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

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.