Posts Tagged crisis

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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The Danger of a Divided House

Tuesday, August 2, 2011 The Chautauquan Daily Page 13

R e l i g i o n by Mary Lee Talbot

“Jesus, the lowly field preacher, without portfolio or parish, was busy turning the world upside down. The Kingdom of God was at hand. The kingdom of love and justice was at hand. Even though we read from Matthew today, in Luke, Jesus laid out his agenda,” the Rev. Raphael G. Warnock said at the 9:15 a.m. morning worship service Monday. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, to preach the good news to the poor.”

Warnock quoted Luke 4:18-19 and then said, “Jesus wason the move.”His sermon title was “The Danger of a Divided House,” and the Scripture was Matthew 12:22-29. “What better evidence was there than they brought a demoniac who was blind and mute, and he cured him?” Warnock said. “Jesus was on the move. That is what people of faith ought to do. How can you love God, whom you have not seen, and not love your neighbor? Jesus was on the move.” Warnock told the congregation that people of faith should give a voice to the mute, evangelize those without faith, give a challenge to the unconcerned, educate the uneducated, strengthen the weak, give courage to the discouraged and hold up the depressed.

“We must embrace the poor until they can feel God holding them,” Warnock said. “People of faith are called to be on the move. Jesus cured the man so he could see and so he could be heard. Jesus gives voice to the voiceless and sight to the blind, and the crowds were amazed.” He continued, “Others were mad. Preachers, be careful how you receive plaudits, because your preaching should make someone mad. Those who were mad had to make achoice. Jesus was a threat to the status quo, a threat to the religious powers. The least, the lost and the left out were being lifted up. Wherever Jesus shows up, we have to make a choice.” The ones who were angry sought to discredit Jesus’ methods and motives. They said that Beelzebub, the prince of demons, gave Jesus his power to cast out demons. “Jesus hears them, and Jesus was a ‘bad brother,’” Warnock said. “You know what I mean; he was so bad that even in their criticism, they could not deny the effectiveness of his methods and ministry. He really is who he says he is. He restricted their power, he evicted the demons and he convicted the crowd. “Jesus responds to the critics, via the Warnock International Version of the Bible, ‘Come on, man, you know what you are saying doesn’t make sense. Why would a demon cast out demon?’ He destroys their agenda. It is a simple, sublime principle — no hou e divided against itself can stand. I liftthis up now because in America today, there are forces that seek to divide us in order to control us. We are in a fight for our lives to keep the house from coming down.” He continued, “Division is our greatest threat today.Abraham Lincoln recognized that a house divided could not stand. We are caught up in an uncivil war of words that demonize and divide. Our motto is ‘E Pluribus Unum’ — out of many, one. The debt ceiling may be settled, but we should not forget that this crisis did not begin six weeks ago or six months ago. We need to grab hold of the best of America. “In 2008, regardless if you are an Independent, Republican or Democrat, we did the unthinkable (in electing Barack Obama as president). We are hearing things aimed at the American president. I rise not to defend him, for he does notneed defending, but I rise to speak to the best of our American conscious. We are using code words in public. ‘He says he is a Christian, but he is not a Christian; he is a Muslim’ — as if that was the worst thing he could be. ‘He says he is an American, but he was not born in America.’ ‘He has aKenyan, anti-colonialist world view’ as if there was a stigma to being African. “Jesus was an anti-colonialist; I am an anti-colonialist, anti-imperialist, anti-phobias person. Jesus came to preach the good news. How can we stand unless we stand together? The issue is who will raise the conversation to a new moral and ethical level. We are a special people in a special place, and we all have to stand together, or the Liberty Bell will always have an unsightly crack.” He continued, ‘Thomas Jefferson was one of the sparks of our special union. He wrote about the inalienable rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of  happiness. As eloquent as he was, he had slaves. But I don’t  mind, because in three weeks, you will look across (the Tidal Basin), and across from Thomas Jefferson will be a black man. Martin Luther King will be there asking, ‘Did you mean what you said when you said it?’ Martin Luther King called us to the best in the American spirit. Patrick Henry said, ‘Give me liberty or give me death.’ The slaves spoke up and said, ‘Me, too.’ Then the women said, ‘Me, too,’ through the suffrage movement. “Christians learned about Christian freedom and Muslims,Jews, Hindus and others said, ‘Me, too.’ We must stand with them. If we stand together in the house of prayer on Sunday, we can’t fight each other on Monday. If you burna Quran this week, next week you will burn a cross in my yard. Gays and lesbians are saying, ‘Me, too. We belong in the house.’

“We can use this moment of crisis to demonstrate how dangerous hateful speech is. Words can hurt, or we can use  words to lift us to a new plane. Christian people ought to lead the way. “And finally,” he said, and the congregation laughed as hereferenced a joke from the Sunday sermon. He reminded the congregation that geese fly in a V formation. “They have figured out the laws of aviation and aerodynamics. Pelicans flap their wings more, but they fly less distance because they fly alone. The goose that works thehardest is the one out front. When it gets tired, it movesback and another moves up. They change positions without a church vote, a split or dissension. They move and keep flying because the individual location is not as important asthe collective destination. We ought to have as much sense as geese.”He concluded, “We are not going to go unless we go together. We have to fly together, walk together, cry together,pray together and struggle together. If we rise and fly together, we will make it to the promised land.”

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