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Mainline Resurrection Can’t Do Without…the Resurrection

In a much commented-upon article by Ed Stetzer, he warns that, absent some kind of resurrection, statistical trends indicate that Mainline Protestantism’s days are – literally – numbered.  His analysis suggests that the Mainline has about 23 years left.  Stetzer goes on to argue that Mainline survival, at minimum, will need some serious changes in ethos to mount a comeback:

My personal hope is that mainline Protestantism will experience a resurrection of sorts, something Christians tend to have faith in. However, such a move won’t come from following the trajectory it has been following.

The future of mainline Protestantism is connected to Christianity’s essential past, where the resurrection can be proclaimed again unabashedly. Jesus is not just a good person who suffered unjustly. Jesus’s death and resurrection makes our dead souls alive again.

These kinds of reflections often induce histrionics in some (mostly Mainline) pastors and blogging types. They smell a boogeyman here, who is also their scapegoat for all things bad in the church: the evangelical Christian. [Cue ominous tones.] In fact, in some circles, all you have to do is associate phenomenon x with evangelicals and x automatically becomes an evil second only to Hitler, Pol Pot, and Stalin.  It’s a hackish formula, but a ubiquitous one nonetheless.

The argument, rather predictably, usually goes something like a) “Evangelicals who insist on orthodoxy are really just bigots and use doctrine as a cover for their racist/sexist/homophobic policies,” or b) “Insisting on doctrine is a kind of legalism like that of the Pharisees, when what really matters is ethical behavior toward others.”  The first is pure conspiracy, the second is a false dichotomy.

What these apoplectic reactions miss is something that even the most evangel-y of evangelicals will admit: orthodox doctrine (at a minimum, say, the witness of the Apostle’s and Nicene Creeds) is a necessary but not sufficient ingredient of church vitality.  Of course there are churches with solid doctrine that are spiritually dead (that’s how the Methodist movement got it’s start, for John’s sake).  But to take this as a reason to downplay or jettison basic doctrine is a total non-sequiter.

Nowhere is this more clear, biblically and historically, than the resurrection of Christ.  Modern and postmodern theologies  too enamored of their own wisdom to believe in ancient dogmas like the physical resurrection of Christ are hopeless from the ground floor.  Are there congregations with vital ministries and kind hearts where the pastor and many, if not most, of the congregants reject the supernatural in the biblical narrative? Certainly.  Are there growing religious congregations that reject Easter in favor of some kind of spiritual or psycho-social “resurrection?” I’m sure.  But the success of these only makes their error that much more tragic, because what they are succeeding in is not what the apostles, saints, and martyrs could recognize as the Bride of Christ.

St. Paul is crystal clear about this with his flock in Corinth:

Now if Christ is proclaimed as raised from the dead, how can some of you say there is no resurrection of the dead? If there is no resurrection of the dead, then Christ has not been raised; and if Christ has not been raised, then our proclamation has been in vain and your faith has been in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified of God that he raised Christ—whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised. If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have died in Christ have perished. If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied. (1 Cor. 15:12-19, NRSV)

As the Apostle makes so clear, the point of the resurrection is not to grow churches, but to give real hope that the oldest enemy of humanity, the grave, does not win in the end.  A cold piece of paper with the doctrine of the resurrection scribbled upon it does not create vitality, of course.  However, a church committed to resurrection as God’s victory in Christ not as a dead letter, but as a way of life and ministry, can transform hearts, families, and communities.  Without the basic truth of the resurrection, though – if Christ’s bones are in a Jerusalem hillside – than even the most active, loving, and inclusive of churches are little more than quaint country clubs or social service agencies.

In short, there is no resurrection of the Mainline that is worth a tinker’s damn unless the resurrection of Jesus is front and center in our life and proclamation.  With it, a world of possibilities – nothing less than the New Creation itself – is open to us. Without it, “we are of all people to be pitied.”

I’ll give Ed Stetzer the last word:

If mainline Protestantism has a future, it will need to engage more deeply with the past — not the past of an idealized 1950s, but one that is 2,000 years old. The early Christians saw a savior risen from the dead, heard a message that said he was the only way and read scriptures that teach truths out of step with culture, both then and now.

I imagine that many mainline Protestants would agree, and perhaps the supernatural message of Easter, believed and shared widely, could bring the resurrection that mainline Protestantism needs.

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Sentimentality Kills

In Rodney Clapp’s eclectic little book spanning the life and work of Johnny Cash, country music, American culture, and Christian identity he tackles the sentimentality that he believes is at the heart of ecclesial degeneration in America today:

“Because idolatry is the most destructive of sinful conditions, the greatest danger to the true faithfulness of the American church comes not from without but from within. That danger is not persecution or victimization or accusations of hypocrisy, but our own all-too-easy tendency to sentimentalize our faith. To sentimentalize the faith is to instrumentalize it, to make it a tool of our ambitions, our comfort, and our security. Sentimentalization is mild-mannered idolatry, sin sweetened and trivialized. Sentimentality kills vital faith with bland complacency.” (60)

My teacher, Stanley Hauerwas, once wrote,”The great enemy of the church today is not atheism but sentimentality.” (The Hauerwas Reader, p. 526) He wrote a blurb on the back of Clapp’s book, and  I imagine he would agree with Clapp’s assessment.

What he describes as sentimentalization is all over North American protestantism. Many of the regnant forms of preaching and worship that pastors are encouraged to adopt are designed to comfort rather than convict, to sell self-actualization rather than exhort cruciform living.  Sentimentalization is the cross reduced to a decoration made of diamonds and silver; discipleship reduced to Instagram Bible verses; asceticism sacrificed on the altar of low expectations – it is Christian faith made into a series of Precious Moments figurines.

Sentimentality is a milquetoast approach to faith designed to be unobtrusive and inoffensive.  But a gospel that does not offend is no gospel; the Word brings not peace but a sword, and divides sinew from flesh. (Matthew 10:34, Hebrews 4:12) It is the kind of Christian life a marketer would design to sell to middle class Americans with overstuffed lives and underdeveloped souls.

Sentimentality is killing us.

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The Purpose of Doctrine is Not Church Growth (or, A Correction to @RNS)

Tom Krattenmaker over at Religion News Service wrote the following a while back in a piece unfortunately titled, “Why a stout theological creed is not saving evangelical churches”:jesus crying

For many years now, it’s been treated as common knowledge in some circles that the liberal beliefs of mainline churches have been the instruments of their decline. As the story goes, if you want to know why the Episcopalians, Lutherans and others like them  have suffered precipitous drops in members and cultural clout since the 1960s, you need look no further than their acceptance of society’s changing sexual mores, women’s equality and so on.

Conservative churches and their strict, unbending doctrine, we’re told, are why they have held onto, and have even grown, their numbers.

The whole piece is worth a read, only so you can follow me as I dissect it.  The bottom line: this is not so much a piece of helpful analysis as it is a thinly veiled exercise in schadenfreude (rejoicing in someone else’s misery) by someone who is attempting to be a leading “secular” voice.  In other words, he’s simply rejoicing that his enemy (religion) appears to be in retreat.

A few points:

  • The headline – “a stout theological creed” is misleading.  Free churches, represented by the Southern Baptists he cites, are non-creedal.  A journalist of religion should have better grasp on the language of religious practice and denominational history than this.
  • The confusion of doctrine and social ethics is unhelpful.  Evangelicals make it too, and I’ve talked about it before.  But all the historical creeds deal with primary doctrine: the nature of God, the resurrection of Christ, etc.  It’s hard to know if Mohler and Moore, as quoted, are talking about basic doctrine or ethics, but this confusion of terms from the outset is problematic.  Liberal theology and progressive social policy are not the same thing.
  • There are evangelicals who are not Southern Baptists.  What Krattenmaker does not account for is the degree to which an even more precipitous mainline decline is hindered because of a remnant of evangelicals in denominations like the UMC.
  • Krattenmaker seems to have no sense of the global religious scene.  The church is growing rapidly in the developing world, and their Christianity is not the progressive Protestant variety he seems to prefer.  The American Church as a whole may be declining, but the growing global church is largely evangelical and, especially, charismatic.

The point of Christian doctrine is not church growth but identity. The value of creedal Christianity is not a guarantee of growth but the blessing of a tradition not invented last week. There is a “faith once delivered” (Jude 6), there are certain truth claims that are constitutive of Christian worship and piety.  Churches and religions that can pass on their particular faith stories to young people effectively tend to retain more of the next generation.  On this, research by Christian Smith and others is clear that Mormons and evangelicals tend to do this well, while mainline Protestants and Catholics tend to do this badly.  Even in the largest of the Mainline denominations, the UMC, the fastest-growing churches tend to be evangelical.  Krattenmaker and others might not like this fact – Progressive Methodists invent new levels of obfuscation every time these statistics come out – but it makes it no less true.

I can appreciate that Krattenmaker wants to be an emerging voice for “secular” people.  (Although, most folks I know who are secular don’t identify that way.)  But this is self-serving narrative masquerading as informed analysis.  Something that says “Religion News Service” at the top of the page should have better standards.

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Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us [Book Review]

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I am not interested in any church renewal that is not sacramental – which is to say – is not Christian in any kind of historically or liturgically identifiable sense.  Anyone can draw a crowd, but happily God loves us too much to leave us with only marketing tricks and technocratic delights.  Instead, God has called His Church to glorify him through prayer, service, song, witness, preaching, and celebrating the sacraments.  Chief among the sacraments, the most potent of the means of grace, is the Eucharist, also known as Holy Communion or the Lord’s Supper.  United Methodist pastor and professor Kenneth Loyer has just written a book on this sacred meal that explains not just its importance as a rite of the church, but the critical role it can play in the vitality of the local congregation.

Holy Communion: Celebrating God With Us is part of the new Belief Matters series by Abingdon, edited by retired UM Bishop and Duke Divinity School professor Will Willimon.  Willimon wrote the first volume on the Incarnation, and my Western NC Conference colleague Jason Byassee has written the next entry on the Trinity (which I am told is excellent).  This series “takes as its task the joyful celebration of the wonder of Christian believing.” (xi)  It seeks to make doctrine accessible and interesting to both laity and clergy alike, a much needed task today.

Loyer organizes his book in terms of the Communion’s own structure and ethos.  Thus, he begins with a discussion of thanksgiving, which is what what most of the Eucharistic liturgy actually is – an epic prayer normally called The Great Thanksgiving in Western practice.  Much of this chapter is a kind of commentary on the whole of the liturgy itself, which is a highlight of the book.  The next chapter focuses on the practice of active remembering; the liturgy re-members us (literally, puts us back together) as the Body of Christ remembers all that God has done in Jesus Christ to effect our salvation.  Drawing on John Wesley’s own Eucharistic piety, Loyer reflects, “we neglect this gift of God’s grace at our own peril.” (44)

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

From St. Michael the Archangel Parish in Ohio, by Nheyob courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

After thanksgiving and remembering, the author turns to celebration.  Communion does not merely invite us to recall what God has done, but to celebrate the risen Christ’s continued, transforming presence with us now.  The story in this chapter of Mandela receiving communion with one of his prison guards is worth the price of admission.  In the final chapter, we explore the eschatological dimension of the Eucharist.  At the Lord’s Supper, we not only remember what Jesus has done and celebrate his continued grace through the Holy Spirit now, we also look forward.  Communion is thus a Kingdom meal that gives us a foretaste of the coming heavenly banquet that Isaiah foretold so well. “On this mountain the Lord Almighty will prepare a feast of rich food for all peoples,” a feast which we anticipate every time we gather around Christ’s table today. (Is. 25:6)

Interspersed throughout is Loyer’s own pastoral experience.  Specifically, he connects the initiation of a mid-week Communion service to a revitalization in ministry for his congregation, Otterbein UMC in Pennsylvania.  “God has used this feast of our faith,” Rev. Dr. Loyer notes, “to nourish us in Christ and to generate an increased desire for God that has spread throughout the life of the congregation.” (63)  While the author does not emphasize this and I do not find it the most interesting claim he makes, it’s worth noting that under Loyer’s leadership his church has grown from 90 in attendance to 170.  At a time when many of our small churches are stagnant or are in decline, this a feat worth attending. Of course, it should be no surprise that spiritual and missional renewal and the Eucharist are heavily linked.  The Walk to Emmaus and similar communities have attested to this reality for decades.

To sum up: I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in Holy Communion, spiritual renewal, or church vitality.  Loyer’s offering is highly readable yet still substantive.  Indeed, there is plenty of meat on the bones here even for those well-read in liturgical theology and worship or church growth more broadly.  Moreover, each chapter contains a series of reflection questions and a prayer, making it ideal for small groups and Sunday School classes. I highly recommend this new resource for both, as well as church-wide study.

There is no renewal in the church worth having unless the sacramental life is at its center.  Ken Loyer’s book both makes this case and helps us imagine what it might look like in practice.

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Searching for Substance: Rachel Held Evans’ Decades-Old Prescription for Reaching Millennials

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Webber saw this attraction 30 years ago.

Everything old is new again.  It’s painful to watch a well-worn thesis go viral 30 years late and with someone else’s name attached.  Many folks have been talking about this self-aggrandizing piece by famous I-used-to-be-evangelical-but-now-I’m-enlightened blogger Rachel Held Evans (henceforth RHE).  Aside from seeing it all over Facebook and Twitter, I have unchurched friends sending me messages about it, I see some of my denominational supervisors writing about it, and I overhear colleagues talk about it at meetings. Thus it’s hard to argue that RHE is certainly an impressive trend in the progressive Christian blogosphere.  The problem is, her prescription for bringing millennials back to the church is at least 30 years old.  Robert Webber made this case just a couple of years after I was born.  The idea for which Evans is being lauded is literally as old as the millennials she intends to draw back.

RHE’s re-warmed argument runs as such:

“In response, many churches have sought to lure millennials back by focusing on style points: cooler bands, hipper worship, edgier programming, impressive technology. Yet while these aren’t inherently bad ideas and might in some cases be effective, they are not the key to drawing millennials back to God in a lasting and meaningful way. Young people don’t simply want a better show. And trying to be cool might be making things worse.”

If young people don’t “simply want a better a better show,” don’t tell that to the fastest-growing megachurch in my state.  I may find the show aesthetically offensive, the methods manipulative, and the content lacking, but that doesn’t mean many churches have not found this prescription “successful.”  If it is now cliché to the sophisticated palate of RHE, it is only because this formula has been useful in many places and for many years.  Time will tell if young adults are now growing wise to the marketing.  In my own small town, the churches that are attracting millennials the fastest are still following the above formula that Evans finds passé.

That doesn’t mean she’s totally wrong, though.  What attracted RHE to sacramental Christianity includes many of the reasons I love and practice it:

“What finally brought me back, after years of running away, wasn’t lattes or skinny jeans; it was the sacraments. Baptism, confession, Communion, preaching the Word, anointing the sick — you know, those strange rituals and traditions Christians have been practicing for the past 2,000 years. The sacraments are what make the church relevant, no matter the culture or era. They don’t need to be repackaged or rebranded; they just need to be practiced, offered and explained in the context of a loving, authentic and inclusive community.”

The problem is that Evans’ solution is in danger of underwriting “the form of godliness without the power.” (2 Tim. 3:5) I would certainly agree that the aesthetics of Holy Communion or Ash Wednesday are far more powerful than a coffee bar or strobe lights.  But if these wonderful practices are divorced from their doctrinal content, they are little more than nice rituals and not a means of grace.

Which brings us to RHE’s solution: The Episcopal Church.  To be blunt, if the Episcopalians were drawing in millennials the way RHE’s analysis suggests they should be, then statistically TEC would not be dying out faster than Blockbuster. Evans does suggest one need not be a part of a denomination that is historically sacramental, but this is only to double down on the problem: going through the motions of ritual without the ecclesiology or doctrinal commitments which underlie them creates just another hip activity to do on Sunday.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Communion elements in stained glass from an Ohio parish, courtesy Nheyob via Wikimedia Commons.

Holy Communion serves as an example of why form and content must be in harmony. To name just three potential problems related to the Eucharist: absent (1) a sacramental theology capable of claiming that what happens at the table is something more than a snack, or (2) a Christology capable of handling the theological freight of the Great Thanksgiving, or  (3) a soteriology that recognizes the need to repent for sins of omission and sins of commission, this highest point of Christian worship becomes dead ritual, an aesthetic experience that pleases but does not transform.*

I don’t pretend to know what millennials want (even though I am one) because I don’t believe I can read a few polls, talk to my friends, and thereby understand everyone in my generation.  That said, I am quite sure that we should not design churches to fit the fancies of the same people who have made The Real World a successful franchise and the Kardashians famous.  Thus the appeal of the ancient forms of worship not designed by me or for me, an appeal which I gladly confess.

But the ancient forms demand substance to match the style.  I don’t know what millennials want, but what (read: Who) millennials need is the God revealed in the Bible and confessed in the creeds and liturgies of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.  Mainline churches like TEC and my own United Methodist Church reflect that apostolic teaching and practice on paper, but on the ground our pastors and other leaders too often compromise core Trinitarian and Christological confessions which frame Christian life and practice.  (The story of two “bishops,” Sprague and Spong, is enough evidence to suffice here.)  When this happens, we are trying to plant heirloom roses in poisoned soil.

As much as anyone else, I want millennials (indeed, all people) to know fellowship with the Three-One God and life in the Body of Christ.   With the ancient church and the Reformers, I believe the sacraments are among the most wonderful gifts of God.  This remains the case whether a critical mass of millennials find them “relevant” or not.  Of course, catechesis (teaching) about Christian worship in general and the sacraments in particular is necessary to help any new Christians connect with liturgical practice, as with anything not immediately self-evident.

But let’s not forget that form needs power; Webber, who originated Evans’ thesis, was very aware of the necessity to maintain the Christian story.  The practices of Christian liturgy without the doctrinal and ethical content which undergird them are little more than mansions built on sand.  Ritual without substance won’t do anyone – millennial or otherwise – any good at all.

P.S. The impressive growth of the ACNA – not all of which can be attributed to schism and sheep stealing, but at least in part to church planting and doctrinal fidelity – serves as a useful foil to TEC’s statistics and an example of what happens when the ancient and apostolic form meets the content for which it was intended.

*This assumes, of course, a heart transformed by the love of God and a life of prayer, service, mercy, and justice. Doctrine and ethics, faith and practice, go together – they do not compete with each other.

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On the Failure of the Church, Then & Now

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Today at Goodwill I picked up a true church nerd gem: an antique Book of Discipline of the Methodist Church, circa 1952.  Included in that Discipline was the 1939 document affirming the unification of the Methodist Episcopal (M.E for short) Church, M.E. Church South, and the Methodist Protestant Church.  It was fascinating to read, especially as I thought of the arguments that precipitated those splits.

In Broken Churches, Broken Nation, former Wesley Seminary professor of church history CC Goen argues that the split of the major denominations in the 1840’s – Methodist, Baptist, and Presbyterian – paved the way for the eventual sundering of the nation in the 1860’s and the brutal war that followed.  He cites numerous commentators of the time who expressed (highly prescient) fear that the natural result of schism in the church would be a tear in the fabric of the nation itself.

In his closing chapter, Goen offers conclusions about the failure of leadership that led to those denominational splits:

The real problem was the perception on the part of the evangelicals that an antislavery church would necessarily remain a very small church…the churches’ growth strategy depended upon their not requiring converts to face the hard moral discipline demanded by Christian sensitivity to the evil of human bondage.  So long as God seemed to smile on their zeal to bring in the unchurched, it was difficult to entertain any charge of fundamental wrongdoing…When Uncle Tom’s Cabin became as popular on stage as in book form, abolitionists noted wryly that “the theater became antislavery before many churches did.” (146-147)

Moreover, because the churches failed to lead the nation in coming to an amicable consensus around the issue of slavery, the country was left to find a political solution.  And while political solutions can be decisive legally, they do not necessarily change hearts and minds.  Goen quotes a 1961 work (hence the antiquated language) by historian Dwight Drummond:

…the failure of the churches at this point in our history forced the country to turn to political action against slavery, and political action destroyed slavery as a system but left the hearts of the slaveholders unregenerate and left oppression of the free Negro little less of an evil than slavery had been. (170)

Today, now as then, we are attempting to solve deep fissures in our national conscience with political action.  Also today, the church is failing her vocation to be both a graceful and an authoritative voice in the world.  The largest, most influential groups of Christians in Antebellum America were torn along sectional lines, and their Biblical interpretation and Christian ethics were largely determined by their social location.  Today, little has changed.

My own United Methodist corner of the Body is bitterly divided – between the Southeast and the rest of the country, between the the Western nations and the global South.  Again, social location seems to be triumphant, and we seem unable to ascertain a word of wisdom from the Spirit.

There must be a better way than parroting the worst of partisan culture, as we get with the “confessing” or “evangelical” renewal groups to fight the encroaching “progressive” or “liberal” interests in the other group.  As I read Goen’s book, and reflect upon our own situation, I was reminded of that great scene from War Games from many years ago which concludes, “the only winning move is not to play.”

A topic to develop for another time: isn’t it interesting how, centuries ago, Americans recognized that the key to church growth was not challenging the prevailing assumptions of those they sought to evangelize? Some things never change, I suppose…

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Wisdom From James Harnish

by Drew 2 Comments

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Churches in decline, like any other institution facing the potential of a slow fade and eventual death, get stuck.  Any entity focused primarily on survival is not likely to thrive.  Yes, survival may take place – for a while – but eventually the survival mentality kills you.  For churches, this mentality translates to a self-centeredness  that is contrary to the gospel and the mission of Christ’s church.  The apostles, Bishops, and Fathers of the early church did not sit around asking, “How do we survive?” or “How can we get more money?” or “How can we get more people?”

They especially did not ask that unholiest of church questions: “How do we get more people so we can get more money and survive?”

The gospel is not an invitation to mere survival, but a call to new life.  Thus the message and focus of the Body of Christ cannot be an anxious struggle for survival.  Instead, it should be related to discerning the aid and call of the Holy Spirit to reach, welcome, equip, and send disciples in Christ’s name.

No ministry of consequence will come from merely a desire to survive.  In the excellent, theologically-grounded and accessible You Only Have To Die, James Harnish’s words to this effect hit me like a ton of bricks:

When a congregation becomes aware that it is in or on the edge of decline, the primary question can easily become, “What can we do to help our church survive?  How do we keep the doors open? How will we pay the bills?”  But when survival becomes the primary motivation for change, the congregation will inevitably turn in on itself and become so centered in its survival needs that it will be ineffective in responding to the real needs of real people in the world around it.

New people who come in contact with the congregation immediately sense that the church is not so much interested in using its resources to meet their need as it is interested in using them for its own survival.  In the end, the focus on survival easily becomes self-defeating. (99)

I wish I had these words at a recent meeting of church leadership.  He hits the nail on the head.  You Only Have To Die is a wonderful resource that I heartily recommend to any pastor or concerned layperson.  The only question I have – and this applies to the vast majority of ‘church growth’/congregational health books – is how does this model apply to a small church?  My sense is that in a small church, the survival instinct will only be more keen and finding leaders who can see beyond survival considerably more difficult.  Any thoughts?  Where do we go for resources on turning around, re-missioning, and enlivening small churches?

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