denominationalism

2017: What The (White Protestant) Church Must Do

By Rev. Mindi

I read this post shared by an Episcopalian friend this week, and along with some online conversations on “what is the future of the church?” with declining attendance and resources, I’m wondering what has happened to our ecumenical movement? What has happened to our movement for unity?

As an American Baptist pastor married to a Disciples of Christ pastor, I can tell you that not much really separates us. We all do baptism pretty much the same way. We do communion the same way, albeit Baptists tend to only do communion once a month. We aren’t opposed to doing it every Sunday, we just make it out to be more work than it really is. We have some common roots in history. We have faced some of the same struggles on inclusion and diversity in recent years, and as both denominations have taken steps to truly live into God’s ways of love and justice and the teachings of Jesus, some of our more conservative kindred have gone out the door, or have simply stopped talking with us.

And it’s not only American Baptists and Disciples, but Presbyterians, Lutherans, Episcopalians, Methodists, Congregationalists (and other UCC-ers), and the list goes on. While we vary in our ways of baptism and communion and vary in our liturgical rigidness, when we start talking about issues of justice, Black Lives Matter, inclusion of transgender and lesbian, gay, bisexual and other queer folks, and welcoming refugees and immigrants, we have so much in common. I regularly have conversations in ecumenical gatherings of clergy (especially fellow clergy in a similar age range to me, but not always) about the same issues facing our churches. The same issues facing our communities. The same longing to follow Jesus and being held up by resources.

So why oh why oh WHY ARE WE NOT WORKING TOGETHER? Why are we still separated on Sunday mornings? Why is (as the author of the blog post I shared stated) Sunday morning still the most segregated hour, decades after Martin Luther King Jr. called us out on it?

I know I am not the first to say it, but as a response to white privilege and white supremacy, perhaps those of us in the traditional white protestant churches, as we face closing down and shrinking numbers, need to go join a Black church. Perhaps we need to listen to someone else preach on Sunday morning and tell us how to be involved in the community. We can do this within our own denomination to start with.

Secondly, we can join with our kindred down the street. While many of us have “full communion” with other denominations or allow for those of other ordination standards (or none at all!) to preside at the table and at baptism, we do not move beyond those relationships (as again, the author of the blog post I shared stated).

As we enter 2017, the future of the church doesn’t lie in us keeping to ourselves on Sunday morning. If we do that, we will continue to shrink, decline, and close. Those of us who are white Christians need to especially consider giving up our power and ownership of space to join with our Christian kindred of color to truly follow the ways of Jesus (who wasn’t white, as we keep pointing out but fail somehow to truly comprehend). We might find that the church isn’t declining, but thriving, if we give up our own vision of what the church is supposed to look like, and join in God’s vision:

After this I looked, and there was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, robed in white, with palm branches in their hands. They cried out in a loud voice, saying, “Salvation belongs to our God, and to the Lamb!”

~Revelation 7:9-10

Musings on the American Baptist Mission Summit

By Rev. Mindi 

For those of you not familiar with the American Baptist Churches, USA, you can go to our website www.abc-usa.org.  We meet for biennial gatherings much like the Disciples of Christ meet for General Assembly and the United Church of Christ meet for General Synod.  Two years ago, at our Biennial Meeting in Puerto Rico (I was unfortunately unable to attend), a new structure and bylaws were passed for our denomination. As a result, our Biennial gathering this year changed to a Mission Summit format. What that means is that there was a lot less formal business and more opportunity for conversation.

Of course, these are just my views, but here they are: I enjoyed the Mission Summit format. We were given a list of over thirty topics to choose from and got to go to the table of our topic of choice and meet others interested in the same topic (some topics had two or three tables—and each table had a facilitator). There were three rooms of conversations, under the categories of Our Future, Our Leaders, and Our Witness. We had some basic questions to get us started in the conversation, and after an hour or so, we got back together as a larger group in our category and each table shared a major insight/learning. We had two more opportunities for this, in which we could stay with the same subject and go deeper, or we could switch topics. I met new people, had good conversations, and even took away some ideas for my congregation. Practical stuff.

What I missed: the fact that our formal business session was fifteen minutes, to accept the nominations as slated. We have done away with our old Statements of Concern process to create new Public Witness Statements (which there were none presented at this gathering).  The Resolution and Policy Statements of old are gone. Old resolutions can be amended or rescinded through a process, but no new ones can be created under the new bylaws. For some, this perhaps is a victory—the Statements of Concern process, which I witnessed firsthand at the Denver Biennial in 2005, was a painful and abusive process by some churches wanting to impose their views on homosexuality as a sin onto others.  The resolution process was also abused. But now, we no longer make any resolutions.  The new process for the Public Witness Statements is still unknown and relatively untested (a few regions have passed Public Witness Statements, but only a few, and it being so new, there were none for this gathering).

Who are we? What are we doing? We are answering the question well within our gathering. We are a diverse body in worship, fellowship and mission. I enjoyed the worship services, the beauty of music from around the world, dynamic speakers and positive messages. I enjoyed meeting new people and reconnecting with my Baptist roots. But outside of our gathering—who knows us? Who knows who we are and what we are doing, what we believe and what we say about ourselves?  And as one of the few Tweeters during the entire gathering, I was disappointed with the denominational use of social media, that barely existed before the Mission Summit and was gone as soon as it was finished (by the way, the topic I chose for the Mission Conversations was Social Media).

I look forward to attending the next Mission Summit, I really do. But I hope that we American Baptists will find our voice again, will be willing to risk and to state what we believe in, what we hold dear—even if others do not feel the same way, even if it is controversial. I hope that we haven’t made the decision to simply avoid conflict by not saying anything at all.

Theological Inbreeding

Recently I was sitting in one of my D.Min. cohorts when several of my colleagues were discussing our educational backgrounds and why we chose this particular school.  I’m attending a seminary affiliated with the Presbyterian Church (USA), and while most in the group are Presbys, not all are.  Most of the Presby’s did their MDiv there as well. Some even did their undergrad studies there, too.  But then there’s me (the lone Disciple), a UCC pastor, a Congregationalist, and an American Baptist to stir up some trouble. Most of us went to schools affiliated with our denomination somewhere along the way.  But I intentionally chose not to do my DMin at the same place I did my MDiv studies and not to stay within my denomination because I wanted to see a different religious landscape.  Another student said it better:  “Why would I want to go back to the same school or stay in my own denomination?  That’s inbreeding!”

Inbreeding it is.  But that seems to be the norm in theological education.  I see institutions hiring, sometimes exclusively, faculty that were educated at their institution or one identical in principle as theirs.  Or I see bios of people that have 2, 3, or more degrees all from the same school and I wonder how they could stand it.  I went to multiple schools for practical reasons, but I realize now subconsciously I may have done so in order to stay sane.  First, I tried a state university, then a private Mennonite College, then a Disciples seminary, and now a PC(USA) seminary.  I have found a unique voice in each experience.  Each has played a critical role in shaping my development, education, and pastoral vocation.  And in journeying from one landscape to another I realize how valuable having different perspectives is.

But sometimes Christians only want to hear what they already believe.  I remember being warned by some people about attending certain schools.  These same people would encourage me to attend another school that, of course, agreed with all of their ideas.  Sometimes our denominational systems strongly encourage us to stay within because when we venture off to other learning environments we might venture out of the realm of their control.  And sometimes we’re just lazy in our choices.  Whatever our vice, inbreeding is becoming the norm in our denominational theological institutions.  And the Church is suffering because of it.

It’s time to encourage some sowing of wild oats and encourage exploration of theological education beyond the shelter of our denominational systems.  We need to begin to hear the voices that are different from our own, and to explore ideas that may seem foreign to us.  And we need to trust that God will speak and form and equip for ministry in the unexpected places.  Some of the best gifts for Disciples ministry I have received came from Presbyterians and Mennonites.

By Dan Mayes

Dan Mayes is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ).  He currently serves as pastor of First Christian Church in Spencer, IA.  He has served congregations in Iowa, Kansas, and Oklahoma.  His own blog is located at danmayes.net