church transformation

Revelation Trumps Rules

By. J.C. Mitchell

I remember some professor in class explaining that for Jews keeping Kosher, or the rules for Shabbat, had different levels of interpretation, which is   why some groups define the rules differently.  I remember in college lighting the match for a Jewish roommate for Shabbat, and I was confused as to why using a lighter or match could be considered work.  This prof explained that some people added human layers of rules in order to assure they were following the Divine’s Desire.   Explained that way, I am reminded of how rules can be comforting.   We know what to expect, and within a rule you can convey great nuance as well as simple restrictions; this is found in the Ten Best Ways, the Ten Commandments.  Yet as we know, rules can be left to interpretation.

Not only are rules as subjective and as personal as the person who lights a Shabbat candle, we often desire the social other to follow the same rules. This is how we design our religion and our religious practices.  However, we balance rules with revelation.  Amos even laments our rules (5:21-24):

I hate, I despise your festivals,

   and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies.

Even though you offer me your burnt-offerings and grain-offerings,

   I will not accept them;

and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals

   I will not look upon.

Take away from me the noise of your songs;

   I will not listen to the melody of your harps.

But let justice roll down like waters,

   and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

 

Jesus takes on the deeper religious rules of scapegoating and sacrifice and stands up to continue living.  Jesus is the revelation that our desire is to follow the desire of God and not the rules humans have layered upon our lives to assure our own order or comfort, often hiding the blood of those sacrificed for peace.

Nonetheless, it seems that the churches today that have more rules also have more people in the pews.  We claim to desire a relationship with Jesus over simply following rules. However, recently I had a revelation of my son using a napkin.  My seven-year-old son has autism and I can tell you simply making the rule, “use your napkin,” does not work.  Months of us reminding him positively, after every bite, has created a situation where he now wipes his hands and face as often as most boys his age, perhaps even a little better, as he has incorporated this act into his ritual of eating.  Not by a rule, but through the intense relationship. 

This is how everything is taught. For our child, including safety rules like, “you can’t go outside without permission,” would be as effective as me making burnt offerings.  So we make the ritual of asking “Go outside, please,” part of his routine of going outside, through the intense relationship of us making that a positive expectation, but is that not what we need to do as the church. 

We are commissioned to be the Church, The Resurrected Body of Christ, to be the revelation in the world; not rules.  Rules are easy--trust me for I know--as I desire to make a few rules for my son, but alas, I will need to stick to the relationship of revelation, and that helps with Church as well.

A little more exciting then napkins and door, here we are feeding birds at the zoo.

The Resurrection will Not be Televised!

By J.C. Mitchell
The Muppets are returning and we are excited in my house.  Well, my wife and I are; our son knows very little about the Muppets, having even missed Muppet Babies.  He has been told he will be watching it, but of course he will ultimately be the one in control.  It will either be entertaining on its own, or entertaining to criticize it.  I look forward to that show coming into the home again as I remember watching it in our basement in Connecticut on a black and white television.  
However, is not my biggest complaint about the church the line “we have always done it that way?” That, too, must be driven by the same nostalgia that excites me about puppeteers reenacting old characters and ultimately old jokes.  
Many churches are stuck on their 11pm sitcom.  They repeat it over and over, and with or without an endowment will determine how long the show will continue to air.  Every so often there may be an interruption for a joy (a new program, a new active family or group, a new pastor, etc…) or crisis (“we interrupt to bring you breaking news”).  Sometimes there are the great “Kermits” out there that start revitalization of the church in a new way with the old structures.  A revitalized church with an individualized plan may be more sustainable, but too often it ends up being more about the community that grew, than the world we must change.
When was the list of a sustainable church read with these markers?
    Congregants arrested for shielding mosque (or other awesome SJ acts)
    Helped establish healthcare for all
    Homelessness eliminated in the locale
    Prisons are shrinking 
    Work against (internally and externally) racism, sexism, and ableism, as part of the daily struggle 
    Lives are changed in the neighborhood
    The naked (who want to be clothed) are clothed

Instead I am asked about these markers:
    Number of members (worshipping, active, etc.)
    Number of those people you serve (outreach)
    Building looks wonderful
    Enough parking
    Young families engaged
    Funds brought in

The resurrection will not be televised, for it must come from something new out of the death of the old, and it will look nothing like what it was.  Only in our own scars, the scars on the Body of Christ, will we know we are in that new place, called out to be that love that is so shocking. Jesus reminds us when he speaks of the contractor who hired day laborers outside the home improvement store, and paid them all equally despite picking workers at various times.  And when those paid what they agreed to for the entire day saw those who worked a fraction of the time, they were asked by Jesus, “…are you envious because I am generous?” So the last will be first, and the first will be last.’”(Matthew 20:15b).
“Please watch out for each other and love and forgive everybody. It’s a good life, enjoy it.” Jim Henson stated what he knew in his gut, and truly the church cannot simply be a new episode, or even a new fancy movie, it must be start new in one’s gut before it can grow like a blackberry bush you planted in your garden.  

 

love each other


Unlearning

By Rev. Mindi

My twentieth high school reunion is coming up this summer. I’m unable to attend due to cost, distance, and time… but it’s also difficult for me to go because I am in touch with so few of the people I grew up with, and in reality, much more time has passed between then and now than the time I spent with my classmates, even the ones I knew from elementary school. Still, I have fond memories and there are people I will miss being able to see again. As I look up in my office, above the commentaries and Bibles and theology books, I still have a short stack of books from my high school English class: Jane Eyre, Siddhartha, and The Little Prince, among others. I have kept a couple of notebooks of writing. I haven’t looked at it in years (maybe since high school, I can’t remember), but I haven’t thrown it out yet. There are some things I am still holding on to, after all these years.

It’s been thirteen years since I graduated seminary and there are very few books and notes that I look back to from that time. I do still use the Biblical commentaries I had to purchase (at $75 each!) and occasionally I scroll back through the pages of notes for sermons and Bible studies (and notice how much I doodled in the margins), and sometimes I go back to look at books on church history or brush up on some theological concept, but other than that, there’s not much that I look back on. Prior to my last move, I finally recycled most of my school notes, and culled some of my books.

In these thirteen years I’ve had to unlearn some things. I’ve had to unlearn concepts around church structure and organization. I’ve had to unlearn the idea of Sunday School as our society transitions into a new era of education and worship. I’ve had to unlearn ideas of stewardship as we move into an era in which most people my age cannot tithe ten percent and most of us, regardless of profession, have student debt up to our eyeballs. I’ve had to unlearn much of what was taught to me as the norm for many years

When I think of what I have learned in seminary that I wasn’t taught, for me it was the value of friendships in the community of faith. My seminary friends were the ones I could confess my secret doubts with, show off my beginning guitar skills to, and discuss my future with because most of us were heading in a similar direction. Though we’re scattered across the country, our paths cross more often than not in clergy circles, denominational gatherings and conferences—and also, thanks to social media, we have been able to stay connected.  My seminary friends were the ones I could share my fears and hopes and dreams—and also share my questions, my skepticisms, and my struggles. Those were the friends I could truly be myself with.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong.” This was not a seminary student who told me this, but a churchgoer who recently decided to be baptized. I know not all churches are like that, but I realized that the congregations I have felt the spirit of God most poignantly are the ones where I could laugh among others, where we could tell jokes and be serious in almost the same moment. Where I could be myself. For this person, this church is where they could be themselves, where they were accepted, where they were loved exactly for who they are.

Maybe it was because I was an awkward teenager, but I never felt like I fit in when I was in high school. I’m sure many other people feel the same. Sometimes, I wonder if church can feel like a high-school reunion: we are going back to something that doesn't really connect with who we are now. When I found the place where I could be myself, I felt that I was at home. I felt that in my home church. I felt it in seminary. I still feel it on retreats with colleagues, and lately, I have begun to feel it within my own church again. I share my still-sharpening guitar skills as I miss chords but try to play anyway. I share stories of my own faith struggles. And what happens is that others begin to share their stories, too, and weren’t afraid of saying or believing the wrong thing.

Diana Butler Bass said in Christianity After Religion that we have to switch from the old pattern of “Behaving, Believing, then Belonging” to “Belonging, Behaving, then Believing.” Again, this is something we have to unlearn from seminary and from church tradition. It’s something you can’t teach, but you know it when you experience it: when you belong somewhere, you can be yourself. By finding a place where I can be myself, I am not only a more authentic minister, but a more authentic child of God and follower of Jesus. And in turn, I have found the church to be a more authentic body of Christ in all its diversity.

“The church is where my friends are. The church is where I can be myself. The church is where I belong,” the churchgoer told me. What are we doing to usher in that sense of belonging? What are we doing to bring about an understanding of authenticity, of a place where we are free to be who we are, with all our questions and doubts and head-scratching? 

Change and Control

By Rev. Mindi

Recently I was part of a conversation with someone about a local nonprofit advocacy organization. The local nonprofit has had ups and downs but is less than three years old. It’s doing amazingly well for a new program. And yet, they told me that one of the founding board members feels the organization should fold because “it’s fizzling out. No one wants to be involved.”

I and others look around and see the amazing work this organization is doing, how it is reaching new people all the time, and wonder how in the world a founding member could say that. Then we realized that this founding member is tired and doesn’t want to be involved any longer, but does not want to see the organization proceed without them, and does not like the direction it is going with the new folks that have become part of it.

Immediately a little bell rang in the back of my head. This is just like church.

A lot of churches have people who are on the governing board who have been part of the congregation for a long, long time. They remember how great the church used to be, and all the programs it once had, and all the things they used to do—and because the church is no longer doing them, the church is fizzling out. Dying. Even if new people are coming in.

Now, we all know churches that hold on so dearly in hopes of not dying that they don’t ever change and eventually do end up closing. But I have seen a few churches in which those in leadership clung so tightly and were ready to have the church close and die as long as the hymns didn’t change. As long as the pastor they loved could bury them. As long as they could still sit in the same pew. And the leadership board never changed because they never asked anyone new, or made assumptions that new people couldn’t fulfill the commitments.

I guard against jumping to the conclusion that this is all elderly people in the church. Some of the greatest supporters for change in every church I have ever served and in many churches I have known have been my 80+ folks. While they love the old hymns they haven’t been afraid of trying a new song, or a new way of worship, or a new way of community involvement, even if they cannot participate at the same level any longer. I have found it doesn’t matter what age the person is; what matters is control.

Are those in leadership willing to let go of having control and allowing room for the Spirit to guide change in the congregation? Are we willing to let go of having control and allow room for new people with new ideas, insights and energy to move an organization forward? Are we willing to let go of “my way” or “our way” or “the right way?” And perhaps the greater question, for both the nonprofit organization and for our churches is this: can we be part of something we don’t have control of?

I see churches closing, but I also see a number of churches managing a great shift, from inward focusing to outward focusing, to finding new ways of being part of the ever-changing communities we are in. While these congregations may dwindle in numbers on Sunday morning, the impact they are making on the community is increasing tremendously. Making this shift does not mean these churches won’t close; but it does mean they gave the opportunity for the Spirit to be at work.

Churches, community organizations, nonprofits and others can learn from this: when we try to control and put our vision in place as the right one, it may work for a while but eventually it will fail. Because the Spirit works in community (we see this all the time in the book of Acts). The Spirit works when we come together and build vision together. When we try to maintain control, we have lost sight of the work of the Spirit among us. When we only have the same people, the vision grows stale. Leadership must change and grow, just as the church or organization must change and grow, and just as the community already is changing and growing.

Trust the Spirit; trust the process; trust that new leadership in the church will not let it fail. Even if they don’t do all the things you once did. Even if they don’t continue all the programs you did. Even if they come up with something very different than what your vision of the church should be. Trust the Spirit, and trust that new leaders will be open to the movement of the Spirit of God just as you are.

How do we let go of Sunday morning?

By Rev. Mindi

One recent Sunday morning, I looked out over the empty pews and I thought to myself, “what can be done to get people here?” Then I thought of all the “regulars” who weren’t here, and I thought to myself, “What can be done to get the ‘regulars’ to come back?”

Then I wondered why am I so worried about Sunday mornings?

I’d fallen into the Sunday morning trap again—the idea that “church” is the thing we do on Sunday mornings only, that “church” is the place we go for an hour on Sunday.  We’ve known, from the beginning of our movement, as Paul talks about us in 1 Corinthians 12, that the church is the body of Christ. It’s like that old song we sang in Sunday School: “The church is not a building, the church is not a steeple, the church is not a resting place, the church is a people…”  We all know this, and yet, we fall into the trap again and again and again.

When I looked beyond the empty pews, beyond Sunday, I remembered all the volunteers we had for the last two weekends for our annual Rummage Sale. I recalled all the neighbors who came out, who not only perused our “treasures” but also sat down over a hot dog and chatted with us about their lives. I remember the people who lined up for pies on Saturday morning. I also remembered the Women’s group that gathered earlier that month for lunch, the two Young Adult Pub Theology gatherings, and the bags of donations that appeared in the office for the local women’s shelter.

Why are we so caught up on Sunday morning? Why is Sunday morning still the litmus test as to whether or not a church is healthy or viable?

Money.

Sure, we receive money at our Rummage Sale or other events, but the main way we keep our lights on, pay the pastor (me) and fund the missions and ministries of the church is through the Sunday morning offering.  And if people don’t come on Sunday, they are not necessarily going to give financially—mainly because we don’t ask.

What if…

We offered other ways for people to give to the church—online giving, card readers, QR-codes on the bulletin?

We encouraged giving at other times, at other opportunities, to share in the ministry and fellowship of the congregation?

We counted our blessings in the people we reach out to, the small groups, and the missions and ministries we offer instead of persons in pews?

And what if… dare I say it?

We changed everything.

What if we weren’t as concerned about being financially viable as we were about the ministries and missions we share in?

What if we sold our buildings, moved to partner with other congregations, or started meeting in public spaces such as schools, libraries, coffee shops, or other locations?

What if we all, when we pledge our finances to the church, also pledged our time, our gifts, our talents? What if we took a share in the work of the church, each of us?

This might mean that…

Pastors could no longer survive on a congregational salary alone. Let’s face it—a number of our pastors are already bi-vocational and many of us do not meet denominational standards for compensation.  It would mean that seminaries would have to completely change because those going into ministry wouldn’t be able to afford the three-year master’s degree, knowing that they would be coming out with debt (five, but often six figures worth of debt). And this is already happening—seminaries are closing, or completely going online. Students take one or two classes at a time while working a full-time job. I’ll say it again: this is already happening.

We would have to all change—the church, the pastor, the body of Christ.

We would have to change everything. But we might be able to do something radical.

We might be able to follow Jesus differently.

I’ll raise my hand: I’m scared of this. I have loans to pay off. I have other debts. I need to provide for my family. But as it is, I serve two congregations part-time. I am surviving. I also love what I am doing. I have begun to change. But it’s time for the church to recognize this isn’t temporary.

This is the new normal.

Part Two: The Transformative Power of Compassion; Charity

By Dr. Mark Poindexter

Last week, I began a series of articles on compassion.  After years of being involved in conversations related to church transformation and revitalization, it became clear to me that compassion is a key component to any congregational effort at transformation.  I defined compassion as the capacity to identify with the needs of others and then to work toward the meeting of those needs.  I also wrote that compassion has three aspects – sympathy, charity and justice.  The first article was how sympathy is a key element in the building of community.  Sympathy is at the heart of the ministry of presence, when we “rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.”  With sympathy for one another, especially in times of sorrow or tragedy, we share the light of how the church is to be a community of mutually supportive care.

This week, charity is the topic for discussion.  First, let me say that I recognize that the word “charity” is one that carries a lot of baggage with it in this time.  In fact, I am presently reading a book called “Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help.”  Its central claim is that much of what we do in our efforts to help people is not as helpful as we think it is.   The problem is that we too readily evaluate our giving by the rewards we receive from our service, rather than the actual benefits received by those we serve.   Charity can be understood in ways that carry with it a sense of colonialism and paternalism, the “haves” sharing out of their abundance with the “have nots.”  I understand the baggage that goes with the present understanding of charity.  I think there is truth to be found in that critique of what we often call charity.  But I don’t think the word charity needs to be cast completely aside. Maybe just reclaimed with a different understanding.

I like to think of charity as that aspect of compassion which calls us to respond to the immediate needs of people which they, for whatever reason, cannot meet on their own.  I once heard that Mother Teresa responded to a reporter asking her if it wouldn’t be more beneficial if she were to use her enormous powers of influence to work toward the changing of the system that allowed there to be such large underclass in India by saying, “The more that can be done to change the system the better, but right now what this poor person needs is for me to pull the worms crawling on them off their body.”  This is how I like to think of charity, the immediate response to the needs that have to be met.  It could be the need for food, for shelter, for medical treatment, etc.  Charity is directed toward meeting some immediate discernible need.  A need which a person, family or community cannot meet on their own.

When there are monumental tragedies, such as hurricanes, floods, mudslides, etc., this is when compassion as charity can be seen in a very positive light.  People often have a sense of complete devastation and may very well have lost everything they have.  They need concrete forms of help in the present moment.  In the same way, there are numerous people every day who suffer their own personal tragedies. The loss of a job for a person who lives paycheck to paycheck can mean a quick eviction notice and lack of money for food.  An illness that requires an overpriced prescription that means a choice between medicine, food or electricity.  Compassion as charity means that we help alleviate that unfair choice for people. 

How does a church have this kind of positive charity as part of its life?   One way is to make certain that it highlights ministries that respond to immediate needs such as the Disciples of Christ Week of Compassion.  I also believe that a church seeking to have a sense of revitalization should do more than highlight such a ministry so that individuals in the congregation can give to it, but actually put such ministries in the yearly congregational budget, reminding itself that part of who we are as the church is to be a people who together respond to those in need.  In a time of declining budgets and resources, such a statement helps us to continue to claim the heart of who we are.  Another way, is to become actively engaged in specific needs in your local community.  We have a group in the congregation that I serve called “SAW’s” (Servants at Work).  Their task is to build ramps for people in our community who are no longer able to navigate the stairs that lead in and out of their house.  Most of these ramps have been built for people who have limited resources available to pay for such an expense.  The ramp is usually built in a week to ten days after the request.  This, I believe, is charity as it can best be understood.  Meeting immediate needs for people who are at a point in life when they can’t meet those needs on their own.

Sympathy and charity are important aspects of compassion and can play a vital role in helping to transform a congregation. There is a third aspect of compassion and it can be found in the words of Mother Teresa above, “The more that can be done to change the system, the better . . . “ The third aspect of compassion is justice.  Justice calls us to work for a world in which everyone has a fair chance to share in the abundant blessings of God’s good earth.  Sympathy and charity are beautiful aspects of compassion, but they are incomplete without our work toward a more just world.

Like a kid who can't sleep at night: Excitement in pastoral ministry

By Rev. Mindi

My son AJ gets so excited for school that he has trouble going to bed at night. Often as we finish up his bath routine and get ready for bed, he starts repeating stories or songs or other rhythmic patterns he learned from school. It runs through his head and then he can’t shut it down. He’s just so excited for school. Even in the morning, sleepy as he is, once he is out the door waiting for the bus, he is excited.

I’ve been feeling this way about the churches I serve lately. But let me step back for a minute and let me be honest:

I don’t always feel excited about ministry.

The day in, day out of pastoral ministry can be draining. I’m sure I’m writing to the choir but day after day of pastoral calls, visitations, hearing complaints and frustrations, and dealing with budget shortfalls, disappointment over not having enough volunteers, and working way too many hours can just take its toll. Ministry can, at times, seem more like a dead-end job instead of a calling.

During school vacations our son gets bored after the first few days. He doesn’t fight the bedtime routine much. He gets a little more irritated and aggravated during the day as well as a little more mischievous.

Church can be a little like that. Boundaries get tested and people seem to be more aggravated and irritated at times.  Maybe it’s not that church is boring, but that when there aren’t many changes to the pattern, it appears like boredom.  We get annoyed.

How do we break that pattern for ourselves as clergy? Look back on where you have found excitement before. Where have you found renewed energy in the past?

For me, the excitement and energy was found when I gathered with a small group of church members and started to ask what excited and energized them about church. They began talking about things such as small group dinners, book groups, lunch gatherings. Things they remembered from the past, or things they always wanted to try but hadn’t done so.

What I did was listen, encourage, and bless.

I listened to their memories, their ideas and old dreams. I let them romanticize and be nostalgic. I asked questions about those good memories.

I encouraged the ideas that had legs. I encouraged the people who had those ideas that they had the gifts to lead, to plan and to implement. I offered help only where I felt it absolutely necessary to guide or tweak, but otherwise, I encouraged them to lead.

I blessed the ideas by acknowledging them, sharing them, and lifting them up.

In another church, I had what I thought was a good idea and shared it with another member. While they had reservations about it, they had another, similar idea, and I did the same. I listened to the concerns. I encouraged the new idea and offered to help. And I blessed the opportunity to share in ministry with another.

Now, I’m the one bouncing with excitement, thinking of the ways the Spirit is moving in the church. I’m the one who is excited to be in community with these great people of faith. 

And here’s another thing I learned: While excited about my ministry, the aggravations and irritations and attitudes of discouragement don’t get to me the same way. I’m not concerned about them, not spending my time and energy worrying and fretting.

That’s not to say I won’t have a time when it will happen again. That’s not to say I won’t get tired or burned out and not feel excited. But I am hopeful as a minister that those times will be shorter and less frequent, that I will remember to start again by listening, then encouraging and blessing, and the joy and excitement of the Spirit doing new things in ministry will return rather quickly.

 

Disclaimer: I realize this may be a stretch. But it’s 10:15 pm and I’ve put my son back to bed for the umpteenth time, and in thinking about his excitement for school, I was reminded of how excited I am, right now, in my pastoral ministry. I’ve never been more excited and passionate about what God is doing in the congregations I serve and in my life than now.

The Wrong Question

By Rev. Mindi

A post on CNN’s Belief Blog by Rachel Held Evans on “Why Millennials are Leaving the Church” has gone, as they say, viral. There are several posts out there responding to Evans as well, ranging the gambit from she’s absolutely right to completely disagreeing with her reasons of why they are leaving.

However, I think it’s the wrong question. Maybe it’s the right question from her point of view—growing up in the South, coming from an evangelical background—but for those of us coming from the mainline, it’s the wrong question for us to ask.  Because Millennials, like many Gen Xers before them, haven’t been in the church to begin with.

I’m one of those stuck-in-the-middle generations, on the late end of Gen X, but if you ask my husband who is five years old than me, especially when we reference music tastes of the 80’s and 90’s he sees me as more Millennial than Gen X, whereas people a few years younger than me see me as Gen X and not Millennial. Us late 70’s babies are caught in the gap, but we have experienced what has happened in both generations to some degree.

Most of us in the gap have parents who are Boomers or late-Boomers. Other Gen Xers parents were from the Silent Generation or early Boomers. While we don’t all stick with our generation typecasting, people who grew up in the Silent Generation and Early Boomers still went to church on a regular basis and raised their kids to do so.  During the Depression and WWII, church was the refuge for the poor and the place to pray during the ultimate crisis of war.  The church had a prominent role in people’s lives because there was nowhere else to go. People who grew up in those years turned around and raised their children in the church. Church was steadfast. When the world didn’t make sense, the church made sense of the world. Church was the center of hope.  The Silent Generation that suffered together during the Depression and sacrificed together during WWII was loyal to the church that had remained.

But the Boomers grew up without that connection to the suffering and sacrifice, without the recognition of the church as a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a time of utter turmoil and hopelessness of the Depression and the War. Church was something they had to do because their parents raised them in it. Church became the place of conformity, of rigidity, of unchanging in a changing world. In fact, many of the reasons shared in Evans’ piece of why Millennial are leaving remind me of what I have heard from those growing up in the 60’s in mainline, mostly white churches in the U.S., perhaps only to a slightly lesser degree. The church of my grandfather that had been a place of hope and encouragement and where people banded together to know they weren’t alone in life’s struggles, was a place of stifling conformity for my mother and her generation.

And what I know of many of my peers, us late-GenXers and into the Millennial, is that our parents decided not to raise us in church (my mother changed her mind when I was nine and brought us back to the church). Our parents decided they didn’t want to force on us what they felt was forced on them. Our parents wanted to give us the freedom to choose, and in doing so, we opted out. But we were never really given the option of staying in because, except for Christmas and Easter and maybe other special occasions, we never went. Or, if our parents had a better relationship with the church when they were growing up, we were given the option upon our baptism or confirmation. So ironically, we would make our statement of faith in the church and then never return.  The option of staying was never really taken serious enough by our parents to begin with.

I think the challenge for many of us in mainline church leadership today is not how to keep Millennials from leaving the church, nor how to get Millennials back into the church, but rather, how do we pass on our faith in ways that don’t repeat the mistakes of the past two generations? How do we pass on a faith that allows for questions and exploration while at the same time gives a grounding for hope and assurance?

Thankfully, and hopefully for our future, we won’t have another Great Depression followed by a World War that would cause our country to be in such upheaval that everyone’s daily lives are affected by it. There probably won’t be another scenario in the U.S. in which so many people felt the pressure of the depression and then the war, including the notion of self-sacrifice, in which people felt like they were connected more deeply together in the well-being and survival of the country. The church was a centerpiece of hope, a stronghold in the community for grieving, a place where one another’s burdens were shared in a real and tangible way.

But somehow, after the War, we shifted away from this. Instead of the church being the place everyone turned to for stability, the church became a place of control and conformity, at least among Euro-American white churches (note the very different role of the black church in the Civil Rights movements during the same period of time, and that assumptions made about who is leaving the church are generally speaking about Euro-American churches).  And it’s no wonder that our parents didn’t want to bring us up in a church that was conforming and boring, or at least wanted to give us a choice about it because they felt they did not have a choice.  The church had lost out being a beacon of hope and steadfastness in a world of change, and instead, to keep that image up, turned to control and conformity within its own structure.

I’m not a church historian. But it seems to me this great shift happened more than a generation ago and is not a Millennial issue.  And if we want to know how to reach out to those who have had little or no grounding in the church and do not seem to see any reason at all to attend church, perhaps we need to rethink church (again, a topic of many viral posts, including posts on this site).

When we look back at Acts 2 and 4, we see a model of a church in which people come together and share what they have with each other.  Worship was not a separate act of their daily lives, but rather a communal act in which prayers were shared, bread was broken, and possessions shared with those who had need. Perhaps we just need to dream it up again, a way of being community that is beyond what we are doing now but not so far out of reach. And, as I’ve shared in my own thoughts on this matter here before, I hope we don’t make the assumption that those outside of the church have no community, let alone a spiritual community. Let’s not go rush out and offer community without observing the community that may already exist.  Instead, perhaps we can come together, insiders and outsiders, church and unchurched, and dream something new together, and find a way to pass down our faith that includes opportunities for change and choice without having to chuck the whole thing. We need to build up that kind of community together that withstands the challenges of the world and offers hope, a sense of belonging, and is steadfast in a world of constant change, without changing steadfastness into conformity.  We need to live out our theology in a way that shows hope, faith, and love, that also does not require conformity, rigidity and condemnation of others. 

No more Either/Or; Now Both-And

By Rev. Mindi 

“The world has changed.”

I hear this all the time in the church: “The world has changed.” And of course it’s true, and of course it’s the same. Nothing new under the sun. World without end. And we don’t like change.

I think one of the most difficult changes for people, however, has been this shift from Either/Or to Both-And. This is within the church and within society in general. And perhaps the shift has come in waves across generations, through Women’s Rights, Civil Rights and in GLBTQ equality; and this wave of Both-And is just finally smacking the shore and changing the Either/Or landscape forever.

Church doesn’t look like it used to. Church was in a big building with a big committee and the most important thing were two-parent-heterosexual young married couples with children coming through the door.

Churches now have a building and don’t have a building. Churches now have heterosexual and homosexual couples and single people and no children and children and couples not married and older people bringing their grandchildren and animal blessings for pets in October and they meet in traditional buildings and coffee shops and movie theaters and homes and schools.

Even in the SBNR (Spiritual-But-Not-Religious) debate the wave has drawn over the conversation: Church now is full of religious and spiritual people, and so are coffee shops on Sunday mornings and bars on Tuesday nights. The either/or dichotomy is not working.

It’s not working among families where dads stay home and moms go to work or *gasp* both parents share parenting and work roles. Or parents partner with other adults to co-parent and form relationships beyond traditional models. Or among people who are genderqueer and do not claim a traditional male or female identity. Either/Or thinking does not work in families or churches anymore.

And while we have a long, long way to go, many of our churches are starting to look different among the younger generations as multiethnic families grow up. We all have heard the statistics: White-Euro-Americans will no longer be the majority racial/ethnic identity among those under 20 by the year 2020. Everything is changing. Our identities are going to be changing, and this will be huge for traditional White-Euro-American churches. Some of our traditions and cultural practices will change and I don’t think we’ve recognized that yet. But it’s coming.

Either/Or isn’t working anymore.

And in fact, I’m not sure it’s never worked, if we believe in the fully-human-*and*-fully-divine Jesus. Jesus was not Either/Or. Jesus was Both-And.

Jesus ate with the leaders as well as with the poor. Jesus welcomed the children and welcomed the adults. Even when Jesus said, “You cannot be my disciple if you do not hate father and mother,” we know James and John loved their mother and Peter his mother-in-law and we know they were flawed people who still were Jesus’ disciples. Even when Jesus used either/or language with the disciples, we know that Jesus still came to that group who had utterly abandoned him to the cross and said, “Peace be with you.”  Even Jesus cannot be bound to the Either/Or. It’s Both-And.

Both-And gives us room for tradition and innovation.  Both-And gives us room to teach our history and embrace the newness of change. Both-And says all people are welcome, whatever kind of family or no family.  Both-And says traditional pastoral ministry and new community ministry are needed by the church.  Both-And says yes to traditional church at 10am on Sunday and yes to new ways of being spiritual community. Both-And says that our understandings of gender and sexual orientation and race and culture are all being challenged and are more fluid than we had thought. Both-And says we have more than one option when it comes to challenging the human rights abuses in Syria and in other parts of the world. Both-And says there are many options for peace.

We’re moving to a Both-And world. That’s not to say it isn’t scary. The things we once knew we don’t anymore. The world is changing. I don’t have all the answers. And I won’t say it’s always a good thing, but it is what it is.

Everything is changing. Let’s be sure we’re alert, aware, and ready for the wave coming. World without end.

Healthcare: Injustice for All

By Rev. Mindi 

A four-year-old classmate of my son’s has cancer, very advanced, and the insurance company has deemed his treatment “experimental” and will not cover it.

A friend is stuck paying thousands out of pocket for a procedure that was not covered by her insurance company but deemed vitally necessary for her health by her doctor. Hospital refused to consider her for their low-income payment plans because she didn't qualify.

A friend’s father had a stroke. The doctors at the local hospital refused to consult with his neurologist because he was part of a different hospital group and therefore critical information was not passed on.

This is wrong. This is injustice.

In the U.S., healthcare reform is coming into play. One can no longer be denied insurance coverage due to a previously diagnosed condition. Families can carry young adults on their insurance plans until age 26. Many forms of birth control are now available without extra cost through insurance providers (though there is a religious exemption that is still being debated).

But it’s not nearly enough. The gap between those who are so poor they have to be on state insurance and those who are just able to afford to pay for insurance or have an employer who will do so is widening. The gap of those who will slip through the cracks, who will pay a penalty and not have any health insurance is a chasm no one should have to fall into.  And even wider still will be those who will have insurance, but like my son’s classmate, the insurance will fail to cover many expenses.

My own family, on a denominational health insurance plan, pays much out of pocket to cover our son’s therapies and various appointments, not to mention dental coverage that is extremely costly and not covered. We are stretched so thin that we have had months where we have decided what bills to pay and what bills to put off.

And even those on insurance find themselves victims of hospital for-profit corporations whose doctors have to play politics to keep their job rather than consulting with one another across the same field, thus resulting in misdiagnosis, misinformation, and at times critical injury or death.

This is wrong. This is injustice.

Where is the church in all of this? In the news, the “church” is the one arguing for religious exemptions from having to provide coverage for birth control. Within our denominations, our churches vary at providing good coverage or poor coverage. I was on one denominational plan before I was pregnant with my son that provided so little maternity coverage (as I have found few mainline Protestant denominations do) that I switched to a private plan. We paid a little more per month for premiums, had a higher deductible, but almost everything was covered for our son’s birth. This turned out to be good news, as I ended up with an emergency C-section, a massive infection and extended hospital stay, plus home health care. I can’t imagine the thousands of dollars we would have paid out of pocket had I been on the previous plan, or how soon I would have been sent home from the hospital.  The church plan would have left us scrambling to pay the bills.

Churches, we can lead in this.

We can demand better coverage from our insurance companies for our staff and employees.

We can work to organize people in our congregations to speak out for better healthcare coverage from their employees and from insurance companies.

But most of all, I believe we need to change our system. We have to confront the idea that employers are the best dispensaries of healthcare coverage has got to change. Healthcare cannot be a benefit that is earned by a few.

We need to challenge the idea that healthcare is a privilege, and lifting up healthcare as a universal human right.

We must change the notion that anyone is expendable, whether they have a disability, an illness, a genetic condition, are poor, are sick, are elderly, are not documented, or any other way people have been devalued by our system of health care.

We must speak out for a new vision of healthcare, one in which people are valued over corporate rules and politics. One in which doctors and experts are free to speak to one another and share information easily to reduce miscommunications and mistakes.

What if churches were to lead the way? What if we were to bring together doctors and nurses and hospital officials in our communities and say, “How can we change healthcare in our community so that no one falls through the cracks?”

What if we were to group together and provide low-cost health insurance to our members (imagine the memberships piling in!) and provide basic medical services (such as regular health screenings, flu vaccinations, and other prevention-based services) to the community?  What if we didn’t just have blood drives but had basic first-aid drives and gave away basic first-aid needs to the community? What if we got a dentist and a hygienist to offer free dental cleanings once a month?  What could we do together?

If we as churches are concerned about the well-being of those who are part of our community, then we must step up to bring change about to health care. And I believe we can start that transformation of the system by rethinking our role. We don’t have to just speak out for one form of health care reform or another. We can act. We can support local clinics, or begin one. We can do our part to transform the conversation, to transform the system, if we dare to dream about our role in healthcare differently.

Are any among you sick? They should call for the elders of the church and have them pray over them, anointing them with oil in the name of the Lord. ~James 5:14

Taming the Chihuahua Brain

As I sat at the kitchen table yesterday, reading the paper, I heard one of our dogs barking outside on the deck. We have five dogs, so hearing a dog barking just outside the kitchen is not particularly noteworthy. Our dogs are so sensitive, they bark at cross-eyed gnats. It is, however, annoying to the neighbors. I got up to let the dog in, so he’d stop ruining everyone’s leisurely Saturday morning. As I opened the door, though, I noticed a man I didn’t recognize walking away from our neighbor’s garage. I found our six-pound chihuahua delivering, what I’m sure he intended to be, a bracing message of warning. The strange man, looked back over his shoulder at me, and hurried down the driveway. Something didn’t feel quite right about the stranger’s presence.

As I walked back into house, I remember observing, “Well, maybe the dogs get it right once in awhile.” I don’t suppose I’ll ever know.

The whole thing got me to thinking, though. Evolution has honed canine senses to acute levels[1]. They are so sensitive, in fact, that they respond to any new stimulus as a threat. And they can sniff out a threat a mile away. Living in the wild, constant vigilance against natural enemies is evolutionarily advantageous. Living in a suburban home, on the other hand, where the fiercest threat is the neighbor’s dachshund three yards over, constant vigilance is maladaptive behavior.

Besides, what exactly could a six-pound chihuahua save me from anyway?

Noting the highly sensitive threat detection systems that patrol our back yard, people have said, “You’ve got some good watchdogs.”

Usually, I smile and nod my head. What I want to say, however, is: “No, they’re not. They’re horrible watch dogs. If everything makes them bark, then they’re useless as watchdogs.” Fear only works as an effective warning signal if there’s truly something to be afraid of. To walk around in a perpetual state of fear is not only exhausting, but sustained long-term stress is damaging to the body. It releases all sorts of chemicals that are helpful for short term confrontations with genuine threats; but perpetual stress is corrosive. Prolonged stress has been linked to heart disease, hypertension, stroke, cancer, diabetes, gastrointestinal disorders, as well as sexual disfunction. In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

In addition to the physical impairments caused by prolonged stress, the psychological toll can be debilitating. If you’re afraid all the time, you lose perspective about what to be afraid of and when it’s appropriate. It’s possible, in other words, to be afraid of, and react with hostility to, things that are good for you–and inevitably to tune out real threats.

It occurs to me that churches, especially churches experiencing decline, often confront the world with the nervous system of a chihuahua–treating each new change in the environment as a threat. They’ve evolved highly sensitive threat detectors over time. Unfortunately, these threat detectors issue an unacceptable level of false-positives.

If you bought a pregnancy test, for instance, that gave you a false-positive 90% of the time, you’d quit using it. If you had a security system that went off every time the baby cried or the parakeet belched, you’d be on the phone imploring your provider for an emergency service call to recalibrate the sensors. Threat detectors that go off indiscriminately and often are useless (at best), and insanity-inducing (at worst).

Why do churches settle, then, for a life wired to respond to every new thing like a six-pound dog–certain that calamity is behind every bush?

The only way to tame the chihuahua brain is to relinquish control of the future to God. “For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 16:25). In other words, thinking that everything will kill you … will eventually kill you.

It’s God’s church, after all. God’s plenty capable of taking care of God’s stuff. What exactly could I save God from anyway?


  1. It has been called the “lizard brain” or the “triune brain,” but I have more experience observing chihuahuas, so I’ll stick with “chihuahua brain” for the purposes of this post.  ↩