Derek Penwell

Embracing Failure: Why the Church Needs to Quit Worrying about Dying

While on vacation, I thought it might be helpful to revisit this post. Enjoy!


Your pal, Derek

My Dirty Secret

I have a secret fear. I don’t like to talk about it, because I find it embarrassing.

I’m afraid of looking stupid.

I don’t like to be laughed at. As a professor, I operate with a low-grade fear that at any moment one of my student’s will pipe up and say, “That’s not correct, what you said.”

I teach World Religions–mostly the big five: Hinduism, Buddhism, Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. I’m fine with Christianity, and Judaism to a lesser extent. The other three, though …

I’ve taught the course so many times that I maintain a fair comfort-level. But when I get into a tradition that’s not my own, I realize how much I don’t know. It can get pretty nervy.

I had a student one time who had been a Buddhist monk. I found that out, of course, just as we reached the unit on Buddhism.

Really? It already feels like I’m doing this without a net. Now, you’re going to tell me you know this stuff better than I do? How am I supposed to teach this stuff in front of you?

I told him to jump in if I got it wrong. (I hope my commitment to education surpasses my fear of looking incompetent.)

He was really nice about it—corrected me only a couple of times.

As a pastor, my recurring nightmare is that I show up to church on Sunday morning, everybody’s waiting for the processional—when I realize I can’t find my sermon. I look all over the place, growing more and more embarrassed by the moment. As I scramble around, the panic grows, and I can feel the disapproving looks joining together in some great meta-expression of disappointment, as if to say, “Yeah, we knew it was only a matter of time before he screwed up on such a grand scale.”

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve had that dream. After those dreams, I realize how much I have invested in wanting to appear omni-competent. Always ready. Never makes a mistake. Mr. reliable.

Looking stupid is something I assiduously try to avoid. I don’t like to fail.

But it happens.

It’s my dirty secret.

Failing in Church

The church, which ought to be a place where the penchant for failure is readily recognized, often has the same aversion to failure as individuals. This realization seems odd, since the church has traditionally understood itself as a reception hall for failures—which is to say, sinners, those who’ve failed to hit the target. The whole concept of grace centers on the idea that when we sing “Just as I am, without one plea,” whatever else we mean, we most certainly don’t mean, “Just as I am … as soon as I get it all together.”

I find it interesting, then, that the church often operates with such an institutional fear of failure. I don’t just mean failure in the large our-church-is-dying-and-we-don’t-know-what-to-do sense; I also mean failure in a much smaller we’d-like-to-paint-the-women’s-restroom-yellow-but-what-if-someone-feels-strongly-it-should-be-pink sense. On this account of the church, boldness and creativity emerge as threats to an ouchless existence. In fact, decisions don’t even have to be bold or creative to meet resistance, they just have to represent something different.

This paralyzing fear of failure is why the default answer for declining congregations is “no.”

“Should we launch a new ministry to homeless people?”


“The largest part of our congregation works evenings and nights. Could we have a service at some other time than in the morning?”


“There’s a Korean church who’d like to use space in our building. We’re not using it. Should we let them?”

No. No. No.

The interesting question is whether the relationship is causal or correlational between congregations in decline and congregations whose knee-jerk response to anything new tends to be “no.” That is to say, is continually meeting each new opportunity with a “no” a cause of congregational decline, or is it merely the case that congregations that tend to say no also tend to be in decline—but for different reasons? To put a finer point on it, is saying "no" as a default response, at its heart, a disease or just a symptom of disease?

I’m not sure I’m smart enough to untangle that knot fully, but I do think that confronting each new situation negatively suggests a persistent fear of failure. In sports, coaches call it “playing not to lose.”

I would like to suggest, however, that congregations that live with fear always gnawing at the edges hasten the very death that has them in such a constant state of panic. It’s a vicious cycle.

Get Used to It

I want to set down the paradoxical assertion that it’s only when a congregation can endure a load of small failures that it has a possibility of avoiding the largest failure—death. Conversely, a congregation that spends its life avoiding as many small failures as possible will often wind up dying earlier than it might have otherwise.

Failure is not an enemy to be avoided at all costs; it’s a guide to be embraced.

Notice I didn’t say that failure should be embraced because it feels good. I’m not saying that messing up isn’t painful; it is. What I am saying is that success only comes in the midst of a flurry of failures. Failures help you to refine the field of possibilities. This is true for individuals; it’s true for businesses; it’s true for athletes, musicians, people who play Sudoku; and it’s true for churches.

All right, so opening an ice cream store at the North Pole wasn’t such a great idea. So what? If the question is “What do we do next?” you’ve already trimmed the range of possible options by at least one.

Maybe that Death Metal service wasn’t such a good fit for your country club neighborhood. Now you know. If it teaches you something about who you are, and where your gifts lie, and what kinds of things you’re able to do in the context in which you find yourselves—you’re now a smarter congregation. But just as importantly, you also know that you can survive decisions that don’t pan out. What is almost certainly a threat to your survival, however, is having three hour board meetings in which you painfully try to head off every possible failure, then wind up doing nothing.

Sitting on your hands is an option—one that many congregations have employed. But let’s not kid ourselves that the ministry Jesus has in mind requires nothing more than locking the doors and hoping that someone will magically bulldoze the neighborhood and build a sparkling new subdivision, filled only with young professional families.

Living like Jesus, really living like Jesus, is an outrageous act no sane group of people would presume to tackle.  As a congregation of Jesus-followers you’ve already taken a precipitous slide down the ladder of common sense. Get used to it.

Live Courageously

  • Think hard. (Brainstorm. Dream. Embrace the vision of a different future.)
  • Pray ceaselessly. (Why not bring God into the whole process?) 
  • Do something interesting. (There’s plenty of mediocrity out there mass-marketed as “safe for church.” Hint: Throwing out your hymnals and getting a “praise team” was still daring in 1988. Now it just looks like you think that if you wear fishnet stockings you can be Lady Gaga.)
  • Evaluate. Evaluate. Evaluate. (This is the part where you learn from failure. If a ministry flops, factor it in as you get back on the horse.)
  • If the timing wasn’t right, but everything else seemed poised to succeed, be flexible enough to try it again under better conditions. (The same idea may work next month, in the summer instead of the winter, or next year.)
  • If a decision doesn’t work out, don’t make the mistake of automatically shutting out the person who brought the idea. (Monday morning quarterbacking that takes on an accusatory or condescending tone disincentivizes creativity . . . from everyone.)
  • Bring young people into the process. (Let them try some crazy-sounding things. They need the experience, and the church needs the life and creativity they bring.)
  • For denominations: Try letting folks who don't ordinarily get to make the final decisions, make the final decisions. (It's less than helpful to bring Latino/as, AfricanAmericans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, Women into the planning process, then just go ahead and do what you were going to do anyway.)

The gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

Finding Resurrection: A Response to the Latest Yearbook and Directory Numbers

By Beau Underwood

There’s a new book out by my friend and yours, Derek Penwell, that every mainline pastor, leader, and member needs to read (note: Derek did not ask me to say this). If our denominations and churches aren’t willing to dream new dreams, think in creative ways, and take a leap of faith in living out the Gospel in today’s context then the handwriting is on the wall regarding our fate. 

His analysis and exhortations come at a particularly relevant time, given the release of the Disciples’ 2014 Yearbook and Directory and its report of substantial decline in membership and participation. It is hard to find a silver lining in these troubling trends. I agree with much of Derek’s own commentary about how we should approach this news but let allow me to make one important addition (as Derek clearly does, since this is the blog he edits that I’m writing on):

We might just be close enough to death to witness resurrection

This is the paraphrase of a statement I heard Rev. Bonnie Perry, an Episcopal priest in Chicago, make to a gathering of students during my days at the University of Chicago Divinity School. The idea – in case it isn’t obvious – is that confronting existential crises can often lead to new life. By trying to save or life and protect ourselves we will inevitably die, but by sacrificing ourselves for the sake of something greater we tap into a life far greater than our own (Matthew 16:25). 

This is the reality facing the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). If our focus is on stopping the bleeding in terms of attendance numbers and financial giving then we are destiny is sealed. Narcissism, pessimism, and anxiety are not compelling virtues for churches. Being consumed with ourselves only guarantees more of the same. But if we can shift our eyes away from the mess and devastation that is the current reality and imagine a different, more faithful future then our hope for resurrection can begin to replace our fear of institutional death.  Specifically that requires:

Casting a vision and telling our story – Congregations unable to articulate their mission or offer a clear identity within a community are doomed. If you cannot express who you are and where you’re going, it is impossible to get others to join you on the journey. Like so many confused teenagers, we have an identity crisis. Modeling faithful discipleship in our contemporary context is an incredible challenge that many of our congregations have simply failed to do well.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. Polls looking at spirituality in the United States consistently reveal people hungry for connecting with transcendent realities. People know there is a truth beyond what they create themselves or what shape their individual lives take but finding requires the existence of a viable alternative to existentialism. 

Simply put, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) needs to find a story that invites people to discover where they fit within The Story. There are so many people dying to find a different way of life. If we belief Jesus transforms lives then we’ve got to re-commit ourselves to sharing this vision of how the world should be with a world desperate for something other than what is. 

Embodying what we profess – If the only problem was helping the spiritual but not religious connect with a community then telling our story and opening our doors would solve all our issues. However, the greater problem is what people find when they walk into our sanctuaries. We’ve often over-promised and under-delivered. People get excited to hear what we profess to be but then discover our actions fail to match our lofty words. 

If we dare claim to be “a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world” and a denomination offering true community, deep spirituality, and a commitment to justice then we better be ready to back up our words. Concerns about congregational decline has resulted in an emphasis on church growth with little attention to the community we’re asking people to join. Christian formation – helping people understand that faith is a way of life – are words rarely heard in many of our congregations today. We need a better understanding of what it means to be “Disciples of Christ” and a commitment to embodying that understanding in thought, word and deed.

Recognizing change will not “come from the top” – For the Disciples the whole concept of “the top” is an idea that lacks meaning. We intentionally vested power within congregations, which has been both a blessing and detriment. In theory, this hands off approach should spur innovation and allow for congregations to learn and share with each other in ways that allow all to thrive. Sadly in practice congregational autonomy is often an excuse for ignoring the sage advice of others, unfaithfully refusing to change, and insisting on doing things “our way” even if it means sapping the life of a congregation’s witness. There are many struggling congregations whose plights were entirely avoidable, but they invited their own death by ignoring the changing realities of their contexts and refusing to seek out or listen to the wisdom of others.

We certainly need leadership from the General and Regional Church because this church is strongest when every manifestation is working together. But given the challenges we face, any time those leaders spend on projects or initiatives that are not directly or indirectly related to revitalizing struggling congregations, supporting thriving churches, and starting new communities of worship is a waste we cannot afford. There are luxuries we should no longer indulge because they represent little more than re-arranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship when our leaders need to be bailing water, patching holes, and guiding us to safe harbor.

But blaming denominational leaders for our struggles is an exercise in avoidance. It is far too simple an answer that denies any responsibility we have for changing our behaviors and contributing to solutions. The bottom line is that change has to start in our churches. We need pastors and lay leaders focused on strengthening their communities, preaching the Gospel, and serving God’s people in our contemporary context. There is no panacea that will be emanating from Indianapolis and to expect one is foolish. 

In a conversation with a denominational leader whom I greatly respect, I once made the theological mistake of saying “God needs our church.” He quickly corrected me and stated, “God doesn’t need this church. God will have always have a Church wherever the Gospel is preached, compassion is offered, and justice is pursued. But if our church remains faithful to that call then God might not be through with us yet.” 

I remain committed The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) because we have a distinctive witness that the world desperately needs to hear. The challenges facing us our immense but if we can move past our laments, remember who we are, and embody the faith we profess then I believe the God of Hope still has more ways to use our work than we can possible imagine. 

We’re closer to death than we’d care to admit, but I believe in the power of resurrection.

On nights and weekends, Rev. Beau Underwood is the Assistant Pastor at National City Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Washington, DC. During the week he directs the communications and advocacy at Sojourners

Are Mainline Denominations Dying?

Get together with a group of mainline ministers and sooner or later somebody is going to say, “I’m not even sure our denomination is going to be here in ten years.” I’m not sure why the event horizon is always a round number, nor am I sure what ecclesiastical tea leaves help generate this number, but it seems to be a mathematical constant.

“Ten years? Are you sure about the number?”

“Well, you know what I mean. Sooner rather than later.”

Mainline denominations typically occupy the center of discussion about decline—particularly decline in church membership. For years it was argued that the trends indicated that liberal theology was to blame, driving members away. But lately, even more theologically conservative churches have experienced a decline in membership. The Southern Baptist Convention, a widely conservative denomination characterized by consistent growth during the period of the mainline membership slump, has just posted a third year of declining membership numbers. The latest figures for 2010 indicate that church membership across the board in the SBC has fallen off by 1.05%.

My own denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), has flailed about in uncertain waters for years. Since 1968, when the Christian Church restructured, officially becoming a denomination, it has lost 901,449 members (57%) and over 2,108 congregations (36%). By comparison, between 1965 and 2005, the United Church of Christ lost (41%) of its members, while the Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 46%. And though since 2006 the decline among Disciples has slowed considerably, losing only 1% of its members and .5% of its congregations, the continued downward trend has many Disciples worried about the long-term viability of the denomination.

Let’s be honest, the statistical trend is frightening. Last year alone, membership figures for mainline denominations were down across the board: United Methodist Church (-1.01%), Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (-1.96%), Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) (-2.61%), Episcopal Church (-2.48%), American Baptist Church (-1.55%), United Church of Christ (-2.83%).2 Sadly, when I go to Google and type in “mainline denomination,” the first suggestion Google provides is “mainline denomination decline.” 

But I don’t even think looking at the numbers is the right way to think about it. If all we’ve got is ten years, then let’s use the time to do things that are so radical, so amazingly unthinkable that after ten years we’ll all be either so energized that we want to sign up for another tour, or so exhausted that we’ll all keel over and won’t have to worry about it anymore.

Mainline denominations are dying. If the trends hold true, as they have over the past forty years, we’re careening toward a post-denominational world—a world in which the structures that supported progressive theology, a social justice orientation toward faith, and institutionalized mission and administration is crumbling before our eyes; a world in which the printed media that has supported denominational ministry (publishing houses, curricula, magazines, journals, etc.)—over which denominations could exert control—is being overtaken by electronic media (ePub, blogging, social media)—over which denominations exert only minimal control; a world in which mainline cultural ascendancy and domination isn’t only a relic of the past, but no longer even a desirable goal for the future.

The purpose of this book, however, is not to lead cheers for the death of mainline denominationalism. But neither is the purpose to help mainline denominations hang onto dying systems just a little bit longer. My purpose is to help mainline denominations and their congregations get a correct read on the situation, embrace death as a liberation from having to “succeed,” and learn how to live.

After all, the gospel is first about failure and death—because it’s only losers and corpses who’ve got nothing left to lose. Why a people who remember the failure of the crucifixion and celebrate the victory of resurrection in the Eucharist every Sunday should have its sphincter seize up every time it thinks of death is beyond me.

Embrace failure as a road to success—even God did.

[Note: This is an excerpt from my book, The Mainliner's Survival Guide to the Post-Denominational World, by Chalice Press, which will be in bookstores on August 15th—though I know people who've received it already via online orders (*winks slyly*). You can order it here and here and here. If you're a blogger and would like a review copy, email me at]

Just A Spoonful: Why Congregations Can't Just Get By

By Derek Penwell 

One of my best friends is a funeral director. He told me the other day about a family he’d had dealings with at one point in his career. It seems that a woman had died, and the family had my friend’s funeral home take care of the arrangements. The family, according to my buddy, was especially difficult to deal with. They didn’t know what they wanted, and they never brought up the subject of how they were going to pay for the funerary services. They fiddled around long enough without making any decisions that, after fourteen days, my friend had to do something. So, he shipped body off to be cremated.

When the woman’s cremains finally came back to the funeral home, my friend invoiced the family for the cost of cremation and embalming. The bill went unpaid for quite some time, until a member of the family (the woman’s sister) eventually called and asked for the woman’s ashes. My friend said that they would gladly be turned over to the family upon receipt of the bill–$2,250.

“We don’t have that kind of money.”

.“That’s no problem. She’ll keep till you can locate it,” my friend informed her.

“Couldn’t you just give up her ashes, and we’ll pay you later?”

“Sorry, mam. It doesn’t work that way. I’ll be happy to turn loose of them after you pay your bill.”

She was, of course, upset and hung up the phone.

Not long after that another sister called, “I heard you won’t let us have our sister’s ashes.”

“That’s right, mam. When you’ve paid your bill, I’ll make sure she’s turned over to you.”

The sister persisted. She was torn up over the loss, and just wanted to have something by which to remember her loved one. In a choking voice she said, “We ain’t got much money. Can’t you just let us have her?”

“Not until the bill’s been paid.”

“How about part of the ashes?”

Puzzled, my friend said, “What do you mean?”

“Well, how much,” she asked, “would you charge us for a spoonful?”

“$2,250. And if you pay for that, I’ll throw in the rest for free.”

I know congregations like that. They want to know how little they can pay and still get by.

“We don’t have much. Isn’t there an installment plan we can get on? A little up front, and then we’ll pay the rest along the way? Anything like that?”

Following Jesus isn’t for the faint of heart: “If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?” (Mark 8:34b–37).

Interestingly, congregations have gotten very comfortable with individual sacrifice. Stewardship month in November every year wouldn’t be the same without the reminder that “Jesus’ sacrificial giving of his own life ought to motivate his followers to be sacrificial givers in response.” Some aspiring greeting card copy-writer wannabe even came up with that execrably jejune bumper-sticker slogan: “Give until it feels good!”[1]

One thing congregations often have a more difficult time coming to terms with, however, is the idea of sacrifice on a corporate level. I know of congregations (not all, mind you–but a notable number nevertheless)

  • who would rather the minister learn to exercise a little personal financial discipline than to give up the professionally printed letterhead contract
  • who would be much more comfortable holding the line on educational curriculum than on waiting to invest in touchless paper towel dispensers
  • who would prefer to ignore, and risk alienating, their LGBTQ members (and the straight people who love them) than to risk making even one member uncomfortable by openly addressing the possibility of becoming Open and Affirming
  • who would sooner frustrate the attempts of young leaders to try something bold and new than to seek to withstand an onslaught of recrimination from the former leaders who’ve otherwise faded into the background
  • who would rather burn bridges with the old by continually treating tradition as something to be avoided at all cost.

Surely, there’s something in there to offend most people. The point, however, is not to offend people, but to alert us to fact that congregations are generally all for personal sacrifice, but are often surprisingly skittish about the collective sacrifice of the community.

Why shouldn’t congregations have to pay too? Congregations are no less bodies than individuals.

“Well, sure, but going out on a limb might cost us our lives if the limb fails.”

Welcome to the joy and excitement of following Jesus.

“Aren’t there safer ways?”

Absolutely! It’s just that none of them have to do with living and dying like that crazy Galilean.

“How much for a spoonful?”

Full price.


  1. I’m all for “giving” and “feeling good,” just not for distilling important theological concepts and experiences into bumper-stickers.  ↩


(Just finished up with the content editing portion of the book, so this is the last one from the archives.  Back to full production next week.) 

Doing the Reassurance Dance

By Derek Penwell

The Reassurance Dance

Debbie, who comes into the church where I work at least three or four times a week, suffers from paranoid schizophrenia. Most of the time she’s as docile and kind as she can be. Sometimes, though she gets afraid. And when she experiences fear, she lashes out. (Who doesn’t, right?)

Debbie talks freely about her life–what kinds of things are happening at her apartment complex, who’s hassling her, what kind of health problems she has. From Debbie’s perspective, there seems to be a great deal wrong with the world … wrong in ways that threaten Debbie’s world. I’m not sure what her world looks like to her, but from my vantage point, the world Debbie inhabits looks pretty scary.

I understand Debbie’s fear, given the reality she inhabits. Because that fear seems so proximate and real, whenever she goes to leave, Debbie will come to me and ask: “Father Penwell [although I’m not a priest–at least of any recognized order, except, perhaps, the parental one]: Is everything all right? Does Debbie have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I call this the Reassurance Dance. The reassurance dance exists as a desperate need to have someone tell us everything’s going to be all right.

Debbie’s pleading strikes me as genuine. She’s afraid of a scary world, and she’s seeking a little reassurance. That makes sense to me. I look for that kind of reassurance myself sometimes. Things get hectic at work–I’m running late on a deadline or I sense some unease over a decision, and I search for ways to reassure myself that everything’s all right, that the world isn’t falling apart.

The problem with the reassurance dance, though, is that it doesn’t work … at least in any meaningful way over the longterm.

Why not?

How do I know whether everything’s going to be ok for Debbie? I have no idea. Therein lies the problem. No matter how reassuring I sound, I can’t guarantee Debbie anything–about whether her landlord is going to kick her out, or whether the rain is going to start up and drench her in the afternoon, or whether she’ll be hassled out on the street. I rely on the law of averages, and say, “Everthing’s fine.” But the reality of the situation is–I don’t know.

Same thing with me. I feel anxious, so I check my email. I’m feeling nervous about the unknown so I somehow maneuver to be able to be in the presence of someone who will tell me I’m a good person, and that everything’s going to be ok.

Well, that sounds pretty callous. Why is caring about people’s feelings a bad thing?

Look, I’m not suggesting that seeking reassurance for oneself or offering reassurance to others is always a bad thing. Seeking affirmation in the face of uncertainty is a coping mechanism. The purpose of coping mechanisms is, of course, to help us cope. Tautology notwithstanding, sometimes we need the psychic boost that reassurance provides to make it through the day. Fine.

But, what I’m talking about is the reassurance dance, which amounts to a kind of psychic feedback loop. I feel anxious, so I seek some affirmation. I feel better for a bit–not because the nature of my situation has changed, but because I’ve distracted myself for a bit–like getting drunk when you’re girlfriend breaks up with you.

But, getting drunk when you’re sad doesn’t work very well, does it. Why not? Because you wake up and you realize that your girlfriend still thinks you’re an idiot–plus, now you have a headache that will last until sometime just prior to the Vernal Equinox.

Now, you’re depressed and hungover. And Lord knows there’s only one thing to do when you feel that bad … get out a bottle of Tequila.

You see the problem.

Life Inside the Ecclesiastical Echo Chamber

Unfortunately, the church is just as prone to the reassurance dance. How often do you hear a congregation asking, "Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?

Usually, they don’t say it quite like that–but you know what I’m talking about. Want to know how to recognize the signs that a church is getting ready to dance the reassurance dance? Here’s the tip-off:

They start paying inordinate attention to the numbers–baptisms, transfers, pledging units, personnel budget, the ratio of incandescent/cfl bulbs, whatever.

Notice I said “inordinate attention to numbers.” You have to pay attention to numbers. It’s stupid to act like numbers don’t count. They do. Numbers provide information, and information isn’t necessarily good or bad; it’s just information.

The problem comes when you think that numbers provide all the information you need to evaluate–you name it–the effectiveness of ministry, the legitimate expression of worship, the curriculum for VBS.

"Well, that’s just hyperbole. No church makes decisions based solely on numbers."

Let’s be clear, I didn’t say decisions get made “solely” on numbers. Even extremely anxious congregations will tip their hats to concepts like faithfulness and integrity.

But let me ask you this: When was the last time you had a board meeting and everyone forgot about the treasurer’s report because you were so involved in trying to figure out the most faithful way to provide a much needed latch-key program for kids in your neighborhood?

When was the last pledge drive where the Stewardship committee said: “We need money, but you’ve always given in the past … and we trust that you’ll do so this time around. So, this year we want to devote our whole campaign drive to figuring out how we can identify and tap the gifts for ministry of everyone in the congregation?”

When was the last time the elders said, “You know, we’ve got enough members to sustain this level of ministry for awhile, why don’t we shift our focus off of membership, and put it squarely on the ministry? Why don’t we invest in doing the thing God is calling us to do and let God take care of new members?”

That’s what I thought.

Instead, congregations are almost always preoccupied by numbers. Numbers are a very human way for the church to seek reassurance that it’s successful, that it’t popular, that it means something.

Again, I’m not saying numbers don’t matter at all. What I am saying, however, is that numbers aren’t always the best way to keep score in the church.

“Is everything all right? Do we have anything to worry about? Everything’s ok, isn’t it?”

I can’t tell you because I don’t know. And besides, you wouldn’t believe me for long, even if I said yes.

Let me ask you:

  • Do you perform baptism and eucharist? .
  • Do you seek to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick, hold hands with the fearful and the grieving? .
  • Do you open your doors and welcome those who are unwanted, those who’ve had to sit at the back of the bus, those who’ve been hurt by the church? .
  • Do you pray and study? .
  • Are people learning to be more like Jesus?

Because, until you can feel good about the answers to questions like this, the reassurance dance just isn’t that interesting.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 2)

(This is the second of two parts, the first appearing yesterday.)

That being the case, Christians have a stake in the practice of truth-telling, which, as we have said, presupposes a life sustained by practices that embody truth.  In other words, you can’t be a Christian and a liar.  Now, to say that is not to say that Christians don’t lie; they do.  In fact, Christians are just as capable of lying as anyone else.  Rather, to say that “You can’t be a Christian and a liar” is to say that the life lived by a Christian can no more be shaped by deceit than the life of a United States Marine can be shaped by pacifism.  Obviously there are situations when a Marine can choose non-violent resistance over violence.  But always to live non-violently would be to betray the very oath taken upon becoming a Marine in promising to “defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies foreign and domestic,” presumably using violent force if necessary.  To live self-consciously non-violently in the face of every threat would, by definition, make a person something other than a Marine.  How much more so for Christians who speak baptismal vows about following the God of truth to have lives characterized by untruthfulness?

In fact, the early church was so convinced about the need for truthfulness and lives lived in congruence with the truth that they included the odd and chilling story of Ananias and Sapphira in their scriptures.  At first glance, it seems, Ananias and Sapphira are being punished for keeping back from the church a portion of the sale of some land.  In many cases this passage is used by the church today to inveigle a larger pledge on Commitment Sunday or to convince people of the ramifications of selfishness—as if to say, “Don’t hold back on the church (and by implication the Holy Spirit)—the life you save may be your own.”

However, the word of judgment Peter speaks to Ananias and Sapphira deals not with their tightfistedness, but with their duplicity.  Peter says, “While it [the land] remained unsold, did it not remain your own?  And after it was sold, were the proceeds at your disposal?  How is it that you have contrived this deed in your heart?  You did not lie to us, but to God!” (Acts 5:4).  The question to modern Christians is, “Why would the early church want to include such an obviously threatening story in its recounting of the birth of the church?”  To convince parishioners of the need for consistent and unselfish giving?  No, the church has held up this story as a way of underscoring the need to ensure the integrity of the body of Christ as a truthful community.

From our reading of Acts at this point we are left to conclude that the early church, especially as it was being established in a less than hospitable environment, believed that truth-telling was essentially a matter of communal survival.  That is to say, they understood that in a pluralistic Greco-Roman world in which truth claims were as thick in the air as they are in popular modern culture, and in a sociological context in which the church appeared to many to be a threat to the stability of the established order, the church knew that its claims about Jesus would ultimately be judged by whether its followers lived truthfully according to the claims they advocated.  That being the case, the early church rightly understood that truthfulness, from the perspective of the body of Christ, is always a matter of life and death.

Is honesty always the best policy?  From the perspective of the church, honesty, truth-telling, truthful living is the only policy—but it’s more than just a policy, a strategy for staying out of trouble.  Saying that honesty is the best policy in the abstract, of course, requires no real moral courage.  Who would argue in the abstract against honesty?  In real life telling the truth is a risky venture.  Jesus wasn’t killed, after all, because he was nice, but because he couldn’t shut up.

Our modern response to the story of Ananias and Sapphira is telling.  Peter seems to most modern ears not to be particularly pastoral to Ananias and Sapphira, but rather abrupt and judgmental.  However, the problem may stem from our misunderstanding of the word pastoral.  A pastor, evoking the image of a shepherd, isn’t a personal masseuse, or a self-help guru—someone whose sole purpose is to make the flock feel good regardless of how it behaves.  A pastor, like a shepherd, is charged with the duty of helping the flock navigate the dangers of the world around them, so that the flock can find sufficient food and water in order to reproduce.  Not speaking the truth to the flock about the perils that face it for the purposes of keeping the peace, far from being a virtue in a shepherd, is in fact unfaithful, un-Christ-like, un-pastoral.  Peter sees the dangers of the deceit of Ananias and Sapphira and speaks a word of truth in the face of it.  Based on that particular way of thinking the church has a sacred responsibility to name dishonesty when it occurs—even at the short-term expense of a peaceful environment.

The church orders its life, and therefore the life of its members, around the truth of Christ.  Christians are honest, not because it works, but because as followers of Jesus, we have no other way of being.  Our willingness to live like the one we follow bears out the value and veracity of our truth claims.  Honesty isn’t our policy; it’s our identity.

Honesty Isn't Our Policy (Part 1)

Honesty, as the saying goes, is always the best policy.  If we believe that, the question is: Do we practice it?  Do we live our lives truthfully?  Now, someone might object that telling the truth and living the truth are two different animals.  That is to say, the question of telling the truth without living that truth begs the question about whether it is possible to be Charles Manson (i.e., a complete schmuck) and still speak something approximating the truth, inasmuch as it is argued that the truth is not contingent on anything outside itself to be true.  In other words, one account of the truth maintains that there is something that exists independently, objectively “out there” that is called the “Truth.”  What one needs to do when there exists competing truth claims, goes the thinking, is to appeal to the “objective standard” of “Truth.” This formula works serviceably well when the question has to do with whether or not 2 + 2 = 4 or whether the population of Louisville is larger than that of Lexington.  If, however, the question raised is whether or not University of Louisville fans are less dedicated fans than University of Kentucky fans or whether or not Christianity is true, to what uncontestable “objective standard” does one appeal?

Absolutism, or the belief, not merely that there is an “absolute truth” but that that “absolute truth” can be apprehended by human beings—if they only “try hard enough”—is a difficult argument to sustain, just to the extent that it is possible to have two reasonably intelligent, reasonably passionate, reasonably sincere individuals disagree on where to go to find the absolute truth that will settle their argument.  Should they look in the Bible?  The Koran?  The Bhagavad-Gita?  The DaVinci Code?  Dr. Phil?  The periodic table of elements? Who gets to decide what’s true?  Or where do we expect to find the true account of truth to which everyone will defer?  Absolutism runs the risk in the end of only being able to communicate by monologue.

“Does that mean,” as many will quickly ask, “that everything is relative?  That there are no standards of truth to which we may appeal?  Do we throw our hands up in the air because there is finally no way to adjudicate between competing truth claims?”  No.  Relativism, as a set of truth claims, collapses under its own weight.  As James McClendon has pointed out: “As a general theory [relativism] seems to ask us to believe (a) that it is (in general) true, and (b) that nothing is (in general) true—and both can’t be the case” (Ethics: Systematic Theology, Abingdon, 1986, 350). Relativism as a theory of knowledge is logically absurd—or should we say, it’s only relatively true—whatever that means.

Therefore, to assert that honesty is the best policy is only to have begun the discussion, not to have settled it.  If absolutism is problematic and relativism is logically indefensible, how are we supposed to talk about truth?  Or as Pilate put the question to Jesus, “What is truth?” (John 18:38)

When asked “What is truth?” how did Jesus respond?  We are left to assume that Jesus said nothing, because Pilate immediately left Jesus and went outside to address the Jews.  Why didn’t Jesus say, “The truth is x, y, and z, and you would know that if you only studied your _______?”  Or why didn’t Jesus say, “Truth is such a slippery subject, I’m not sure we ought to waste time trying to nail it down to a single definition.  After all, all definitions are ultimately equal?”  In fact Jesus let the silence hang in the air, as if to say, “If you want to know what truth is, look at me.  I am the way, the truth, and the life.”

In a world in which we seem incapable of sustaining a conversation about truth between faith systems, perhaps the only way we have of judging their truthfulness is by observing the kinds of people they produce.  It seems to me that the only way we have of judging the truthfulness of a particular set of truth claims is by examining whether, and to what extent, there exists a people capable of embodying those claims.  That is to say, are the people named by a particular truth claim living the truth to which they appeal, or more to the point, are they living truthfully?  Do people who claim to follow Jesus, for example, live in ways that honor Jesus’ commitments?  Or, as Samuel Wells remarks: “Pragmatic tests of Christianity focus on Christian tradition and the ‘richness of moral character’ it produces in much the same way that science judges its theories by the fruitfulness of the activities they generate, and significant works of art become so in the light of the interpretation and criticism that surround them” (Transforming Fate into Destiny, Cascade Books, 1998, 86).

If I am right that the only real way to decide between two truth-claims from competing systems of belief is to look to the sorts of communities of character they produce, and if the only way to judge communities of character is by whether they produce people capable of living the claims they espouse, then living truthfully is the only way to establish the truth of those claims.  Put another way, brick-layers lay brick, cooks cook, and Christians live like Jesus.  Clearly, not everyone who wears the name has mastered all the practices necessary to be named a master craftsman in these crafts, but the shape of one’s life is determined by one’s commitment to living faithfully with the name—brick-layer, cook, Christian.  It is, after all, possible to take any of those names in vain by failing to practice, or practicing poorly, the disciplines of each craft.

However, when practiced well the very product of the craft (i.e., the wall, the cake, the life) stands as legitimating evidence of the value and veracity of the craft.  Consequently, for Christians, living truthfully isn’t only a matter of practicing the craft of Christianity well; it is the very means by which the truthfulness of Christianity is judged in a world where truth claims abound and compete.  In other words, speaking the truth is the product of a truthful life.


(The second part of this article will appear tomorrow.)

Riding Dead Horses

I found the following list posted by Harry K. Jones on AchieveMax Blog.  It strikes me that churches in a post-denominational age need to make a practice of stopping to ask themselves: "Are we attempting to ride dead horses?"  That's a structural/organizational question that is increasingly important to consider in a culture in which Emerging generations have less and less commitment to traditional churches and denominations.

The tribal wisdom of the Dakota Indians, passed on from generation to generation, says that, “When you discover that you are riding a dead horse, the best strategy is to dismount.”

In contrast, here’s how many in today’s [religious] environment respond when they find out their “horse” is dead:

  1. Say things like, “This is the way we always have ridden the horse.”
  2. Appoint a committee to study the horse.
  3. Buy a stronger whip.
  4. Change riders.
  5. Arrange to visit other locations to see how they ride dead horses.
  6. Raise the standards for riding dead horses.
  7. Appoint a triage team to revive the dead horse.
  8. Create a training session to increase our riding ability.
  9. Compare the state of dead horses in today’s business environment.
  10. Change your definitionsor rules by declaring, “This horse is not dead.”
  11. Hire outside consultants to ride the dead horse.
  12. Harness several dead horses together to increase speed and pulling power.
  13. Declare that “No horse is too dead to beat.”
  14. Provide additional incentive funding (more sticks – more carrots) to increase the horse’s performance.
  15. Do a case-study to see if competitors can ride it cheaper.
  16. Purchase a software package or institute a new program to make dead horses run faster.
  17. Declare that the horse is “better, faster, and cheaper” dead.
  18. Form a quality circle to find uses for dead horses.
  19. Revisit the performance requirements for dead horses.
  20. Downsize the dead horse.
  21. Reassign fault to the dead horse’s last rider.
  22. Promote the dead horse to a supervisory position.
  23. Shorten the track.
  24. Declare the dead horse was “one of the leading horses” in its day.
  25. Establish benchmarks for industry dead horse leaders.
  26. Gather other dead animals and announce a new diversity program.
  27. Put together a spiffy PowerPoint presentation to get planners to double the dead horse R & D budget.
  28. Get the dead horse a web site!

by Derek Penwell


Derek Penwell is senior pastor of Douglass Boulevard Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Louisville, Kentucky and lecturer at the University of Louisville in Religious Studies and Humanities.  He is the author of articles ranging from Stone/Campbell history to aesthetic theory and the tragic emotions.  He is a graduate of Great Lakes Christian College (B,R.E.), Emmanuel School of Religion (M.A.R.), Lexington Theological Seminary (M.Div. and D.Min.), and a Ph.D. in humanities at the University of Louisville.  He currently blogs at The Company of the Eudaimon and on Twitter at @reseudaimon.  Penwell frequently crochets Mexican serapes from the tattered remnants of repurposed 1970s tube socks.