According to some Christian outlooks we were made for another world. Perhaps, rather, we were made for this world to recreate, reclaim, redeem, and renew unto God's future aspiration by the power of His Spirit. - R.E. Slater
Secularization theory has been massively falsified. We don't live in an age of secularity. We live in an age of explosive, pervasive religiosity... an age of religious pluralism. - Peter L. Berger
Exploring the edge of life and faith in a post-everything world. - Todd Littleton
I don't need another reason to believe, your love is all around for me to see. – anon
Thou art our need; and in giving us more of thyself thou givest us all. - Khalil Gibran, Prayer XXIII
Be careful what you pretend to be. You become what you pretend to be. - Kurt Vonnegut
Religious beliefs, far from being primary, are often shaped and adjusted by our social goals. - Jim Forest
People, even more than things, need to be restored, renewed, revived, reclaimed, and redeemed; never throw out anyone. – anon
Certainly God's love has made fools of us all. - R.E. Slater
An apocalyptic Christian faith doesn't wait for Jesus to come, but for Jesus to become in our midst. - R.E. Slater
Christian belief in God begins with the cross and resurrection of Jesus, not with rational apologetics. - Eberhard Jüngel, Jürgen Moltmann
Our knowledge of God is through the 'I-Thou' encounter, not in finding God at the end of a syllogism or argument. There is a grave danger in any Christian treatment of God as an object. The God of Jesus Christ and Scripture is irreducibly subject and never made as an object, a force, a power, or a principle that can be manipulated. - Emil Brunner
Ehyeh Asher Ehyeh means "I will be that who I have yet to become." - God (Ex 3.14)
Our job is to love others without stopping to inquire whether or not they are worthy. - Thomas Merton
The church is God's world-changing social experiment of bringing unlikes and differents to the Eucharist/Communion table to share life with one another as a new kind of family. When this happens we show to the world what love, justice, peace, reconciliation, and life together is designed by God to be. The church is God's show-and-tell for the world to see how God wants us to live as a blended, global, polypluralistic family united with one will, by one Lord, and baptized by one Spirit. – anon
The cross that is planted at the heart of the history of the world cannot be uprooted. - Jacques Ellul
The Unity in whose loving presence the universe unfolds is inside each person as a call to welcome the stranger, protect animals and the earth, respect the dignity of each person, think new thoughts, and help bring about ecological civilizations. - John Cobb & Farhan A. Shah
If you board the wrong train it is of no use running along the corridors of the train in the other direction. - Dietrich Bonhoeffer
God's justice is restorative rather than punitive; His discipline is merciful rather than punishing; His power is made perfect in weakness; and His grace is sufficient for all. – anon
Our little [biblical] systems have their day; they have their day and cease to be. They are but broken lights of Thee, and Thou, O God art more than they. - Alfred Lord Tennyson

Thursday, April 12, 2012

The Mainline Churches and Me

The Mainline and Me
 by Rachel Held Evans
April 3, 2012

'Church steps and doors' photo (c) 2010, Kevin Dooley - license: never expected my posts “15 Reasons I Left Church” and “15 Reasons I Returned to The Church” to make such waves, but I’m still hearing from people who loved them, people who hated them, people who resonated with them, and people incredibly frustrated by them.

One of the most common responses I’ve received has come from members of "mainline" Protestant churches. (Progressive Methodists, Presbyterians, Lutherans, Disciples of Christ, etc.) “Oh you just need to find yourself a good mainline church,” they say. “Your problems are with evangelical Christianity. We’ve been politically diverse, accepting of science, and supportive of women in leadership for years now.”

Indeed many disenfranchised evangelicals have found happy homes in mainline churches.

Over at iMonk last week, Chaplain Mike wrote a lovely post about how, after a period of wandering through the denominational wilderness, he found a home in an ELCA Lutheran church “with a simple liturgy, wonderful music, a healthy and grounded pastor, a hospitable congregation, and an emphasis on Christ, grace, vocation, and other Lutheran essentials that answered questions I had been turning over in my mind for years in my evangelical settings.”

“Though I recognize my debt to evangelicalism and am grateful for what God has taught me on the journey,” writes Mike, “coming back to a mainline church for me means coming home. I’ve found my oasis. I don’t hesitate to call myself a mainline Christian.”

Mike points to several of his friends who experienced a similar transition—including Robert Webber (author of Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail: Why Evangelicals Are Attracted to the Liturgical Church), Diana Butler Bass (author of Christianity For the Rest of Us: How The Neighborhood Church is Transforming Faith), and Tod Bolsinger, (who wrote an open letter explaining why he plans to stay in the PCUSA church).

He also points to Frank Schaeffer, who wrote this in an article for the Huffington Post:

I’ve been speaking at many small colleges that have historical ties to the oldest mainline denominations in the U.S. I have been noticing something interesting: a terrific hunger for a deeper spirituality on the part of many young people who come from evangelical backgrounds like mine and also like me are looking for something outside of the right wing conservatism they come from.

I’ve also noticed that while some people in the so-called emergent evangelical movement are reaching out to these young people the leaders of the mainline denominations both locally and nationally often seem blind to a huge new opportunity for growth and renewal staring them in the face. That new opportunity is the scores of younger former evangelicals diving headlong out of the right wing evangelical churches.

…I don’t get it. Where is everyone? Why is the “emergent” evangelical church reinventing a wheel that’s been around for centuries? And why aren’t the mainline churches letting us know they are there?

…If the mainline churches would work for the next few years in a concerted effort to gather in the spiritual refugees wandering our country they’d be bursting at the seams.”

I think both Mike and Frank are on to something.

I’ve often been asked to speak to leaders of mainline churches on the topic of young people leaving the church. When I go through David Kinnaman’s research, which reflects just about every concern I express in my “15 Reasons” posts—(young people are leaving the church because they believe it is too exclusive, too combative with science, hyper-political, out-of-touch when it comes to sexuality, and an unsafe place in which to wrestle with doubt)—I am often met with blank stares.

“But we’re avoiding all of those pitfalls,” these leaders finally say. “We’re inclusive. We avoid talking politics. We’re not judgmental. We care for the community. Why aren’t all these disenfranchised evangelicals flocking to us?”

“Well when was the last time you talked about why you are inclusive, why you embrace science, why you care for the poor, and why you avoid aligning yourself with one political party?” I ask. “When was the last time you engaged in a serious, church-wide Bible study or launched a series on the spiritual disciplines? Evangelicals are used to being intensely engaged in their faith. If they don’t sense that your church offers them a safe place to wrestle and grow, they won’t come at all. ”

I speak from my own experience, because, while there is much I love and appreciate about mainline denominations, when I visit, I always leave feeling like something’s missing.

I miss that evangelical fire-in-the-belly that makes people talk about their faith with passion and conviction.

I miss the familiarity with scripture and the intensive Bible studies.

I miss the emphasis on cultivating a personal spirituality.

I miss sermons that step on a few toes.

I am speaking in gross generalizations here, but in my experience, going from evangelicalism to the mainline can feel a bit like jumping from one extreme to the other:

While evangelicals often adopt a narrow, literalist view of Scripture that borders on bibliolatry, I’ve spoken with mainliners who admit that they are embarrassingly illiterate when it comes to the Bible. (One woman told me that the only parts of Scripture she recognizes are those found in her hymnal, that she didn’t know the difference between Psalms and Proverbs, and that she was shocked to learn that some of her favorite liturgy was taken directly from the Bible.)

While evangelicals carry the unfortunate reputation of being married to the Republican party, mainliners are missing a great opportunity to talk about what it means to pledge one’s allegiance first and foremost to the Kingdom of God.

While some evangelicals avoid making justice a centerpiece of their mission for fear of looking too “liberal” (though I think this is improving), many mainliners fail to explain the religious motivation behind their acts of mercy. (One young woman from a mainline church put it this way: “I wasn’t learning anything about justice or creation care in church that I wasn’t learning in school. In fact, when talking about justice, my pastor was more likely to quote Gandhi than Jesus. So why would I bother going to church?”)

While evangelical pastors may care too little about who they offend, mainline pastors may care too much, to the point that they are afraid to say anything of substance.

While young people may be afraid to share their doubts and questions in evangelical churches for fear of judgment and condemnation, they may be just as afraid to share their doubts and questions in mainline churches because no one seems to be talking about those issues!

Again, my apologies for speaking in such general terms.

The mainline church family is obviously incredibly diverse, and there are many mainline churches doing an excellent job of reaching out to evangelicals, so we have to find a balance between observing trends and painting with a broad brush.

One of my favorite churches in the country—Missiongathering in San Diego—is a Disciples of Christ church that has managed to attract throngs of young people by fostering a community that is diverse, inclusive, biblically literate, spiritually connected, appreciative of both liturgy and contemporary worship, and absolutely bursting at the seams with grace. Mainline churches looking to retain and attract young people, particularly “homeless” evangelicals like myself, would do well to look to Missiongathering as a model, for, at least from my perspective, they have managed to combine all that is great about the mainline with all that is great about evangelicalism into one faith community. They aren’t perfect, of course. But when I’m in San Diego, that church feels a lot like home.


The Passionate Mainline
 by Rev. Aric Clark
April 11, 2012

Last week’s post on the mainline and me generated a big response. I heard from more than a dozen mainline pastors who were receptive and appreciative of the critique and eager to continue the conversation. I also heard from my friend, Aric Clark, a Presbyterian pastor and one of the creative minds behind the blog Two Friars and a Fool. Aric pushed back a little on some of my assumptions in the post, and I’m glad. He offered to share his thoughts in this guest post today.

Aric says he discovered he is religious and not spiritual in a Chan Buddhist monastery in Taiwan. These days he inflicts that religion on a congregation of Presbyterians in Fort Morgan, Colorado. He does this while fathering two wild heathens, writing everything but this week’s sermon, and husbanding the amazing Stacia Ann. He is a world-class Game Master, a pacifist, an over-activist, and a number 8 on the Enneagram. His influences include James Alison, Pomplamoose, Pema Chodron, Iain M. Banks, Red Hot Chili Peppers, Stephen R. Donaldson, Chipotle chicken burritos, John Howard Yoder, Cowboy Bebop, and the highland bagpipes. He still cannot grow a beard.

Aric expresses his irresponsible opinion along with his colleagues Doug Hagler and Nick Larson over at Two Friars and a Fool. Chastise him on Twitter @TwoFriars.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * *

aric-clarkWhen Rachel posted her article 15 Reasons Why I Left Church I was one of those silly mainliners in the comment threads presuming to solve all of her problems by inviting her to attend my church.

Fortunately, she responded with her piece on the Mainline and Me, explaining with her usual honesty and clarity why she hasn’t chosen to make a home in the mainline. She said that whenever she visits a mainline congregation she leaves feeling like something is missing.

To be sure, much of what she said hit the mark. There were countless disenfranchised evangelicals expressing a similar opinion in the comments and, even more tellingly, a lot of mainliners saying they agreed as well. I am writing, not to try to deny the validity of Rachel’s experience or her observations, but to push back on some of the stereotypes of us mainliners.

Consider this a minority report.

Just as Rachel did in her article I will speak in regrettable generalizations. Below I address the things she said she missed in mainline churches:

"I miss the emphasis on cultivating a personal spirituality."

It is true that there is not as much emphasis on personal piety in the mainline. Our preaching, our theology, and our worship are all oriented around systemic and communal spirituality. If you hear someone talking about sin they are more likely talking about big problems like environmental degradation, economic justice, and war, than about issues of personal morality like adultery or gluttony. Our bias just runs that way.

Personally, I’m suspicious of most piety as either being a seedbed of hypocrisy or a distraction from matters of justice. Jesus didn’t have much kind to say about the pre-eminent practitioners of piety in his day - but I also recognize that Jesus prayed in private often and my suspicion is probably unwarranted.

Indeed there has been a significant rise in personal spirituality in the mainline in recent years. Most study groups I encounter would rather be reading Thomas Merton or Henri Nouwen than Dominic Crossan. They’d rather pick up Barbara Brown Taylor’s An Altar in the World than N.T. Wright’s Scripture and the Authority of God.

"I miss sermons that step on a few toes."

There’s no excuse for a preacher who is afraid to ruffle some feathers. Across the board I wish we had more courageous voices in every wing of Christian practice. It is part of what makes Rachel so admirable - she speaks with humility and conviction.

That said, I think there is most likely a cultural gap here that is going unnoticed. Most mainline preachers I know are quite bold about calling out structural sin or proclaiming gospel truths like Christ’s love for the oppressed, the poor, the victims, and the marginalized. I imagine nearly every mainline pastor reading this has recently preached a sermon which they were nervous about because it challenged the ethics, or the politics, or the culture of their congregation. Speaking for myself I have had many long conversations with parishioners, some which ended well and some which ended poorly, about controversial messages in my sermons.

What is probably true is that mainline preachers are less likely to call individuals out on personal sin, because it is not on our radar, as such.

"I miss the familiarity with scripture and the intensive Bible studies."

Biblical literacy is a big problem in most mainline churches. There is nothing to be said to that, but “Amen.” We need to do a better job of teaching our people the Bible.

At the same time, the mainline is the beating heart of Higher Criticism. Without scholars from the mainline willing to challenge the idea that the Torah was written by Moses, the creation accounts, the Flood, and the Exodus may not have been historical events etc... modern Biblical scholarship as we know it wouldn’t exist. All of the modern translations, commentaries, and interpretations owe a huge debt of gratitude to the spirit of rigorous intellectual honesty that the mainline is primarily responsible for cultivating.

In my congregation we employ Historical Critical Method in our Bible studies. Our people wrestle with the origins, the politics, and the historicity of every text. They are free to express their doubts and their confusion. In three years we have studied the entire Old Testament book by book and the Gospels and will begin studying the Letters of Paul next. They may not be able to quote chapter and verse, but there is no doubt in my mind that they are wrestling with the Bible in an intense way.

"I miss that evangelical fire-in-the-belly that makes people talk about their faith with passion and conviction."

This is the most oft-repeated criticism of mainliners so I have saved it for last. Ever self-deprecating we Presbyterians even call ourselves “the Frozen Chosen”. Many who come to our worship from an Evangelical background find it sedate. You won’t find many praise hands, and there will be even fewer shouts of “Amen” or “Preach” from the gallery. Many mainliners choose not to speak of their faith very often in public. These stylistic, but not in my opinion substantive, differences give rise to the charge that we are lukewarm.

I think it is misplaced.

Over 60 years ago when it was still extraordinary for women to work out of the home in this country the mainline was making the theological case for women in ordained ministry against the overwhelming opposition of most Christians throughout history. We have steadfastly maintained that witness and grown better at promoting female leadership in the face of constant criticism and great cost to our congregations and to some individuals. That is not the behavior of people who are dispassionate or wishy-washy.

Moreover, this isn’t unusual for the mainline. We have been deeply involved in movements for abolition, suffrage, civil rights, economic and environmental justice, and now we are at the forefront of the movement in the church for LGBTQ inclusion. Every one of these stands was costly and unpopular. It takes conviction and courage to speak against the culture. It requires a fire in the belly to speak against our fellow brothers and sisters in Christ who have often called us heretics and apostates.

I don’t want to exaggerate the influence of the mainline or exclude others who have acted with courage in the Church. It is also true that large swaths of the mainline are fat and happy with the status quo and need a good kick in the rear, but if you want to find a church whose passionate pursuit of Christian justice has been consistent over decades you’d do well to start looking in the mainline.

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