“People just aren’t committed like they used to be” This week, I came across this satirical article from the site BabylonBee “After 12 Years Of Quarterly Church Attendance, Parents Shocked By Daugh…
Good question to ask: Why Church?Why nothing seems to get people back to church – The issue at the core of decline
Love Means Attending to What is Urgent: How the “Black Lives Matter” Movement Proclaims the Gospel of Jesus.
Everyone can probably agree that the heart of the gospel is about God’s love for creation, which overflows in us loving others. Love everyone, Jesus says: friends and enemies, rich and poor, people of all races, people of all sexual identities, immigrants and natural born, people of all religions, etc. We may not agree on what that looks like or how best to do that, but most would agree that love is at the heart of the gospel message.
One of our mistakes is assuming that love for one looks the same as love for all. Obviously this isn’t true. We are at different places and that must be taken into account. If your house is on fire, love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters to your house than to mine. That’s not saying my house is less important than yours, just that your situation is more urgent. Showing love for those with full stomachs may not mean giving them food. Yet for someone who is hungry, love requires providing them food. Love means attending to what is urgent.
Jesus makes this clear in (among many others) the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). All are given a day’s wage regardless of how long they worked. It’s not that those who worked all day are less important, it’s just that others need to eat today also. A day’s wage allows all to eat today. Those who worked all day complained because they believed they deserved more for working longer hours. And they actually do have a point. This pay scale isn’t “fair,” because it is favoring those who worked less. But the point Jesus makes is that love means attending to what is urgent.
Systemic racism in our culture reveals an urgent situation. Blacks in the US start at a different place than whites. Some might complain that the BLM movement isn’t “fair” because, they say, blacks deserve equal-to-but-not-more-than whites. But the house of African Americans is on fire. Love dictates that it is more urgent to get firefighters there. Love means attending to what is urgent. The situation of racism is urgent.
When parents of African American boys are forced to have “the conversation” in order to provide the best chance of safety when (not if) their sons are pulled over by police, the situation is urgent (see the NY Times op-doc, http://www.theconversationseries.org/).
When 80% of police stops in NYC were of blacks and Latinos and only 10% were of whites, the situation is urgent (this and the following statistics are cited and referenced at http://www.jbwtucker.com/ultimate-white-privilege-statistics/).
When blacks are 127% more likely to be frisked than whites in Los Angeles, even though they are 42% less likely to be found with a weapon, the situation is urgent.
When blacks aged 18-25 are less likely than whites to have use marijuana in the last 12 months, but are arrested at an astronomically higher rate than whites of the same age for possession, the situation is urgent.
When African American juveniles are 16% of the US population but are 28% of juvenile arrests, the situation is urgent.
When black men are nearly twice as likely to be arraigned on charges that carry a mandatory minimum, and are 20% more likely to be sentenced to prison that whites (and receive sentences 10% longer than whites for the same crimes), the situation is urgent.
When whites are 78% more likely to be accepted to the same university as equally qualified people of color, the situation is urgent.
When black students are 3.5 times more likely to be expelled from school than their white peers, the situation is urgent.
When a white male with a criminal record is 5% more likely to get a job than an equally qualified person of color with a clean record, the situation is urgent.
When a college-educated white American has an average net worth of $75,000 while a college-educated black American has an average net worth of less than $17,500, the situation is urgent.
When a black man makes $0.72 for every dollar a white man makes (which, by the way, is $0.06 less than a white woman makes), the situation is urgent.
When voter ID laws disenfranchise millions of blacks and Latinos while purportedly preventing a kind of voter fraud that does not even exist, the situation is urgent.
Contrary to much white privilege thinking, BLM isn’t saying “only” black lives matter, but that love means attending to what is urgent. There is an urgency in recognizing the evidence that (whether we want to admit it or not) black lives actually do not matter as much as white lives in our culture. There is an urgency in giving priority to the house that is on fire; love means attending to what is urgent. Just as we would proclaim the priority that the hungry be fed and that the homeless be sheltered, Jesus’ gospel teaching on love declares that black lives matter.
The BLM movement is loudly declaring the urgency of the racism situation in our culture. When the situation is urgent, love means attending to what is urgent. In Denver, Colorado, the Black Lives Matter 5280 chapter states their mission in part,
Black Lives Matter 5280 assists in building more loving and united Black communities while eliminating anti-Black violence and racism. . . . Our work is to cultivate communities of abundant joy where all Black people are emboldened and empowered to lead, love, heal, and thrive. http://www.blacklivesmatter5280.com/
Love means attending to what is urgent. That’s how the wolf and the lamb can lie down together. That’s how the rough places are made smooth. That’s how all earn enough to eat today. As Jesus taught, this is the gospel. And it is good news. Black Lives Matter.
Well worth the read, UMC Bishop Ken Carter writes an article making the point that neighborhoods are no longer what they used to be. It is rare that people gather in their geographical neighborhood as their source of community. Now, community happens through networking, which has become the new “third place” for community (the first two being home and work).
The church must pay attention to this reality if we are to develop trusting relationships within our “neighborhoods.” People have long since given up using church (or even church buildings) as a central community place. They do not feel safe doing so. I find this tragic, but true.
Sociologist Ray Oldenburg, quoted in the same article by Bishop Carter, recognizes a meaningful and successful “third place” for experiencing community exhibits particular characteristics, some of which are quite lacking in many of our churches.
Oldenburg writes about these characteristics of an inclusive “third place” community:
. . . [T]here are no economic barriers to entrance; there is food and drink; the space is highly accessible; there are regulars, who are usually present, and newcomers, who are welcomed and received with ease. It is also often the case that a third place has the quality of a neutral space, that the dominant mode of communication is conversation, and that the mood is playful.
Coffee shops have come to fill a geographical niche here, as churches (including Sunday mornings) fail to achieve many of these characteristics. Special interests and participation in particular causes create natural networks that serve to fill our need for community in non location-specific ways.
The point seems to be that as long as churches continue to exist primarily for themselves and their members, and until we create an environment in which all are included (newcomer and charter-member side by side), our inroads into our neighborhoods seem to be limited.
I wrote the following article for the April, 2015 edition of “The Lutheran” magazine, a publication of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America. With their permission, I’m reprinting it here.
Jennifer and her 7th grade daughter, Maria, attended a congregation’s confirmation ministry for the first time. The family has no church home, but Jennifer wanted her daughter to be part of a community that would show her love, care, and support.
Jim, a guidance counselor at a large suburban high school, is working with a congregation to provide much needed career mentors for students who may fall through the cracks after graduating.
Rosa, an elementary school principal, not only encourages members of a church to come to the school library to help students with homework, but asked other local principals to do the same. Not interested in church herself, she nonetheless has invited members of this same church to offer a Bible study for parents and families in the school building.
These examples of trusting partnerships are happening, but are coming about in a way that may be counter-intuitive to many of us. Authentic relationships involve mutual trust and dying to our own agendas.
Christian congregations, which for decades have been the trusted center of our communities, have in many cases become disconnected from their neighbors. Some congregations are now seen as self-serving, judgmental, and unsafe places. There is good reason for this skepticism. Instead of unconditionally loving their neighbors, they have looked at them primarily as a way to bolster the church’s membership.
In a time of numerical decline in congregations across denominations and the country, it’s tempting to think of the neighborhood around the church as merely a resource to be tapped. So we advertise programs, exude hospitality, jazz up our worship and more, all in an attempt to get the neighbors into our building.
We all want to dodge the “congregation-in-decline” label and can become frantic in our efforts to avoid it. With good intentions, we pour increasing amounts of energy into improving our worship attendance numbers but often don’t see the intended results.
As long as filling pews on a Sunday morning is our motivation, our neighborhood will rightly perceive the church as self-serving and will be less likely to trust us. Whether we mean to or not, the message our neighbors hear is: “We don’t really care about you, we just want you to fill our building (as well as our offering plate).”
Jesus speaks to this and reminds us: “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).
Our internal focus is partially understandable, as we love our congregations and authentically want to share the joy and meaning we’ve found there with others. But in our efforts to stop the decline in our numbers, we can forget why we are there in the first place. Consider the possibility that the more energy we put into improving our numbers, the less energy we may be putting into developing trusting relationships with our neighbors.
What’s more, not only are trusting, self-giving relationships between neighborhoods and congregations a good strategy for the work of the church, they are also in the image of God.
The Trinity can authentically be described as God-in-relationship. The identity of one person of the Trinity can best be understood through one’s relationship with the other two. Throughout biblical history, God has worked by establishing relationships with individuals or groups, including Adam and Eve, Noah, Abraham and Sarah, and Moses. A relationship with God was opened to all directly through the Son, Jesus.
Relationships are God’s way of revealing God’s self and mission of love, grace and forgiveness to us. Relationships are the way we trust God’s invitation to be part of that mission. And relationships are how we do God’s work in the world—the work to which we have been called through baptism as the body of Christ.
In putting aside our agenda of playing the numbers game, we can begin to develop trust within our neighborhoods. As we do so, we reveal the very nature of God. By being part of our neighborhood for the sake of the neighborhood, we are better able to be about the purpose of the church.
Without considering whether it will bring in any new members, try some things that allow you to listen to the neighborhood around you.
- Sit down with principals and teachers, listening as they tell you what would be helpful for their schools.
- Host a town-hall meeting in your community about a particularly hot issue that may be arising. Do so without an agenda other than to listen, allowing all sides to be heard.
- Talk to the local police department, perhaps riding along in squad cars to get their perspective on your neighborhood.
Activities such as these over time will allow our congregations to develop trust within our neighborhoods. Through trusting relationships God is revealed and the reign of God is present. Perhaps then we can all see—and together join—God at work in our neighborhoods.
My new book is available, and at a discount price! Retail is $13.00, but order now for only $10.40 at https://wipfandstock.com/store/The_Neighborhood_Church_Gods_Vision_of_Success
A great resource for congregations who wish to engage more fully in being part of the reign of God in their neighborhoods.
I’m in a bit of a quandary, and I’m not sure how to resolve it—or even if there’s anything to be resolved. Many people look to the church for practical advice on daily life. What does the Bible say about how to keep my kids off drugs? What is God’s will for my spouse? How can the church make me a better person? I need a girl/boyfriend; does the Bible give any tips on how to find a good match?
From authentic life-obstacles to a truly selfish prosperity “gospel,” there are many congregations and denominations that provide answers to such dilemmas. And usually these answers follow a particular pattern: God wants you to have “x,” so if you do “y,” God will do “z,” whereby you end up with “x,” and life is good. Because I want a better marriage, children who are more polite, a higher paying job, an easier life, a healthier body, I can go to church and get the steps from God/the Bible. I can follow them and bam! I have what I want and God’s blessings to boot.
I consider this to be, in the words of Tommy Smothers, “El toro poo poo.” It is simply consumerism at its most base level. I will go to church for the primary purpose of getting something. If one church brand doesn’t give me what I think it should, I can switch to the next one. And I can simply keep moving around until I find a church brand that gives me what I’m looking for. And if I don’t find it in a church, I’ll look somewhere else. After all, it doesn’t matter what the “dispenser” looks like as long as my life gets better, right?
I believe that God, the Bible, and the church are bigger than that and desperately more important than that. I am also recognizing I’m in the minority, a minority that is getting ever smaller. Jesus, as I understand him, goes a completely different direction. The call of Christian disciples isn’t to provide religious blessings and recommendations for a better personal life. It is to be part of God’s work of redeeming and caring for all of creation. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8.35).
Now perhaps some good, practical counsel can help us do that with deeper wisdom and fewer distractions, but improving my own life situation cannot be an end unto itself—insofar as being a disciple of Jesus and a member of his church is concerned. We are to practice forgiveness, mercy, compassion, unconditional love, and grace and carry that into our Monday through Saturday world. We are to show the world what God’s love looks like. We are to reveal the presence of God in the world. We are to point to signs of the reign of God anywhere we recognize them. We are to teach and equip disciples to be part of God’s mission according to our particular contexts (though I think we have a lot to learn about context).
Yet there is a continual call for a consumer approach to church. Generally, people aren’t captivated by being part of a renewed world free of violence and injustice, where all are loved and valued. Rather, we become excited about solving personal problems and taking steps to make our own lives more fulfilling.
My quandary is whether or not there is room for consumerism in the church. Is it sticky enough to use as a connection to people, genuinely caring for their personal needs, and then offering a larger vision of God’s mission in the world? Is that a manipulative bait-and-switch, or an authentic incarnational approach to mission? Or something else entirely?
What do you think?
I regret to inform the reader that I am a violent person. Let me be clear on this; I don’t hit anyone. I don’t own (and have rarely used) a gun or any other physical weapon. I haven’t been in a fist fight since 7th grade (which I lost most grievously). I am pretty much a pacifist in theory, though I’m the first to admit I’ve never been strongly tested on that. If it were up to me, I’d repeal the second amendment to the U.S. Constitution, the right to bear arms. And I am sickened by the ongoing shootings, stabbings, bombings and more that are so prevalent in our local and national news.
And yet I am violent. Even deadly.
As a participant in U.S. culture and society, I am also a participant in a culture of violence. My own non-violent actions and intentions cannot overcome the reality of my passive support of rampant violence in this country. Because I am part of a culture of violence, I am guilty of it by default.
My cousin Mary, who is a vehement defender of gun ownership, reminds me that guns aren’t the problem, people who misuse them are. And she is right. Therefore the problem goes well beyond gun rights or gun legislation. It is deeper, and more deadly than that. You see, the problem is that we have normalized violence to the point that we simply accept it as part of our culture, even as part of our humanity.
When two twelve-year-olds can stab a classmate 19 times and leave her for dead, when yet another college campus can be devastated by a troubled person with an assault rifle, when the seemingly endless war in Afghanistan can continue to claim victims, and we are no longer made physically ill, something very deep is broken. When the highest grossing video games include very realistic gunplay and slaughter, when among the highest acclaimed movies celebrate the violent vengeance of the righteous, and we shrug our shoulders and watch ourselves become more deeply immersed in them, our very souls are endangered. Our most popular professional sport, football, is based to some degree on violence–to the point that professional players often suffer long-term physical and mental health issues. And still many of us rearrange our Sunday lives to watch our glamorized, violent heroes on TV. Something is very, very wrong among us.
Turning the TV to the Hallmark channel on Sunday mornings isn’t a solution. Nor is boycotting video games and violent movies. Putting metal detectors on college and high school campuses will not change our violent hearts. And gun control measures cannot curb our cultural acceptance of violence. Teen suicide rates continue to climb, weapons present in schools continue to be an issue, racism, misogyny, homophobia, and bullying continue to keep too many perpetually unsafe. We reap what we sow. In a violent culture, violence is considered to be a normal response to anxiety, anger, depression, and frustration.
The few who are outraged are quickly painted as being outside the mainstream–radicals, socialists, or extremists to be discounted and ignored. Yet we are all guilty. Just as surely as our tax money provides for capital punishment, we are all perpetrators of violence.
I feel helpless even to expose the evil, much less combat it (see? Even talking about an alternative to violence takes on violent terminology). I cannot change this, partly because I cannot live apart from it. Though reigning in expressions of violence (by various means–including legislation), won’t change our hearts and souls, they are necessary. Just as reigning in expressions of racism call to the fore our deep-seated cultural racism, so calling out violence reveals our normalization of violence. These alone don’t solve the problem, merely expose it. Scratching surface, the tip of the iceberg.
So, powerless as we are, do we simply sit back and watch our children descend further into this brokenness and evil? Hell no. We face it. We acknowledge it. We admit our guilt. And we live differently.
My own model for this, my inspiration, starts with Jesus. I’m not talking about a belief system or a set of doctrines, but a life. This is one who caught a vision of a new way of being human, a different view of how we live and relate together. Many others have been inspired over the centuries to see the same vision and live differently in the face of broken cultures. Ghandi, MLK, Mandela, and Malala Yousafzai to name a very few.
I cannot change a culture that normalizes, even glamorizes violence. But I can live differently in the face of that culture. Some will be angry when I show up at a Gay Pride Festival, some will shout loudly when I advocate for the helpless poor among us, and others will roll their eyes and dismiss me when I stand with adherents of other religions and philosophies. I cannot alter my culture. I cannot control those around me who may respond to me violently. But I can strive to live differently. I can attempt to reveal something other than a normative attitude toward violence. Moving toward a non-violent culture won’t happen by making changes around me; only through changes within me.
As a white, middle-aged, heterosexual male, this blog from Pastor Brigette Weier is a hard one to hear. May our loving Mother continue to move among us and make us one.
I have been reading the tweets and blog posts all week from the #yesallwomen on Twitter and Facebook. Honestly, I did not jump in with any tweets or blogs of own until today. Why? It’s not because I am ambivalent or because I don’t think that I have faced discrimination. I am not ambivalent and I, too, was raised in the culture of both subtle and overt gender inequality and misogyny (as have all women, hence the hashtag). It struck me today that it was partially out of fear that I haven’t added my voice to this conversation. Fear. I was afraid of being labeled “one of those feminists.” I was afraid that to name some of the ways this affects me is to give it more power. I was afraid that my place of privilege as a white, heterosexual woman would be hurtful to my sisters who were LBGT…
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I’m writing this blog post on Memorial Day, and will confess that I have some mixed feelings about it. Not about a national day of grieving those whose lives have been lost as a result of war, but about how we in the church deal with days like today, including our views on war, armed service, patriotism, and faith.
Full disclosure: I am a Lutheran clergyperson (Evangelical Lutheran Church in America), a registered Democrat (though I am considering changing that), have never served in the military, lean toward pacifism, and genuinely wonder why there isn’t even a discussion about repealing the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Though my father served in the army during the Korean conflict and I have a nephew currently serving as an Army Ranger, I have no bias toward the military. I am a patriotic American, love the freedoms that we consider our rights as human beings, recognize the role our military has played in procuring them, and am greatly appreciative. Talking about constitutional rights, I am a committed advocate for the rights of all persons, including our LGBTQ brothers and sisters as well as all immigrants, regardless of status, and I consider racism to be one of the most horrifying evils in our world. Theologically, I don’t believe in eternal “hellfire,” trust that there is a God of mercy somehow, and that for those in the church, revealing and living this mercy and compassion trumps everything else–American citizenship included. Some would call me a liberal or progressive; I can live with that, though I don’t find pidgeon-holing to be very helpful.
My profession causes me to think deeply about how the issues of our culture intersect with my theology and faith (or perhaps the other way around). The current general American acceptance of war, violence, gun-rights, and the connection of these things to “real” patriotism wrankles me. Even more so, I find it despicable that these things are viewed as somehow “faithful” or “Christian.” Many of our Christian churches recognized Memorial Day yesterday during their corporate worship. Excellent! We have a need to mourn all who have died in war, for each death is truly tragic. But how many of these same churches mourned only U.S. American losses rather than all people God loves, non-Americans included, who have died by our hands in war? How many used this day of collective grief to equate military service with American patriotism? How many connected a constitutional freedom to worship with Christianity? How many compared American service people who have died in war to Jesus’ death on the cross?
Those who serve or have served in the military are to be respected, no question. All of them that I know are courageous, honorable people who go about their work with pride and who perform their duties well. I’m just not sure how military service gets mixed so deeply into Christian piety or worship. There are many people who do their jobs well; lots of people who risk their lives in their work. Many vocations require courage and principle. Millions of people are committed to their work because of their integrity and dedication to something beyond themselves. I can’t begin to count how many people take tremendous personal risks for the sake of others. The things we honor most about military service are not exclusive to the military.
This doesn’t mean we as a culture shouldn’t honor veterans on Veterans’ Day or ignore our collective grief on Memorial Day. It does mean that we in the church do need to make clear the difference between God’s vision for peace and reconciliation and a U.S. American cultural agenda. They aren’t always the same thing. In fact, I believe they are becoming more disparate than ever.
It’s fine to have an American day of remembering and grieving death in war. Because grief and war are real, it’s also good to do so in the church. But the very identity of the church is grounded in God’s vision of redemption, mercy, and grace. In the church we claim our identity as disciples of Jesus, who brought among us God’s vision for loving enemies, forgiving all who are offensive, reaching across boundaries to those who are different, recognizing that all people from all cultures, nationalities, and races are loved and valued by God, and that those who have the most resources and power have a responsibility to love and walk with those with the least. These are the principles and values that Jesus considered to be worth dying for. And on this Memorial Day I’m not sure the church that bears his name can always say the same thing.
Perhaps we should have a day in the church year where we lift up peacemakers, honor those who have made it their life’s work to be among the poor, applaud those who are ridiculed for standing up for LGBTQ folk. What would it look like to have a day in corporate worship to recognize those who advocate on behalf of immigrants, to be inspired by testimonies of those who have struggled with forgiving enemies but have been moved by God to do so?
We are, without a doubt, Americans who happen to in the church. But I think it is infinitely more important to remember that we are church who happen to be in America.