COMMENTARY: Church shouldn’t be this hard (Reblog)

Reblogged from the Washington Post

After 36 years of serving churches as a pastor and consultant, I came to a startling conclusion the other day.

Not startling to you, perhaps. I might be the last person to get the memo. But the conclusion drew me up short.

My conclusion: Religion shouldn’t be this hard.

An assembly that exists to help people shouldn’t be so willing to hurt people — by declaring them worthless, unacceptable, undesirable or strangers at the gate.

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) Faithful to the end: An interview with Eugene Peterson

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Peterson’s wisdom never fails to strike a chord.  Once again, he nails it…

A couple of excerpts:

…pastoring is not a very glamorous job. It’s a very taking-out-the-laundry and changing-the-diapers kind of job. And I think I would try to disabuse them of any romantic ideas of what it is. As a pastor, you’ve got to be willing to take people as they are. And live with them where they are. And not impose your will on them. Because God has different ways of being with people, and you don’t always know what they are.

And, as someone who grew up in big churches, but has been either a member or a pastor in small churches for most of my adult life, I just love hearing this bit of advice for those who want to take Christian faith seriously:

Go to the nearest smallest church and commit yourself to being there for 6 months. If it doesn’t work out, find somewhere else. But don’t look for programs, don’t look for entertainment, and don’t look for a great preacher. A Christian congregation is not a glamorous place, not a romantic place. That’s what I always told people. If people were leaving my congregation to go to another place of work, I’d say, “The smallest church, the closest church, and stay there for 6 months.” Sometimes it doesn’t work. Some pastors are just incompetent. And some are flat out bad. So I don’t think that’s the answer to everything, but it’s a better place to start than going to the one with all the programs, the glitz, all that stuff.

(Reblog) A bivocational minister warns against bivocational ministry

I don’t normally post one article after another, but this was too good to pass up.

I have been a bi-vocational minister for the last five years and am getting ready to begin my first full-time position in September.  As one who has tried it, I can whole-heartedly agree with the author of this article.  Bi-vocational ministry (a.k.a. Tentmaking) is downright tricky.  If we’re going to hold it up as a viable option for ministry in the mainline denominations of the future, then we absolutely must re-evaluate how we practice and support it.  Especially for young(ish) pastors like me, simultaneously starting two careers and a family without retirement or healthcare benefits from either job is straight up unsustainable.

Let me be clear that I don’t intend this as a slight or knock to the congregation I have served for the past several years.  They have struggled and bent over backwards for me.  They have provided every ounce of support they could muster.  I have been blessed.

These words should be directed to churches and denominations at-large as they seek to blaze a trail for future generations in ministry.

In my opinion, bi-vocational ministry is a more viable option for second-career clergy and commissioned/licensed lay ministers who don’t bear the burden of seminary student-debt.  Our denominations should also continue exploring options of merging and yoking congregations.  I do not recommend telling first-career seminarians that they should expect to never have a full-time job.  Frankly, that would decimate the church.

Reblogged from the Christian Century:

I know that we cry about not having enough money, and we certainly don’t have enough money to be doing things in the same way, but our denominations have great abundance. We have property, assets, and foundations. We have wealthy members. In many denominations (like the PCUSA), there are great income disparities among our clergy. One pastor is living off food stamps while her neighbor makes six figures. Sometimes they’re on the staff of the same church.

To be starving off our leadership seems like a determination to dwindle. We can do without a lot of things, but it would be difficult for us to thrive without our pastors. We have enough, can’t we learn to be creative and support our clergy?

Click here to read the full article

The Wrath of God and the Presbyterian Hymnal

The number one rule of the internet is: “Don’t feed the trolls.”

Hopefully, I’m not about to violate it, but we’ll see.

I came across an article this morning that got my kettle boiling (more than it usually is).  It came from an online publication called The Blaze.  I’m not familiar with this one, but they seem to have an affinity for conservative ideas, so far as I can tell from a cursory scan of their website.

The article is titled: Why Is a Major Church Denomination Banning Famed Hymn ‘In Christ Alone’ From Its New Song Book?  It’s about the denomination I serve, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and our new hymnal that comes out this fall.  I have several bones to pick with this article: some technical, some theological.  Hold onto your hats, because here we go… (takes a deep breath):

First of all, the song wasn’t “banned” from our hymnal, it was voted out.  The Committee on Congregational Song, after much discussion and discernment, democratically decided (9 to 6) not to include it.  Such was the case with many other suggested songs.  In Christ Alone is not prohibited from being sung in PC(USA) congregations.  I have done so on several occasions.  The choir even sang it as a special anthem at my ordination service.  Songs that mention God’s wrath were not targeted for exclusion by the committee.  They included Awesome God by Rich Mullins, which sings about “the judgment and wrath He poured out on Sodom”.

Second, the PC(USA) is not “liberal” or “leftist”.  I should know: I am liberal.  I sometimes wish the PC(USA) were more so, but it isn’t.

In reality, our church is extremely diverse in its theology and politics.  We have evangelicals and progressives, Democrats and Republicans, folks who like traditional liturgy and folks who like contemporary worship.  We’re a mixed bag of people who dare to believe that our differences can make us stronger and more faithful to Christ, if we let them.  If anything, our leaders for the past half-century or so have been largely influenced by the Neo-orthodoxy of Karl Barth, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and the Niebuhr brothers.  You can see this in several of our more recently added confessional statements: the Barmen Declaration, the Confession of 1967, and the Brief Statement of Faith.  These statements reflect a theological middle ground between fundamentalist and liberal perspectives.  You can call us equal opportunity offenders.  Purists, fanatics, and extremists of all stripes tend to be equally frustrated with the Presbyterian Church (USA).  We are what we are… deal with it.

Third, the problem with the original wording of In Christ Alone has nothing to do with liberalism or squeamishness at the idea of God’s wrath.  The controversial line in the song goes like this:

“Till on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.”

I have big problems with that line and I agree with the committee’s decision to axe the hymn based on the authors’ refusal to allow them to change the words to “the love of God was magnified.”  I reject outright the idea that God’s wrath put Jesus on the cross or kept him there.  It was the all-too-human selfishness and violence of religious and political powers-that-be that put Jesus on the cross.  It was Jesus’ commitment to nonviolence and his tremendous love that kept him there.

The original wording in the song is based on the theory of atonement called penal substitution, famously developed by St. Anselm of Canterbury in the 11th century.  Anselm’s delineation of the theory depends greatly on its assumption of feudal notions of justice which we no longer hold.  In that society, the severity of a crime was measured by the relative social positions of perpetrator and victim.  Crimes against the nobility were punished more harshly than crimes against the peasantry.  In Anselm’s mind, any crime against an infinitely holy God must necessarily be punished eternally.  Drawing upon priestly and sacrificial language from the New Testament, Anselm presented Jesus as the perfect solution to the problem of justice: fully divine, fully human, morally stainless.  His voluntary substitution of himself resolves the problem presented by the feudal theory of justice.  Anselm’s use of this model was more apologetic than ontological.  He was simply trying to make the gospel recognizable to people in his own place and time, just as we are called to do.  However, we who no longer accept the feudal theory of justice are likewise not bound to accept penal substitution as the one and only interpretation of the significance of Calvary.

Here are my problems with penal substitution as a viable atonement theory:

First, penal substitution sets up a scenario where Jesus saves humanity from the rage (not the wrath) of an out-of-control, abusive parent.  When all is said and done, the church gathers around a crucifix and hears, “This is your fault.  Look at what you made God do.  You are so bad and dirty that God had to torture and kill this beautiful, innocent person so that he wouldn’t do the same thing to you.  Therefore, you’d better shape up and be thankful or else God will change his mind and torture you for all eternity.  And don’t forget: this is Good News and God loves you.”  If any human parent did that, he or she would be rightly incarcerated, even if the innocent victim was willing.  If that’s what Christianity is, then you can count me out.

Second, penal substitution renders both the life and the resurrection of Christ unnecessary.  If Jesus simply “came to die”, then we can conveniently ignore all those pesky red letters in our Bibles.  We also might as well sleep in on Easter Sunday because the real work was done on Good Friday.  God just tacked on the resurrection so that the story would have a happy ending.  It’s little more than icing on the cake of atonement.

The atonement theory toward which I gravitate bears more resemblance to the Christus Victor model.  According to Christus Victor, the powers of evil threw everything they had at Jesus to oppose and silence him.  They did their worst, as they always do: dealing death to anything that challenges their power.  To paraphrase biblical scholar Marcus Borg: the crucifixion was the world’s “No” to Jesus, but the resurrection is God’s “Yes”.

And God’s Yes trumps the world’s No every single time.  God rejects the world’s rejection of God.

The miracle of the atonement wasn’t in Jesus’ blood shed on the cross.  That’s just the world doing what the world does best: Killing.  The miracle of the atonement is in the resurrection of Christ: the triumph and vindication of a Love, stronger than death, that endured the very worst that the world had to offer and kept on loving anyway.

This, my friends, is the love that wilt not let us go.

This is the Good News of salvation in Christ that I am called to preach.

There, on that cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified. 

I believe those words with all my heart.

I respect the authors’ decision not to have their lyrics altered, but I also respect the committee’s decision to set this hymn aside because of its deficient atonement theology.

Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal comes out this fall.
Click here for ordering information.

If you want some actual information on the committee’s theology and use of language, visit the Committee Statements page on their website.

In closing, here are the words of Chelsea Stern, one of the committee members, about what they know, pray, and hope in relation to the new hymnal (taken from the Hymnal Sampler, p.5-6):

This we know:
We know this hymnal will change lives.
We know this hymnal will inspire the church.
We know these songs will enliven worship in powerful ways.
We know the familiar songs will sing anew.
We know the new songs will speak truth.

This we pray:
We pray that as we sing together from this hymnal we will come to have a deeper sense of unity in the body of Christ.
We pray that the Holy Spirit will bring surprises and breathe new life into our churches through this hymnal.

This we hope:
We hope the cover imprint fades from greasy fingers.
We hope the pages become wrinkled and torn from constant use.
We hope our kids will sing from this hymnal – we hope our grandkids will too.

We praise!
We praise God for this collection of song and give God the glory!

(Reblog) Why Millennials Are Leaving The Church

The Notorious RHE has done it again: hit the nail squarely on the head, Jesus style.

I wouldn’t consider myself a fan and I don’t regularly follow her blog, but just about everything she’s written that’s come my way has struck me as insightful and cutting to the core.  I predict that she’ll be one of the primary voices from my generation that gets remembered and quoted for decades, if not longer.  In short: she’s good.

In this particular piece, I felt like she had a tape recorder going inside my head.  Like her, I exist on the chronological borderline between Gen X and Millennial.  To all you pastors, parents, teachers, and church members who desperately want to know how to attract people my age (33) and younger: THIS IS YOUR ANSWER. Read it and read it well.

Let me say it again in no uncertain terms, just so we’re clear: This is what we’re thinking. This is what we’re looking for. If you really, actually want us in your church (and not just to stroke your ego and pad your pews, but because you’re interested in actually doing ministry with us), then these are the values you need to learn and internalize.  Here are the highlight’s from RHE’s article…

Reblogged from CNN

By Rachel Held Evans

Many of us, myself included, are finding ourselves increasingly drawn to high church traditions Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, the Episcopal Church, etc. precisely because the ancient forms of liturgy seem so unpretentious, so unconcerned with being “cool,” and we find that refreshingly authentic.

What millennials really want from the church is not a change in style but a change in substance.

We want an end to the culture wars. We want a truce between science and faith. We want to be known for what we stand for, not what we are against.

We want to ask questions that don’t have predetermined answers.

We want churches that emphasize an allegiance to the kingdom of God over an allegiance to a single political party or a single nation.

We want our LGBT friends to feel truly welcome in our faith communities.

We want to be challenged to live lives of holiness, not only when it comes to sex, but also when it comes to living simply, caring for the poor and oppressed, pursuing reconciliation, engaging in creation care and becoming peacemakers.

You can’t hand us a latte and then go about business as usual and expect us to stick around. We’re not leaving the church because we don’t find the cool factor there; we’re leaving the church because we don’t find Jesus there.

The emphasis added on that last sentence is mine because that’s ultimately what it comes down to, not just for us, but for every generation.  This is the perennial problem and I’d bet dollars to pesos that you once said the same thing about the church in your parents’ generation and I’m going to hear that same complaint from my own kids one day…

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) Misrepresentations about the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

PC(USA) Seal (Color)I would like to write a few words this morning about the denomination in which I am ordained: the Presbyterian Church (USA).  Like all mainline Protestant churches in this country, we have had no small share in controversy, conflict, and schism.  The current hot-button issues are the ordination and marriage of non-celibate LGBT members in our churches.  Partly because of these issues, but mostly because of the theological and exegetical differences that underlie their discussion, some members, pastors, and churches in the PC(USA) have felt led to separate from our denomination and align themselves with another one (i.e. the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) or the Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO)).

Those who know me or read this blog probably already know where I stand, but just in case there are any first-time visitors, here it is again:

  • I am a theologically liberal Christian who wholeheartedly supports the full recognition of equality in ordination and marriage for LGBT Presbyterians.
  • I wholeheartedly support the right of individual Christians and congregations to discern the will of God for themselves, even if that discernment leads them to leave the PC(USA).

As I’ve said before: It’s not my job to take anyone’s Bible (or Church) away from them; I simply desire the same right for myself.  As such, I encourage the establishment of “Gracious Dismissal” policies in our presbyteries that will allow departing congregations to maintain control over their buildings and investment accounts.  Such policies, I believe, will help us sow  seeds of reconciliation for the future and preserve the integrity of the public witness of the Church by eschewing open conflict in a court of law.  The Church is bigger than any one denomination.  We would do well to remember this part of our ecumenical heritage.

That being said, I think that some of those who are leaving have, in their anger, overstated their case against the PC(USA) and misrepresented the denomination in their literature (some of which is distributed to churches whether they want it or not).  They claim that the PC(USA) is being run by liberal heretics who care nothing for the authority of scripture, the historic faith of the church catholic, or the Reformed tradition.  I believe this is patently untrue.

Why do I believe this?  Because I am a liberal and I have just as many problems with current theological and political trends in our denomination as many of my evangelical brothers and sisters do.  I wish there was a liberal agenda in play on the General Assembly level, but there isn’t much of one that I can see.  Honestly, I think that’s probably a good thing.  The Church is bigger than any one institution or theological viewpoint (including my own).

I don’t think I’m the kind of pastor who should be forming and shaping policy for the whole denomination.  That task should be left to more conciliatory voices like that of our current Moderator: Rev. Dr. Neal Presa.  His is a job that I don’t want.  Liberals like me represent one prophetic wing of the Church, just as our evangelical colleagues represent another.  I hope that both voices will continue to be heard in the PC(USA) by those who make policy.

The document linked below has been produced by our denomination to address some of the misrepresentations currently being propagated by some.  I find it well worth reading.  Submitted for your edification:

Reblogged from pcusa.org:

The Office of the General Assembly has had an increase in the number of inquiries about printed materials from outside of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), being distributed within congregations, that ascribe to the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) beliefs and standards which are meant to show that the church is no longer worthy of support. Over the past years the list of these misrepresentations have varied little and most have been answered in detail in the religious press, study papers adopted by the church or by specific action of the General Assembly. Whenever possible, the Office of the General Assembly directs those who inquire about specific conclusions drawn by these papers to resources which give a broader understanding of the issues.

Typically the materials being circulated focus on four broad areas of concern, each of which speaks to the core of who we are as a denomination and a covenant community. In response to these recent inquiries, we remind the church about who the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is both historically and in our current ministry.

Click here to read the whole article in .pdf format

(Reblog) The hospice pastor with a church on life support

This…

Reblog from the Christian Century:

Original article by Carol Howard Merritt

[I] realized there was something missing in our church’s ministry, and the answer was so clear when I looked at Jesus’ ministry…

We’ve read the gospels so many times that we can forget how amazing it was for Jesus to be walking from town to town, village to village, ministering to people. While people went to the synagogue to read Scriptures and pray, Jesus took the message out into the dusty roads. In the streets there were few barriers to the Gentiles, women, “unclean,” or poor, so Jesus was able to touch the skin of the leper or heal the woman with the issue of blood, because he was outside of the walls for so much of his ministry. Going out was a liberating act…

[I]t’s important that we keep walking in the footsteps of Jesus, focusing our attention on people who won’t, can’t, or never imagined themselves in church. How do we do this?

Walk once a day…

Work outside the church one day a week…

Use outward-focused technology…

Assess the needs of your community…

Start a community garden…

This is just an excerpt

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) South Korean Christians Increasingly Disillusioned with Church

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Myungsung Presbyterian Church (Seoul, South Korea) is the largest Presbyterian Church in the world. Image by Kang Byeong Kee. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reblogged from KoreaBANG:

The Center for the Study of Ministry and Society recently published a report based on extensive interviews with Congregants, finding that while the reasons vary widely, the primary issue was disappointment with the behavior of the pastor and the congregation. ‘I didn’t like the way the congregation just did the same thing over and over again, getting swept up in emotion and sobbing out loud,’ said one thirty-year-old office-worker. Another respondent said, ‘it was hard to endure the sermons filled with allegories that didn’t make any sense in our lives.’ Other interview subjects criticised the naked pursuit of material benefits within the church. ‘If you talk about how it is better for the church to make more money, to have a bigger building and fancy facilities, then what is the difference between a church and a business?’

Click here to read the full article

(Reblog) Autopsy of a Deceased Church

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Carnock Church Ruin – North Side. Image by Nigel J C Turnbull. Retrieved from Wikimedia Commons.

Reblogged from Thom S. Rainer.

A truly frightening and sobering analysis.  Here is a summary of Rainer’s report:

  1. The church refused to look like the community. 
  2. The church had no community-focused ministries.  
  3. Members became more focused on memorials. 
  4. The percentage of the budget for members’ needs kept increasing.
  5. There were no evangelistic emphases.
  6. The members had more and more arguments about what they wanted.
  7. With few exceptions, pastoral tenure grew shorter and shorter.
  8. The church rarely prayed together.
  9. The church had no clarity as to why it existed.
  10. The members idolized another era.
  11. The facilities continued to deteriorate.

Click here to read the full article