The Joy of Not Knowing it All: Why Christian Education in the Church Matters

The following was initially delivered as a sermon on June 12, 2016 for Christian education recognition Sunday at the Congregational Church in Exeter, but it’s relevant for your church if you are starting a new year of Christian education soon!

The Pew Research Center found in 2014 that only 14.7% of American adults are a part of a mainline Protestant denomination. That’s a church like ours, as well as Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, and the like. Membership was down 3.4% in only seven years.

And numbers get worse when you look generationally. Only 11% of Millennial young adults identify as mainline Protestants, compared to 26% of their grandparents’ generation. Our own denomination has gone from over two million members in 1957 to less than one million today. And each of the other mainline denominations can tell a similar story.

We also have the worst “retention rate” when it comes to our young people with 45%, less than half, of our youth continuing to claim our tradition into young adulthood. That number dips to 37%, or just over a third, when you look at Millennials. More and more of our youth are graduating from high school, stepping out into the world, and becoming “nones”.

So what does that have to do with Christian education? And what does it have to do with this story we read today, the one where Jesus tells his disciples that if they want to enter the kingdom of heaven, they have to become like little children?

First, I think this story reminds us just how important children are, and just how much of our ministry has to be focused on them. We have to do the work that allows our youngest to get to know Jesus. They need to know that they are loved beyond measure by God. They need to know what Jesus taught about being good and kind and loving your neighbor. And they need us to make sure there are no barriers in their way as they do.

We work very hard to do that. We have a fantastic group of adult volunteers in this church. You teach Sunday school, you chaperone youth events, you show our youngest how to make music. From the very start of my ministry with you I’ve been so impressed by the way you take education and formation seriously, especially with our children and youth.

But that’s not all this text teaches. Because as much as Jesus was turning the culture of the times, and not so long ago times, on its head by saying children were supposed to be both seen and heard, he was also teaching the adults an important lesson.

Because not only was it their job to let the children come, he was telling them that they themselves had to become like children. They had to let go of their self-assurance and of appearing like they knew it all, and they had to remember what it was like to be young again. Only when they did that, could they really have a relationship with Christ.

And so what is it like to get to know Jesus the way that a child would?

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Apples for teachers at the Blessing of the Backpacks last September.

I was thinking about that this week and I was thinking about how our youngest learn. I was thinking about this at the 5th grader barbecue on Friday night when we were making s’mores over a fire. The conversation moved quickly from “how can we best toast marshmallows” to “what else can we burn in the fire”?

Don’t worry…nothing burned down. But as the questions came, as well as the limits, and a few well-supervised experiments happened, I realized something: more than anything else, the youngest among us are curious.

It doesn’t matter if we are talking about campfires, or Christ. They want to learn. They want to get to know more. They are not afraid of asking questions.

That’s a gift. Because for adults asking questions often feels like a sign of weakness. Not knowing it all is a red flag to others, we think. And so we grow incurious. And we don’t grow at all.

But that’s not what Jesus asked us to do. Jesus never told us to become mindless. He never told us to stop exploring. He never wanted a church of know-it-alls who stopped learning.

He wanted the curious. And he wanted disciples.

Take a minute and think about how you understand that word “disciple”.

When you hear it do you automatically think “followers of Jesus”? That wouldn’t be surprising. The word has certainly come to take on that meaning. But the reality is that the word has been used for so many other followers too. In Jesus’ time a lot of teachers and leaders had a group of disciples.

Disciples would follow someone attentively because being a disciple, to anyone, had to do with one thing in particular: learning. Disciples sincerely thought that the person they were following had something to teach. So much so that the actual word that the original New Testament texts, written in Greek, use for disciples is mathetes. You don’t need to remember that exact word, but know that the easiest translation of it is simply this: students, or learners.

Many of you are teachers or educators of some kind. You want well-educated church leaders. And I would guess that if I asked you what wanted for their children or grandchildren or any other young person in their lives, one of the first things you would say would be “I want them to get a good education.” Or, “I want them to love learning.”

That’s a good thing because you can’t help but grow when you learn. Conversely, when you stop learning, you stop growing.

The same is true for Christians. If we stop learning and growing, then we can’t do any of the work of the church. Learning is the way we prepare to be Christians. But even in churches that are filled with highly educated people, we sometimes forget that.

In order to become disciples, simply reading and listening is not enough. One can devote hours to the academic study of Christian faith without any real desire to be a disciple. In order to be that, you have to take it one step further; you have to be willing to grow. And there is no growth I know of that does not demand change.

And spiritual growth starts with knowing your purpose, and knowing who and whose you are. A church culture that encourages this growth acts like oxygen to a fire. The flames are fed, and the fire blazes. But a church culture that dismisses faith development and spiritual growth, and that fails to cultivate a sense of purpose, acts like a natural damper. The fire will burn out, one log at a time, until all you have left are ashes.

I believe that’s one reason that the statistics aren’t looking very promising for mainline churches. Because, historically, we haven’t emphasized discipleship at every age. And if we aren’t fostering curiosity and growth for adults, they will find it elsewhere.

That’s one reason I asked everyone to read the New Testament this summer. Because you can’t read the Bible and not get more curious. This is not a book of easy answers. It’s one that invites us into a relationship. It’s one that reminds us that we don’t know everything. And it’s one that, if we come to it with the hearts of children, makes us go deeper, and grow.

If we are going to teach our children and youth well, then we have to become like them. Our own Christian growth cannot end with our last youth group meeting or Sunday school class. To be a disciple, you have to commit to growing. And you have to be as curious as the youngest among us.

Thankfully, looking around at our children and youth, we have some pretty good teachers in that respect.

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By the way, is your church looking for a new book for your adult Christian education program? Want something that a reading group could devour? Check out “Glorify” here: 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

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 “Next Big Thing” for the Progressive Church: Putting the Horse Before the Cart

“So, now that we have LGBT equality in the progressive mainline church, what are we going to do now? What’s the next big thing?”

I get asked that question from time to time. The tide seems to have turned in many ways when it comes to the inclusion of LGBT people in the church and in our country as a whole. Doors to ordination are opening, marriages are being blessed, and the church is growing more comfortable with talking openly about sexuality and gender. And so, the question is already being asked by some: What shall we work on next? What big issue does the church need to face?

I have a few thoughts. First, I don’t think the church is anywhere near coming to the end of discussions about full inclusion for LGBT people. Yes, we are far better off than we were ten years ago, and even further from where we were before that, but we aren’t close to being completely inclusive yet. (By the way, we’re not quite done with debates over the role of women or confronting our complicity in racism, either.)

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

Calling of the Disciples, by He Qi

But, for purposes of discussion, let’s just say it is time for the mainline church to start looking for the “next big thing” that will unite us in purpose and divide us in debate. What will it be?

I have some ideas. Caring for the environment is on the top of the list. Responding to immigration and other humanitarian crises is too. So is interfaith understanding. And I don’t think it will be too long until the church seriously begins to discuss economic inequalities. There are a lot of possibilities.

I was thinking about that last week. I was sitting in a discussion talking about my views on why it’s important for progressive ministers to be able to talk about our faith, and about what Christ means to us. I was talking about discipleship, and why it matters for our often progressive church. And I was talking about how we’ve lost so much of our theological heritage, and language of faith. And then the question came, part-curious, part-suspect:

“But what about social justice? Does that not matter to you?”

Like I said, the person who asked didn’t know me. They didn’t know that for the past twenty years I have been openly gay. They didn’t know about the times anonymous anti-gay hate letters showed up in my church’s mailbox during my last call, or about how I’d grown up in a place where being gay could literally get you blown up, or about how Heidi and I had needed to file separate federal tax returns even after we got married.

And they didn’t know about the times my faith had compelled me to take action. They didn’t know about how we had stood in the New York State Capitol for the better part of a week as right-wing Christians protesting against equal marriage had yelled at us that we were going to hell. I’ve gone a few rounds in the social justice arena.

But the person who questioned that? They aren’t alone. So many times when I talk about why the church needs to reclaim discipleship, starting with asking ourselves “who do I believe that Jesus is to me” even my progressive Christian friends look at me sideways. Those of us who see ourselves as progressive evangelicals often find ourselves being told that we are too dogmatic, too conservative, or too focused on what doesn’t matter.

Except, I think it does matter. I think it matters more than we know.

I often worry that the progressive church has begun to define itself not by our affirmations, but by our repudiations. When compared with our more conservative brothers and sisters we are so quick to say “we aren’t like that”. We proclaim “not all Christians believe that way” with ease. But when it comes to talking about what we DO believe, we often find we lack the words.

I am sometimes worried that we in the progressive church put the cart before the horse when it comes to social justice. It’s not that I believe we are advocating for the wrong things; it’s that I believe we sometimes advocate for the wrong reasons, acting first and then wedging theological meaning in later.

I am glad that churches stand up against anti-gay measures. I wish more would. But I want us to talk about why our Christian convictions are compelling us to do so.

I give thanks for every church member that stands and protests against the death penalty, but I want us to be able to talk about what the crucified Christ taught us about the value of human life.

I respect every minister who holds a placard in front of the White House and speaks about climate change, but I wish I heard more about how God created the world and called it good, and why that’s why we can’t be silent.

When I walk into a voting booth, I take my faith with me. When I cast my votes, I do so in accordance with what the Gospel has taught me. I cannot separate the two. And I give thanks for that.

But before I got to this place, I first had to become a disciple. I had to read the Gospel for myself. I had to want to follow the Christ they talked about. And only then could I go about the work of living my faith in the public arena, both in the larger church and in the world.

And so when people ask me what the “next big thing” in the church will be, I tell them this: discipleship.

There are a lot of reasons why the church doesn’t wield the influence we once had in the public sphere, but I think the main one is this: we have forgotten our foundation. We have forgotten what it means to be disciples. And people can see through us.

Few people are interested in joining just another public advocacy group. And those who are can find far more effective ones. The progressive church is not the Democratic Party at Prayer, to borrow a phrase. And if we continue to lose our theological literacy, and our ability to talk about our faith, that’s all we will end up being. Without a bedrock of belief, the whole enterprise of church-based social justice will crumble.

But that doesn’t have to happen.

It’s time for progressive Christians to claim discipleship. It’s time to get radical, not about our politics or our policies, but about our faith. It’s time to stop throwing the baby Jesus out with the bath water, and start putting the horse before the cart. It’s time to remember what, and who, we worship. It’s time to develop the language of faith. And it’s time to see our social justice work as a natural product of our discipleship, not something that competes with it for the church’s time.

And only then, when we have gone back to the source and found what ultimately binds us together with God and with one another, can we go out and find the next, next big thing. And whenever that happens, we will be better for it. And we just may find that when it comes to changing the world for the better, the Gospel of Why We Are Different Than Other Christians can’t hold a candle to the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Religious Right (Side of History)

For Christians in the mainline Protestant denominations, this has been an interesting summer. First, the Presbyterian Church (USA) rejected an amendment which would have opened the church up to blessing same-sex marriages. Then, less than a week later, the Episcopal Church approved a new liturgy to bless same-sex unions and also affirmed the ministry of transgender clergy.

 

For the rest of us mainline folks (members of the United Church of Christ, United Methodists, Lutherans, Disciples, and others) it has been both fascinating and heart-wrenching to watch. Regardless of the outcome, the emotion has been clear. After the PCUSA vote, youth cried on the floor of the General Assembly. The day after the the Episcopal vote, one diocese walked out.

 

Many speculate that some mainline denominations may be headed for an ideological schism. The narrow margin of the Presbyterian decision, just 30 votes, is one indication of just how split that denomination is on major issues of inclusion and Biblical interpretation. Other denominations face similar quandaries. It’s clear that mainline Christians of all stripes are at a watershed.

 

It helps to remember that we have been here before, and more than once.

 

I was ordained in the PCUSA (before having my own departure over LGBT inclusion and becoming UCC). I was always struck by the fact that the denomination had split in two during the Civil War over slavery. The same happened in many of the other major churches of the day. For some, the split was temporary. Methodists rejoined one another in 1939. It took the Presbyterians until 1983. Some never reunited. (Which is one reason the North is filled with American Baptist congregations, while Southern Baptists prevail in the South.)

 

You would think American mainliners would have learned their lesson, but they didn’t. Further splits occurred over the ordination of women, desegregation, Biblical inerrancy, and more. And now, the splits are coming over LGBT inclusion.

 

We’ve known this for years. One of the reasons LGBT inclusion has not yet occurred is that we are so afraid of what a schism will mean. We want to preserve the body of Christ, because that is what we are called to do. But, if we are honest, we also want to remain relevant. Relevance is the catch-phrase in the shrinking church, and a denomination half its size is seen as even more irrelevant.

 

Except, here’s the rub: size does not determine relevance. Doing the right thing does.

 

When I was in the PCUSA I often heard straight allies decline to push harder for LGBT rights for fear it would “split the church”. No one wanted that, but the reality was that the church was already splitting. LGBT people, and their families and friends, were walking out the door. This was true of many churches, and the irony was that each time they failed to do the right thing, the prophetic thing, for fear of losing relevance, they lost it even more.

 

When Jesus told his disciples to go out two by two he gave them clear instructions: Preach a prophetic truth.  If you are rejected, if your message is not heard, move on. Shake the dust from your feet and keep moving.

 

I don’t think Jesus was telling his disciples to not care about the people who rejected them. I don’t think he was saying “give up hope that they will change their minds”. I think he was saying this: sometimes you won’t get everyone one board, but the train has to keep moving forward. Otherwise it will derail.

 

We talk a lot about the power of the religious right to negatively influence the fate of LGBT civil rights, but we are talking about the wrong religious right there. What LGBT people need now is not more of the religious right. We need more religious and on the right side of history. We need more Christians ready to stand up for the right thing no matter what, even if it means some won’t follow them. We need religious folks ready to shake the dust of fear and rejection off their feet and follow Jesus anyway. People who are willing to take the big risks their faith demands no matter the cost.

 

This will not be the last issue to divide the church. Give it thirty or forty years and something else will come along. By that point the country as a whole will have evolved and moved on and non-inclusion of LGBT people will be an embarrassing chapter in our history, just like all the others through the years. My hope is the mainline church will be re-united by then, but history tells us it may well not be.

 

That’s okay. Because the mark of faithfulness is not found in our membership numbers. It’s not found in a commitment to an non-controversial faith that never makes anyone uncomfortable. It’s found in how well we follow Christ, who taught us to love one another and work for justice. The only fate worse than schism for the church is being lukewarm when it comes to issues of justice. Jesus never accepted us being lukewarm. For those of us who want to be standing on the religious right side of history, that’s a good reminder.

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?

The Mainline Church and Dusty Feet: A sermon for July 8, 2012

When I was younger I used to hear people use the phrase “shake the dust from your feet” and I would have no idea what they were talking about. Someone would leave a job or their relationship would break up and another person would tell them, “just shake the dust from your feet and move on”.

It’s a weird phrase. What dust are they talking about? And what does shaking dust from your feet have to do with moving on from a bad relationship? It wasn’t until much later when I read this passage that I understood where that language even came from and why it made sense.

Jesus is sending out his disciples to the people. He’s sending them out two by two and he’s telling them to be prophets. That means he’s telling them to speak a hard, but liberating, truth to the people they meet. He tells them to leave everything behind. Don’t even take food. Just go.

Jesus tells them to stay in any place that welcomes them for a while, but if they are rejected, if people refuse to hear what they are saying, to leave. And he tells them that as they walk away they should shake the dust off their feet as a sign that they had not been welcomed.

When I think about Jesus I usually don’t think about him like this. I think about the shepherd who leaves the flock behind to find the one missing sheep, the one who never lets us go. But then I remember that there was a time that Jesus faced rejection too. He tells the disciples that a prophet is not without honor, except in their hometown. He knew that from personal experience. He knew what the disciples were going to face.

This is not Jesus rejecting or leaving people behind. Instead this is Jesus telling his disciples that sometimes this is the hard truth: you will be rejected and you will have to move on and hope that the ones who rejected you will later change their minds and follow you. Jesus knew that sometimes it was impossible to get everyone on board, but that sometimes you had to move forward anyway before the train derailed.

Its sort of a Leadership Principles of Jesus 101 class. As much as you want consensus, as much as you want everyone to join you, that won’t always happen. And sometimes you have to just move forward and do the right thing anyway.

I was thinking about this last week. I was watching the webcast of the biannual national meeting of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church. It’s a church I still love, but I, like many others, had my own moment of shaking the dust from my feet in order to join a church that was truly committed to moving forward and embracing all in their ministry.

What struck me this day, though, had to do with youth and young adults. The Presbyterians stop periodically to worship. They had been in the midst of heavy, contentious debate, so the worship came at the best possible time. And on this day these young people, mostly high school and college students, had planned and were leading a very good service.

Except right before worship started, many of the meeting attendees slipped out. The youth found themselves with a far smaller crowd than they should have had. But that was okay. They moved forward, and they worshipped God anyway, and it was wonderful and prophetic.

In the midst of this, one wise adult quipped: Next time we wonder why young people are not staying in our church, we may want to remember this. They were right. The young people were bringing a prophetic voice, and it was being ignored. It makes perfect sense that they might shake the dust off their feet and move on to a place that hears their message and wants to work with them.

Now, Im not calling out the Presbyterians here, because this is an issue for the larger church. This happens in denominations, and in churches, all over. The younger generations, including my own, don’t want to engage in church arguments. We don’t want to watch lukewarm churches debate endlessly about doing something good, no matter what it is. We want to be in places of justice and action and goodness.

Those youth had just watched their church being torn apart over an issue that in their minds is greatly settled. But then they offered worship, and no one listened. They were so exhausted from the arguing, that they walked away from the balm of Gilead. I think that’s an example of why so many young people, and people of every age, have shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet, and decided to forge their own spiritual path instead. When the church doesn’t receive prophetic voices, those prophetic voices will walk away from us shake the dust off their feet, and walk into the future.

Sometimes I wonder if when Jesus, a person of prophetic action, was talking about not being welcomed in his hometown, he was talking about the church?

But what if it didn’t have to be that way? What if the church, and particularly mainline churches like ours, like the Presbyterians, like the Episcopalians, became places focused on listening to God’s still speaking, prophetic voice, no matter where I came from? What if we were less focused on weighing the pros and cons until the time for action had passed and we had become irrelevant? What if instead we chose to become a people of action, welcoming the prophetic voices that all of us have? A people known more for our good works, than our hesitation.

What if we shook some dust from our own feet, and left the places that were holding us back behind? What if both in our personal lives, and in our lives together, we looked at the places where we felt stuck, where we felt paralyzed with fear or anxiety or inertia, and we decided that we were going to leave those places behind, shake the dust from our feet, and follow Jesus.
If we did that, I believe we could create something that people would take notice of, and want to be a part of. Even the ones who had shaken the dust of organized religion off their feet might come back and join us.

There’s a business book that I’ve been looking at that might have some relevance for those of us in the church. Now generally I’m wary of mingling the corporate and the church worlds, but the reality is that God can speak through anything.

The book is called “Blue Ocean Strategy” and it was published about seven years ago. In it the author talks about two different kinds of oceans. Blue oceans, and red oceans. Red oceans are overcrowded, and contain a glut of organizations that to the outside observer may as well be all the same. They look like, they talk alike, they offer the same thing. Eventually they make one another irrelevant.

But blue oceans are different. They offer a new product. They do it in a different way. They explore the spaces that have never been explored before. And eventually, they stand out and they attract people to them.

The book is about marketing, but I’m not talking about increasing profits. At least not with an “i” I’m talking about increasing prophets, with an “e”.

What is to stop a casual passerby from driving past one more church and thinking that church looks exactly like the last one and the one before that and the one before that and I’ll bet their all the same?

Being a church that blends in doesn’t help to grow prophets. People have rejected “all the same” whether it comes in a white meeting house church with traditional hymns or an auditorium with guitar music. They want something different.

So how do we do that? I don’t ask because I want more people on our roles. The mark of a faithful church is not its membership numbers. I ask because I want us to become a place that welcomes Christ’s voice, and shares it with the world.

Do we offer that free meal? Do we go out of our way to welcome people who may feel unwelcome? Do we finally start that men’s fellowship we’ve been kicking around for years? I can’t answer that. That’s up to you.

But I do know this. Christ has sent us here with a message for the world. One that is important enough that he didn’t want us to waste any time. If we are really going to follow him, everyday we have to look at the places that are holding us back, shake the dust from our feet, and go. If we do that, we will find much more than a blue ocean. We will find the kingdom of God, and we will be welcome there. Amen.