New Lessons from God Shows No Partiality

I’ve posted lessons 4 and 5 of the study guide for God Shows No Partiality. For Kindle users, the book is currently a free borrow, and on June 1 it will be free for anyone using a Kindle app for 5 days. Help me spread the word by sharing links and letting any church leaders know about this free resource.

Wonderful reflection on structure and what “emerging” means from Brian McLaren

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It was a real pleasure being with the Diocese of Chicago in January – experiencing a vibrant faith community focused on God, spiritual vitality, worship, relationships, and mission. The whole experience was inspiring and energizing – but the permission slip exercise was especially powerful. It was great to receive my own permission slip in the mail recently and then to read over other slips on the website.

Two permission slips especially stood out to me. First, I kept coming back to, “Permission to think I can lead in the emerging church.”

A lot of people, when they hear that term “emerging church,” think it means a particular style of church – distorted electric guitars, subdued lighting, lots of tattoos and piercings, anti-liturgical, extremely hip. Or they think it’s about structure – dismantling denominations or something similar.

Those folks don’t get it.

Focusing on “style” is part of what the emerging…

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A Writer’s Problem with the Will of God

Today I’ll be leading a Sunday school class lesson on Adam Hamilton’s Why? Making Sense of God’s Will. Lots of Christians talk about “the will of God” or even “God’s perfect plan” as though it is a script or blueprint, and that everything that happens, every event in our lives, is either a) predestined (and we cannot depart from it) or b) prescripted (and we can depart from it, though it is inadvisable).

In general, I agree with Adam’s perspective that we are collaborators with God in shaping our lives and our world. But there is one metaphor he uses with which I take issue:

Here is another objection: what is the point of life if we are merely acting in a play God has already written? If every event and every line were predetermined by God, daily life would seem to have no purpose apart from entertainment for God. Yet how could God find this entertaining–milennia after milennia watching human beings do what he predetermined what they would do, and say what God predetermined what they would say? (p. 59)

By derivative work: Tadpole9 (talk) Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg: Thomas Creede (Romeo_and_Juliet_Q2_Title_Page.jpg) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Every time I hear people use the analogy of a play or a novel for the will of God I wonder, “Have they ever written a play or a novel?” Both Stephen King and Anne Lamott have written books about the craft of writing that have changed my understanding of this metaphor. Writers often have the experience of writing  fictional characters for a story they have in mind, only to find that the characters themselves change the story. Good authors write believable characters who have their own personalities, and often say things like, “I thought this was going to be a story about X, only the characters didn’t react the way I expected.” A mark of bad writing, on the other hand, is that the plot seems to be on rails and the characters are stiff and unbelievable. The process of writing, or of any creative art, really, is partially about giving up control. If we think about the actual process of writing, I think the play metaphor supports what Adam is arguing after all–we are collaborators with God, characters who interact with our author, sometimes arguing, “No, that’s not what my character would do. I would do this.”

This is the way it is for human artists, anyway. If God is an artist, how much more would God’s own characters have a life of their own? Imbued with God’s own breath, maybe they would even get up off the page and walk around. I’m only stretching the metaphor, of course, trying to see how far I can bend it before it breaks. I don’t really know what the creative process would be like for the author of creation. I just think it’s worth asking any artist: Have you ever created something that surprised you?

The Geometry of Love

Dorotheus of Gaza

Suppose we were to take a compass and insert the point and draw the outline of a circle. The center point is the same distance from any point on the circumference. …Let us suppose that this circle is the world and that God himself is the center: the straight lines drawn from the circumference to the center are the lives of human beings. …Let us assume for the sake of the analogy that to move toward God, then, human beings move from the circumference along the various radii of the circle to the center. But at the same time, the closer they are to God, the closer they become to one another; and the closer they are to one another, the closer they become to God.

(Dorotheus of Gaza, from Roberta Bondi’s To Love as God Loves, p. 25).

Vision Statement

I’ve been honing this for the last several weeks, but I believe I’ve gotten to a usable version, which I talked about to our group last night. Our vision of the new church is that we will be

a community of sinners, saints, and skeptics who are joining God in the renewal of all things.

For a while I was using the phrase “post-Christian,” but I found I was always having to explain what that meant. I would say that “post-Christian” meant anyone growing up in life after Christendom, people who either had no experience of church, who had burned by or turned off to church, or who were looking for a different expression of Christian community. “Sinners, saints, and skeptics,” I think, captures the diversity of the community we want to create, and acknowledges that we may not agree 100% on all points of Christian doctrine.

I also like the expansiveness of “joining God in the renewal of all things.” I first heard this reference to Matthew 19:28 used as part of a vision statement at Trinity Grace Church in New York. I think it helps convey the idea that “salvation” is more than what happens after we die. What Jesus offers is available to people now, in this world, and it’s exciting that he invites us to be part of it.

Adventures in Misdiagnosis

If you are a church leader, you already know that mainline Protestant churches have been declining in membership over the last several decades. Fear of the approaching “death tsunami” and the financial implications of the die-off of large numbers of baby boomers has been driving a lot of the discussion in the United Methodist Church about restructuring.

Everyone seems to have their own strong opinions about what needs to change, but I have heard precious little talk about the underlying causes. Pundits tend to focus on theological ideas or public-image issues related to sexuality and politics that turn off young people to church, but few of the causes they point to are actually backed up by data. I believe we spend a lot of energy beating ourselves up about the wrong things.

Gallup research on religious affiliation

Robert Wuthnow, a sociologist at Princeton, determined that the best predictor of whether someone is in church or not is if they are married and have kids. Because the average age of marriage has been moving later and later (it is now around 28 years old), marriage patterns alone accounts for most of church “decline.” Add to this the fact that marriage rates themselves are declining, and that the average maternal age of a first birth keeps moving later, and you can see that we simply have fewer generations present in any given church.

Marriage trends from Pew Research

During the 1980’s, as mainline churches began declining and independent evangelical churches began growing, many people diagnosed the decline as a problem with mainline theology. “Look at the evangelical churches!” people said. “They must be growing because they have correct theology!” But the supposed growth of independent churches and the decline of mainline Protestant churches was nearly all attributable to demographics. People in mainline Protestant churches tended to be wealthier and better-educated than their independent counterparts, so they married later and had fewer children. It only takes a couple of decades for small changes in marriage and birth patterns to have a big impact. Members of independent churches married earlier and had more babies–a trend which now is reversing.

(John Wesley saw some of these same effects in his own groups, and he lamented that Methodists didn’t use their increasing economic power to do more good in the world).

A new marriage trend is that more people who are on the bottom of the socioeconomic scale are cohabiting and not marrying at all. Since employment is unstable and real wages are lower, families are less stable. Marriage is increasingly becoming a privilege of the upper-middle class, a trend reflected, not surprisingly, in church membership. My hypothesis is that both marriage and church membership are related to the decline of social mobility, the rise of economic inequality, and the shrinking of the middle class. Conservative as well as liberal church leaders need to consider how economic policies that have the potential to grow or shrink the middle class affect their churches.

Of course, as I point out this data, I also need to make three disclaimers:

1) All of this analysis ignores one important point: the Great Commission is not about breeding new Christians. It’s about making new disciples.

2) I do believe that the challenge for churches who want to reach a different group of people is to create a cultural shift from thinking about church as a place where you “settle” to being a community in which you “launch.” This may be one reason that church plants tend to have a greater proportion of young adults.

3) The early church was known for radically redefining “family.” People who were not married were even encouraged to remain single! While marriage, gay marriage, and reproduction are at the center of public debates, the early church was remarkably practical and progressive for its time. Their theology on such things seems to have been “Whatever works” (for the Kingdom of God).

I believe that as a denomination, we need to avoid making organizational decisions based solely on strong theological opinions (of which we all have plenty). Both theologically and politically liberal and conservative United Methodists need to examine the demographic data. When we think about discipleship and justice, we need to ask critical questions about the roles of socioeconomic class, marriage, and social expectations in our ministries. It will not do to use discredited comparisons, as one delegate did at our General Conference, arguing that United Methodists should emulate the theology of “successful” conservative mega-churches like WillowCreek.

(He said this while Adam Hamilton, pastor of the largest United Methodist church in America, sat not more than forty feet away. Both WillowCreek and Church of the Resurrection are very different from Glide Memorial, which is also successful in its own way.)

Of course, plenty of local churches are thriving in their diverse local contexts. Healthy churches analyze their own local culture and respond accordingly to how God is already moving in their midst. I think one of the ways we can move toward health as a denomination is to realize that patterns of growth and decline may have less to do with how compelling our theology is and more to do with things like money and how it affects people’s lives. Perhaps then we can think clearly about how our theology compels us to move and act in a new social and economic reality.

On a local level, while our mother church, Trinity, has done a great job reaching young adults who are marrying and settling down, part of the focus of the new daughter church is to reach people before they settle and to help them launch. Since we recognize that communities have life cycles, and that some of our young adult pioneers will one day also become family “settlers,” we plan to birth another daughter church at some point in our future. By building reproduction into our DNA, we hope to keep adapting to our changing world. We are focused not on the crisis du jour, but on the opportunities God provides us in this new situation.

How to Love

I’m not sure who came up with this illustration, but I really like the way it helps me understand what Christian individuals and communities are supposed to do.

Jesus says that two commandments are the greatest of all: Love God, and love your neighbor. You place those commandments at the top and bottom of a Y axis.

The X-axis is the part most people forget: We act not just as individuals, but as larger communities. This diagram helps us break out of our American tendency to think that every human activity boils down to the individual. So the left side of the axis is what we do as a church community (public), and the right side is what we do as individuals or smaller groups (private).

The way we act in love toward God as a community is worship. We gather together to pray, sing, read and interpret scripture, and offer our praise and attention to God. The way we act in love as individuals or small groups is devotion. We do some of the same activities like prayer and reading, but we also study, fast, and practice stewardship of our time and money.

Moving clockwise around the image, the next act of love is toward our neighbors individually. This area is sometimes labeled “charity” or “kindness,” and it includes all the ways we behave toward others, like practicing hospitality or helping people in poverty.

The way we love our neighbors as communities is the part that seems to generate the most controversy in churches today. The phrase “social justice” has become a political litmus test. Being human means being part of social groups and structures: families, work groups, organizations, genders, ethnic groups. A feral human being, cut off from others, is not a “natural” human being. As Christians we are part of an even larger organism called “the church” that transcends all of these social boundaries, and this corporate creature has an impact on society that can be good or evil. If we ignore how we behave toward others as a larger group, then we are likely perpetuating evil. Justice means restoring just relationships between all people and groups of people.

Usually when I’ve seen this illustration used it leaves off the part I’ve added in the middle: Witness. I put it in the middle not because it is most important, but because it overlaps all of the spiritual disciplines and connects public and private, God and neighbor. Witness means both seeing and saying what God is up to in the world. It includes what Christians usually call “evangelism,” which means telling the Good News, but also being a living witness in the world, what Jesus called letting “your light shine before others.”

The United Methodist Discipline describes the mission of every church as “making disciples for the transformation of the world,” but our new church will think about making disciples in this way. This is how we join God in the renewal of all things: publicly and privately, loving God and loving neighbor: worship, devotion, compassion, justice, and witness.