Posts Tagged churches

Churches in America: too fragile to fight (at least with each other)

BILL LEONARD* | SEPTEMBER 3, 2019 – Baotistnewsglobal,com

In a recent essay in The Atlantic, Peter Wehner cites this comment by Mark Labberton, president of Fuller Theological Seminary:

“The Church is in one of its deepest moments of crisis – not because of some election result or not, but because of what has been exposed to be the poverty of the American Church in its capacity to be able to see and love and serve and engage in ways in which we simply fail to do. And that vocation is the vocation that must be recovered and must be made real in tangible action.”

Labberton’s insightful, poignant challenge might require a small caveat: The Church is indeed in crisis, largely because of multiple crises, few of which are momentary. We’re in it for the long haul. In America 2019, to confront one crisis or multiple crises, you must stand in line. It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.

Public crises alone are daunting enough, even on the briefest of lists: opioid addiction; gender and sexuality issues; racial and political divisions; immigration and the treatment of immigrants – documented and undocumented, sick or well, adult or child; healthcare or lack thereof; religious liberty or lack thereof; global warming with melting glaciers and flaming forests; species extinctions; sexual abuse inside and outside the church; increased suicides; and mass shootings, mass shootings, mass shootings.

“It feels as if a new or expanding crisis in the country or the church occurs daily, sometimes by the hour.”

As these and other public crises demand multiple responses from Christian communities, so do an increasing variety of ecclesiastically-specific crises that confront congregations across the theological spectrum. Here are but a few:

Denominational support systems are disconnecting, disengaging, even breaking apart.
Religio-political divisions create tensions throughout denominations and congregations.
The changing sociology of Sunday often means even “active” members attend worship services only intermittently.
Estimates vary widely, but some 4,000 to 10,000 churches close each year.
The “Nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, remain an ever-expanding subgroup in American religious life. A recent study from Eastern Illinois University put Nones, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals in a statistical dead heat, each at around 23 percent of the population. A 2017 Christian Science Monitor report on a survey of more than 100,000 Americans noted that the number of white evangelical Protestants fell from about 23 percent of the population in 2006 to 17 percent in 2016 – and only 11 percent of white evangelicals are under age 30.
Many congregations now experience decreasing and/or aging membership; declining finances that impact staff salaries, programs and building maintenance; waning attendance, membership and baptisms; and escalating intra-church conflict, often directed at ministers.

Worse yet, with both documented and anecdotal evidence, new and enduring doctrinal-cultural-political debates continue to impact congregations, fomenting unrest if not outright schism. Headlines in recent months outline multiple crises:

“After Disagreements over LGBTQ Clergy, U.S. Methodists Move Closer to Split” (NPR)

“Hate Thy Neighbor: When American Evangelicals Fall Out” (The Economist)

“Battle Lines Form Over Social Justice: Is it Gospel or Heresy?” (RNS)

“Pastor’s Exit Exposes Culture Rifts in a Leading Liberal Church” (New York Times)

“Joshua Harris Kisses Christianity Goodbye” (Wall Street Journal)

“Only Half of Kids Raised Southern Baptist Stay Southern Baptist” (Christian Century)

“Amid Evangelical decline, growing split between young Christians and church elders” (Christian Science Monitor)

We all know that congregational conflicts are not unique in Christian history. Disputes arose the moment the Apostle Paul proposed welcoming Gentiles into the church. The Pauline epistles alone document congregational infighting among the fledgling Christian communities. Take the ever-factionalized Corinthian church, please! Paul rakes them over the gospel coals for arguing over food (“meat offered to idols,” 1 Corinthians 8:1-13); kowtowing to certain “super apostles” (2 Cor. 11: 1-15); and debating when, whether, with whom or never to have sex (“better to marry than to burn,” 1 Cor. 7:1-9).

(Those crises convince me that the Corinthian Church was essentially proto-Baptist.)

“Contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them.”

Across the centuries, doctrinal disputes, sacramental differences or participation in “wars of religion” could get you exiled, burned, beheaded, hanged or drowned by Catholic and Protestant alike. Thank God, we’ve left that behind (mostly).

Historically, American congregational conflicts illustrate the adage that “churches multiply by dividing” amid multiple disputes and crises. Yet contemporary intra-church unrest and schism is particularly damaging since so many congregations are already weakened by the crises that surround them, making recovery at best lengthy if not altogether impossible. In fact, some congregations are now so weakened that schism will simply hasten their demise.

That reality ought to sober us all toward cooperation and reconciliation. In that vein, might we together:

Distinguish between genuine dissent and petty animosity?
Develop creative measures for nurturing healthy debate and the boundaries of disagreement before crises occur?
Enlist the services of trained mediators and conflict managers when necessary?
Resist airing disputes outside the Christian community, especially on social media?
Recognize the difficulties of recovery in the face of contemporary institutional and individual exhaustion?
Cultivate congregational unity around shared ministry that energizes beyond, alongside or despite differences?
Gravitate toward those congregations that best reflect our gospel commitments; then work to make them better, not tear them down?
These realities confront us with yet another “Bonhoeffer moment” in this country and the world, a time of decision when the best elements of Gospel and Church call us to remember and reaffirm who we are and what we are about as participants together in the Body of Christ. To our crisis-ridden times Dietrich Bonhoeffer speaks yet, writing from prison in 1944, the year the Nazis took his life:

“The Church is the Church only when it exists for others…. The Church must share in the secular problems of ordinary human life, not dominating, but helping and serving. It must tell men [and women] of every calling what it means to live in Christ, to exist for others. In particular, to take the field against the vices of hubris, power-worship, envy, and humbug, as roots of all evil. It will have to speak of moderation, purity, trust, constancy, patience, discipline, humility, contentment, and modesty. It must not underestimate the importance of human example” (Letters and Papers from Prison).

Crisis or not, that’s quite a calling, then and now.

*Bill Leonard lectured at the Hamrick Lectures at First Baptist Church of Charleston.

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Churches, wake up and smell the coffee: communion with a cup of joe?

BRETT YOUNGER  |  AUGUST 28 Baptistnewsglobal.com

“Should we say something to her?”

“It’s not her fault. She didn’t grow up in church.”

The object of concern brought a cup of coffee into the sanctuary and set it down on the pew as if it was acceptable behavior. The troubled church members tried to let her know telepathically that coffee is not allowed in the sanctuary. How could she miss the invisible line beyond which a cup of joe is not permitted?

But how could the church not see that in a world that is asleep, coffee is no doze?

Coffee appears only two times in The Message Bible: “Never again will friends drop in for coffee” (Job 7:10) and “Wait table for me until I’ve finished my coffee” (Luke 17:8).  Imagine how many times “coffee” would be in the concordance if Jesus had thought to change water into cappuccinos at the wedding in Cana.

“Imagine how many times ‘coffee’ would be in the concordance if Jesus had thought to change water into cappuccinos at the wedding in Cana.” 

Opening the church to coffee drinkers has been a long, difficult struggle. Coffee dates back to the 15th century and the Sufi monasteries of Yemen. One legend is that the mystic Ghothul Akbar Nooruddin Abu al-Hasan al-Shadhili was traveling in Ethiopia. He saw birds acting unusually lively, and upon trying the berries that the birds had been eating, experienced the same vitality. Coffee was soon part of religious practice in the Islamic world. The Sufis used the beverage to keep themselves alert during nighttime devotions and as a kind of spiritual intoxication when they chanted the name of God.

Because Muslims loved coffee, several Christian groups, including The Ethiopian Orthodox Church, made a big brouhaha and banned coffee. Mormons still avoid this potion made with magic beans.

Churches need to wake up and smell the coffee. When I ask Siri to “find coffee” she lists four places within 800 feet of my house. Our neighborhood has more coffee shops than churches.

Coffee is the most important meal of the day for many. In the midst of the daily grind, coffee is invigorating. A yawn is a silent scream for coffee. Sleep is a symptom of caffeine deprivation. Coffee smells like freshly ground heaven and tastes like hopes and dreams.

When we are holding a cup of coffee, the warmth radiates through our hands. The aroma drifts through the air. The cream goes into black coffee and magically changes it into good-to-the-last-drop caramel. This sensual experience helps our sleepy selves greet the day with gratitude. We reflect on what we now have the energy to achieve.

“We should take our coffee seriously and joyfully. We should fill our churches with sugar and cream, sweetness and light.”

Worship would be less lively without a cup of joy. We can tell a lot about a church from how they caffeinate worshippers. My parents’ Baptist church is Folgers. Unitarians drink fair trade coffee. Mennonites have Keurig committees that wash and recycle those little cups. Presbyterians fill their fellowship halls for the sacrament of coffee hour. Catholics serve decaf at midnight mass. Sharing coffee is a way of saying, “We love you a latte.”

Church should be a place for common ground and a home to hang your mug. “Bible study” is less enticing than “Coffee and Bible study.” Nominating committees should choose a church barista.

“Would you like a cup of coffee?” is an offer of friendship. Coffee turns a counseling session into a conversation between friends. Saying “yes” to coffee at the end of a meal is a promise to hang around.

Here is a question that needs to percolate: would coffee be a better symbol for communion? Grape juice is dull. Wine puts you to sleep. Coffee refreshes, revives and stimulates. The Lord’s Table could be a coffee table. If we drank coffee at communion, we could get rid of those tiny shot glasses. Picture the communion cup holders on the backs of pews becoming real cup holders. Coffee would be a fine symbol for the enlivening of the Spirit that happens at the table.

We should take our coffee seriously and joyfully. We should fill our churches with sugar and cream, sweetness and light.

 

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The Two Most Dangerous Words Spoken in Church – Bill Wilson – ethicsdaily.com

The Two Most Dangerous Words Spoken in Church | Bill Wilson, Language, Leadership

Congregations and clergy alike are infected by this insidious disease that eats away at the heart of who we are and our mission in the world, Wilson writes. (Image courtesy of stockimages/FreeDigitalPhotos.net)

Two of the most dangerous words in a minister’s vocabulary are, “Yes, but…”These are also two of the most destructive words a congregation will ever utter. The order of their utterance is important.

First we say, “Yes. I agree. We agree. This is true and right.”

●     It is right that people matter more than things. My marriage is my highest priority. My children deserve my full attention.

●     It is right that personal morality matters. Yes, I should be honest and forthcoming with my spouse, my children and my employer.

●     It is biblical and Christ-like to care for our community and all those in it who are in need. It is important, even essential, that we speak the truth in love.

●     It is right that we should be flexible about all things that are not essentials of the faith. We agree that we should care for our staff and respect them.

●     Yes, my body is the temple of God. Yes, gossip is wrong and expressly prohibited in Scripture.

The list of things to which we say “yes” is long and filled with a beautiful litany of assertions with which none can argue.

Then comes the second word, “but…”

●     My spouse doesn’t appreciate me. My church takes advantage of me, and our staff is lazy. My children will understand that I have work to do.

●     Talking about him or her behind their back feels right. If I spoke the truth, they might not like me. She is so hard to be nice to, why bother?

●     I’ve worked hard today, so I deserve an extra dessert. My illness is more important than anything else on your agenda.

●     We’ve got to take care of our own before we worry about those people out there. How dare you change the order of worship.

In short, the “yes, but…” approach reveals that we believe that we are an exception to the rule. We believe in the rule, the truth, the value; we just don’t think it applies to us.

Over many years of pastoral ministry, I’ve heard people explain away the most obscene actions, attitudes or intentions with these two words: “Yes, but…”

I continue to be astonished at our ability to make exceptions of ourselves.

Our ability to rationalize and justify our actions is profound. It is dark, demonic and at the root of much of the evil in congregational and clergy life.

We are quick to excuse ourselves and our behavior behind a stream of denial and blindness to our truth.

We talk ourselves into believing that what is right for everyone else somehow does not apply to us.

Congregations and clergy alike are infected by this insidious disease that eats away at the heart of who we are and our mission in the world.

If we do not face up to our actions, we run the risk of ruining our witness and thwarting the plans God has for us in the future.

What are we to do? Fortunately, the Bible is clear, and there are many who have walked this path back into God’s intentions.

First, we must confess.

Granted, it is much easier and enjoyable to confess the sins of others. They are so obvious and clear and numerous! However, our call to confession starts internally.

If you are not sure if you are guilty of this two-word sin, simply ask your spouse, children, colleagues or a trusted friend, “When and where do I say ‘yes, but…?’ How have I made an exception of myself?”

Then listen as non-defensively as possible, with no excuses or explanations allowed. Take your medicine.

Second is remorse and repentance.

Own your sin and turn away from it. Sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Yet, it will take all you have for the rest of your life to accomplish this move.

Along the way, you will discover that neither you nor your congregation can accomplish this in your own strength.

What is necessary is a profound sense of our helplessness and inability to manage ourselves.

Third, we turn to the good news of grace; we throw ourselves and our flaws and foibles upon the mercy and grace of God.

What we cannot do for ourselves, God does in us, with us and through us. That forgiveness frees us from the illusion of perfection. No longer do we believe we are an exception to God’s truth.

Now that we have been humbled and shown the truth about ourselves, we no longer find it necessary to excuse or defend our actions or pretend to be perfect. We know our tendencies to rationalize and justify.

We have those around us who help us see ourselves as we truly are. We are on the journey toward spiritual health as a congregation and as a minister. There is hope for us.

Bill Wilson is president of the Center for Healthy Churches in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

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Blaming Our Schools Doesn’t Solve Problems – Ethicsdaily.com

Blaming Our Schools Doesn’t Solve Problems
By: Mitch Carnell Posted: Wednesday, April 3, 2013 6:02 am Section: EthicsDaily.com’s Latest Articles
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Blaming Our Schools Doesn't Solve Problems | Mitch Carnell, Church, Public School, Community Engagement, Education Rather than constantly berating teachers, churches can provide programs to recognize and reward outstanding teachers, Carnell observes.

I am a product of small-town public schools. As the battles rage over what is wrong with our schools and what makes for a good teacher, I think much can be learned from studying my hometown.Woodruff, S.C., is a small, cotton mill town in the Piedmont region. In my youth, the great majority of people worked in one of the two textile mills and lived in company-owned houses. Many of these workers were refugees from small dirt farms.

Many had never graduated high school; however, they shared one unifying goal. They were determined that their children would live better lives and knew that education was the only solution.

They supported the schools. They turned out for school events although they had worked long hours in the mills, on the surrounding farms or both. They knew the teachers personally. The school was a source of pride.

There is another important ingredient. The church was involved in lifting the level of its children.

My church, Northside Baptist, worked to push its young people forward. Most of all, the congregation encouraged us.

The congregation also supported its pastors in getting more education in summer programs at the seminaries. It valued education.

We had interim pastors from the religion department at Furman University. We held joint services with the Methodist church down the street. If it had a prominent speaker in town, we went to worship with them.

Once when I spoke at our church as a teenager, that Methodist pastor invited me to speak there.

These people were poor in material goods, but they were rich in what matters. They were invested in the lives of their children.

On report card day, as I walked by the parsonage, my pastor, the Rev. Roy Gowan, wanted to see my report card. He was an encourager. I am sure he repeated this over and over again as other children passed by his house.

The old Baptist Training Union gave many of us a great start. We had to read or say our assigned parts. This was the beginning of my public speaking career. Christmas pageants and youth nights at Christmas followed. The adults showed up for these programs.

My high school speech teacher was also the superintendent of schools. “Teaching this class keeps me close to the students,” he said. “I know what they are thinking.”

He also taught a large men’s Bible class at First Baptist Church and invited me to be a guest teacher. These men were very supportive even though they were from a higher socioeconomic status.

I know that times have changed. The church cannot be as involved with the schools as it once was; however, this reality provides a great copout. There is nothing that says that churches cannot provide mentoring programs.

Churches can still provide training programs for their young people. They can provide opportunities for them to practice their skills. Rather than suppress discussion of controversial topics, the church can arrange civil discussions.

The church can provide scholarships to students and teachers. Rather than constantly berating teachers, churches can provide programs to recognize and reward outstanding teachers.

In the ongoing and worsening struggle over bullying, the church should be leading the crusade to curb it. Where are the programs on Christian behavior? Where are the programs on Christians’ responsibilities as citizens?

Where are the counseling programs for troubled youth? Where are the speaking contests, music recitals and essay contests? Where are the Christian parenting courses?

These are tough times economically, but in many churches or in the community there are well-trained volunteers who could and would conduct these programs and many others.

If nothing more, the church could get out of the criticism business and get into the supporting business. Negative sermons are easy to preach and require no preparation.

Ministers can lead the way by demonstrating the power of thorough preparation. Not by littering their sermons with endless quotations, but by demonstrating their mastery of the subject.

Many churches are simply asking the wrong question: What is wrong with our schools, our youth and our teachers?

The right question to address is this: What can we do to improve the lives of our young people?

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