?  Is church decline part of your experience?  Or is your congregation undergoing renewal, re-birth, and amazing growth?  If your church is thriving, do you know of other churches that are in decline?  What signs do you see, in your church or in other churches, that are suggestive of renewal—or of decline?  Do you agree that what many American churches are experiencing as decline may be “a God Thing?”  Please post a reply, and share your comments, thoughts, disagreements, ideas, amplifications, rebuttals, and opinions!

Welcome to this blog!  I will try to make entries periodically (on a fairly regular basis if not every month).  I will “talk” with you again next time.

Chris