Why Church?

I often get a sense that as mainline Christians we don’t understand the significance of our work in the 21st century. Too often we get stuck as we look with dread at church decline and the growing numbers of “Spiritual but not Religious”, as if we are looking over a cliff with no way forward. Our response to this has been a series of reactions:

  • Denial with a myopic focus of doing what we have always done within the walls of the church
  • Making the church great again by claiming orthodoxy as ultimate morality
  • Tinkering at the edges and trying harder with what we know that doesn’t work
  • Micromanaging our limited resources of money and gifted leaders hoping that exerting more control will save the institution.

Not only are those responses unrealistic they are also very depressing because we end up wasting time and resources on things that no longer matter. We say we want to “make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world”, but in all honesty I think it has become more of a rallying cry for saving the institution.

So really, why bother? Why is church so important anyway? And what would make it more relevant now than ever?

The Judeo-Christian faith tradition was birthed during a time in our history when we needed to counter the chaotic and oppressive systems of unchecked power. Monotheism in the form of the 10 commandments brought about stability, laws and discipline by enforcing a code of conduct that, among other things, builds character and moral fiber as well as provides a sense of safety and security. Many of the salt of the earth people who are anchors in our communities embody this traditional value system. And any healthy society needs foundational laws if they are going to thrive. We see this manifested in the protestant work ethic, and the trusted handshake deal, as well as the virtues of respect, follow-through, humility, civic duty and neighborliness. It is the good stuff that any major faith tradition can provide.

However, as more and more people are born into our post-modern, post-Christendom context they have not had the developmental shaping that comes with a traditional value system. Many folks in North America today are unmoored with little to no sense of ultimate meaning or hope. Without that traditional foundation they can easily fall into a narcissistic nihilism.

We need only look as far as the Internet trolls and the disintegration of our public discourse to get a glimpse of the damage this wreaks on our collective lives. We see this writ large in North America with more and more people falling prey to conspiracy theories, fake news and polarizing politics. The more complex and chaotic our world becomes with mass shootings, sexual violence, the effects of global warming, terrorism and mass migrations of people, the more we close down. We no longer hold a collective memory of resilience, hope and trust found in the gospel stories.

Currently the church has fallen prey to these responses as we unwittingly fuel the fear with our best intentions. We are caught up in our own identity politics, schisms and moral outrage in the midst of institutional decline. Instead of embracing the best of who we are, we are fighting each other for market share. When the world needs us most, we are stuck in our own self-defeating patterns.

What the world needs, what our country needs, is a church that can rise above these issues so that we can be a part of the solution on both macro and micro levels.

We need to move beyond the fear of failure and the tight grip of saving the institutional church. We need to follow the energy of new life. We need to live with kingdom eyes and see the possibilities of bringing healing and wholeness to our world.

This is not to advocate a turning back of time to make the church great again; rather, it is an embracing of the rich traditions of the past in a way that makes sense to the life conditions that we are facing today.

The progressive church can offer that way forward – a way of helping people to grow in the ways of love and peace. This is messy, but we actually know how to do this. We offer community for folks who feel lonely and isolated. We are on the front lines of justice living out our commandment to love one another. We are the hands and feet of Christ feeding the hungry, providing shelter, and healing the sick. But we can’t stop there. We need to move beyond the barriers of political correctness to bring people together to listen deeply to their joys and sorrows, their fears and hopes, and their stories of resilience and common humanity. We need to invite them into the larger story of faith that the church can uniquely provide.

As I reflect upon the stories of Jesus I am aware that he constantly brought up metaphors for a new way of being in the world – a way of living into the wholeness of God. He called it the Kingdom of God. When his contemporaries got stuck in the fear of the day he called them to live into that Kingdom that was always within and at hand. Can you not see it? It was a shift in perspective from fear into freedom, from scarcity into abundance. It is precisely this shift that we so need today. And the church is uniquely positioned to embody and proclaim it on earth as it is in heaven.


Finding our Moral Grounding in a Clash of Values

The religious minister has the obligation to defend values; what happens is that the political world can become overly scrupulous: it listens to a pastor and they say that he is preaching against so and so. We do not preach against anyone; we refer to the value that is in danger and that must be safeguarded. — Pope Francis “On Heaven and Earth”

There is an underlying narrative that we seem to be glossing over as we try to make sense of what happened in Charlottesville. It is the movement from modernism to post-modernism, from truth to post-truth, from purpose to nihilism, from traditional party politics to identity politics, from freedom to equality.

Our nation was founded upon Enlightenment principles, which are reflected in our Declaration of Independence, “We hold these Truths to be selfevident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

This was the modern era in which moral truths were self-evident and scientific truths were verifiable. It was a time when freedom of religion, speech and the right to bear arms were a reflection of these self-evident truths. As our country matured and our life conditions changed, we began to see that all Americans did not share these freedoms.

The counter-culture of the 1960’s called the country to move beyond freedom to equality with the feminist movement, civil rights and, finally, LGBTQ rights. As our world has become smaller through the rise of globalism and the advent of social media, we have begun to question our self-evident truths and, in recent years, even scientific truths–to the point where truth itself has become relative and personal, and objective news reporting is portrayed as “fake.”

One consequence of this post-truth world is that many are left either capitalizing on this with creating our own narcissistic social media world and/or falling into a nihilistic fatalism where nothing matters and there is no purpose in life.

Angela Nagle in her book, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4chan and Tumblr to Trump and the Alt-Right, says that she sees the alt-right as a product of this cynical age and defined by alienation and skepticism with no inspiring vision of the future. She goes on to say that many of these folks are young men who began as social media anti-political-correctness trolls and free-speech enthusiasts. They did this as performance art until Trump’s “Make America Great Again” campaign for President catalyzed them into a political movement.

Nagle states in a Vox News article, “I see a rightward drift because the people who think it’s all funny and transgressive and ironic are bringing people in but then they have no ideas to keep them there because they don’t know what they believe in. But the extreme groups led by people like Richard Spencer, do know what they believe in and they do have solutions for the problems they identify.”

She says the Alt-Right does not believe that problems in society are socially constructed. They reject the idea that America is founded on self-evident truths but rather is a product of Anglo-Saxon Protestants. “It’s basically a belief that the various societal norms and taboos around race or culture or gender are bullshit and that they’re poking holes in all of it. It’s a kind of postmodern questioning of everything.”

If you listen closely to David Duke, the supreme Wizard of the KKK, he couches his racism with free speech language harkening back to the preservation of the First Amendment. According to Duke, the Alt-Right demonstration in Charlottesville was centered on free speech and freedom of assembly. They had a permit and a right to be there, and the statue of Robert E Lee has a right to stay there as well. For many white, traditional Americans the only thing they can hear is that this is a “free speech” issue. While for progressives and people of color they hear, bigotry, hatred, fascism and white supremacy. Consequently the Antifa (Anti-facists) were there to arm and defend the left against a violent fascist extremism and progressive Christians and Black Lives Matter were there  peacefully defending self-evident truths of all being created equal.

The Left, post-modernists, say that unless you honor equality we won’t allow your free speech, and the Alt-Right pre-modern/modernists say that unless you honor freedom of speech we will destroy you. The result is that people are talking past one another and missing the underlying clash of values between modernism and post-modernism. We are also seeing this culture clash played out on college campuses with efforts to prevent certain conservative and Alt-right lectures when the real issue is one of equality versus free speech. “We will not allow you to speak if you do not value us as equals.” The alt-right sees this as a political-correctness overstep. Trump echoes these sentiments when he asks, “Will we now have to take down the statues of Washington and Jefferson, as well?”

Alongside these developments, we have also seen a notable decline in church attendance and, conversely, a growing number of people who claim to be “spiritual but not religious”. Christianity has, for many reasons, lost its position as a moral arbiter of our post-modern, nihilistic, post-truth times. As a result, we have either gone down the path of fundamental “Biblical Truth” or adopted a watering-down of the Gospel to a do-gooder social club lacking foundational truth. However, neither approach offers any relevance in an increasingly complex and multicultural world. As a result, fringe movements such as the Alt right, the Neo Nazis and the Antifa are growing.

Some in the church say that our role is to simply keep preaching the Gospel and stay out of politics. Others say the Gospel of Jesus Christ cannot be isolated from politics. Granted the values of the Church are not necessarily the values of our country, but when we shape and form people around the ways of Jesus, the ways of love and peace, we become agents of justice for our country. A healthy democracy needs the Church. As Pope Francis says, “We are all Political animals with a capital P. We are all called to constructive political activity among our people.”

I believe that this is the progressive church’s time to claim its moral authority especially in the absence of our President claiming it for our country. But, in order to do that, we need to look at the ways in which we maybe fanning the flames of misunderstanding and ultimately violence by not listening for the underlying values at stake. This is an invitation to look past identity politics toward the lost people who are searching for deeper meaning and purpose but finding it in all the wrong places. It is no longer enough for us to protest and proclaim, we need to courageously cross the barriers that divide us. This is not for the faint of heart. It is the way of Jesus on the Cross, arms spread wide, taking in all the pain of the world and healing us through grace: “Bless them Father for they know not what they do.”

This requires us to move beyond the rallies and into living rooms. It requires us to step down from our pulpits and transcend the bounds of political correctness so that we can touch upon our own humanity and that of others. “Tell me about your fears and I will tell you mine.” This is messy, uncomfortable, and time consuming. It requires us to dig deep within so that we can transcend and include all of our collective histories. It requires us to create containers of safety and security so that all stories can be shared, even the ones we don’t want to hear. It requires us to risk relationships and social standing knowing that we will make mistakes and unintentionally offend people.

We have great saints to emulate such as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Mahatma Gandhi, as well as Nelson Mandela, who transformed cultures through non-violence and deep listening. We have the Apostle Paul who moved beyond his righteousness into Grace, as well as Saint Peter who moved beyond his religious customs and tribalism into the Gentile world. The Country needs us. We have a story to tell and a vision of the beloved community that calls us into the future. Let us claim that purpose and offer that future to all of God’s children.

The Naked Bike Ride to General Conference

Naked Bike Ride

In May 2016 the world is coming to my home – Portland, Oregon — a place where we proudly claim our weirdness and laugh along with episodes of “Portlandia” in an endearing way. We are into communal and laid back living, farm to table eating, free swaps and DIY on just about everything including our spirituality. We are concerned about the environment and recycle our food scraps. We love our LGBTQ brothers and sisters and even advocate for bike safety with our annual Naked Bike Ride through the streets of Portland. The coffee, beer and wine are always flowing and people who visit feel genuinely welcomed. Tolerance, understanding, diversity, natural fibers, life/work balance, communing with nature, good books, funky flavored ice cream and authentic conversations are important to us.

But frankly, we are having difficulty preparing for the General Conference delegates from all over the world who will be coming to our city for the quadrennial legislation of the United Methodist Church next May. You see, WE will tolerate differences as long as YOU tolerate differences.   We will welcome your expression of diversity as long as you welcome our expressions of diversity.

Here is our issue: We know you don’t want to welcome such diversity. Continue reading The Naked Bike Ride to General Conference