Community

Sharing Soup of Faith and Love

By J.C. Mitchell

I have been drawn to cooking for years prior to being an artisan baker in New England and a pastry chef on Manhattan Island.  It started in earnest when I was at Hampshire College, where we had a farm on campus and great vegetables to prepare for the six or so housemates.  Most of us were vegetarians for various reasons, from environmental to peer pressure, and our greatest source for inspiration did not come from the Internet, for that was just an idea to us in those early nineties.  It actually came from books, from actual restaurants: Bloodroot and Moosewood were the two that stand out in memory (and continue to serve vegetarian meals).  I owned Sundays at Moosewood, but in our college kitchen someone had the purple Moosewood Cookbook, where I discovered a recipe for Brazilian Black Bean Soup. 

I am sure I referred to that recipe the first few times I made it, but soon that soup was second nature, and often called upon as a cheap way to feed a bunch of people.  I have been cooking this soup now for 25 years without referencing the book.  I know it wasn’t exactly the same every time, but every time it was used to serve a larger group of people. Inevitably there was someone who said, “I don’t like beans” or something else negative, but by the end of the meal, their bowls were empty.

This soup has for me been a sign of my hospitality, which is an important part of my faith.  I have to admit that often food has made its way into my ministry, from cookies to pot-luck casseroles, from pretzel making with children on Good Friday, and hot crossed buns with the moms during Lent, over thanksgiving meals with homeless families, to the great meals with those gathered at Open Gathering.  I even once got up before dawn as an associate minister and set-up over half-dozen bread machines so that the sanctuary would smell like baking bread for World Communion Sunday.  And of course, I have become a minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), where we base our worship around the Holy Communion Meal.  For me, food communicates as much as hugs and words, and the latter are often the least clear.

In what I would argue was one of my hardest meals of my culinary career, I was called to make this soup.  I was living in Belfast, where I arrived with all my items in my backpack, and had found a flat with a woman from Newcastle and a man from Portugal, and I must say there was no priority to stock our kitchen, let alone toilet paper.  Getting used to syrup being Gold’s and not from a tree, and the lack of rinsing the dishes was easy, but finding something I could make that tasted good for a dozen plus people was a challenge.  Of course the black bean soup was the answer, finding orange juice was the only challenge. The soup was ready and beer was chilled.

Our guests arrive, and one of the older students was a Cockney from East London, who said something that sticks with me to this day.  People were eating the soup with beer and bread and it was a cacophony of conversation and spoons in soup.  It was clear that many of these vegetarians had not often eaten vegetables that were not fried or covered in cheese.  So my Cockney friend sitting on the settee filled with others leaned forward and said to me after eating some, “This is great” loud enough to hear over the music.  I smiled.  I probably said thanks, but he started to sit back on the settee, and turn to his cushion neighbour and spoke as shoveling the soup past his bearded lips, not aware I could still hear him clearly. “What the f@#k is this?”  He didn’t care to hear the answer; he simply kept eating with the music, the music of fellowship.

This is my faith-sharing goal.  I want people to experience me through my following of the forgiving victim I call the Christ.  They don’t have to thank me, but they certainly don’t need to know what it is, they simply need to experience the hospitality and love. 

Our Faith Recipe may had started with a book, for many of us we realize we cannot be anchored to it as if it is an idol itself; we must live it daily in the real world.  When I received the original Moosewood Cookbook for my birthday, and opened to this recipe I had not seen in print in 25 years, I realized how much more important it is to live my faith then keeping my faith in a book, and also I realized I have been calling the soup Cuban for the past quarter century, while it was actually titled Brazilian Who gives a F@#K what it is called? Just keep sharing. 

At the Table Together

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

This week, the congregation I serve has been involved in the ministry of acting as hosts for our area homeless.  We open the doors of our fellowship center for them and they are able to stay inside for the night and avoid the elements of the winter’s cold weather.  We are one of twenty-two local churches who take a week and extend this form of hospitality to our homeless community.  We provide an evening meal at no charge.  We have a station to check blood pressures.  There is a clothing corner where donated items can be picked up by those who might need them.  We give each person a Ziploc bag filled with toiletry items, along with socks and gloves.  Last night, we had a woman with needle and thread who was ready to sew up any holes or put on any buttons that were needed.   We have church members who stay the night to be available in case there are any specific late-night needs. We also have a group of people, including me, whose whole job is to walk around and shake hands, pat backs, and make certain people know we are glad to share this space with them.

Those who find themselves in need of this ministry have been very patient and appreciative during the week.  They have waited in line for their food.  They have asked politely when there was something they needed.  They have expressed gratitude when their need has been met.  I have listened as some told funny stories and sat with others as they cried.  I have heard them offer prayers and nodded my head as some shared their stories.  I have been reminded this week that there really is a small line that separates most of us from those who live on the fringes of society.

I have been in congregational ministry for thirty years and have ministered in many different ways to the congregations and communities that I have been part of.  From preaching sermons to teaching lessons; from saying a prayer for a baby who has just been born into the world to presiding at a service in which we say goodbye to one of God’s beloved saints;  from church camps to civic clubs; from board meetings to potluck dinners, I have experienced all that ministry is in the local congregation.  And they all are avenues of God’s wonderful grace.  But for me, I have never come closer to understanding what the realm of God is about than when I sit down with someone, like one of our guests this week, and share both food and the story of our lives. 

At the same time that we are sharing in this ministry, our congregation is going through a Lenten Bible study called “At Table with Jesus.”  We are looking at how Jesus used the table to express his radical sense of hospitality to all and to show that there was no one who stood outside the boundaries of God’s grace.  Jesus sat at the table with all who welcomed him.  Maybe he knew that one of the first major controversies in the church was one that involved table fellowship.  Would the Jews and Gentiles sit down and eat together (Galatians 2:11-14)?

In the spirit of Christ, having a meal with someone is a form of acceptance and care.  And refusing to have a meal with someone is a form of rejection and condemnation.  A number of years back I had a couple in the church I was serving who could never get all three of their adult children together for a family meal.  The reason – one of their daughters was a lesbian who had a partner.  Their son, because of his understanding of his Christian faith, would not allow his children to be around his sister.  So the family never got to have a meal together.  The parents would have to have two meals every holiday if they wanted to see all their children and grandchildren.  Their hearts were deeply grieved.  I believe the heart of God was as well.

My understanding of grace and acceptance has broadened greatly over the years.  That doesn’t mean I always agree with someone or that everything goes.  It does mean that I am willing to set down, break bread and listen to someone’s story and share my own.  I believe that in the midst of our conversation the living Christ is present and glad to be there. 

Broken . . . but not Shattered

[Best of [D]mergent 2015]

By Dr. Mark Pointdexter

Eighteen months ago, I thought things were pretty good in my life.  I was in my tenth year of serving a congregation that I loved and planned to retire from.  I was the moderator for the Indiana Region of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and a member of our denomination’s General Board. I also was writing a weekly column for [D]mergent at the invitation of my friend, Derek Penwell.  In addition, I was in the very beginning stages of working on a book proposal.  Writing had always been a lifelong dream of mine.  My two children were also both entering their senior years. My daughter in high school.  My son in college.  Both were doing especially well academically and socially.  Like I said, I thought things were pretty good in my life.  

But then, eighteen months ago, I came home from church one Sunday and my wife of twenty-four years told me she was through with our marriage.  She wanted a divorce.  I knew things had been what I would describe as a “little rocky” for a few weeks, but I didn’t think it was anything we couldn’t work through.  That I wanted to work through.  But she didn’t.  There would be no attempt to restore what was broken.  No effort at marital counseling.  She was done.   The end of my marriage eighteen months ago was sudden and unexpected and it took me into a spiral of depression that I am still working my way out of.  

Though I am genetically predisposed to bouts of depression, nothing compared to the darkness I endured during the first six months after I was told the marriage was over.  It was an overwhelming sense of disorientation and confusion.  I could not believe what had happened.  I could not grasp the reality of the situation.  I kept thinking surely there would be a phone call that spoke of reconciliation, a note that promised we would try again, a knock on the door with her ready to move back into the house—moved by all the good memories and laughter we had shared over the past two and a half decades.  But none of that ever happened.  She was done.  And it didn’t matter what I wanted or hoped for.  My marriage was over and there was nothing I could do that would change that.

Totally distraught, I went to see my therapist who could see that I was in no condition to do ministry.  He suggested that I take a thirty day leave of absence and wrote a letter to the church suggesting it. The church agreed to grant me that time off.  The problem was after the thirty days, I was still in no condition to do ministry.  I tried for a couple of weeks, but I had no energy for it.  My own faith had taken a huge hit by the divorce.  I was trying myself to figure out who I was now and what I believed. I wasn’t anywhere close to certain about my own faith journey, let alone helping anyone else with theirs.

Long and short of it, I resigned from the church that I loved.  I resigned from being the regional moderator.  I quit writing for [D]mergent.  I just couldn’t do it anymore.  I had lost my voice for preaching, my pen for writing, and my will to lead others.  I had no idea what I would do or how I would make it.  In a matter of a few months, I lost my marriage and my job—which meant as a pastor I lost my primary community of faith.  What I had gained was an avalanche of depression that took my energy, filled my mind with doubt and guilt, and very nearly took my life.  For the first six months after the break-up of my marriage, all I could think of was what a failure I had become. 

I started taking anti-depressants.  I continued to see a therapist on a weekly basis.  But the darkness for me was overwhelming and other kinds of treatment had to be tried as well.  As the depression gripped me deeper and more fully, no matter what treatment seemed to be tried, I wondered if I was going to make it out of the hell that I had descended into. 

Since, I am writing this article you know that I did make it out, at least part of the way, but before I tell you how that happened, I simply want to say that the reason I am writing this article is because I am one of the tens of millions of Americans who suffer from the mental illness known as depression.  Though it does not by any means describe the totality of who I am, when I am in its fierce grip, it can be utterly consuming of who I am.  It’s a battle for me.  I know it is a battle others fight as well, including other ministers.  By giving voice to my own struggle I hope others can learn they did not walk alone or live in fear that other’s might know they are in this specific battle of the mind.

I have heard the story several times that before he was President, Abraham Lincoln once spent six months in bed suffering from melancholia (depression).  I always thought that was an excessive amount of time, but now I am more understanding of those who take to bed for a long time.  It was six months after the ending of my marriage before I was beginning to feel like I was on the road back to good health. Here’s a few of the things that benefited me most.

1. I realized my depression was accompanied by a deep sense of grief and loss.  I had to let myself experience that grief because the loss was real.  Fortunately, I had family members and friends who were willing to grieve with me and let me talk as much as I needed to.  My sister, a couple of friends from seminary, some people from the church I served all stayed in contact with me and gave me the companionship and space I needed.  I had lost my primary community of faith, but I had another faith group that was undergirding me with their prayers and support.

2. My children accepted for a while a different role in my life.  I had done my best to be a good parent to them, but honestly for those first six months, I had trouble being anything for anyone including a parent to my children.  My son and daughter, 21 and 17 at the time, took on the role of care-givers to me. They made certain I took my medicines and went to my therapy appointments.  They even drove me to the therapies that required I have someone else drive me home.  It also helped that my daughter, after a year and half at a residential high school, came back home to live with me for her final semester.  Her presence took away a lot of the loneliness. 

3. I decided I had to move on.  Though I didn’t make the decision, the decision was made to end the marriage.  I had no choice but to accept the reality of that situation.  It took me six months to get there, but finally I did.   

After six months, I was well enough to put my relocation papers out looking for another congregation to serve.  It didn’t take long before I was getting some calls and interviews.  Which helped with my diminished self-esteem.  And just about the time the money was going to run out, I got a call to serve a church in Virginia and I am having a blast in this congregation.  I am developing a love for them like the one I had for my previous congregation.  I’m not back to where I was before my life changed so drastically but I am headed back that way.  I would give me about 75-80 percent on the recovery scale.  I am back to writing sermons and doing pastoral calling and attending meetings. I’m back to working at the homeless shelter and helping those in need whatever way I can.  I’m back to the work of a pastor.  

I still have work to do.  Most importantly, I’ve preached dozens of sermons in my life about the importance of forgiveness in the Christian journey, I’m still trying to discover its role in this situation.  I would appreciate your prayers as I learn that lesson.

There is, of course, much more to the story than I have shared here, both to the end of the marriage and my battle with the depression that followed.  But I wanted briefly to relate to anyone who might be going through their own battle with depression.  The darkness can be overcome through time, hard work and the conscious decision that it won’t win.  You need not be ashamed of your battle or be afraid to speak of it.  Confront it as honestly as you need to and allow your friends to care for you.  

Peace,

Dr. Mark E. Poindexter

Broken, . . . but not Shattered, Part 2: Vulnerability and Community

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of all mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we are ourselves are consoled by God.

                                                                (II Corinthians 1:3-4)

Last week, I wrote about my battle with the depression that followed the sudden and unexpected end of a twenty-four year marriage.  I shared my story with the hope of being help, in some way, to others who might be in a similar struggle.  Within a few hours of the article’s posting I was receiving Facebook messages and comments from people who had dealt with or were presently dealing with depression expressing gratitude for the honesty and sense of vulnerability the article contained.  The comment that touched me most deeply and summed up so many others was from the woman who simply wrote, “Now I know I am not alone.”

I believe that the heart of true community is a willingness for us to live as honestly as possible in relation to each other.  We can indeed celebrate one another’s strengths and successes, but it is in our willingness to share our brokenness and our weaknesses, indeed our very humanness, that loving and supportive community is formed.  In his book, "The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace," psychiatrist M. Scott Peck wrote;

[We need] . . . a soft individualism . . . an understanding of individualism which teaches that we cannot be truly ourselves until we are able to share freely with others the things we have in common; our weakness, our incompleteness, our imperfection, our inadequacy, our sins, our lack of wholeness and self-sufficiency.

My goal in sharing was not to look for pity, nor to try and tell anyone’s story but my own (including my former spouse who has her own story to tell), my goal was to share my brokenness with the hope of giving the opportunity for others to share as they needed to.

Our human brokenness, especially depression, can often push us into feelings of isolation.  We can believe that the only way to present ourselves to others is “happy, completely put-together and finished” (Rachel Evans, "Finding Sunday").  So, if we can’t go out into the world with a smile on our face, we stay in, cutting ourselves off from the sense of community that is vital for a full life.  The problem is life does not always allow all of us to be happy, put together and finished all the time.  Life is sometimes difficult. Life is sometimes full of pain.  Life can have losses that are virtually unbearable. 

Earlier this year, I wrote my college roommate a letter explaining to him what had happened in my life.  He called me as soon as he got the letter and in the midst of our conversation he said, “Mark, sometimes life is just so hard.”  And when life is hard we need one another’s help to make it through.  We are called to share one another’s burdens.  But for us to be able to help bear each other’s burdens we have to be willing to admit we have burdens that are weighing us down.  Rachel Evans writes, “.  .  .  to be fully engaged with the world we must be vulnerable.”

I’m not advocating that every relationship be a place that we share every detail about the brokenness of our lives. I am advocating that the church be a safe place for us with relationships to share the brokenness that truly makes us a people who follow Jesus.  In her book, "Jesus Freak," Sara Miles writes:

Jesus calls his disciples, giving us authority to heal and sending us out.  He doesn’t show us how to reliably cure a molar pregnancy.  He doesn’t show us how to make a blind man see, dry every tear, or even drive out all kinds of demons.  But he shows us how to enter into a way of life, in which the broken and sick pieces are held in love and given meaning.  In which strangers literally touch each other, and in doing so make a community spacious enough for everyone.

In the church we are not called to live in the false world where everything is alright, even when it is not.  We are called instead to live honestly.  The reason we believe in grace is because there is brokenness. The reason we speak of forgiveness is because something has happened to cause hurt.  The reason we speak of healing is because there is grief and pain and sorrow.  Our practice in the church is not to try to silence and isolate those who are experiencing difficult days but to journey through those days with them.  In that journey together we become the beloved community of Christ.  In that journey, despite the difficulties, there shall be joy found.

I am glad my sharing helped someone to realize they are not alone.  May she find the courage to share her journey with others so that someone else may find out they are not alone.  In doing that, may we step together into the beloved realm of God.

No Apologizing: A Reflection for National Coming Out Day

By Douglas Collins

One of my friends and ministers speaks a lot about feminism and her experience in seminary during a time in which women just didn’t do that sort of thing. She speaks with clarity about the many experiences she has had throughout her life in which coming out as a feminist to the Christians and coming out to the Christians as a feminist was met with rage, confusion and misunderstanding.

“Feminists are angry men-haters. Christians are bigoted, patriarchal, and blind.”

In many of our discussions, we shared similar life experiences of living with two conflicting identities that others just didn’t perceive as possible. In the midst of that frustration, she made a comment that will always stick with me. She said:

“Being a feminist Christian feels like being the child of divorced parents. There are so many Christians who have raised me to be the woman I am. They have loved me and taught me about living a life full of meaning. I’m also a woman. There have been so many women in my life who been such amazing, supportive people to me as I have grown into the person I am today. I happen to believe that women are equal to men – that women deserve all the same rights and are the same in God’s eyes as all humans are on this earth.”

I too, feel like the child of parents who went through a nasty divorce. Both of them love me so much and I could never choose one over the other. I find myself in a grand scheme of misunderstanding: accusations upon accusations both rooted in the same claim – that one side is more righteous than the other. One parent has got it right, and the other is a self-centered idiot. We live in a world in which coming out as who you really are, in any respect, is just hard. It’s possibly the hardest thing we humans do while we’re alive. Not just gay, or Christian, or woman, or feminist, but coming out of any closet. It’s the age old question: who am I and what am I supposed to do on this earth? It makes me wonder how many people trudge through life just trying to survive, hiding a piece about themselves for fear of being attacked or persecuted by the people they love the most. Where is God in that anyway?


Dear lover, wherever you are,
If you’re there, if you’re reading this, I’ve got some news for you. I’m a Christian and I’m gay. I am a person who finds men to be physically, emotionally, and spiritually attractive. I don’t know why. I just am. No, I won’t sleep with you tonight. I’m not interested in FWB or telling you if I’m DDF or HWP or into poppers or 420 or whether or not I’m circumcised. If that’s all you want to know, I want to know more about your story. As a Christian, it saddens me to hear that you want to know whether I’m a top or a bottom instead of getting to know that I’m a jazz pianist, or that I have a passion for graphic design and making people laugh. I believe God made me to be who I am. I hope you do too.

Dear Christians,
I’m gay. If you care to know, I may disagree with you theologically. We may have different images of the Christ and we may just not have the same conclusions about what God wants us to do. You may think I’m going to hell and that I’m just a perverse sinner who refuses to look past my sexual desires in order to better glorify God. Yeah, it hurts people when you say things like that. It’s the reason children grow up in churches and kill themselves every year. It’s also the reason that it is still somehow a huge “scandal” every time a famous athlete or politician comes out because s/he is sick and tired of giving in to society’s norms, and more often than not, the church’s status quo. Where is God in that? Where is the church?

My dear brothers and sisters,
Among the spectrum of sexuality and race and creed and nationality and physical appearance, there is nothing I want more than to work as hard as possible to accept you for who you are. Why? Because I am sick and tired of living a life of apologies for who I am. I am sick of staying silent during a sermon of ridiculous condemnation, or whenever I’m at a wedding and the pastor finds some reason to slip in their sermon that God only consecrates one man and one woman. I’m sick of trying to explain to everyone who I think God is and why I do and believe the things I do. I’m tired of trying to both have a conviction for my faith which calls me to do justice and to walk humbly, while on the other hand, affirm and share with others that I also have doubts and that that doesn’t mean I’m a total moron or that I think I should just give up on religion altogether because it’s only for those who can’t seem to find a moral compass elsewhere. I believe that God is more complicated than that. I am longing for the day when I don’t have to find some crafty way of slipping something into my online dating profile about how I’m “spiritual” or “open to religious ideas” so long as it doesn’t “define who I am.”     Let me tell you something – the faith I put into the way I live in relationship with God, the one in whom I am free to explore my whole being and wrestle with the big ideas is who I am.

Dear Mom and Dad, or Dad and Dad, or Mom and Mom, or human and human,
Please, get over yourself. Stop fighting. It hurts my soul. It makes me feel like I’m the reason you split up. Your angry accusations and shouting matches about who cheated on whom and who gets the kids and how awful and wrong each other is tells me that you care more about convicting and slandering each other than learning how to forgive and reconcile your differences for the family. You know those times when it’s just you and me out on the boat or cooking together and you make some snide remark about how “your father” or “your mother” is just full of crap? That makes me furious. It makes me want to leave you forever because you think I can just cut out one of the people who loved me and raised me and taught me to care for myself and others just like you did.

Parents have the capacity to abuse their children. They can say the most rotten, horrible things ever. They also have the ability to find a new way and to live in harmony, at least for the sake of the kids.

Unbox Church

By Rev. Mindi

As she poured me a drink, she asked me, “Are you really a pastor?” I smiled and nodded to the bartender. Only two of us regulars made it for our Pub Theology at a new location tonight, but along with the bartender and a few others who happened to frequent here, we had a great discussion about what it means to live out one’s faith. We didn’t talk specifics about church, and it wasn’t until I brought up Matthew 25 as a discussion point that we even got into the Bible or Jesus, but we had church tonight.

I lift this up as an example of church unboxed. I think that in church talk, we are quick to make assumptions about the “unchurched.” We make assumptions about those who have no church or religious affiliation. We assume we haven’t done a good job of selling the church message, or haven’t done a good job of raising our kids, or that we aren’t preaching the Gospel.  Our assumptions also lead us to call people who have no affiliation “unchurched,” which is an unfortunate term based on the assumption that “churched” is the preferred category over “unchurched” (and I wrote about this last spring in “Becoming Unchurched”).

Sure, lots of churches are doing Pub Theology and having Bible studies in coffee shops. But rather than trying to use these as avenues to get people into the church building, what if we were to already recognize the community that exists and meet them where they are at? What if pastors started to see themselves more as freelance ministers sent out from the church to be pastors to those who need spiritual support? What if our churches understood that an important part of our ministry was not to work to get people in on Sunday morning but to minister to people in their own communities?

As I left tonight, a woman asked me to pray for her. I was happy to do so. I also tipped the bartender very well because I wanted her to know I appreciated and valued the service she gave as well as her interest in what I do.

What can you do to unbox church? This isn’t to say to stop having worship on Sunday mornings and go into the coffee shops and bars, but what can you do to minister to those outside of your box? What can you do to meet people where they are at and be the presence of Jesus among others? Can we unbox our assumptions that people do not have community or are in need of specific church community?

Moving out of Ecclesiology, into Koinology

By John O'Keefe

In my upcoming book, The Naked Jesus; a Journey out of Christianity,[1] I bring out an idea that some have talked about, but I’ve seen very little, if anything, written about. The idea is our need to move from the institutional weight behind the concept of Ecclesiology, based on the word ekklēsiā (a legal term), to the lighter, more connective community-oriented idea behind what can be seen as Koinology, based on the word Koinonia (a personal/spiritual term). We should be moving away from the ideas, and theologies, behind Ecclesiology and be ready to dance into the ideas, and theologies, behind the idea of Koinology.

Why?

There are many reasons, not the least of which is that the term Ecclesiology has less to do with people, and more to do with building. The term “Ecclesiology” is a word developed in the 1840’s and it was used to describe the science, decoration and architecture behind building a church building, it was never intended to define a people; it dealt with the physical structure of a building. Sure, over the past few decades (since about 1940) we have strived to make it a theology of the church but, since its roots are connected to a building, connecting the idea to a people seems like forcing a round peg into a square whole. While koinonia is a word that centers on people; it centers on the spirituality of connection and common unity. Koinology is about people and how we connect to each other and the Divine.

Koinonia brings us to the idea and theology of Koinology; when we translate the word into English (which is very hard because of the spiritual weight behind the term) we see a theology that centers on community, a joint partnership and deep intimacy with the Divine and each other. While the term koinonia is hard to translate into English with just a simple word, koinonia speaks of community, common unity, communion, joint participation, sharing, and a deep intimacy. It is a word that has a deep spiritual meaning behind it – so, Koinology seems to be the natural expression of a “theology of a community of faith.”

Now, I’m not self-centered enough to believe that the word Koinology came from a firing of neurons in my limited mind; in fact I know I didn’t come from me. The use of the word Koinology dates back to 1899 in the writings of Isacc Althaus Loos in "Studies in the Politics of Aristotle and the Republic, volume 1, issue 1-2." Loos brings out the idea of Koinology and suggests the term should be used in the study of Sociology when speaking in terms of human relationships: family, villages, communities and tribes. Granted, it has not been adopted by sociologists (if you do a Google Ngram on the work Koinology, you’ll get a message that tells you the word can’t be found), but it’s a term that we, as followers, should adopt for how we see the “theology of a community of faith.”

The central focus of Koinology is on the spiritual relationship of Communion, and how communion bonds the community to the Divine in some very intimate ways. This bonding brings about a deeper level of intimacy between members of the community. It can be seen as a point in which we pivot from our worldly view of self, to a desire to see the world through the eyes of the Divine and embrace one another at the common table of Communion.

Koinology can be seen as a joining together between humanity and the Divine. It is defined by our joint partnership in creation, community, and self. In this realization of Communion, in holding common unity, which we realize has little to do with what we posses, but what we share with others that invites us to live in amazing joy. It removes the idea of a building, and speaks only about people and their relationship to each other and the Divine. When we share, give, we live in a powerful understanding of embracing the relationship of grace, and we develop a lasting interconnected relationship that spans time and spaces. We hold not only common possessions, but common interests; we seek a higher level of intimacy, thinking and understanding of our interaction with each other. We see our lives intertwined (bound together) become more and more centered on the divine and each other. This bond brings to life the reality that we move past demanding thoughts and actions. We seek to generate good for others, and in turn others seek the greater good for us. Because we don’t seek control, we seek to serve and not demand to be served.

Koinology is the place where we see the hungry being fed, where we see the marginalized lifted, where we see voting booths open to all who desire to vote; it is a place where the powerful realize they have no power, and develop a servant heart. Moving from Ecclesiology to Koinology moves us from a powerbase to a gracebase, where love is spoken. Koinology does not lend itself well to a systematic thought, or process. While this will mean we will need to retool our thoughts, I am a believer that by doing so we can redefine what it means to be a Community of Faith.


[1] Release date is June 15, 2014

Staying With My Religion: The Comfort and Challenge of Community

By Rev. Mark Poindexter

“Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil.  For if they fall, one will lift the other up; but woe to one who is alone and falls and does not have another to help.  Again, if two lie together, they keep warm; but how can one keep warm alone? And though one might prevail against another, two will withstand one.  A threefold cord is not quickly broken.” (Ecclesiastes 4:9-12)

This is the third in a series of four articles titled, “Staying with Faith: the Risks and Rewards of Sticking it Out.”  It is a response to a workshop taught in Indianapolis by a former pastor called, “Leaving My Religion: The Risks and Rewards of Becoming Non-Religious.”  After twenty-five years in ministry he had resigned his pastorate, leaving behind not only the ministry, but the church and his life of faith. He believed that life “no longer worked for him.”  Since I have been in pastoral ministry for about that same amount time and chosen to stay with it, I thought I would offer a different perspective.  That is, I have chosen not only to stay with the life of ministry, but, even more, the life of faith.  Though my profession is an extension of my faith, my faith is much more than my profession.  It is through my faith that I understand myself and others and with my faith that I seek to engage the world.  Last week, I wrote about what I call the Sacred Realities.  There are realities in this world such as love, joy, hope and beauty that are beyond the realm of empirical verification.  They are realities that cannot be measured or weighed or touched, yet they are the very things that give human life its truest sense of meaning and purpose.  I believe that behind all these realities is the deepest Reality – God.

This week, I want to share about the importance of community in the life of faith.  The community is a place of comfort and challenge in which we learn what it means to be truly human.   In “The Courage To Be” Paul Tillich wrote, “Only in the continuous encounter with other persons does the person become and remain a person. The place of this encounter is the community.”  In other words, our humanity can only be fully realized in our relationship with others.

That our American culture with its emphasis on individualism has seen a break down in community has been well documented in books such as “Bowling Alone” and “Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life.”  Our increasingly disconnected lives has led to a breakdown in civility that is easily seen in our political world and is possibly a contributing factor to the many random acts of violence that seem to take place almost daily.  The Christian faith, in which we are taught to love both neighbor and enemy and to welcome strangers, can and should play a vital role in helping our culture overcome our increasing estrangement from one another.

The church can help to build community in a variety of ways, but I want to briefly mention two.  First, the church as a source of support and encouragement for people.  Life can be very difficult at times – each person has struggles and difficulties and loss that must be endured.  The church is a place where people should realize they are not alone through the difficult times of life; that their sorrow is shared by others.    As a pastor, I have had countless opportunities over the past twenty-five years to be with people in some very difficult times.  When I am present on such occasions, I always feel as if I am standing on sacred ground, a place where the grace of God can be made manifest.  This grace often comes in the form of other church members living out their own faith with those who are suffering by holding a hand, providing a meal, cleaning a house, sending a card, or any number of other expressions of compassion.  I have heard on more occasions than I can remember, someone saying to me, “I didn’t know so many people cared.”  The community of faith is a place of support and encouragement.  Not only within itself – but also within the larger realm.  This is why churches must always be engaged in ministries of care and compassion beyond its own members.  Every congregation should be reaching out in the town or city in which it finds itself to help meet the needs of folks who are struggling in life – food and housing and clothing ministries are at the top of the list.  But there are numerous ways we can share in the life of those who are our neighbors and who just like us, are the beloved God.   It is also the sense of community support that should lead the church in being among the first and most consistent responders to people who have endured the devastating natural tragedies that happen.  And when longer term recovery efforts are part of the equation, the long term commitment of people of faith is vital.

Another important aspect of the church in building community is the inherent challenge of living together in community.  In my understanding, the community that the church seeks to build is not one in which we ask everyone to be just alike.  It is instead a community built upon having dignity and respect and love for each other even with our differences. It is a community in which we recognize that we all have different gifts and talents and abilities, along with different thoughts and ideas.  It is not our uniformity that is the foundation of our community, it is our united commitment to recognizing that all human beings are created in the image of God and thus worthy of the love and respect that forms the foundation of community.  It is not just the one who looks like me, thinks life me and acts like me that I am to be in relationship with.  It is also the one who doesn’t look, think, or act like me that I am called to journey with in life.  That can be quite a challenge at times . . . . but it can also be very beautiful when it is accomplished.                

So part of the reason I have stayed with my faith is because I find in the church the community of support and challenge I need as I strive toward my full humanity.  Yet, I recognize that the church has often fallen short in these areas.  There have been some, even many, who have come to the church with the hope of finding a community of support and they did not.  For whatever reason, they were not made welcome.   I have heard their stories.  I know it is true.  I also know that the church hasn’t always proclaimed the unity that exists in our diversity, but instead, often out of fear, proclaimed uniformity.  I know it is true.  I am aware of these shortcomings.  And I am deeply sorry for those who have experienced these failures of the church in their own life.  All I can offer is that what you experienced is not the way it is supposed to be.  All I can hope is that you can keep looking for the sense of community that we all need to be who we are meant to be.  I found it as a person of faith in the community of faith.  My commitment is to strive to make my faith community the best community possible for all people.         

Two Prayers

By Rev. Mindi

Two prayers I learned during my summer as a Clinical Pastoral Education intern were:

“Lord, help me not to run,”

and

“Lord, shut my mouth.”

I carry these two prayers with me into my ministry. 

There are plenty of days when I want to run. When the umpteenth person calls or rings the doorbell to tell me they are down on their luck, need gas money or food money, and how they can’t get help from social services for one reason or another or they are just short until the end of the month and will pay me back.  When a church member tells me of all the problems they are facing: relationship struggles, financial struggles, mental health struggles, and it all just seems too much for them to bear and now I have been drawn in.  When someone calls and is mad about the church lights being left on one night, or a building user is upset because the piano was moved, or something is broken or missing and immediately another group is blamed for it.  I want to run.

I want to run instead of going into the hospital room to face the family that is not ready to see their loved one go and just believes if we say the right prayer God will answer.  I want to run when the alcoholic parent tries one more time to make amends and set their life straight and wants me to try to talk to their estranged family.  I want to run when I’m told once again we’re behind in the budget and we’re going to have to cut something.  I want to run.

But I pray that prayer, breathe, and go on. Sometimes I go rather slowly, but I go on, by the help of God, I go on.

And then I pray that second prayer.

I shut my mouth when I am tempted to give the easy answer.  When someone tells me their personal struggles with faith and with the church I listen. When the waitress at the diner tells me about her faith journey I listen. When the elderly woman goes on and on about her dogs as if they were her children I listen.  I listen because it’s the most important thing I can do.

I listen when the pastor in the next town calls me up to try to get me on board with a movement I don’t agree with. I listen when a man tells me how I can’t be a pastor because I’m a woman. I listen when the person laughs that I am a minister and tells me what’s wrong with organized religion.

I listen because it’s not only what I’m called to do, but I pray for the strength to do it.

In my time as a pastor, I have found that one of the most precious gifts we can give to those in need is of our time and of our ears to listen. I have also learned for those who have axes to grind that listening is one of the most disarming things we can do. I’m not advocating for listening and taking in hate speech, but for someone who is looking for an argument, a person who simply listens can dissipate the intensity. Sometimes even listening can change someone’s mind.

When I was a CPE intern that summer, I was called to a room on a floor that never called in the chaplains, even laughed when we checked at the front desk. But this morning I was called in because a patient had requested spiritual support.  But it turned out she had not. What had happened was that she was a talker and the nurses were tired. And it also turned out she was an atheist and the last person she wanted to see was a chaplain (the nurses had failed to mention to her that they had requested the chaplain nor bothered to ask her if she wanted the visit).  But she did turn out to be a talker, and so I prayed for the strength to listen.  I maybe got in 5 sentences in 2 hours of conversation. But by the time they were taking her away for tests, she asked me to pray with her, and so I did.  When I returned the next day she had been discharged, but I believe that was one of the most powerful days as a chaplain. I simply listened.

And I carry those prayers with me on days like today, where I listened to the diner patrons complain about daylight savings time and the government. I prayed not to run when someone called me about a difficult conversation they needed to have with me. I prayed to listen instead, and I believe it went well.

What kept me (a young adult) in the church

By Rev. Mindi

There have been a number of discussions, tweets, chats, blogs and other articles on why young adults are leaving the church.  The most recent was Christian Piatt’s blog post here.  He lists seven reasons to think about, but there’s another that has been nagging me for a while: authenticity. I grew up in a small startup church in Alaska, a church that I still have my name on as a member.  It’s a church that from the beginning did not imagine itself as a large, growing church, drawing in several families and youth.  It’s a church that set out to meet needs, starting as four families meeting together.  When my family joined a couple of years after it started, the church created its first Sunday School class for children.  Over the years, if kids came, there was a class, if there were no kids, there was not a class.  People didn’t panic when families moved or stopped coming.  The church simply molded into whoever we were at the time.

When I was in high school, we had a youth group for about a year, but then we didn’t for a while.  There were plenty of other churches offering youth activities and some families drifted there, and sometimes I just went along with my friends to other churches.  But the church recognized a need: there were few summer programs for kids in our area except for camps.  There was a camp our congregation supported, and the church decided that any kid who wanted to go to camp would go for free.  One year we sent 13 kids to camp—from a church of about 25 members!  But part of the reason we didn’t need a youth group, in my view, was that from an early age, we were part of the church.  We were encouraged to remain in the church service (the church actually stopped offering childcare during worship after my first few years there).  We were invited to participate in ways we were comfortable—lighting candles or reading Scripture or even preaching on occasion as we got older.  When I was baptized at the age of thirteen, a week later I was welcomed into the church and asked to serve on the Deacon board, the only board in the church.  There was no such thing as “Junior Deacon” in our church.  We were all part of the church together.

What I have learned from my small startup church over the years is to be authentic.  Too many churches try to be all things to all people.  They start up programs and ministries hoping to attract the kind of people they want, such as young adults, rather than just being themselves and embracing the community that they are.  As a young adult, I went off to college and attended a wonderful church where I felt the same kind of authenticity from the pastor and leaders.  They were glad some college students were attending, but recognized that we weren’t going to come every Sunday and that they weren’t going to be a big draw as the campus population was more evangelical and conservative.  But I do remember the finals week care packages they sent to each of us who came as we studied for exams.  I remember being given the opportunity to preach, both there and in my home church, recognizing my gifts for ministry.  I remember other friends preaching, leading music and book studies, working with children, or just attending worship and Easter brunch, because they were accepted as they were, and the church did not try to be anything but who they were.

My home church never became a big church, but there were young adults, older adults, and ages in between that have come over the years and call it their church home because it was an authentic church, and they were welcomed and affirmed as who they were, their authentic selves.

I have seen too many churches try new programs—if we move Bible study to a different time, they will come.  If we have a praise band play every 4th Sunday, they will come.  It’s like a Field of Dreams for mainline churches—and I distinctly remember the moderator of the first church I served saying, “If we just open the doors, they will come.”  But it doesn’t work that way.  This is reality, not fantasy.  And the best thing we can do in the church is to be authentic.

Stop pretending to be something you are not.  Stop trying to cling to a dream of the past when every pew was filled and you had multiple Bible studies occurring at the same time.  And please, stop targeting young people in the hopes that young people mean young families which means more children who can grow up and carry on the legacy you remember from your own childhood.  We can all see right through that.  Instead, remember that church does not start at the doors, but that we as the church must go outside.  We are the church in the pew or in the coffee shop, in Bible study or in the office, in the beauty salon and in the seat on the plane.  We are the church wherever we are.  If we start remembering that and start being ourselves, we can grow the body of Christ.  And we can definitely reach out to young adults, and to all sorts of people, if we are authentic in the world and inside the walls.

No Red Ink on the Vision Test

By JC Mitchell

As a boy in elementary school, I would sometimes tussle with other boys. Generally we would not hurt each other, but sometimes it would result in a visit to the nurse’s office. During one such incident, my head hit against a cement wall. It hurt some, but I felt I was fine; however, the teacher did not believe me, but who would argue with a teacher that was allowing you to go to the nurse’s office and miss some of class(as we were just coming in from recess)? The nurse examined me and asked questions. I was determined to be fine, diagnosis “boy.” The last question posed during the nurse’s examination was, “Are you seeing double?” My response worried her, as I stated, “No more than usual.” I was seeing double often while reading and I just trained and strained myself to read both images simultaneously. The nurse, concerned and curious, did some tests and discovered what I thought was normal: I saw double. What I also remember about her is she did not make me feel stupid for thinking that seeing double was normal, and she did not make me nervous about this situation.

I went to the optometrist, and I must say that was an exciting experience. It was explained to me that everyone has a focal point in which when you get closer to the eyes, one will see double, but generally it is centimeters from the nose, not an arm’s length. This doctor prescribed intense exercises. I had various contraptions and ditto papers and spent one to two hours a day strengthening my eyes, so my focal point would be in a normal range. I was committed because reading, which I greatly enjoy, was much easier with only one image.

I share this anecdote to emphasize the importance of knowing vision in the church.  We in the church world use this term often, and it is not easily defined as it is different for each ministry and congregation, while also being part of God’s Vision.  I assume that there is an importance of vision, for it is what drives a congregation and/or ministry in the direction of God.  We know that it is not simple to find a vision, but it is just as important to realize when your ministry has lost or been burdened with poor vision. Just as I believed seeing double was normal, many churches and ministries keep going, not realizing they would have a difficult time reading the bottom line on the metaphorical eye chart.

For many, the reality of finances brings a congregation to the metaphorical optometrist.  However, I want to share the story of a local food bank I was involved with this past year that closed.  The bank had been serving the community for 30 years, but the original vision of helping people between applying for food stamps and receiving them is now outdated.  Other food banks had taken form over the past decade serving the community more efficiently and in greater numbers.   The food bank needed a new vision of how to utilize their resources.  For various reasons the need of a new vision was not taken up by the board and the volunteers, until the vote that closed the bank.  Even a year before, a vote keeping it open (by one vote) didn’t get enough people realizing the need of a vision.  However, this ministry did not lack resources.  We had enough food, especially canned corn (not sure why so much corn), and we could have continued for 15 years without raising anymore funds, at the level of help we were providing, give or take a couple of years.

My point is that vision has nothing to do with finances.

We need to not wait until it is reflected by red ink.

My question is what is, or can be, our metaphorical eye chart?  (comment away)

The "Family" Unit

Ever since this article by Tony Robinson came out in June, I have been reflecting on the church as family. Growing up, that is how I felt about my church—they were an extended family. In my ministry, I have often referred to the church as “The Family of God.”  There are still good uses of the metaphor of family.  However, I agree with Robinson that it’s time to rethink that metaphor, especially of how it has been mis/used in church circles. First, we have to understand that the concept of family and household has changed throughout the Bible and throughout our own human history, so to think that today’s definition is the same as it was even a few generations ago is a false assumption to start on.  Yet I hear many Christians objectify the “family”—the idea that there is a husband who is the provider, a wife who is the caregiver, and children who are cared for by the mother.  Every Sunday I hear of people who share about the morning’s worship service that praised the family and where the pastor taught that we need to protect the family.

Frankly, this is contradictory to the Gospel and to the New Testament.  Jesus certainly didn’t provide for or care for his earthly family (save in John’s Gospel where he asked the “beloved disciple” to care for his mother, who, probably widowed and without support would have needed someone in that culture to provide for her given the cultural barriers).

Jesus taught that “whoever does the will of God is my mother and my sister and my brother” (Matthew 3:35)

Jesus said, “And if you greet only your brothers and sisters, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?” (Matthew 5:47)

And Jesus even proclaimed, “Whoever comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters, yes, and even life itself, cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26).

The family unit was something never upheld by Jesus.  This doesn’t mean the family unit is contrary to Scripture or to faith—it means that it is not nearly as important as we might think it is.  This is Good News.

This is Good News to the stepfamilies, the same-sex families, the grandparents who raise children, the single moms and dads.  This is Good News to those who do not have children.  This is Good News to those who live together, friends that share homes, multiple families in one roof.  This is Good News to married heterosexual couples with children, interracial and multicultural families.  Because it’s not about how we live together, but that we are part of God’s Community together.

In the Old Testament, we do hear of God being called the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, but later God is called the God of Israel.  This is not the God of one person or of one family, but this is the God of the Community.  God is not just present with one individual or one family, but when multiple families and individuals and all people come together as a community.  In the New Testament, Paul often speaks of “households” which included not only the biological family unit, but the servants and caregivers and others associated with the family.  When one person became a follower of the Way, as in Acts 16 with Lydia, the rest of the household was assumed to also be followers of the Way, as often the whole household was baptized into the faith.  The act of faith was not one of the individual or the individual’s family, but of the community the individual belonged to, greater than themselves and family.

Jesus said, “Wherever two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them” (Matthew 18:20).

Jesus said this in the context of discipline and forgiveness within the community.  When we are in community, we need to be conscious of how our lives affect the well-being of the community, how our actions and decisions affect others.

In the question of equal marriage, posed in several states this election year, including my new home state of Washington, we would do well to remember this: it is not about the family unity, but how we live in community with each other.  When we limit rights to one kind of family unit, we disallow not only homosexual families but we are making a statement that there is no other kind of family unit that is acceptable.  It is clear that Jesus would stand against this hypocrisy.

Speak Christian to a “T”

This London Olympic coverage of course includes some joking about how the English language across the pond does not match what Americans call English.  Having lived in Northern Ireland, I can attest to these differences.  I remember on my first or second day going into a restaurant to eat.  I was confused about the layout and went and talked to a waitress.  I could not understand a word she said to me, so frustrated, I just left.  Not my usual way of dealing with someone speaking a different language, but we were both speaking English. I acclimated quite quickly and fully, as most people thought I was from south of the border, The Republic of Ireland.  There were certainly other instances of miscommunications. My flat mate was from Newcastle, and honestly many of the Irish had a hard time understanding her accent as well.  I remember one night about 6 pm she asked, “Would you like some tea?” and I said “no” thinking to myself I want something to eat.  About 15 minutes later I went into the kitchen to see she was preparing dinner.  I asked if I could have some, and she said, “I asked you if you wanted some.”  See, at that time of day, asking if you want tea referred to a meal, for I should have known that generally when someone was offering the beverage tea, you would be asked, “Do you want a cuppa?”

I am sure you know stories of miscommunications, which would have made the writers of “Three’s Company” consider them, but these miscommunications within the same language are frustrating.  This is what happens in Christianity often, and we assume we are speaking the same language.

Let me remind you that English on both sides of the pond works well, even if their petrol pedal is on the opposite side of the vehicle.  So why do some Christians that I know shy away from certain words in our tradition?  Evangelism, salvation, righteousness, sacrifice, etc. are example words that I sense have been dropped from many pastors’ lexicon.  I understand there are strong connotations, for some of these words do require careful use out of the Body of Christ, the church.  For instance, I will not go and greet someone by saying, “Hi I am from my Church’s evangelism team, and I want to make sure you understand the sacrifice Jesus made for the world’s salvation from violence, and we try to live a righteous life, so I hope you join us for worship.”  There is way too much baggage in those terms, and I am very aware of that.

You may say we need to reclaim the terms--I know I have said that myself.  Upon reflection, that attitude demonstrates defining my Christianity against another.  I just need to use the terms as I have learned from Biblical and theological study, while being aware when I am talking to those that know only the fundamentalists or media’s language of Christianity.  Let us be comfortable with our own speech.

If we are comfortable with our language, we are able to answer the questions and hang in there in dialogue with other Christians who are using a language that seems “foreign.” I know there are people filled with hate using that language, and I do not recommend anything but a smile and prayer for those individuals, but I have seen time and again Christians that explored the deeper and complex meaning of our traditional key words--they may talk the talk, but they also certainly walk the walk.

The best way to be comfortable is to use these terms without apology, while knowing these same words will have different meanings to other Christians.  Hopefully, we will find each other at the same table drinking from the same chalice or cup.

Saying Goodbye, and Hello

We are saying goodbye to our church, community and state that we have lived in and been a part of for the past 2 ½ years. Goodbyes are never easy, among colleagues and friends, and also among church members. Church relationships are tricky. The old-old school of thought was that the pastor was part of the church family. If a pastor came to the church single, many in the church would work to set up the single pastor with a suitable partner for the future. Pastor’s families were expected to be in attendance and involved in the church thoroughly. My mother, a PK (Pastor’s Kid) herself, tells me of how she was expected to babysit children of the church when needed and for free. My grandmother had a china set with settings for 12 and coffee service for 16. My step-grandmother shared that in one church she was expected to serve the punch at every church meal. Ministers were part of the social clubs in town, often invited by church members, and ministers went golfing with their members on Saturday mornings. There were no days off in that school of thought—the minister and “his” family were always on.

The old-old school of thought was replaced by the old (modern) school of thought, which is that the pastor should keep strict limits with their congregation. Friendships were strongly discouraged. Professional boundaries needed to be set and maintained. Ministers were encouraged to seek friendships outside of the church, to attempt to not overwork their hours (though the hours of work were still estimated to be 50-55 hours a week) and to protect their family from the burdens of church life outside of Sundays.

I was taught in the old school, modern way of pastoral boundaries. In my last congregation I served, I was strict with my boundaries. I rarely spent time outside of meetings, worship, visitations and educational events with congregants. I protected my family’s time. When I felt a connection to church members in terms of hobbies or interests, I did not pursue beyond the church walls very often. As a result, when I left that congregation, I received a note that expressed disappointment that some felt they never got to know me as well as I knew them.

That note has stuck with me as I transitioned from pastor to pastor’s wife. While the role is different, this time around I did allow for friendships within the church. Having moved to a location where we had no family or friends in the surrounding area, friendships were a necessity. And try as I may to make friends outside of the congregation, my first friendships were within the church. And now, as we prepare to leave, I think about saying goodbye, and the ups and downs of these relationships.

As the culture has shifted, with the advent of Facebook and other social media in the last ten years, so has the dynamic of pastor/congregation boundaries. Many ministers are “friends” on Facebook with their members. Some still try to keep a professional page but many share pictures and events from family life. Our personal and professional lives are more integrated.

While this certainly can be abused, it can also lead to great connection. I think we still need to set some boundaries. I know I have made mistakes, both in being too concerned about holding boundaries and the reverse, of being too involved at the level of friendship. We need to strike a healthy balance.

My previous congregation’s previous pastor had been more integrated in the church community. Members were over at the parsonage much more often and the previous pastor spent more personal time with members at birthday parties, cookouts, dinners out and other celebrations. When I came, I set stricter boundaries for myself and for the congregation, and as a result, I received that note, which made me aware that perhaps I had been a bit too strict with the “rules” of professional boundaries.

As we move into newer ministries that are based more on relationships between people than on traditional commitments to institutions, we need to shift our thinking on how we relate to our congregations, in ways that are safe and healthy, but not restrictive to genuine interrelationship with Christ and the community.

As my husband and I say our goodbyes, and both of us prepare for new pastoral ministries, I hope to shift safely into the newness of both relationship-building and ministry, letting go of old “rules” that were so strict as to stifle genuine relationships, and embracing new ways of fostering relationships that are healthy and generate authentic connections in new ministry.

Why We've Got Bigger Things to Worry About than the Death of Denominations: Community and Ministry in a Post-Denominational World

By Derek Penwell

Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

We live in the most mobile, and often the most disconnected culture in the history of the world. Young people are told from an early age that success in life requires a college education. After graduating college, often with a mountain of student loan debt, young people find themselves in the awkward position of having to find jobs less according to vocational and personal compatibility or prospects for advancement or even for geographic proximity to family and friends than for whether a job will pay them enough to pay back the back.

Consequently, with few exceptions, we’ve created a society that requires the possibility of mobility as the price of admission. Follow the money.

“It says here that you are exceptionally well qualified for this position. If we offer you the job, are you prepared to move to our Schenectady branch?”

“Do you have anything in the midwest? I’d kind of like to stay closer to my family.”

“Next.”

This mobility has resulted in paradox of young adults who aspire to independence, yet eagerly desire to maintain interpersonal relationships. This paradox places a new set of demands on the church.

Congregations must recognize that young adults aren’t looking to “join.” They appear less interested in community as a tool to accomplish some other purpose than in community as a place to make and keep friends. This raises challenges for congregations in what appears to be a post-denominational world seeking to provide a safe place where friendships can be made and community can develop among young adults.

On its face, this attachment to friendship for its own sake can cause alarm in older generations in the church who’ve traditionally understood church to work in almost the exact opposite way. In the past denominations helped provide the kind of social stability I’ve been describing, a world in which friendships endured because people tended to stay in the same places.

Denominational loyalty was a hallmark of this social stability. After becoming a part of a denomination, either through birth, conversion, or transfer of membership, people tended to identify with that denomination indefinitely. There was a time when it was common to hear someone self-describe as a “fourth generation Methodist,” for example. Today, denominational loyalty seems a quaint bit of nostalgia, like the gilded memories of neighborhood soda fountains and day baseball.

The religious stability that existed as a result of denominational loyalty served as a foundation for a stable world in which people could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime. Emerging generations, however, tend to have much less invested in particular denominations than older generations, viewing churches through the consumerist lens of cost-benefit analysis.[1] They care much less about denominational history or doctrinal purity. As a result, they certainly seem to care less (shockingly so to longtime denominational stalwarts) about the survival of the traditional denominational bureaucracies that underlie mission work and educational initiatives.

A Conversation (Brief Interlude)

I had a conversation recently with the new co-chairs of our outreach ministry. Both women had joined our church and our denomination within the last five years. As we reviewed the budget, one woman looked up and said: “What is this line item?”

“Oh, that’s the money we send to the denomination.”

“Really?” she said. “That seems like an awful lot. It’s over half of our outreach budget. What do they do with that money?”

“Well, that money goes to support the mission work of the denomination.”

All that money goes toward mission?”

I was getting a little uncomfortable. “Not in the strictest sense, no.”

“In what sense then?”

“Part of it goes to overseas mission. Part of it goes to mission here in the U.S., our advocacy for justice, support for ministries of compassion. Part goes to education. Part goes to support ministerial search and call. Part comes back to the region. Part goes to cover the administrative costs.”

“Sounds to me like a big chunk of it goes to paying people’s salaries to administer programs that have nothing to do with the kind of ministry we’re trying to do right here.”

Really uncomfortable, I said, “Look, we have a historic commitment to support the initiatives of our denomination. That’s just the way it works.”

“Fine. So, what do we get in return?”

“Lots of stuff.”

“Like what?”

“Well, we get the satisfaction of supporting and belonging to something on a national, even a global level.”

“Hmmm … I’d like the satisfaction of actually doing ministry. That’s a lot of money for something that sounds curiously like institutional maintenance. Just think of the amazing things we could do right here with that kind of money.”

“You’re just going to have to trust me on this one. Ask ______ and ______. They’ve been around forever. They’ll tell you we’ve got to do this.”

Part of the reason we are in a post-denominational world, and part of the challenge facing mainline denominations going forward is wrapped up in that discussion. It’s going to be harder and harder to make that argument to people who have no broader sense of the scope and breadth of denominational history or it current vision for mission. As ______ and _______ grow older and become less involved in the life of the congregation, the people capable of making the argument for maintaining the institution will be fewer and fewer.

Couple that with emerging generations that have very little denominational loyalty and very little in the way of an impulse to join institutions, and you have a recipe for increasing difficulty for denominational survival—if what you mean by survival has to do with maintaining structures, with their administrative and personnel costs.

Back to Congregations in a Post-Denominational World

In the denominational world older generations often saw participation in the church as a necessity for salvation, as way to get involved in a worthy cause, or as a socially approved activity. In other words, the church was viewed as instrumentally useful in the service of larger projects (i.e., getting to heaven, doing the work of compassion and justice, networking, etc.), and friendship was an outgrowth of associating with other people to achieve these other ends.

Older generations, because society and one’s social networks tended to be more stable, could count on friendships that endured over a lifetime due to geographic proximity. You could make friends in kindergarten, graduate high school, and go to work together in the factory, mine, or quarry. If you didn’t work together, you went to work on the farm, and your friend started up down at the family drug store in your hometown. Or, if everyone went to college, you and your childhood friends often returned home to set up shop, hang out a shingle, or join a practice among the same familiar faces. You could often count on knowing the same people, having the same friends over the course of your life. Chances are that, after having grown up, you belonged to the same church you and your family had always attended.

In other words, older generations didn’t need the church to make friends—they already had a whole network of friendships developed early on. People could join churches based on a variety of factors—denominational loyalty, worship style, doctrinal purity, commitment to justice, or connectedness to desirable social networks—and trust that friendship was available, whether from the institution or among their antecedent social networks. I call this affiliate community. People affiliate with a group based on some prior commitment to an ideal or project.

“You guys do VBS? Great! My kids are little hellions.”

From these affiliations community can grow as people join together around some higher calling.

“This place is great! I see your kids are hellions, too. Maybe we could get them together while we go to Krav Maga. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

That’s not to say that older generations didn’t make friends at church via affiliate community; they did. Recognizing the implicit expectations of social stability among older generations, however, helps to point up the different need the church fulfilled in the past. Church, for older generations, is where you go to get stuff done, and if you make friends along the way, so much the better. But if you can’t count on social stability to make and keep friends, the church becomes a different kind of place altogether.

Young adults, because they live in a world where social stability can no longer be assumed, need to be more creative about developing and sustaining personal relationships. I call this kind of association attachment community, where people come together because of a need to attach themselves to a group of people for the purpose of cultivating friendship.

“You guys drink beer? Outside of work , I don’t really know anybody in this city. I’ve got to find some people to hang out with. Otherwise, I think I’m going to go Krav Maga on somebody. It’s the official self defense system of the Israeli Defense Forces, you know.”

The church has an opportunity in this itinerant culture to be a place for making friends.

“That’s not what the church is for.”

Why not?

“Because, the church has more serious business to attend to than whether some young person has anybody to go bowling with on Friday night.”

The smart-aleck response that comes to mind is: “Really? How’s that working out for you? Got young people knocking down your doors to get in?”

The more measured response is: “Perhaps, the church in a post-denominational world needs to imagine itself differently. Instead of understanding itself as an institution that needs to attract people to get things done, it should begin to see itself as a gathering where God promises to be, and where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.”

A gathering where God promises to be, where people can flourish as the communal beings God created them to be.

What do I mean by that?

The gathering, of course, has to do with the deep yearning for community I’ve been describing. The purpose of this gathering is to draw people God loves together so that they can draw strength from one another as they seek to find their lives, which allows them not only to live but to thrive.

“Put that way, the whole thing sounds like another attempt to use the church to meet individual needs—in this case, the need for community.”

I can see how it might first appear that way. Bear with me a moment, and let me see if I can be more clear about this.

The kind of reorientation of purpose I’m describing—one that views the church first as a gathering seeking to live out its purpose as human beings created for friendship in community, I think more nearly describes the kind of church described, for example, in Acts 2:44–47:

All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need. Day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke break together at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people. And day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

Now, it may very well be that this earliest description of the church is nostalgic, an idealized account of something that never really existed, except in the imaginations of those who longed for a church that only seemed possible in simpler times. This charge is not particularly damaging to what I’m trying to describe, however, because the “ideal” is precisely what I’m after. If the question is “What should the church be?” it seems plausible to go back to the earliest idealized accounts of what the church was supposed to look like.

The idealized church in Acts 2 describes a group of people, the primary description of which underscores the desire to be “together.” The impulse to congregate makes a great deal of sense for the early church when you consider that this newfound faith left them at odds—both with the Jewish faith of their childhood (which very often meant from their families and friends) and with a hostile political culture (which had just made a political example of their leader/rabbi by a very public execution).

Moreover, the author of Acts draws attention to their common life together, characterized by their willingness to share everything. When referring to this passage many commentators focus on the economic component, particularly the phrase indicating that the community, which “had all things in common” would “sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need.” This inclination to pool their goods is extremely important and shouldn’t be glossed over. However, I think the passage is speaking about more than just the willingness of the early church to run church sanctioned yard sales.

Sharing all things in common apparently also included their time and their affection for one another. The text continues, pointing out that “day by day, as they spent much time together in the temple, they broke bread at home and ate their food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having the good will of all the people.” In other words, they became friends.

They hung out together. They ate food together. They sought one another’s company.

What came out of all this congregating? That is to say, what is the progression of events set down by the author of Acts?

Those who believed came together. They shared a common life, including their resources, their time, and their affection. They spent “much time together,” breaking bread and enjoying one another. Out of all this togetherness emerge two things: worship and expansion.

It seems important to note that worship appears, at least in part, to be the communal response to God’s having called these people to share “much time together.” Having broken bread together with “glad and generous hearts,” the first thing the author of Acts says they do is start “praising God.” Worship, at least in this telling of it, breaks forth from a people who love each other and take every opportunity to be together.

What happens next? People see all of this comity and friendship and fall all over themselves to be a part of it. The opportunity to make friends, to find shelter from an often hostile world, to be a part of a community held together by something greater than a collection of individual interests appears so attractive that “day by day” new people show up and want in. In this way, the church isn’t just a collection of individuals seeking to get their social needs met; it’s a polis that helps people to identify what their truest needs are.

It strikes me that the church today might take its cue from this earliest idealized description of the church.

What Do I Envision?

In a mobile society I believe the church needs to begin to think first about how to bring people together, to cultivate relationships that are difficult to form as people grow older. That is not to say that churches need to leave behind their commitment to worshiping God or to seeking justice or to educating and forming the faithful. It is to say that those things can be the product of communities called to together by God, rather than places that seek to form communities for the purpose of accomplishing those things.

Am I saying it’s wrong to gather people together to accomplish some greater goal, or that working together can’t produce community? Absolutely not. At times when people can assume a stable culture where friendship and community is a durable product of being located in a single place over time, I think associational community can work just fine. But in a time when the culture seems to force dislocation and rootlessness, when friendships are often fleeting and difficult to cultivate, being a place where the initial appeal revolves around getting things done is going to be a hard sell to emerging generations.

Something like a pub or coffee house ministry—almost cliché in some circles and misunderstood in others—if not viewed as just another slick marketing tool to bait and switch a desirable demographic into the church, has the virtue of providing a non-threatening space in which people can gather to make friends. The focus is first focused on creating space and not on creating new members.

“Fine. But what if those people don’t ever join the church?”

What if they don’t? They weren’t scratching and clawing to get in anyway. Why not just do it because it’s the right thing to do? People who have no other community need a place to belong. Whether the church ever benefits from it, why not just provide it as a service because we’ve been called to minister to a world struggling to keep its head above water?

In a post-denominational world, the church is going to have to learn to love ministry, service, loving people because that’s what we were created and called by God to do. It should quit spending all its time figuring out all the angles by which it might benefit from ministry. Ministry is not a marketing tool, designed to sell something; it’s a vocation, a way of life.

Whether or not denominations survive intact should be of less concern to us than that the gospel is lived out. And if our highest priority is living out the gospel, then we’re going to have to spend more time thinking about how we can produce great and interesting ministry out of the stable foundation of community, and less time worrying about how to prop up flagging institutions.

  1. (http://www.kon.org/urc/v10/gargiulo.html)  ↩

What We Need Is Adventure

Growing up, Goonies was one of my favorite movies.

It had lots of things a 10 year old boy loved - pirate ships, skeletons, sparkling jewels, funny characters, ice cream, booby traps, mean villains, and water slides.

I realize that Goonies isn't the greatest example of cinema. Sure, it has a sense of fun and a handful of good moments, but the sets look like a cheap theme park ride, the acting is over the top, and Cyndi Lauper rarely makes my iTunes playlist.

But in my book, Goonies got something dead on - the dream of many of us youngsters who longed for a good, old fashioned adventure.

That’s the only reason Goonies has persisted in my imagination. I didn’t just like the film - I wanted that film to be my story. I wanted to discover buried treasure in my backyard.

As a youngster, I spent many of my summers exploring the beauty of the Wichita Mountains Wildlife Refuge, an amazing stretch of rocky wilderness in southwest Oklahoma that was haunted by the legend of folks like mobster Al Capone and outlaw Jesse James. Somewhere and somehow, there had to be gold in those ancient hills. Those short expeditions were a break from the mundane and an entryway into a world of mystery and excitement. Even as a father and minister, that longing and thirst for adventure has stayed with me.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman, in his work about family systems theory, once taught that “the only way to get a system unstuck is to go on an adventure”.

Whether it is a political system that lacks any sense of moral imagination, a church that seems to bear more witness to judgmentalism than good news, an organization that fails to protect the very people it is designed to serve, or a declining congregation that gets keeps rearranging the deck chairs rather than engage in deep discernment about their calling, there are stuck systems all around us.

I often get to speak with members of other congregations and enjoy finding out what God is up to in their community. In particular, I love to hear what is the most unique about their community. The vast majority of the time, I hear how people love their church because it is warm and caring, like a “family”. I don’t often hear about daring ministry projects, unique efforts to reach out to their neighborhood, exciting initiatives to love others, or ongoing transformation through spiritual disciplines. I know how valuable warm and caring community is for each of us, but a church without a thirst for adventure is likely stuck.

Not all churches are like this. Sometimes, adventure happens without our choosing, whether it is a devastating hurricane that forces a congregation to turn its building into a mission center, the loss of a beloved pastor that moves a community to reexamine its vision, or a grim financial report that suggests only a few months of “normal” ministry remain before bills go unpaid.

But for the rest of us, our stuck system won’t change until someone (or a bunch of someones) does something radical, more than adding a worship service, hiring a new pastor, changing the style of music, or building a website. We have to have an adventure. As Helland and Hjalmarson say in Missional Spirituality, we long to be “freed to venture out on reconnaissance with Christ on mission in the wide open expanse of God’s cathedral in creation and culture.”

Or as Jesus so often does, we have to embrace the unexpected, rounding up people from the streets, “both good and bad”, for God’s banquet (Matthew 22:10), going two by two with nothing but the clothes on our back and a spring in our step (Luke 10:1), venturing into the rough part of town to be transformed by folks different than us (Mark 7:25), or partying with people of ill repute (Luke 5:27-32).

I suppose this huge theme of adventure that runs throughout the Bible, starting with Abram’s call to go to a distant land and continuing through the Great Commission and launch of the early church, continues to feed and prick the imagination of that 10 year old Goonie inside of me.

No, there may not be buried gold in my backyard, but there is an epic story unfolding all around, the work of Creator, Son, and Spirit reclaiming, renewing, and making whole.

May we join that adventure, and in the words of Shane Claiborne in Jesus for President, “live the contagious love of God.”

Scapegoating Satan

Conflict is a part of life.  We have to deal with differences of opinions and beliefs.  Sometimes our differences create conflict in our relationships, and churches are no different from any other social institution: conflict can be destructive, but conflict can also be constructive.  Healthy conflict, where differences are shared, viewpoints expressed in ways that share one’s views rather than condemn others can help us to learn from each other and to grow.  It can, in the long run, help us to grow closer together and work towards common ground. However, more often than not conflict can bring out the worst in us, because we don’t know how to deal with it in a healthy way.  We don’t know how to confront conflict, when we have a disagreement with someone, or if someone has rubbed us the wrong way.  Bad behavior happens in every social gathering.  Churches are no exception.  Someone rubs us the wrong way.  We tell another friend about it.  Gossip gets woven into the fabric of the group.  The hurtful words come back around to the person they were about and the damage is done.  Rather than dealing with conflict head on, we go round about ways of dealing with it to the point we often create more conflict over other issues than the original issue that was at conflict.

Case in point: in one church a big brouhaha occurred over an extra cake making its entrance at a church lunch.  The person in charge of the lunch said quite sternly that they already had a cake and didn’t need another one. The person who brought the cake was hurt by those words and told several others they would leave the church.  Yes. Over a cake.

The issue was not the cake.  The issue went far beyond and before my time at the church, but it came to a head over the cake and the bad behavior was going around and talking to others rather than addressing the person they felt offended by.

Since moving to the South, I have found another layer of defense: “The devil must be in her.”  “The devil is in control of that church.”  Satan gets a lot of blame for personal conflict and poor leadership.  I’m not going to debate the existence of Satan here, but I do think we blame others, or we blame Satan, rather than looking at ourselves.

When we have been wronged or hurt by someone in the church, what is the best way to deal with it?  All too often, we talk to others rather than talking to the one who has wronged us, who may not even realize their actions were perceived as hurtful (as in the situation with the cake).  While there are times when actions can be purposefully hurtful, many times it is our own reaction, based on experiences of the past that causes us to overreact and make mountains out of molehills.

Maybe it’s a regional thing to blame Satan (I never heard that when I served churches in the Northeast) but whether we blame Satan or the other person, the only thing we truly can control is our own reaction.  How do we respond when we’ve been hurt?  Where do we go?  Who do we talk to?

As a minister, it has been a slow lesson for me to learn over the years that yes, there are toxic people in churches.  Yes, there are times people do things on purpose to hurt others, even ministers.  But most of the time, it is our reactions that can make conflict a place of growth and learning or a place of division.  We can only control how we react and manage our own emotional response.  We can’t change others.  We can’t change the fact that there are control freaks and “Lone Rangers” and all sorts of different personalities in our congregations, but we can change how we react to them, and by our model, we can perhaps show others how to learn from conflict.

Then in the end, instead of one person in control and another person hurt, perhaps we’ll learn that the miracle is there are two cakes to enjoy.  Or at the very least, maybe one will learn how their actions cause negative reactions in others, whether it be the controller of the lunch or the cake baker.   And whether or not one believes Satan was involved, let us all at least remember we have control over our own actions and reaction, and that is the one thing we can fix, we can change.  We can learn from conflict and grow from it, rather than being paralyzed and watching it spin out of control.  And by our lesson, we can model for others a different way to live with each other in true Christian community.

The Beauty of the Church

Sometimes I get disillusioned with “the church.”  I hear stories of people who were run out, who were gossiped about, who were hurt by the very people who were supposed to love them.  I hear of pastors who were treated like the sole employee with their boss being a board of 15 who criticized every decision the pastor made, every minute of the pastor’s time and every breath or sigh taken during the sermon.  I hear stories of bully pulpits and sanctuaries where children were definitely not welcome. There have been times when I have been down about “the church.”  I become very critical of an organization that can perpetuate myth in tradition, that runs on models outdated and yet expects the pastor to be a miracle worker.  I have been hurt by people in my churches in the past.  I have been hurt as a guest by a pastor using their pulpit to instill fear and justify their own narrow beliefs.  I have been hurt by the things said casually about other people, even in general terms, that were degrading to certain groups of people that happen to be who my family is made up of.

It’s easy to walk away from the church.  I see people do it all the time, I have had people visit me as a pastor and now speak to me as a chaplain about why they will never set foot in a church again.  They are done with organized religion.  They are done with the institution called “the church.”

It breaks my heart.  But rarely do I try to encourage them to go back.  Sometimes the damage is too great.  Instead, I always encourage them to continue on the spiritual journey.  And my hope and prayer is that perhaps they will find their way back to the church.  But me, as clergy, as a direct representative of the institution that has harmed them, I don’t feel it is my place to tell them to come back.  I wouldn’t tell the victim of domestic abuse to go back to the person who has abused them.  But I would tell them they can love again, that in time, perhaps they can trust again.  The same I would say to those abused by “the church.”  I would encourage them to continue on their spiritual journey, and my hope is that they would find a loving, supportive, embracing community.

I love the Church, the Body of Christ described by Paul in 1 Corinthians 12.  I don’t love all manifestations of the church.  But I love what it is supposed to be.

The church is supposed to be the place where you feel you are a part of the Body of Christ.  You are valuable.  You are significant.  Your gifts are useful and necessary.  You have an important part to play in the whole body’s function.  You are part of the family.  You are loved, exactly as you are, exactly as you were made by God.  You can come with your wounds and hurts and find comfort and strength.  You can come with your worries and fears and find courage.  You can come with your grief and find some ease.  You come and find your burdens are born by others, your joys are shared by others.

Thankfully, I have experienced the church as this: the body of Christ.  I realize it is hard for me to say this as clergy and have any clout beyond that, but before I was a minister, I loved the church.  As a teen, the church was where I was welcomed and embraced and encouraged in my call to ministry.  As a child, the church was where I was included and loved just as I was.

It saddens me when people throw the baby out with the bathwater.  Whereas I understand completely how individuals, even groups of people have been hurt by the church and have left, I am grieved that there are people calling for the end of the church.  I do believe the church is changing, dying even, but with death there is always the hope of resurrection—something new.  It may look completely different than it is now.  But my hope and prayer is that the church—whatever it is—will be the Body of Christ.

All too often I have friends who claim to be spiritual but not religious—who want nothing to do with church.  Fine.   I actually have no problem with that because the “church” they are rejecting I would reject as well, a place where people are harmed rather than healed.  But it is when my friends go to nothing—there is no faith community, no gathering of people to talk about spirituality or God or whatever—when there is just an absence, this is where I grieve.

I’m not talking about those who have rejected those things and have gone to atheism (that is a different kind of grieving for me, I will admit), but for those friends who rejected the church of their childhood and are raising children, and they tell me they want their children to have the values they were taught but not in the church, and don’t know where to turn—I grieve for them.  I grieve for the ones who want to talk about spirituality and faith but feel they have no place to go.  And I grieve for the ones who simply ridicule those of us who stayed in the church.  I have friends among them all.

But I know one person, who once described his return to church after a twenty-year absence as a “homecoming.”  He walked in the doors and was immediately greeted.  Someone came to his seat and welcomed him.  The people shook his hands and shared their names and made him feel comfortable.  The preacher shared a message of hope.  The songs were uplifting.  And communion was shared with all as a welcome to Christ’s table.

This is the beauty of the church, that for all the shortcomings of the earthly “church” (and as I used to say, the problem with churches is that they are full of people!), there are some who will find their way home again, and find the love, grace, peace and joy that we expect to be there.