A couple of years ago, I wrote a blog post on my ideas about church growth and pastoral leadership:
As it turns out, this post said what many others were thinking. I watched as it made its way around the theological corners of the blogosphere, sparking an enthusiastic “Amen!” from many of my colleagues in ministry. The response, however, has not been entirely positive. A small minority of commentators have branded me as a ‘Leftist’ whose heretical views are responsible for the decline of mainline Protestant churches.
Why have I been so labeled?
- Have I blasphemed against the doctrines of the Trinity, the Incarnation, or the Atonement? No.
- Have I called for Christians to stop praying, throw out the Bible, or cease & desist from celebrating the Sacraments? No.
- Have I discouraged churches from engaging in mission, serving their communities, or speaking publicly about their faith? No.
I have done none of these things. To the contrary, my call in the article is for more prayer and Bible study, more frequent celebrations of the Eucharist, and more community outreach, all of which are activities that even the most theologically conservative Christians could get behind with their whole hearts.
The issue that has repeatedly stoked the fires of anger in some of my readers is my use of a single, three-lettered pronoun: She. The hypothetical pastor in my article is a woman.
It was a relatively minor editorial decision that I made on the fly. When I wrote the article, I didn’t set out to make any kind of deliberate statement about feminism or gender equality through my use of pronouns. Honestly, I didn’t give it much thought because it didn’t seem like a big deal to me at the time.
I serve in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), where we have ordained women to the ministry of Word and Sacrament for over half a century. In every single congregation I have served, women have not only been my colleagues, but also my predecessors at the table and in the pulpit. My wife was ordained several years before I was and it was through her, in part, that I began to discern my own call to pastoral ministry.
I have been shocked that this minor detail seems to have drawn out the sexist attitudes that still poison our church life and do violence to the gospel itself, no less than the arbitrary distinctions between Jews and Gentiles that St. Paul sought to overcome in his time.
It seems ridiculous to me that this particular article could have sparked such a hateful reaction.
Even though the article itself only advocates for things that could be affirmed by all Christians, detractors point to my use of feminine pronouns as evidence for a liberal conspiracy to undermine, subvert, and destroy the church from within.
Gender equality had nothing to do with the main thrust of my article, but it has emerged as an important issue in the way that the article has been received by its critics. To me, their unexpected vitriol highlights two important realities:
- That our sisters in ordained ministry are being compelled to carry the cross of mainline decline.
- That some versions of the conservative vision for ‘renewal’ in the church have little to do with fidelity to the gospel and much to do with returning to a nostalgic ideal of a specifically American way of life, dominated by straight, white men.
In the time since the article’s initial publication, I have received numerous requests for it to be reprinted in church bulletins and newsletters. Some churches have asked whether they could change the pronouns from feminine to masculine. I have refused to authorize any such changes.
I think it’s important to keep the feminine pronouns as they are. So long as it is up to me, I would rather there not be a second version of this article in circulation that could be used to remove the scandal for sexist ears.
Thank you all once again for reading, reflecting, and commenting. I’m surprised and honored that an article I wrote for this blog over two years ago is receiving renewed attention. I’m glad to be on the journey with all of you.
In the same vein as A Growing Church is a Dying Church, I’d like to share this article by Joseph Yoo on Ministry Matters. It’s yet another useful tool for pastors and churches as we try our best to follow Jesus:
In a recent sermon, Pastor Andy Stanley stated that every church has a gravitational pull to be a church that serves only its members — a pull to be a church for just insiders. That’s because 100 percent of the complaints, suggestions, critiques, and comments come from people who are already there — already attending the church. The leadership team feels pressure to bend towards a lot of those complaints and suggestions and in turn they become more inwardly focused than outwardly focused. So the church becomes more and more friendly to the “insiders” because we put a lot of effort into meeting the needs of the “insiders.” It’s easy to ignore the “outsiders” — those we’re trying to reach — because they have no voice within the walls of the church. And they have no voice, no suggestions, and no complaints because they aren’t present.
Hacking Christianity has posted a wonderful response to A Growing Church is a Dying Church. I can’t find an author’s name, but whoever it is has done a fantastic job of thoughtfully analyzing and critiquing my words. I’m honored that someone would care enough to craft such an in-depth response. The whole article is worth reading. Here’s the link:
Here is my rejoinder to Hacking Christianity’s rebuttal:
It wasn’t my conscious intention to be an “iconoclast of tradition”, but I can definitely see how my original post might read that way. In my own mind, I’m quite the traditionalist, especially when it comes to liturgy. If I were going to push against “tradition” at all, it would be two particular kinds:
1. Nostalgia masquerading as Tradition. In many cases, “the way we’ve always done it” actually refers to practices that only became established during the 1950s-1970s. In my experience, those who fight hardest for this variety tend to be baby boomers who want to reconstruct the church of their childhood during the postwar church-attendance explosion. What they want is a return to cultural dominance, popularity, and (most of all) money. When they talk about returning to “traditional hymnody”, they don’t want the time-tested theological depth of Isaac Watts or Charles Wesley. They want Fanny Crosby and the Sunday School hymns of the late 19th and early 20th century. Never mind the horrible theology found in “This world is not my home, I’m just a-passin’ through”, people want to sing it because it reminds them of days gone by, just like Bing Crosby at Christmas.
When my generation retires, I’m sure there will be plenty of cranky curmudgeons who will torture their pastors about singing “Shout to the Lord” and “Awesome God”. Rich Mullins will roll over in his grave on that day.
2. Habit masquerading as Tradition. “The way we’ve always done it” carries much stronger argumentative weight when people can identify why they’ve always done it that way.
For example, my wife’s grandmother used to always slice the end off of her Christmas ham each year. When my mother-in-law asked why she did that, Grandma said she didn’t know, it was just the way her mother taught her to do it. When Grandma later asked her mother about the origin of that tradition, Great Grandma revealed, “Oh, I only did that because the cooking pan I had back then was too small and a whole ham wouldn’t fit!” All along, they had continued this tradition without knowing why they did it.
Here’s a counter-example of a well-reasoned tradition: My current congregation closes the Sunday service by singing the Clare Benediction. They began this tradition while they were between pastors several years ago. There was a long interim period, followed by a tragically short pastorate, followed by another long vacancy. All in all, it had been about 7 years since they really felt at home with a pastor. That’s a long time for a church that wasn’t ready to transition to a lay-led model. The face in the pulpit varied each week (when they could get anyone to come at all), but the one symbol that held them together during that time was the fact that they closed each service with that same sung benediction. That’s a tradition that means something. They know exactly why they do it. Ironically, that same awareness of tradition has allowed them the freedom to let that practice go. This year, for the first time, we’re not singing it.
G.K. Chesterton called tradition “The Democracy of the Dead”. I love that. I want to preserve a sense of continuity with the Church Catholic from all times and places. If anything, I’d like to see more tradition, not just Amazing Grace but also Phos Hilaron. I long for us to constantly reopen the wells of living water dug by our ancestors. Some of my folks dismiss practices like Sharing the Peace and weekly Eucharist without realizing their power as ancient traditions of the Church.
Jaroslav Pelikan once remarked that tradition is not “the dead faith of the living” but “the living faith of the dead”. That’s what I want for my congregation.