Five Things Mainline Christians Need to Stop Doing

1) Running churches and denominations like businesses.

I’ve been told that if I really want to be a highly-sought after pastor I need to get an MBA. First, I’m very happy right where I am. Second, even if I happened to be looking for a new call, no thanks.

There’s nothing wrong with having an MBA. There’s also nothing wrong with pastors learning from the field of business management. I do some reading in the area from time to time myself, and appropriate what works for use in the church. But I’ll never get an MBA.

Why? Because it’s not my call. My church is filled with well-educated people, including MBAs. They use their gifts in our church all the time. But even if we didn’t have a single MBA in my congregation, I still wouldn’t need one.

The church is an organization. That is indeed true. We are a collection of human beings trying to build, plan, and use our resources well. But, unlike businesses or even non-profits, we aren’t here to sell a product or fix a problem. We are here for the worship of God, and for the service of God’s people.

We don’t do our work in isolation. We do it by being led by the Holy Spirit.

True, we can use things like budget spreadsheets, revised organizational structures, and every physical resource we have to work towards that mission. But if we are spending more time thinking about how to use those things, and how to manage the people who are doing so, than we are about discerning God’s will for us, we are utterly lost.

It gets worse when the most unhealthy aspects of corporate culture make their way into our life together. In my larger church life I was once ruled out of order when I called for a prayer of discernment before a major vote. Other times I’ve seen transparency go out the window, or a small minority make decisions without consulting a larger group.

Check out what the Bible has to say about the qualities needed for pastors and for overseers (or “bishops”). None of them would make for great corporate leaders. But they do make for good enough church leaders. When we function as business executives, rather than church leaders, we not only disenfranchise one another, but we say we know what God desires better than the gathered church does. That is hubris at its worst.

2) Neglecting evangelism and church growth.

I’ve heard pastors say that they devote a set amount of their pastoral time every week to advocacy around one particular concern. It could be 10% of their time is spent on the environment, or 20% on LGBTQ inclusion. Those are certainly worthy of concern. But when I ask them this, I’m often greeted with a blank stare: “And how much time do you spend on evangelism and church growth?”

Usually none. Not unless you count the evangelism that comes as a by-product of advocacy. That’s surely important, but our advocacy work should not be undertaken as a means to increase our membership. That’s disingenuous.

Instead, what would it mean for our clergy leaders to actually take 10% of their ministry time and to engage in the work of proclaiming the Good News, and inviting people to discipleship? What would it look like to invest in growing our churches by encouraging life-transformative programming that proclaims God’s love? What would it look like if we could positively describe why we are Christians without first saying how we aren’t like other Christians?IMG_8457

Billy Graham once said that if you want to figure out what you worship, look at your checkbook. If I were to update it for today I’d say that if you want to figure out what you worship, just look at your planner. How you spend your time in ministry will tell you what you worship. If you, your church, or your denomination isn’t spending much of it telling the story of God’s love in some way, that’s deeply troubling.

This is the one thing the church can do that no other organization can. We have a commission to spread the Gospel by proclaiming the love and grace of Christ. Can you imagine how the mainline could be renewed if we focused our attention on reaching out to those who are hungry for spiritual depth and discipleship that requires something of us? Our churches would be growing spiritually by leaps and bounds.

3) Paying little attention to faith formation.

Does your denomination have concrete resources for faith formation? Is time and energy invested in curriculum development for children? Are youth learning what it means to be a disciple?

In Glorify I quote a sobering statistic: only 45% of the youth who grow up in mainline congregations continue to claim our tradition as adults. That doesn’t mean practice our tradition; that just means that they will admit they are one of us.

That number dips down to 37% when we are talking about Millennials. These are the kids who were raised in our churches, and they don’t want anything to do with us. They are either disengaging altogether or finding new traditions, often in Christian traditions with deeper formation programs. What does that say about our effectiveness at making them disciples?

Add to that the fact that we’ve all but given up on our college students. Every mainline denomination used to have an active college fellowship program. You could step on campus and easily find Canterbury, Westminster, Wesley Fellowship, and more. Now college ministry is dominated by well-funded programs from conservative and fundamentalist churches.

True, you don’t make any money supporting college students. They are a really bad investment from a financial sense. But the churches that are succeeding in college ministry care enough to spend that money anyway. They are planting the seeds that will yield a great harvest in coming years. Meanwhile, we mainliners are so short-sighted that we are slashing funding for our young adults who need support.

Finally, we don’t do the work of helping adults to keep growing as disciples. This is especially true of the former “nones” who come through our doors. For those of us who were raised outside of the church formation is essential. As a new Christian I had no idea how to say the Lord’s Prayer. I needed someone to help teach me the faith in a non-judgmental fashion. But even if you have gone to church every Sunday of your life, if the last time you learned anything about discipleship was high school Sunday school, then we are failing you.

4) Engaging in interfaith dialogue without doing our own work first.

I love interfaith work. I think it’s absolutely crucial in our world. We need to be addressing our historical relationships to Judaism and Islam. We need to be standing against religious oppression of all faiths. We need to learn from one another. And we need to be hearing from those who are atheist and agnostic too.

But we can’t do this honestly until we know who we are, and whose we are.

You know how you can’t really love someone until you know and love yourself? No one should get married, for instance, until they know who they are and what they stand for first. Otherwise they will just become enmeshed with the other. That’s never healthy.

And yet, well-meaning mainline Christians will often engage in interfaith dialogue without first knowing what we ourselves believe. In that case we do a disservice not only to ourselves, but to those we meet who genuinely want to know more about us. If they ask us what a Christian believes, or what our own denomination believes, and we can’t give an answer, then really we aren’t there as equal participants. We’re just asking them to teach us.

At the same time, we also risk becoming appropriative. Just like Christians who appropriate the Jewish Seder for our own reasons, without full understanding, we risk appropriating the traditions of other religions and cultures as well. When we meet our siblings from other traditions on the path we should do so with both self-knowledge and generous spirits. And when they teach us about themselves, we should use that new knowledge in order to better understand them, not to make what is theirs our own.

5) Dismantling seminaries.

Seminaries have seen better days. Once communities of formation and learning, they’ve become optional in some mainline traditions. While some never receive any educational formation for ministry, others take their entire course of study online. After all, many say, I can’t be expected to quit my job and move my family.

IMG_8461Except, Jesus was pretty clear about leaving everything behind and following him. Over half my seminary classmates packed up families, took out student loans, and left lucrative jobs to do so. Is it convenient? No. Is it easy? No. But, it’s faithful. And it’s worth it.

Seminary is more than an academic experience. It is a place where a community is formed by worship, learning, and living together. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his words to a seminary that still formed during the rise of the Third Reich, wrote to the students about the importance of living in community. He believed that it would transform both their faith and their ministry to come. (See Life Together for more.) Surely, if any generation had an excuse to skip the spiritual formation of seminary it was German seminarians in the 1930’s. And yet, they not only formed an underground seminary, many also eventually went to prison for being seminarians.

No one is asking you to do the same. But perhaps making the small sacrifice of giving three years of your life in order to be formed as a pastor is worth it. Yes, you might have to change everything in order to do so. But if you think that ministry is going to allow you the luxury of staying in one place or doing things your own way, then you are in for a disheartening shock.

That’s why denominations, and their churches, have to support their seminaries and their seminarians. This means both financially and in terms of encouraging attendance and demanding rigorous preparation. The church needs clergy who know who they are, and what they believe. We need clergy who can live in community, and wrestle within it. And we need clergy who take the call seriously enough to know they are not yet prepared to undertake it.

Without clergy who understand that enormity of this call, we will never have leaders who understand the enormity of what God has called the church to do next.

If you found meaning in this post, you’ll love Glorify: Reclaiming the Heart of Progressive Christianity. There is hope for mainline renewal, and this book can show you how to claim it for your local congregation, your denomination, and beyond: http://www.amazon.com/Glorify-Reclaiming-Heart-Progressive-Christianity/dp/0829820299/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1453486699&sr=1-1&keywords=glorify+emily+heath

Room at the Table: When Separation is the Faithful Option

I love the hope expressed in the Gospel phrase “that they may all be one”. It was Christ’s hope for the church, and it’s the motto of my own denomination, the United Church of Christ.

At the same time, I’m watching as the United Methodist Church moves towards a possible split. There are reports that United Methodist bishops are meeting to propose a way forward that includes the option of a sort of amicable separation. And in its wake I do hear the concern of those who think the church should never schism.

But the reality is that the church of Jesus Christ has been in schism for over a thousand years, and many of those schisms have been necessary and good. The Protestant Reformation was a schism. The Methodist church itself broke away from the Anglican tradition. American denominations were in schism during the Civil War, with the Presbyterians not reuniting until 1983. Other denominations have broken apart over issues involving the inclusion of women. The truth is that schism is practically as old as the church.

And it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Here’s how I think of churches that have to break apart over issues of inclusion: everyone is sitting in a large room, and there is one big table. The only trouble is, not everyone at the table agrees that everyone else should be allowed to sit. So, the ones who aren’t allowed to sit remain standing against the wall while everyone else sits there comfortably, eats well, and debates whether or not they will let the ones standing sit at the table.

Here’s what an amicable separation could look like: Everyone agrees a solution is not coming anytime soon, but a large portion of the group says “we aren’t going to wait for our friends to be allowed to sit anymore.” And so, everyone remains in the same room, but another table is set up where everyone is welcome to sit.

10245585_250411955164792_8829165948251833523_nThe larger Methodist tradition is that big room, but it could be true that it’s time to set up two tables and let the faithful LGBTQ people leaning against the wall take a seat. The church is already in schism, because a church is not whole that does not recognize the baptisms of all of its members.

Perhaps it’s time that we simply adjust the seating arrangements accordingly.

When denominations debate issues of inclusion or justice they do so because a separation has already taking place. There are already multitudes of United Methodists who are not in the room because they have had to leave it for other rooms. LGBTQ people and their allies have grown tired of waiting for a seat, and have gone to other places where their God-given gifts have been well utilized. In a quiet and gentile way, they have been schism-ed out of the church. (I get that; I was a PCUSA minister for eight years, standing against the wall and waiting. Leaving was the healthiest option I had.)

So now the United Methodist Church is facing a big moment. The UCC, Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church, and Evangelical Lutheran Church have also been here, of course. But the United Methodist Church remains the largest mainline Protestant denomination in this country, and the split is becoming more deeply entrenched. The fact that the idea transgender people should undergo “reparative therapy”, a fringe treatment condemned by everyone respectable medical and psychological association, is getting serious support at General Conference is just one example.

So the time has come to ask the question: Can the people leaning against the wall wait any longer? Or is it time to set up a table where they can sit down.

Like I said, I do pray for a time in which “they may all be one”. Because we are humans, and deeply fallible, I fear that may not come about on earth. It may only be in the next life, when we see God’s love and truth face-to-face.

But that’s not to say there isn’t something good that can come from this. This week over 1,000 LGBTQ clergy members from other denominations said we would stand in solidarity with our United Methodist LGBTQ colleagues. To me that’s a symbol of what progressive Christians from all mainline denominations should do more of going forward.

I am a devoted student and lover of Reformed theology, and even I can say that in the 21st century church we can’t make our theological differences our idols. The reality is that Luther, Calvin, Wesley, were they alive today, would have far more in common than we realize. I wonder what they would think about their 21st descendants fighting 16th, 17th, and 18th century theological battles when the real work of the Gospel is yet to be done.

And so, if the United Methodist Church splits, I will not see it as a failure. I will see it as a commitment to get everyone a seat at the table. But more than that, I hope it will be a call for all of us who are progressive Christians to gather together in a bigger room, and to all sit together in fellowship. We don’t have to forget where we come from, but we do have to remember why we are here now.

Ironically, maybe it’s this moment of separation that will somehow move us closer to the time that we will “all be one”.

The Episcopal Church, Equal Marriage, and Religious (il)Literacy

Today the Episcopal Church voted to approve a liturgy which blesses same-sex unions. It’s a great step forward for equality, and a time for thanksgiving. It’s also another opportunity to watch the way that stories about mainline churches are often mis-reported by the media.

The headlines today say the Episcopal Church is the first maichurch denomination to approve same-sex marriage. That’s wrong on two counts. First, the Episcopal Church is explicitly avoiding the use of “marriage” in describing these same-sex rites. Second, the United Church of Christ, a denomination roughly the same size and with as deep a heritage as the Episcopal Church, affirmed marriage equality in 2005 and calls all unions (gay and straight) “marriages”.

This is just the latest example of reporters,including religion reporters, getting it wrong. Last year, for example, the ordination of the “first out LGBT Presbyterian minister” was heralded in religion sections everywhere. For the sizeable number of PCUSA clergy who had been ordained when they were also out, this was surprising news.

So why do journalists who often pride themselves on accuracy so often get it wrong?

I think it points to a greater issue: the lack of mainline voices in the public arena. Members of the religious right have co-opted the public square and professed to speak for all Christians. Whether it’s birth control, LGBT rights, or the role of women, they’ve somehow convinced the news industry, and those who rely on it, that they are the voice of Christians everywhere. In doing so, we in the mainline have become less relevant, less well-known, and less distinguishable.

So, mainliners, how do we change that?

Not a Bad Friend to Have: Sermon for May 13, 2012 on John 15:9-17

We rarely talk about friendship in the church. That’s a bit of an oversight, isn’t it? Because for most of us, friendship matters quite a lot.

I’m blessed to have some really close friends who I know will always be there if I need them. If my car broke down in Massachusetts, I know I could call my friends Kathryn and Becky. If something happened at 4am, I know my college roommate andria would pick up the phone. If I need someone to pray for me, I know I can ask my friend Mykal.

And more importantly, I know that if any of them needed something, they know that they could call me. And they have. I’ve changed tires. Tried to fix broken hearts. Lugged moving boxes. Even posted bail once. Because that’s what friends do.

We are born with one family, but often our friends become our chosen family. Their stories and our own become inseparable, and we become better for knowing them.

We value the idea of our friendships with others, but how often do we think about friendship in terms of our spiritual life? Not just in terms of our friendship with one another, but also in terms of our friendship with God, and God as incarnate in Jesus Christ?

Growing up in the South, when someone asked me, “Do you have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ?” I knew it was time to get away, because Someone was about to try to convert me. That phrase was sort of a code for members of fundamentalist churches looking for new members.

The truth is, I was already a Christian. Not because I had had the sort of revelatory, sudden conversion experience that my more fundamentalist classmates told me I had to have, but because I’d

always had this sort of quiet, mainline faith that had grown over time

My on,y exposure to churches were in th kind that often get called the “frozen chosen”: Congregational, Presbyterian, Episcopalian. We emphasized God’s love for us, and mission, and trying to live a good life, just like we do here every week. But we rarely talked about what it means to have an actual relationship with Christ. We knew who we are were and that God loved us, but we just didn’t talk about it much.

And most of the time, we were just fine with that. Hence the name, frozen chosen.

But sometimes even us frozen chosen need something more. And thats where Scripture passages like today’s come in.

Jesus is talking to the disciples about his relationship with them. And the language he uses is not the kind those of us from the more frozen chosen backgrounds my expect, or even be most comfortable with. It’s not Christ the CEO who gives us orders. Not Christ the lawyer with a bunch of statutes for us to follow, neatly bound together. Not even Christ the teacher, or benevolent religious authority.

It’s Christ, the friend. Christ who calls us friends.

Those folks who used to ask me whether I had a personal relationship with Jesus Christ were not espousing a kind of Christianity I subscribe to, but they also weren’t all wrong. Christ does call us to be more than just servants of him. He calls us to be more than even just disciples. He calls us to be friends.

That idea can take some getting used to. If it’s four am and I have a flat with no spare, I need someone with a cell phone and drivers license. I don’t think Jesus has either. And even if he did, would you call? Or would you want to keep a little comfortable distance? A little space. Boundaries, even.

I think a lot of us put those walls up in our hearts sometimes in our relationship with Christ. We know he’s there. We know he loves us. But do we have the day to day relationship that our friend might want from us?

The reality is I’ve made a lot of late night calls to Jesus. Maybe not via cell, but certainly in my heart. It’s usually when I’ve needed something. Maybe you’ve done the same. I can’t say I’ve always been a good friend to Jesus.

But the thing is, as my relationship with God has deepened through the years, more and more I want to be.

I don’t think that’s an accident. Jesus tells us that before we chose him, he chose us. That grace was offered to us and we had no choice but to accept it. And once that grace gets a hold of you, it doesn’t let go. There is a continuing longing for God that may ebb and f,ow through the years, but that never goes away, no matter how frozen we may appear on the outside.

That’s not unique to our relationship with Christ, you know. Because we have another example of it in our lives.

Today is mother’s day, of course. And it’s fitting that we are talking about this idea of being loved first on this day. Because parents, even as imperfect as every parent is at times, love before they can be loved. They chose to love their children. And children learn to love by being loved.

It’s the same with Jesus. We are Christ’s friend because we first were his. We chose him as a friend only because he first chose us.

Christ tells us, 13No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. 14You are my friends if you do what I command you.

Christ laid down his life for his friends before we even knew we were. And now he asks us to do the same for our own friends, including him.

So how do we lay down our life for those we love? Fortunately, being a friend to Jesus and being a friend to others are often two signs of the same coin. You find you can’t do one without doing the other.

Now, sometimes laying down your life for your friends, and Christ’s, really means laying down your life. A few weeks ago, with the 100th anniversary of the Titanic sinking, it seems like the story was everywhere. I’ve never been particularly interested in the story, but one thing I saw caught my eye.

it was the story of the priest on the Titanic, Father Thomas Byles. When it became clear that the ship was sinking, he twice turned down a seat in a lifeboat. Instead, he stayed on the deck, and prayed and comforted the people who couldn’t leave, and went down with all of them. He could have saved himself, but instead he decided to be a friend to God by being a friend to God’s friends.

It leaves you wondering, could I do that? Could I pass up a lifeboat twice and instead choose a certain death? Could I embrace that greater love of laying down my life for my, and Jesus’ friends?

I’d like to think so, but thankfully most of us will never have to find out.

But that doesn’t mean we’re off the hook. Because there are a lot more ways than one to lay down your life, and be Jesus’ friend. And very few of them involve actually going down with a ship. Most involve laying down the life you know and instead choosing one of greater commitment to being a friend of Christ.

That’s not always easy. Sometimes being a friend of Christ means you end up making choices that may feel a lot like sacrifices. Sacrifices of time, or money, or prestige. Or sometimes you might find yourself unable to just be happy with the life you thought you always wanted. You find yourself looking for something a little deeper. A little more meaningful. As our friendships with Christ deepen, pure hearts, maybe a little frozen at times, warm and thaw. And everything changes because Christ’s friendship changes everything.

The one thing I know for certain about friendship is this: it tends to be a two way street. What you put in to a friendship, like every relationship, is what you get out. That’s especially true when you know the other person is committed to it. Christ already showed us he is. He did it 2000 years ago when he became one of us. And so now we respond, giving our gifts of gratitude. And what do you get the Friend who has everything? Just our hearts, and our hands, and our lives. He has a lot of work left to do in our world, and a true friend always shows up when a friend needs a hand. Amen.