A New Set of Eyes: Discovering God’s Vision

by Billy Doidge Kilgore

A few years ago, I interviewed with a search committee for an associate pastor position. As I was answering their questions, a well dressed and refined elderly woman asked me a sharp, direct question. "What do you have to offer this church?" Feeling caught off guard, I scrambled to think of something to say. After hesitation on my part, she said, "I bet you could offer us a new set of eyes." Around the table I heard snickers, because some thought she was making a joke about the graying of the congregation.

To the contrary, she was making a serious observation. She went on, "As a young adult, I bet you could help us to see our ministry from a new perspective. If you are given the opportunity to be our associate pastor, I hope you will use your unique experiences in life to help us better understand how to minister to the world around us." Sensing her wisdom and authority, I nodded my head and agreed. Her words still stick with me today, as I think about what it means to be the Church. God's people are at their best when they are eager to see the world through the eyes of others. Jesus spent a great deal of his time inviting those who gathered around him to see the world through the eyes of others, especially the poor, downtrodden and marginalized. Our faith grows and deepens as we step into the shoes of those who are different from us.

Do you think it would make a difference if your congregation made the effort to see the world through many different eyes? I am not asking you to look at the stereotypes that our culture often uses to describe groups of people, but to make an effort to stand in the shoes of individuals who are often complex and multifaceted. Ask yourself what life is like for a young adult, a gay or lesbian person, an unemployed person, a homebound person, a person outside the Church, or a person of another ethnicity. I am willing to bet that if a congregation empathizes with those who are different than their average member, it would reshape their ministries for the better. 

A large part of our struggle as mainline Protestant congregations is our unwillingness to see the world through the eyes of others. Recently, I met with a group of faithful church people who happened to be significantly older than me. As a young adult in the Church, I have grown accustomed to my interests and concerns being underrepresented in church meetings. After I finished introducing myself to the group, a middle-aged person said to me in a dismissive tone, "How old are you? You don't look old enough to be a pastor." This individual's tone suggested that not only did I not have the experience to be part of the group, but I did not have anything of value to offer. As I tried to remain calm, I thought to myself, "Yes, you're right. The last thing the Church needs is the voice of a young adult at the table. It is doing such a wonderful job of attracting people my age on its own!"

I wonder if this condescending remark could have been avoided if this person had dared to see the Church through the eyes of a young adult. This individual's limited perspective is part of a larger mindset that is driving young adults away from our congregations. The reality is that young adults have much to offer. In case you are wondering what a young adult sees when they look at your church, let me offer you some perspective. Often, we see churches that are either trying too hard to attract younger generations by turning the church into entertainment centers with large screens, high-energy bands and perfectly constructed stages, or congregations that are not trying at all and seem content to pretend we are still living in 1955. As a young adult, I don't want to participate in either one of these congregations. Instead, I am seeking a congregation that is willing to engage the 21st century, foster deep relationships, minister beyond its four walls, and dare to share God's love with everybody.

I believe that if the Church wants to thrive in the 21st century, especially amongst Generation X and Millennials, it must boldly look through the eyes of others. It is in the intersection between those currently in the pews, and the needs, interests and dreams of those outside the church walls that we will encounter the living God and discover the future vision many of our congregations desperately need. Then, the Church will have no other choice but to let this holy energy spill over our walls and into the world.

Billy Doidge Kilgore is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) and affiliated with the United Church of Christ through an ordained partnership. Billy blogs at

The Rise of the Nones, Again

By Jeff Gill

Millennials, those born after 1980 who are coming into maturity and leadership roles in society, survey as non-religious, or “Nones” in higher numbers than has ever been seen in modern polling.

Depending on whose data you consult (Pew, Gallup, Barna) they come out anywhere from 16% to 29% irreligious. The “Nones” are an even higher number in Great Britain, closer to half. However you read the results, the “Nones” are on the rise among thirty-somethings and late-twentys folk, even as a majority of them are still traditionally religious in many ways.

Indications from most denominations are that the rise of the Nones are making a dent in an already battered demographic category, putting a hole in the middle of the generations sitting in pews, gathered in worship centers, or playing roles in leadership development.

Questions are being asked about how the new significance of Nones will impact denominational bodies, change faith-based institutions, or if their preferences will increase the active resistance in society to organized religion in public life.

In 1804, a group of thirty-somethings gathered west of the Appalachian Mountains to unmake a decision, an attempt they had made less than a year before to find a liberating accommodation with the religious structures of their day.

They wrote and published a “Last Will and Testament” that began like this:

The Presbytery of Springfield sitting at Caneridge, in the county of Bourbon, being, through a gracious Providence, in more than ordinary bodily health, growing in strength and size daily; and in perfect soundness and composure of mind; but knowing that it is appointed for all delegated bodies once to die; and considering that the life of every such body is very uncertain, do make and ordain this our last Will and Testament, in manner and form following, viz.:

 Imprimis. We will, that this body die, be dissolved, and sink into union with the Body of Christ at large; for there is but one body, and one Spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling.

Barton Stone, David Purviance, Robert Marshall, John Dunlavy, John Thompson, and Richard McNemar were all relatively young clergy (or aspiring preachers and congregational leaders) who had reached an end of their ability to make compromises between their own quest to make sense of divine purposes as revealed in Scripture, the needs of the people around them (to which they felt called to minister in seeking a sense of redemption and forgiveness amidst the harshness of frontier life), and the demands of formal religious tradition mediated through creeds and confessions and catechisms and synods and minute-books and agreed-upon meeting-day agendas.

They decided to throw it all out, except the Bible, and start anew from where their gathered congregations stood, seeking not even a better reading of the Holy Scriptures as to church government, but simply to use their reading of the texts and their common life together to show them . . . “the law of the spirit of life in Christ Jesus.

And as for the church bodies that had up to that point defined the religious landscape of Frontier America, they said “Item. We will, that preachers and people cultivate a spirit of mutual forbearance; pray more and dispute less…

Contrary to the usual assumptions about “the good old days,” around the year 1800 something less than 20% of the US population were members of a church. Obviously, we don’t have nationwide polling data on religiosity back then, and membership was structurally something much more rigorous than what we know today in mainline traditions (although it’s those traditions that are the heirs of those stringently restrictive bodies; more on that later). But these Cane-Ridge-convened preachers were raised up within those traditions, yet out of the broader intellectual traditions of the era, they found themselves chafing at the network of boundaries that restricted their fellowship, and started tugging at the tightness of leashes on their questing inquiries on the nature and manner of God’s work with humankind.

Exact parallels between distant historical eras are always illusory. What’s dangerously tempting here is that we are talking about what a proper historian would call “a mere two hundred years” and within essentially the same cultural framework.

If anything can be said by way of comparison here, it’s that one should be careful about overstating how much “None” is becoming a central force in society, let alone among Millennials; likewise, it’s simply not true that all our pioneer forbearers were faithful practicing Christians. In the episode so beloved in our Stone-Campbell Movement history called “The Last Will and Testament of the Springfield Presbytery,” a group of young believers in 1804 saw an opening to a de-structured, open to doctrinal innovation, non-hierarchical faith community, in a context of general un-belief, or at least un-practice.

Today, young adults are asking questions like “why buildings?” or “why residential seminary training?” And definitely “why denominational structures that act as filters and reinforcers of social norms?” They are not all abandoning belief in God, or even casting the Bible aside as irrelevant, but the social context today is adding urgency to their choices about what presumptions they will or must accept. Millennials, and not a few others who are older demographically, as well as those younger are finding presumptions and preconditions rather beside the point in their religious journeys, within or without formal structures.

On the other hand, after the dissolution of the Springfield Presbytery, those young reformers who wanted to base their church structures entirely on individual experience relating the Bible to personal choices – they ran into some problems. Of those first six leaders named above, four of them ended up in the Shaker movement, a millennial communitarian fellowship with some, shall we say, idiosyncratic views on the relations of men and women. Barton Stone did not make that particular journey, but seeing so many of his one-time colleagues make such a shift based on nothing more than their personal reactions of the moment led Stone to become much more accepting of a certain amount of church structure, even though he never quite made up his mind on how much there should be.

Likewise, today’s decentralized, deconstructed, non-doctrinal Christians know it isn’t just an evangelical talking point to acknowledge that experience alone is not a sufficient guide for faith and practice. We all get our context from the culture, and the intervening two centuries since Cane Ridge have shown that culture’s ebb and flow of norms can suddenly take populations into frightening places of belief and action.

If Nones are ascendant today (and I believe the evidence is that while they are growing in number, they’re still far from dominant in society), the role they play is primarily as a counterweight to received wisdoms of all sorts. The example of Cane Ridge and the Springfield Presbytery’s self-dissolution suggests that where large numbers of a community are actively disengaged from sectarian conflicts, space is opened up for new reconciliations and innovative community forms that are not closely linked to what had gone before. You see developments that are more revolutionary than evolutionary.

Those revolutions can go astray (ask Robespierre, or Kerensky). And we’re still trying to sort out if the Occupy movement’s radical unstructuredness was a bug or a feature. But a religious revolution does have a tendency to look like heresy or un-belief to most of the believers being revolted against, let alone to the authority structures being subverted. Unless we’re heading for an atomistic, purely individualistic form of faith and practice (“keep it to yourself, new-style Christians or old-school”), whenever groups of believers come together they will have to find a model for guiding their common life without letting individual enthusiasms or passing fads tug them to and fro.

The early Stone-influenced “Christian churches”, and the Campbell-guided “Disciples of Christ” out of their own comparable journey, ended up falling back on their historic Reformed traditions of congregational life, and left the revolutionary moment as only having empowered them to shut down the authority of synods and presbyteries. Their revolution decapitated some figures from their past, and ended up promoting a relatively un-reformed Reformed model (and only a part of that model) into authority beyond what it was ready to handle . . . not dissimilar from the way Napoleon went from Little Corporal to First Consul after the French Revolution.

Which might suggest to Millennials looking to their history, as they begin another “Great Sorting”, that Cane Ridge et alia show us that for every aspect of our traditions we jettison, we should be as intentional as possible about crafting what it will be replaced with. Trading kings for Napoleonic heirs didn’t work out too well for France, and trading bishops and synods for ruling elders and congregational autonomy meant that the vacuum of authority and influence was filled for the Disciples of Christ with priorities that probably were in no way what that earliest generation intended.

If you read the “Last Will and Testament” in full, it is inspiring and bracing from the perspective of today to see how much emphasis on freedom of conscience and of interpretation is built into the reasons Stone and his associates decided to shut down even the authority structure that they themselves had created. They closed down a process that still, in their opinion, had the potential to close off sincere inquiry and potential outreach by their frontier faith communities. What they did not create was a new covenant, a clarifying consensus that would protect and defend such individual inquiry beyond their immediate context, while also securing and defining the boundaries of a healthy, functioning community.

The Millennial generation is in a key position relating to today’s “Great Sorting” that most denominational bodies and institutions are experiencing. They are coming into leadership just as decisions are being made about what to discard, what to keep. Equally important are the decisions reached for the replacements for that which we set aside, because history suggests that the best answer is rarely “None.”


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; tell him where you think the church’s role should focus at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.


Jesus Really Doesn't Care about Christianity...

By Dennis Teall-Fleming

Wow, I have to say, while I really like some of Lillian Daniel's work over at Huffington Post, her book When 'Spiritual But Religious' Is Not Enough is terribly disappointing.  Rev. Daniel might think she's doing someone a favor with this book - maybe Christians who don't think they're spiritual enough? - but what she's actually written here is just another Christian diatribe against an "Other", in which Daniel uses what I'll call the Classic Dichotomy to "prove" one's faith better than this Other, and/or that this Other falls short of being genuine, meaningful, and authentic.

This begins right away in the first chapter, "Spiritual but Not Religious?", in which she  describes this new and very real category of religious identity, for millions of people (I'll abbreviate it as SBNR) in very derisive and juvenile ways:

"Let me guess, you read The New York Times every Sunday, cover to cover, and you get more out of it than the sermon....And don't forget the sunset.  These people always want to tell you that that God is in the sunset....So you find God in the sunset?  Great, so do I.  But how about in the face of cancer?  Do you worship that as well?" (pp. 5-6)

SBNR people "have set up a vacuum in which the answers [to classic questions about existence, theodicy, etc.] get invented without any formation or guidance." (p. 7)

SBNR families feel so fortunate to have so much material and financial success, with no real introspection on what being this "lucky" may mean for the great majority of people in the world that don't have these things.  "Feeling lucky is another religion altogether, one that says that the gods pick one teenager to live in the suburbs of the richest nation on earth and another teenager to starve.  In a worldview of luck, righteousness is really not at home." (p. 10)

SBNR people don't realize that "we are stuck with one another", and just want to associate with the people that are exactly like them. (pp. 12-13)

The criticisms she creates about SBNR ideology could just as easily be, and are easily drawn as, caricatures for every religion, including Daniels'.  I've seen so many of these "straw man" critiques of other religions, and Daniels' creation of this Classic Dichotomy here- comparing the worst in "Them" with the best in "Us"- is just as sad to read through.  Christians like Daniels have done this for millennia, to Judaism, all forms of Paganism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism....and on and on.  The reality of how these Others actually live their religious lives is so much bigger than the caricatures we Christians want to create in our imaginations.

Now that last reference is a place where Daniels admits that "The church has done some embarrassing things in its day, and I personally do not want to be associated with a lot of it." (p. 12)  So I think I'll reverse her critique at this point, to show how embarrassing a simplistic diatribe like Daniels' work looks.  I'm certain that lots of SBNR people wouldn't want to be identified and lumped in with the category of SBNR Daniels contrives, and I trust that most SBNR are not this caricature.  So, as a fellow Christian, I'll reverse the entire critique, to show how easily contrived and caricatured this kind of Classic Dichotomy is in a Christian context:

"Why would I want to be a Christian, or even consider that a valid way in the world?  I've encountered LOTS of Christians like you in my lifetime, I almost don't need to have a conversation with anymore, because I know exactly what you're gonna say!  

Let me guess, you read the Bible every Sunday, four whole passages each time!, and you get more out of it than anything else in the real world....

"And don't forget the church you attend.  You people always want to tell me that that God is in that building....So you find God in that building?  Great, so do I.  But how about in the face of cancer?  Do you worship that as well?  

"You Christians have set up a vacuum in which the answers [to classic questions about existence, theodicy, etc.] get invented without any formation or guidance.

"Christian families feel so fortunate to have so much material and financial success, with no real introspection on what being this 'lucky' may mean for the great majority of people in the world that don't have these things.  Feeling lucky is another religion altogether, one that says that God picks one teenager to live in the suburbs of the richest nation on earth and another teenager to starve.  In a worldview of luck, righteousness is really not at home.

"You Christians don't realize that we are stuck with one another, and you just want to associate with the people that are exactly like you."

Plenty of Christians that Daniels, and I, are embarrassed by, and don't want to be associated with, fit easily into this critique.  We wouldn't want our faith to be defined by them, and I at least don't want anyone trying to convince me to abandon my faith and way of life because of the way these other Christians represent it.  It's time to retire such Classic Dichotomies, because they just don't describe the reality very well, for any one Christian, for any one SBNR person, or for any other person of faith or way of living.  Every religious way can be praised or panned, depending on what you read or who you encounter.  Both SBNR and Christianity span a spectrum from the sane to the silly, and Daniels' plead to SBNR people to leave their silliness for her sanity is simply dishonest.

Daniels also needs to realize something else here: it's not an issue of a "trial separation", from following Jesus and/or being part of Christian community, for most SBNR people (chapter 32), because there's no plan or process for SBNR people to return in which they'd find authenticity.  As much as Daniels and I might appreciate these gifts in our own faith lives, SBNR people just, might, not, really care about the importance or Jesus, or how meaningful being a part of a community of his followers might be.  I would hope that someone as thoughtful and insightful as Daniels would understand this, but maybe she doesn't: SBNR people just might not care about Jesus.  And why should they?  It's pretty clear to me that you don't need Jesus to stay away from judgmentalism, or from setting up false "We"'s and "They"'s (chapter six) (Daniels needs to take her own advice here, because this is exactly what she has done in this book- set up a "We" Christian against a "They" SBNR category!); you don't need Jesus to welcome all to the table (chapters 12 and 14) or to be hospitable (chapter 15); you don't need Jesus to welcome immigrants (chapter 21) or to know that God isn't done with us yet (chapter 30); and you definitely don't need Jesus to recognize the beauty of nature (chapter 20).  It's terribly obvious to me that most people in the world today- Jewish, Muslim, Hindu, Buddhist, Sikh, et. al.- don't need Jesus to see these things, to live into these truths.  I don't see why we would expect this SBNR category that Daniels contrives and critiques to need him in these ways.

And lastly, the final takeaway from reading Daniels' book is the most important for me to say: Jesus really doesn't care about Christianity...

Whether I need Jesus in my life or not (which I desperately do), whether I find ultimate meaning and value in being a participant in Christian community (which I certainly do), I just can't believe that the Jesus I know would ever really care that everyone else in the world need and find those things, too.  I think Jesus celebrates human authenticity even in people that couldn't care less about him, or the communities of disciples that work to follow him.  Jesus really doesn't care about Christianity, because the Christianity that Daniels and I struggle to live within is not what Jesus ultimately cares about.  Whether I look at the Christian scriptures in the New Testament; the other Christian scriptures excluded from that canon; the best sources from the rest of Christian history, witness, and tradition; or the Jesus alive and present in my life today, I just don't see how he could confine himself to just caring about whether people become Christian or not.

Jesus doesn't care about Christianity.  He certainly cares about Christians, but he also cares about the other 80% of human beings that have existed throughout the centuries.  What I'm certain Jesus doesn't really care about is whether any one person becomes a Christian, especially if that's not something that will help that person become the most authentic person God calls them to be.  What Jesus does care about is each human being committing to That Which helps them to become the most genuine and authentic person possible.  For people like me and Daniels, that will, most likely, always be in a Christian context and community.  For everyone?  SBNR, Jewish, et. al.?  Well, it just seems to me, well, no.

Jesus doesn't care about Christianity, but he will always care about all humanity, and in that all of God's creation, long after Christianity is gone.  I invite Daniels, and everyone else like her, who take such a disparaging view of any person that isn't Christian anymore, and/or people that never were—SBNR or otherwise—to consider this way of seeing things, the way I'm certain Jesus does.

Rev. Dennis Teall-Fleming is a Commissioned Minister in The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), Leading Minister at Open Hearts Gathering, Gastonia, NC and Mad Monk! for Asheville Monastery, Asheville, NC.

‘No Religion’ on the Rise: 19.6% Have No Religious Affiliation - Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life

If you continue to labor under the misapprehension that a significant shift is underway when it comes to age demographics and religion, it's time to wake up.  Continuing to lay the decline of emerging generations in commitment to Christianity at the feet of "slacker" theory—in which young people are adjudged merely lazy—is itself an exercise in laziness.  Young people are leaving the church on purpose.  We would do better to ask why they're leaving than offering excuses that fail to give them a reason to stay.

Here's an excerpt from the Pew Forum Report:

The growth in the number of religiously unaffiliated Americans – sometimes called the rise of the “nones” – is largely driven by generational replacement, the gradual supplanting of older generations by newer ones.4 A third of adults under 30 have no religious affiliation (32%), compared with just one-in-ten who are 65 and older (9%). And young adults today are much more likely to be unaffiliated than previous generations were at a similar stage in their lives.

These generational differences are consistent with other signs of a gradual softening of religious commitment among some (though by no means all) Americans in recent decades. Pew Research Center surveys conducted over the last 10 years, for example, find modest growth in the number of people who say they seldom or never attend religious services, as well as a declining number who say they never doubt the existence of God.