mainline denominations

Getting Depressed By Yearbooks, Again (Sort of)

By Jeff Gill

Being a bit of a history geek, I was tracing developments a century ago in the congregation I serve. This had me reading through old Yearbooks, 1914, 1915, 1918, 1923 (they’re all easy to find on Google Books, just look for Christian Church, American Home Missionary, and Yearbook as search terms).

It was kind of, well . . . depressing, in an unexpected way.

Perhaps you remember Derek last year talking about getting his new Disciples Yearbook:

He was, at least at first, a little bummed out. The numbers (with the help of a stats geek friend of his) are cratering for the objective measures, at least, for our institutional life. We’ve gotten a newer Yearbook in the last few weeks, most of us, and the rate of descent is still, in Tom Wolfe’s description of the Mercury astronauts returning to earth, that of a ring of car keys flung onto a parking lot pavement. Anyhow.

Statistically, things 100 years ago were quite different. “Men and Millions” is the big thing back then (yeah, yeah, we’ll come back to that in a moment), and the relatively anonymous writers of most of the content, speaking quite self-consciously as the voice of our Brotherhood (okay, okay, I’m getting to that), are optimistic about being able to mark those millions in almost every category, if not now, then by the end of the decade or so. Remember, this is when a) “The Christian Century” was mainly our sandbox as a publication, and b) we were quite sure we were IN a Christian century. That theme’s been done, but it’s worth noting again.

Today, we have a million of just about nothing. A quarter mil in worship on an average Sunday, maybe realistically half a million members, but that’s probably not true today and won’t be tomorrow. Say 450,000 tops.

As “Men and Millions” was firing up to bring together the multitudinous, various, fractious programs of missions and education and “church extension” (as we called our building campaign and church planting program back then), there is clearly excitement in those long-deceased voices speaking from the page.

“Chief among the benefits accruing to the Society from the Men and Millions Movement is the wide and sympathetic hearing its work was given. Never have the great claims of the American Christian Missionary Society been presented to such multitudes as from the platform of the movement… The Joint Apportionment Committee was devised by the General Convention to mollify evils of competition growing out of multiplied missionary agencies. The Society has from the first championed the work with enthusiasm and its representative has served the committee this year with devotion. The present apportionment plan has failed to correct both the missionary myopia and the ‘lopsidedness’ in our churches. It begins to appear that if the churches are to be apportioned at all, the work should be done by a committee close enough to the local churches to be conversant with their ability… The remarkable results of the ‘Emergency Drive’ of the Men and Millions Movement not only revealed the large financial ability of the Disciples but points the way to better methods of calling it forth. Here again appears the wisdom of the county unit policy in our organizational scheme. The Joint Apportionment Committee is recommending through the Men and Millions Movement, The World-wide Every-Member Canvass, for an all inclusive budget for all the missionary, educational and benevolent agencies, to which the Society gives hearty approval.”

It goes on like that, pages and pages of it, in between the charts and lists and tables.

Sure, it’s dated language. Very Roaring Twenties, the religious side of The Great Gatsby, the not-so-creepy side of Elmer Gantry. But allowing for all that, the thing is: it’s so hopeful. So optimistic. And so certain that things will go a certain way.

And it’s not that they’re just affirming a status quo or a social quietism, either. Recommended reading lists for Sunday school teachers include Jacob Riis, author of “How the Other Half Lives,” and social gospel theologian Walter Rauschenbusch. The wording is most emphatically dated, but the passion is present to minister in minority communities of a wide variety of settings, from Bohemians in Cleveland (no, not those Bohemians) to Philippinos in California.

What the authors of this material don’t know, or are averting their eyes from, is the looming shadow of World War (the book “Preachers Present Arms” came to mind repeatedly); the racism and slavery behind what is called “Negro poverty” is unmentioned, although lynching is decried and economic opportunity is called for; and the eruption in 1920 of the “Fundamentalist-Modernist Controversy” may have begun in Presbyterian circles, but it was clearly visible to Disciples leaders of the day: not so in these pages.

In the authorial tone of the century old Yearbooks, even though self-evidently written by many different hands and with an assortment of styles, the Stone-Campbell churches are one. The Restoration Movement, even though by 1906 clearly divided already between the “a capella” and instrumental branches, is spoken of as a single unified force whose drive and capacity will only flourish as that unity of purpose and action is focused.

The fracturing, of course, was already going on, between cooperatives and independents, progressives and traditionalists, northern and southern ways of being church and doing missions. The role of most minority groups was still, even with the best of intentions, that of being the object of mission efforts, not as autonomous subjects themselves; the role of women was . . . well, it’s complicated, but the Yearbook’s narrative still seems to have much in common with Matthew 14:21, telling us about great things, “not counting women and children.”

Really, it’s amazing how much unity we had for how long, given the depth of the divisions that soon would be revealed. And it’s also got to be the case, I believe, that the shock of what the institutions of our “Fellowship” (or Brotherhood) realized they had supported through the war-fervor against “the Huns” (oh yes they go there, and they go there hard, “threat to civilization” and all that, “enlist now, young men”…), all of which had to have made many if not most of our leaders say “we have to stop pretending.”

Because the tone does start to change in the late Twenties. You can blame it on the Depression, but it starts well before October of 1929. There’s plenty to praise and congratulate one another about in those years, but the relentless boosterism, the almost-manic sunny optimism, recedes. We lose some optimism, but get a bit more realism in our outlook. Sharing good news into America, across the world, is going to be hard, and we probably won’t figure it all out by 1999. The Disciples are starting to come to grips with just how fractured the world is, and that as a movement for wholeness, it’s going to take more than just a plea for unity based on the New Testament model that, frankly, we ourselves didn’t all agree on in detail.

Like Derek, I got depressed, but this time it was from reading those warm, cheery, happy, sunny, not just hopeful but utterly certain Yearbook reports from 1915 and vicinity. Then I had to think about it a while. And as he ultimately realized last year, in the end, we are as Christians, as Disciples of Christ, given a very particular gift, and that is to preach the Gospel to our particular context, in this specific era. (He said it with seven points and different language, but that’s how I took it.)

Who knows how our reports and Mission First! plans will look in 2115. It’s actually kind of helpful to ask that question of my own calling, this congregation’s mission, our denominational issues today. After smiling at the insouciance of 1915’s vision of the future, what will my take on where we’re going right now sound like in a hundred years? And does that tell me anything about what’s really moving towards wholeness in my plans if I ask it from that point of view?

That’s not exactly taking God’s perspective, but it’s getting closer.

I Might Be The World's Worst Evangelist (and Why I'm Okay with It)

By Rev. Aaron Todd

The other day I'm cruising down the highway  listening to the "Frozen" soundtrack (don't judge, my three year old was in the car with me) when I run over something hard and metallic, which, of course, blew out one of my front tires.  This was not the first time this has happened since moving to Oklahoma, so my level of frustration was higher than it probably should have been as I maneuvered my poor car off the highway and over to the shoulder. 

I had just begun the process of unpacking all the needed items to change out the tire when an old, beat-up minivan pulls up behind me.  "Great," I thought, "This is how most horror movies begin."  I needn't have been concerned, however, because out of that van stepped an older gentleman who simply needed to know if I needed any help with the car.  After thanking him and telling him that I thought I could handle it, we got to talking for a few minutes. Seeing as how I was rather preoccupied with the tire, this man did most of the questioning.   "Are you from around here?" (Yes)  While pointing to my son in the back seat, "Is this your only child?" (No) And then this question came, "Are you a Christian?"  After telling him yes and that my wife and I were in fact, both pastors.  He smiled and replied, "Well, I'm glad I stopped."  He then got back into his van and drove away.  It was an awkward end to an otherwise (given the circumstances) pleasant exchange. 

In the few days since that event, I have been thinking more about that conversation and his desire to know if I proclaimed myself as a follower of Jesus.  What would his response been had I answered otherwise?  Would the same offer to help had been extended if I had professed allegiance to another faith (or no faith at all)? Was there an intention present all along to evangelize a young(ish) broken down traveler? The truth of the matter is, I have no idea and will never have a way of knowing. All I know is that I am grateful for his willingness to stop and help, and now as I continue to think back on that exchange there on the side of the highway, I realize why the ending of  that conversation seems so perplexing to me; I never would have thought to inquire about the religious beliefs of a person I had just met. 

As I came to that understanding, I also realized that I cannot remember the last time (if ever) I have actually inquired about anyone's religious affiliation, regardless of the circumstances.  In my ten-plus years in ministry, I do not think the words, "Are you a Christian" have ever passed through my lips. Once this light dawned on me, I thought to myself, "I might be the world's worst evangelist." 

To be fair, I come by my evangelistic inadequacies honestly.  As a life-long member of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) I am part of a tradition that tends to shy away from that sort of on-the-spot questioning. As a tried and true introvert, I tend to prefer to be left to my own devices and assume that most others do as well.  Who are you to question me? Who am I to question you? Finally, and this perhaps is the biggest influence concerning my lack of desire in being considered an "evangelist," I have rarely seen evangelism, at least in it's traditional, culturally accepted form, done well.  I have memories of being in seminary and having people hand out tracts in downtown Ft. Worth and telling me that my seminary education made me less of a Christian, I can remember people walking around with giant crosses slung over their shoulders, yelling at me to "repent" (again in Ft. Worth), and here in Oklahoma City there is a giant billboard on the side of one of our highways asking us the question, "If you die tonight: Heaven or Hell?" A week or two ago I found a Bible tract strategically placed on the toilet paper dispenser at Starbucks (really?).  Even on a more personal level, there have been plenty of times when, in the midst of the conversations with other Christians, the topic of religious beliefs came up, the message I have gotten over and over is that if I don't adhere to their particular flavor of Christianity, then I AM in fact, less of a Christian. 

So as I think about how I may in fact hold the title for World's Worst Evangelist, I realize that if I am being compared to some of the methods I just described, than I am perfectly okay with that title.  Because, you know what?  None of the above methods even come close to describing the path that I followed to get to a place in my life where I proclaim myself as a follower of Jesus. Never after hearing someone yell at me to "repent" have I been moved to go a different direction.  Never after seeing a billboard or hearing a talking head on television talk to me about buying into their brand of "fire insurance" have I felt myself drawn closer to Jesus.  And there isn't a pamphlet or tract that has ever (or ever will be) printed that will cause my spirit to connect with the Spirit of the Divine.  

As a matter of fact, as I think about my own faith journey, I do not have the slightest clue who it was who first told me about Jesus.  Honestly, I have no idea who it was who "evangelized" me.  It might have been a minister, it might have been my parents or grandparents, I don't know.  What I do know is that I have a very clear memory of all those throughout my life who have walked with me and shown me what it means to live like Jesus. 

To me, this is what evangelism is anyway.  Evangelism cannot be and thankfully is not "peddling" Jesus like we would vacuum cleaners or carpet cleaning services.  It is seeking to embody the life Jesus calls us to live.  It's doing our best to live in the manner he did and inspiring those around us to attempt to do likewise. Jesus never asked the question, "Are you a Jew?" or told those of a different belief system to change their understanding before he would join them on the journey. It did not matter if the one whom Jesus encountered was a Jew, a Samaritan, or even a Roman, He loved and served unconditionally, with grace, humility, compassion, and perhaps most importantly, respect.

The way of Jesus does not translate well to a billboard or a tract, but that's okay, it was never meant to. It won't sell many books or promote too many political campaigns (but imagine if it did).  The way of Jesus is meant to be embodied in and among all God's beautiful creation.  I am thankful to all those who have come into my life who have shown me The Way, not through words, but through a listening ear, a hug, a shoulder to cry on, and the demonstrated desire to walk with me on this journey. 

This is the kind of evangelism in which I desire to engage.  And come to think of it, I'm not all that great at this kind, either.  But walking with, loving, respecting, and listening to my fellow human beings sounds like something I'd much prefer to continue to improve.

Stop Taking Attendance

By Evan Dolive

At a church I used to serve there was a well intentioned person who after every service would tell me how many people were in attendance.  “We had 47 today, Preacher,” he would say.  I could hear the disappointment in his voice when he would have to tell me a low number like 35.  A smile beamed across his face when we had more than 50.  No matter the number, he would tell me without fail.  

In every church that I have ever visited or served there has been an emphasis on the number of people that attend the morning worship services. 

After years in the ministry I have come to the conclusion that the church needs to stop taking attendance, immediately. 

For many churches the process of collecting attendance is to get an accurate accounting of people in worship, to measure how many people occupy space in a pew.  Some churches have note pads in the pews so people can fill out their information and place it in a designated area.  Others have a volunteer to manually count the people in attendance.  No matter how small or big the faith community is an attendance is taken.  Some congregations publish the number of people in their church bulletins or have it on a sign in the sanctuary to compare last week to this week. 

For too long churches have measured their ‘success’ and ‘failures’ on the number of people that darken the door on 11am on Sunday morning.  The quickest way to get people to wring their hands in worry is to tell them that numbers in worship have dropped.  Visions of the church closing its doors will run through people’s minds inciting more and more anxiety.  

It’s no secret that the church in the American culture is not where most Christians would like it to be.  The church was once the central hub of the community is now a place where people go on Sunday mornings if they want to.  The church has been in a decline for some time and I believe this has caused us to become more inward focused.  As the church began to experience decline numerically the church’s reaction was to try making everyone left happy including the ministers, elders, deacons, lay ministers, organist and even the custodial staff.  The boat was not rocked, things stayed the same, a course was laid in and no deviation would be acceptable.  

I believe that this is the wrong approach.  One time when I was interviewing with a church for a position they inquired if I had any plans that would help the church grow numerically.  The answer I told them I believe with all my heart and prompted a bevy of puzzled looks.  I told them that I was not a ‘numbers guy.’  I did not measure the success of the church in how many people showed up on Sunday morning.  Is Lakewood in Houston, the largest church in America, a “more successful church” because they average several thousand people each week?  No.   Most churches just want bodies in the pews and babies in the nursery but this is the wrong approach.  

I would rather have fifty people in church on Sundays that went out and touched a hundred people’s lives, than have a hundred people in church that only touched fifty.  

The church has become too worried about having more people than the other churches in town.  The church needs to stop looking inward and start looking outward.  There is a world that is in desperate need of a Savior right outside the walls of the church.  The time we spend in meetings or around the pot luck lunch table talking about how big the church was in 1947 is wasting everyone’s time.

I have to admit that even I can fall into this number trap.  It can be disheartening when a minister prepares a sermon or the choir works diligently on a piece and only a handful of people are there to experience it.  I have to remind myself that the people who are in attendance are there to experience God and worship and that is it.  God can use all sizes of churches and faith communities to promote God’s message of love, peace, joy and reconciliation.  

I want people to experience God in the same way that I do but I am not beholden to a number.  

Let’s start taking a new kind of attendance, one that is centered on the other, not bodies in the pew. 

 

In Christ,

Rev. Evan 

 

Rev. Evan M. Dolive is an ordained minister in the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). He currently serves in Beaumont, Texas. He is currently writing a book to be published by The Pilgrim Press (publishing house of the United Church of Christ).  For more information about Evan visit www.evandolive.com. Follow him on social media at @RevEvanDolive and fb.com/evandoliveauthor. 

Professing Hope: 5 Ways to Strengthen our Life Together

By Beau Underwood

In a previous post I offered a few opinions - perhaps even got a bit "preachy" - on the state of congregational life within Mainline Protestantism generally and the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) specifically. The impetus was the struggle of congregations within a denomination seeking and needing to discern anew God's call within a rapidly changing American religious landscape. You would not need to apologize for reading those words and curtly responding with an answer along the lines of:

Okay, so now what? All this idealistic language means very little given the realities of our congregational and denominational life. How is any of this relevant? What can any of us actually DO? You do realize that simply announcing a refuseal to acquiesce to the status quo does not actually change anything, right?

Hence the need for this second post, focusing far less on theological exhortations and ecclesiastical admonishments. 

These are my provisional thoughts on how we might join God in the continued transformation and needed revitalization of our churches. Assuming present realities will not change overnight, this is an attempt to offer ways that you, me, and the guy down the street can contribute to solutions. Nothing here will be new or profound, but if this serves as a reminder of the basics or helps someone think about old things in new ways then my goal will have been achieved. Above all, this reflection is rooted in the conviction that our individual lives and our life together as Church should reflect the hope we profess (Hebrews 10:23).

1. Tame the Tongue - Our language needs to change. Cries of despair often dominate discussions. Many congregations sound like the liberated Israelites wandering in the wilderness who, fearing for their safety and facing starvation, long for returning to enslavement in Egypt. Nostalgia for an idealized past is rarely helpful in imagining the future. 

Perhaps the only thing worse is when business parlance is injected into the narrative of decline. Then the conversation is all about "the bottom line," "declining revenues from fewer giving units," and the need to "change our business model." The last assertion usually implies a belief that a new, young, and energetic pastor/CEO can turn the company/congregation around.

This language is neither faithful nor compelling. It betrays the absence of hope and a lack of trust in the God who provides the manna from heaven when we find ourselves in the wilderness. When bad news of seemingly greater proportions dominates daily headlines and cynicism towards religion, government, and anything that has existed for more than five minutes abounds within the broader culture, the Church cannot afford conformity. 

Our actual words and conversations must reflect our belief in a God who makes all things possible. Transforming congregations has to begin with rediscovering the neglected language of faith. Our words should point towards the God who liberates from bondage and rescues from death. Speaking life is essential to congregational vitality.

2. Commit to a Community - American Christianity has long been described as a religious marketplace (that darn business language is so hard to avoid!). When one church stops meeting our needs or when we get angry at a leader or conflict erupts the faithful quickly depart and show up at the church down the street. Oftentimes people stop attending church altogether - despite claiming they still "belong" to the congregation - or worship infrequently because it involves "too much work" or is "too demanding." 

Now I'm the first one to say it is okay to sit in the pew in the back of the church and just take in worship, if that's what your spirit needs right now. But my larger point is that bring part of a community involves commitment. Caring for each other and supporting others through the ups and downs of life requires the investment of energy and time. Congregations can be unwieldy, messy, and even ugly organizations. If churches excluded sinners then all the pews would be empty. 

I'm always deeply saddened to talk with leaders who are no longer connected and accountable to communities of faith. Especially in a denomination like the Disciples that claims to prioritize the mission and witness of local churches, making a commitment to participating in the life of a community - in the good times and the bad - is absolutely imperative. 

When leaders fear an exodus of members at the smallest hint of unhappiness, the incentive is to avoid hard conversations and play everything safe. Risks are not taken and creativity disappears. This is a recipe for decline and death. But when leaders know they have the trust and commitment of the group then a wide range of possibilities will emerge. New ideas can be discerned and tried. Failures become learning experiences instead of opportunities to assign blame. Successes lead to robust ministries that allow congregations to serve neighborhoods and communities in new and needed ways. It all starts with a group of people committed to the Gospel and to each other.

3. Put your Money where your Mouth is - I have a confession to make that is unknown to even most members of the church where I serve: last year my wife and I fell short of our financial pledge. It was entirely inadvertent. We made a commitment at the beginning of the year, dropped checks in the offering plate when we remembered to grab one out of the drawer before leaving for church, and got a letter at year's end showing our giving and realized we had not fulfilled our promise. 

Major oops.

Like many other millennials most of our financial transactions our handled electronically. We rarely carry cash or write checks but church was one of the few places we kept up the "old traditions." While our paychecks were deposited directly into our bank accounts and the mortgage payment automatically withdrawn, the church offering still required intentional action on our part. This was mostly done to help the church avoid losing money to a credit card processing fee, but it ended up costing the church anyways! 

After discovering our error, we immediately rectified the situation by signing up for online giving. Now a monthly gift is made directly to the church with no action required on our part, providing greater cash flow predictability for everyone.

Why do I bother to share all this? Because ministry requires resources and stewardship is essential to discipleship. One of the most common laments in our congregational and denominational life is necessity of "doing more with less." This is the reality at least in the short-term, but it should not lead to resignation. Every member of the community should be encouraged to support the ministry in whatever ways are possible, including through regular financial gifts.

This also applies to our membership within a denomination. If we value the witness and work of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) then it deserves our financial support. After setting up our monthly gift to the congregation, I immediately arranged for a monthly gift to also be made to the Disciples Mission Fund. You can do the same by clicking here

4. Explore the Bible - Biblical literacy in many churches is shockingly low. As Christians we don't know the stories that have guided our ancestors in the faith. How can our beliefs orient and shape our lives when the basics remain a mystery? The result is a shallow spirituality that quickly breaks down in moments of challenge or crisis. 

Not only is understanding the Bible fundamental to Christian life, but in and through Scripture we find critiques to the conventional wisdom of our day and reminders that God's priorities are rarely the same as ours. Scripture casts down our 21st Century idols through ancient, enduring wisdom that forces humility upon us.

If we want to tell our story in ways that bring new life to our communities, we must first locate ourselves within the overarching story of what God is doing in the world. It is impossible to understand ourselves as Christians without understanding the narrative(s) of the Bible. There are numerous ways, new and old, to accomplish this but this core aspect of our life together cannot be ignored. In a time of religious ignorance, teaching the faith through the comprehension of our sacred texts is a non-negotiable. 

5. Share the Good News - Evangelism is a dirty word in many Mainline Protestant churches. This is a sad indictment of our convictions and a major contributor to the decline of our congregations. There are some terrible, offensive, and overbearing ways of sharing faith. Many of these have been and continued to be practiced by far too many Christians. But we cannot throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater. 

Christian faith is the best lens I've discovered for understanding and living within a complex world. It has been a source of profound truth, beauty, wisdom, and peace. I have seen the ways that God has redeemed and changed the lives of people who discovered Jesus and made the choice to pick up their crosses and follow (Matthew 16:24).

We have so much to share with the world. Claiming to be Disciples of Christ means nothing if we aren't offering good news to the poor, release to the captive, healing to the hurting, and wholeness to the broken (Luke 4:16-19).

St. Francis of Assisi famously said, "Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary." In a hurting world that is drowning in despair our churches must be beacons of hope. As scary as this sounds to so many of us that requires letting others know about the new life we've found in Jesus Christ and inviting them to into it. Any serious attempt at being "a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world" necessarily involves showing and telling a fragmented world that wholeness is possible and helping people find it.

What other ideas do you have professing our hope? Let's get the church talking. 

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

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.

Tell Yourself: Why Congregations Need to Stop Looking for External Affirmation

By Derek Penwell

We walked to the YMCA yesterday, my four year-old son and I. The snow fell on us as we made our way to the entrance.

“That’s called a snowflake,” the boy said.

“That’s good,” I observed. “You’re pretty amazing. Has anyone ever told you that?”

He stuck out his hand to catch a snowflake, and said, “I tell myself that.”

If true, at four he’s further down the road to maturity than a lot of people I know—myself included sometimes.

Indeed, he’s further down the road than most congregations I know, which seem constantly to pursue the kind of affirmation that comes from some external source.

“We’ve got xxxx people. We have a bazillion dollar budget. Our new parking lot features a helipad. We’ve got dedicated space for Christian Aerobics, a Starbucks in the vestibule, and an anointed unicorn that cries magic jelly bean tears that have little Jesus fish embossed on them. Please tell us we’re amazing.”

It’s hard. Human beings—even (perhaps, especially?) suitably zealous Christian ones—look for a sign to reassure them that they’re moving in the right direction. Unfortunately, the signs they’re busy reading often have as their goal a destination the gospel finds unintelligible.

I think about the recent pageantry surrounding the exodus of Pope Benedict XVI. The Roman Catholic church, which has undoubtedly done some wonderful things to meet the needs of the world’s poor and oppressed, has enough wrapped up in real estate and financial holdings to end world hunger. People on the outside looking in read the Gospels and hear Jesus speak about a commitment to those on margins, then they look at the ostentation of grown men (and I say “men” advisedly) draped in gold and finery roaming about multi-billion dollar ecclesiastical compounds, and they wonder how did the church get from “store not up for yourselves treasures here on earth” to … well, this.[1]

The Catholic Church is an easy target, right? However, popular Christianity has its own versions of conspicuous ecclesiastical consumption—only, rather than museums, the Evangelical Protestant versions look like consecrated shopping malls or sports arenas.

And the mainline church doesn’t get off easy either. Mainliner’s need the external affirmation that comes from believing they’re on their way to reclaiming the societal hegemony that abandoned them in the 1960s. They like to track their contemporary worth against the sepia toned memories of their moment in the cultural sun.

Ok. I’m piling on. But here’s the thing, those are precisely the sorts of accoutrements that make for a winning scorecard in the estimation of many looking to demonstrate success on the road to Christian faithfulness. The problem, as I say, is that according to Jesus these things are difficult to explain as faithful to a world already skeptical about Christian intentions. Consequently, if you look to most external measures to know whether or not you’re succeeding as a congregation, you will very probably alienate the very people who already view the church with a gimlet eye.

This morning I read an article about Michael Jordan turning fifty. I’m a huge MJ fan, but I must confess, this article left me feeling sorry for a man tortured by his need to recapture the glory of his, admittedly, much celebrated youth. The articles paints the portrait of a man for whom no good thing is ever good enough, no amount of success ever satisfies, no affirmation quite brings peace.

In the final section of the article Michael is pictured sitting alone in the media room in his home after everyone else has gone to bed, reflexively turning on the Western channel to escape the silence. Apparently, there is no peace in the silence, no way to measure a life without the input of of human voices to recount his superhuman feats for him. Given all he’s accomplished, even Michael Jordan appears to need someone else to tell him him he’s amazing.

How many churches sit around replaying the old game tapes, wanting a glimpse of what made them great all those years ago, needing someone else, some external measure to reassure them that they’re still valuable, that somebody thinks they’re amazing?

The problem is there aren’t enough “young families” to fill the new family life center to make a church successful. There isn’t a church budget big enough to assure meaningfulness. And, without question, there’s no future in the past.

External affirmation, the way the church is accustomed to keeping score—with numbers, and bodies, and dollar signs—leaves very little room for the cross. And that’s deadly because the church ultimately measures itself against the cross, against its willingness to die to all the external affirmation that its worth is rooted in something other than its commitment to following Jesus down a dark alley in search of peace, justice, and love.

“Somebody, please tell me I’m amazing.”

Tell yourself. Or at least try to remember that that’s what God was trying to tell you in Jesus.

If you need external affirmation, that’s a pretty good place to start.


  1. Look, again, I know the Catholic Church has an argument about why all this accumulated wealth is necessary. All I’m drawing attention to is the fact that to most onlookers it doesn’t make any sense, given the other commitments Catholic Church purports to hold.  ↩

Opportunity Cost: The Price of Not Making a Decision

I’ve got a friend who regularly busts my chops about my tendency to overcommit. This is a good thing. Ben reminds me that, even though I sometimes fool myself into thinking so, I can’t do everything. By saying “yes” to this, I’m simultaneously (usually unwittingly) saying “no” to something else. In economics this is called “opportunity cost.” Opportunity cost is the value of what you’re willing to forgo by deciding to do one thing rather than another.

What do I mean?

Say you have a choice between taking a job at a great firm and studying abroad for a year. On the one hand, if you take the job, you may stabilize your financial situation, but in so doing you may miss out on the opportunity of a lifetime. On the other hand, if you don’t take the job you have now, you may return to find that someone has already taken your place. Whatever you choose is going to cost you something.

The cost of losing that which you decide against is what economists call opportunity cost.

You’re paying a price for every decision you make by limiting your access to other opportunities.

Should I take the new job in Seattle or should I stay where my family is comfortable?

Should I get married or should I get established in my career?

Should I pay the light bill or the doctor bill?

Should I help my son pay to afford care for his child or pay my husband’s medical bills?

Tough decisions.

Opportunity costs are much easier to calculate, however, when you know both the price and reward of each option.

“If I choose this, I’ll gain this, but I’ll lose this.”

“If I go the Lynard Skynard concert, it’s going to cost me $75 and a chance at studying for the entrance exam to Harvard. On the other hand, if I stay home and study, I may save $75 and enhance my chances at an Ivy League education, but I may miss the one show I’ve been waiting my whole life to see.”

In order to make good decisions about opportunity costs, it’s essential to know the benefits and the consequences of choosing one option over another.

But what happens when you don’t have a good handle on the benefits and consequences?

Put differently, what happens when you don’t give much consideration to the benefits and consequences of a decision because the opportunity costs are hidden?

I think this describes the situation most mainline denominations face around the issue of the full inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer people. Up to now, the decision about LGBTQ folks has been a calculation centered on how many traditionally conservative folks would leave in the aftermath of a resolution affirming their place in the church as equals. I have yet to be in a conversation about this issue (and I’ve been in a lot of them) that wasn’t framed in precisely this way—by both sides.

On one side: “Accept these people as equals, and we’ll walk.”

On the other side: “Of course we want this. It’s not a matter of us not wanting to be fully inclusive. What we have to factor in is whether the _______ (fill in the blank) will leave if we do this. (Read: We’re afraid we’ll split the church by moving ahead.)”

Setting up the choice in this way glosses over two extremely important points about opportunity costs:

  1. It assumes that the people who take a particular stand for justice would be guilty of “splitting the church.” But why aren’t the people who would leave just as responsible for the split?

“Well, because you would be instituting a theological position we refuse to live with. If you’d just keep things the same, we could retain our unity.”

The first response that comes to mind is that demanding the preservation of a theological position that others have a difficult time living with (literally, in some cases) is equally divisive. Why is the narrative always, “Progressives threaten denominational unity?”

I understand that there has to be institutional deference to tradition and precedent. That is to say, I know that every new theological claim that comes down the pike can’t automatically be assigned legitimacy just because one constituency considers it important. The burden of proof lies with those suggesting change.

However, it’s one thing to say that those who want change bear a greater responsibility for making their case. This reasonable requirement merely advances the notion that institutions are better served by rigorously interrogating all appeals to change, to make sure that novelty and fashionableness don’t highjack an inheritance of considered wisdom.

It’s an entirely different thing to say that, no matter the persuasiveness of the argument placed on offer after years of deliberation and thoughtful discernment, there exists no argument compelling enough to persuade us. So, if you change anything, we’re hitting the bricks.

The former position says that change should be a measured response to a constantly evolving understanding of our context, the latter says merely that change should never be an option.

But change is always an option, which brings me to the second point about opportunity costs.

  1. It rarely considers the the fact that not making an affirmative decision carries a particularly high opportunity cost. Why aren’t we just as concerned about the people we might lose (or push away before they even walk through the door) if we fail to make an affirmative decision?

A 2011 Public Religion Research Institute survey found that “nearly seven-in-ten (69%) Millennials agree that religious groups are alienating young people by being too judgmental about gay and lesbian issues.”

David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyon, Evangelical authors of Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks about Christianity, have this to say about what I take to be the opportunity costs for the church associated with not making an affirmative decision about the full inclusion of LGBTQ people:

Out of twenty attributes that we assessed, both positive and negative, as they related to Christianity, the perception of being antihomosexual was at the top of the list. More than nine out of ten Mosaic and Buster [Generations Y and X] outsiders (91 percent) said “antihomosexual” accurately describes present-day Christianity. And two-thirds of outsiders have very strong opinions about Christians in this regard, easily generating the largest group of vocal critics. When you introduce yourself as a Christian to a friend, neighbor, or business associate who is an outsider, you might as well have it tattooed on your arm: antihomosexual, gay-hater, homophobic. I doubt you think of yourself in these terms, but that’s what outsiders think of you.

After the recent vote at the Presbyterian General Assembly in Pittsburgh against changing the definition of marriage from “one man and one woman” to “two people”—a vote in which the Young Adult Advisory Delegates (YAAD) voted 75% in favor of the change in definition—Presbyterian minister, Adam Walker Cleveland, wrote:

You want to know why young people are leaving the church? Because they are tired of us. They are tired of us continuing to do things the ways they’ve always been done. They’re tired of us being too afraid to step out in justice. They’re tired of us not following in the footsteps of our radical prophet/savior Jesus the Christ. They’re tired of a polity and theology that denies marriage equality to fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that are members of our churches.

When your church’s Session asks “Where are all the young people?” or “How do we get the young people to come back to our churches?” – perhaps we should encourage the greater church to LISTEN to our young people.

Here’s the thing: Our inability to speak out in favor of God’s justice for LGBTQ folks comes with a cost.

The question is: When will we decide that the opportunity costs of inaction are unacceptably high?

That day is coming. Make no mistake. But what mainline denominations must consider is whether they will have already driven so many people away that the victory will be too late.

Because when the day comes that mainline denominations finally take that step, they’re going to lose the people who won’t change under any circumstances anyway. And the people who had been looking for a home … may have already given up.