Sunday, July 31, 2011

What then shall we do?

I have never had much stomach for those who criticize the position of another without being able to offer a positive alternative agenda. So I don't want to simply criticize those who make an alliance between faith and politics without offering a positive direction of my own. (This is referencing the previous post, if you're coming into the middle of the conversation.)

First let me say that I stand by what I said in my previous post. If believers try to protect a "Christian culture" by means of legislation and politics, we are on the same road that led to the bombings last week in Norway, the same road that led the vast majority of German Christian churches in the 1930's to display swastikas and swear allegiance to Hitler. In both cases, radically non-Christian action grew out of a desire to preserve and protect some form of Christian culture.

So I don't buy the idea that Christ-followers should work in the courts to preserve school prayer, or keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, or prevent businesses from being open on Sundays. Each of these is an example of the church trying to use politics to protect its own interests. As soon as the church tries to protect itself, it has lost its soul and ceased to follow Jesus in an authentic way.

Think about it. Do the words "under God" in the Pledge really help anyone to know Jesus? Does a watered down school prayer -- the only kind that will ever be enacted through legislation -- actually make people into disciples of Jesus Christ? For that matter, even if teachers were taught to pray in the name of Jesus, to pray an authentic, Christ-following prayer, would that convince their students to become Christ followers? Would closing the gas stations on Sundays lead to conversions or to authentic discipleship, or would it just allow a few more people to go to the lake? None of these legislated activities are going to make disciples of Jesus Christ. If Christians spend their time and energy trying to preserve these things, we have missed our most important callings and we are chasing after the wind, trying to recover a Christian culture that never really existed in this country. (Do the historical work and you'll find that America has never had a Christ-centered culture; there have indeed been times when we've had a tepid collective idea of God that was vaguely Christian, but it has been far more moralistic and never Jesus-focused.) Efforts to legislate a Christian culture, to protect "our" Christianity by political means, end up watering down and destroying authentic faith.

The task of the church is not to legislate morality or culture. Followers of Jesus have always been at their best when they have lived as a minority within a larger culture that allows them broad freedoms to express their religion. The first three hundred years of Christian history saw more cultural impact from everyday believers than any other period since. Yet for most of that time, followers of Jesus were largely tolerated and occasionally persecuted. For most of that time Christianity itself was officially an illegal movement within the Roman Empire.

The task of the church is to do what Jesus did. In John 20 Jesus tells his disciples, "As the Father has sent me, so I send you." Other places in the New Testament express this action in slightly different language. In Matthew, it's "Go into all the world and make disciples, baptizing them ... and teaching them to observe all I have commanded you." In Acts 1, it's "You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you shall be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth." Jesus gives his followers a number of different sets of directions. All point in the same direction, however: we are to do what Jesus did.

So what does that mean? Jesus had ample opportunities to set himself up with political power. In John's gospel alone, we see Nicodemus coming to Jesus in the beginning of John 3 to offer the Sanhedrin's endorsement. Jesus sidesteps it. In John 6, after the feeding of the 5,000, Jesus recognizes that people are going to come and make him king, so he disappears. Repeatedly in the gospels, Jesus avoids political power, even when people try to hand it to him on a platter. The most striking example of Jesus' attitude toward political power is in John 19, when Jesus talks to Pilate about the nature of his kingship. Jesus tells Pilate forthrightly that his "kingdom is not of this world." Then he adds that if it was of this world, his followers would fight against the authorities. You cannot read the gospels with an open mind and come to the conclusion that Jesus was hungry for political power.

What, then, did Jesus do? He operated as an outsider to the cultural powers. When Herod wanted to see him, Jesus avoided the encounter. Whenever he got a critical mass of people following him, he disappeared and went somewhere else. He said things that alienated the Jewish leaders of his culture by supporting Roman taxation. Then he said things that alienated the Romans and their allies by proclaiming his own identity as the Messiah. No matter who he spoke to, Jesus spoke the truth. This is why the Romans, the Herodians, the Zealots, the Pharisees, and the Sadducees all agreed he had to die. He had alienated every one of these powerful political groups.

Jesus trained his followers not to rule over each other, but to act as servants to each other. His disciples tried time and time again to get him to build a political power base. Jesus consistently refused. Instead, he told them he was going to give his life on a Roman cross in Jerusalem, and that eventually he would rise from death. If Jesus' goal is to be a successful politician, he's the stupidest candidate that ever lived.

"As the Father sent me, so I send you." If the church is to live in imitation of Jesus -- and the entire New Testament points in this direction -- we cannot seek political power for ourselves. We cannot seek to protect ourselves by legislative means. This is hard for us to hear, because we have gotten so used to a church culture in which churches' first priority is to protect themselves. What takes up the vast majority of most church budgets? 60%, give or take, is usually staff payroll, and the staff is nearly always tasked with caring for the members of the church. Another 30% or so goes to mortgages and building maintenance for "our" church building. 90% of our budgets right off the top are totally self serving.

There are bright, beautiful exceptions to this statistic. There are, thank God, churches out there that exist for others, that live for the sake of those who don't yet know Jesus, that spend themselves, their people, and their resources, beyond their own needs, beyond their own walls. These are gorgeous examples of a new wineskin, a new way.

The church is to be giving itself away as Jesus gave himself away. We are to serve the true needs of the world in the name of Jesus, speaking the truth as we go. That "speaking the truth" alone will ensure that we never gain political power. We are to be a shining example of other-centered love. We are to be lights shining in a dark world. We are to be like salt, preserving health and life and flavor. Instead, we've become turned inward and focused on our own needs. Bill Easum said it well. "Jesus comes to you on his way to someone else."

Because of this, there is one kind of legislation I believe the church should be pursuing, within limited means. When those outside the church's sphere are helpless and victimized, the church should get directly involved giving time and resources and people to protect the defenseless. Then the church can also act decisively to enact policies that defend the helpless. (In doing this, we are imitating Jesus healing the Canaanite woman's child, or raising the widow's son at Nain, or protecting the woman caught in adultery against her accusers.) So, for example, if Christ-followers oppose abortion in order to protect the voiceless unborn, I'm all for it. However, if we try to enact a pro-life platform because we think it will unite our base politically, that's a different motivation and has no place in the thinking of a Jesus-follower. Christians act biblically when we lobby for AIDS orphans in Africa, or we get involved in advocacy for tribes in the remote reaches of the Amazon who are falling prey to greed, disease, and environmental destruction, but who cannot speak for themselves to protest their treatment.

We cannot simply make noise and demand legislative action for these causes; we must invest ourselves to have any credibility, let alone any wisdom, in this kind of a quest. This kind of advocacy is what William Wilberforce (of the movie, "Amazing Grace") spent his life doing. Note that this is a whole different kind of legislative action than working for our own protection, working to protect our own cultural heritage.

The follower of Jesus is called to cross cultural boundaries, not defend them. Remember -- "As the Father sent me, so I send you." Jesus crossed the ultimate cultural boundary in his incarnation, coming from the perfection of the godhead to be born into a human family. This is the move we see throughout scripture -- God reaches out over and over across the boundary to us, to humanity, to the world that he loves. How then can we sit back and try to defend our boundaries in order to preserve our own Christian heritage? If our defense is successful, we will find we have protected dust and ashes, and that will be our inheritance. Jesus will have moved on across the borders.

I have so appreciated the comments many of you have shared on this blog, via email, or on Facebook in response to these posts. Thank you, and I look forward to continuing the conversations!

Wednesday, July 27, 2011

The legacy of Christendom?

The terror attacks in Norway this week claim to be executed as a protest against both Marxism and Islamic immigration. The villain of the piece, Anders Behring Breivik, believes he has struck a blow on behalf of Christian Europe. He stands in a long line of right-wing perpetrators of hate and violence. Throughout Europe's history, many leaders have claimed to stand against Jews, Muslims, Marxists, and others who have been seen as the enemies of Christendom, polluting the cultural nature of northern Europe. Such leaders have found ready allies in the institutions of the Christian church.

Yes, this is sad to say, but all too true. One doesn't have to look back very far to find examples. Adolph Hitler's Aryan agenda was far more extreme than Breivik's manifesto. However, in the 1930's, forces within the state church of Germany, the Vatican, and -- most surprising -- even within the anti-Hitler Confessing Church, stood ready to tolerate much of Hitler's racist agenda for the sake of the "greater good". Tolerance for Hitler was not limited to Europe. I was recently reminded that in the 1930's, many Americans, too, thought Hitler had the right idea, getting Jewish influences out of the mainstream of Germany's economy and government. Certainly most people in those years didn't anticipate the full force of Hitler's genocidal plans, but many people applauded his first unstable steps on the road to a pure Aryan Reich.

Breivik this week played a sad, old song that has gotten far too much airtime in the history of European Christendom. Here is the truly alarming fact, however: his fearful ideas about standing against Marxism and against Islamic immigration would probably find a sympathetic hearing in many Christian churches in America today, if they were not attached to violence.

Those who are committed followers of Jesus Christ need to sit up and take note. If our goals include maintaining a "Christian culture" in America, we are in grave danger. Why? Because this is the same road Breivik thought he was walking when he started mixing his fertilizer bomb. Do you believe we need to elect Christian officials who will reinstate school prayer and keep "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance because America is a Christian nation? Take care, because your beliefs will be easily manipulated by the fear-mongers.

Don't tell yourself it could never happen here. Imagine that, for whatever reason, we double-dip the recession we hope is currently ending. Imagine that jobs become even more scarce and unemployment hits 12, 15, or even 20%. Add a spike in inflation into the mix, so your dollars buy even less than they do today. Imagine another Islamic terrorist cell striking a target either in America. Imagine that Afghanistan turns into a painful, ongoing military tragedy like it did for the Soviets. Any combination of a few of these factors would radically increase the levels of fear in our country, and fearful people are easily manipulated. A charismatic leader who promised great things for us and gradually, gracefully, began to preach that we need to seal off our borders and re-take our own nation ...

Authentic Christianity has never survived alliance with the ruling powers. In the Roman Empire, in the Crusades, in the state churches of Europe, and in dozens of countries where bishops are today the de facto political powers, we see the true fruit of alliance between politics and faith. Jesus' example of humility, servanthood, and sacrifice is the first casualty of such an alliance. Jesus' concern for others -- his mission to "seek and save what was lost" -- disappears under a triumphalist "gospel" that exercises power over others in order to save some illusory Christian culture. Such an alliance co-opts naive believers and provides a platform for the power hungry.

In all the historical examples listed above, Christians believed they were following the will of God. From Constantine's vision of becoming a Christian emperor to the soldiers heading off to take Jerusalem away from the Mohammedans in the 1100's to the Reich's Church in Germany supporting Hitler's "Aryan Paragraph", Christians have been fooled. Christendom, that political system that dominated western civilization from Constantine until the 20th century, is thought to be a system in which Christianity rules over culture. In reality, Christianity loses its soul and sooner or later becomes the unwitting tool of cynical politicians who use religion to gain power for themselves.

The Bible tells us not to believe every spirit, but to discern the spirits, whether they are truly from God. We must be wary of any teaching, any belief that claims Jesus' lordship over our enemies means we should have power over them. Such a belief is not true to the example of Jesus, to biblical theology, nor to the legacy of the early church. If we believe our side should have worldly power over their side, we have bought into the questionable legacy of Christendom.

John Stott weighs in

Theologian and teacher par excellence John Stott passed away today at the age of 90. Stott has always been an amazing communicator of the good news of Jesus Christ. Before I heard of his death, I ran across this quote in one of his Bible studies and intended to post it anyway. Here he weighs in on the whole issue of the church, commenting on Ephesians 4:1-16:

"Here then is Paul's vision for the church. God's society is to display charity, unity, diversity, and growing maturity. These are the characteristics of a life worthy of God, which the apostle begs us to lead. The more we share Paul's perspective, the deeper will be our discontent with the ecclesiastical status quo. Some of us are too conservative, too complacent, too ready to acquiesce in the present situation and to resist change. Others are too radical, wanting to dispense with the institution altogether. Instead we need to grasp more clearly the kind of new society God wants his church to be. Then we shall not be content either with things as they are or with partial solutions, but rather will pray and work for the church's total renewal. Complacency is unworthy of the church's calling. In contrast to it the apostle sets before us the picture of a deepening fellowship, an eagerness to maintain visible Christian unity (and to recover it if it is lost), an active every-member ministry, and a steady growth into maturity by holding the truth in love. We need to keep this biblical ideal clearly before us. Only then shall we live a life that is worthy of it." (John Stott, Ephesians: Building a Community in Christ, pp. 38-39).

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Dandelion fluff

This next might be an appropriate piece to throw in here. The core of this is a tidbit I wrote while waiting for a flight from Edmonton, Alberta back to the Twin Cities in late March of this year. I had been teaching for two weeks at the Canadian Lutheran Bible Institute (CLBI), a college-level school in Camrose that has been making disciples and equipping people to make disciples for many decades now. It was my privilege to teach a Spiritual Formation class for 28 second year students who were anticipating that within a couple months the Spirit would blow them on the wind.

Going Home: Dandelion Fluff

We talked yesterday in class about dandelions. I thought how these students are like the bloom on a dandelion, that blossoms and grows and sends down deep roots into the soil in a place, then one night closes and reopens transformed, and each facet of that blossom -- which to us looks like one thing but is really a multitude of flowers clustered together at the head of a milky, hollow stalk -- turns to an aerial acrobatic seed, and as the wind comes up it is loosed from its moorings and borne aloft on the breath of heaven, flying, flying to a destination unknown.

So these students -- and in some sense myself -- are transformed and loosed and soon will be flying where the Spirit leads, to settle to earth again and to take root, dying to self in that new place and producing a new cluster of blossoms that look like one flower but are really multiple blooms clustered together to create new aerial seeds.

So I look back on many flyings, many moves, many rootings and wonder about the multiple places I have put down roots. The farm where I grew up. The Lutheran Bible Institute of Seattle. Fargo, North Dakota. Port Orchard, Washington. Roseville, Minnesota. Luther Seminary. Williston, North Dakota. In each place I have suffered the illusion of permanence and at some point bowed to the Spirit’s blowing, released to fly and put down roots elsewhere.

Sometimes -- and my life is getting more and more like this now that I have lived here longer than anywhere other than the farm where I spent my childhood -- being blown from place to place is not so much about geography as it is about being blown from one stage of life to the next. I watch my girls grow up and get independent and see my odometer rolling over lots more miles and realize I am headed into a whole new stage of life. God is faithful, and just like moving from one place to another, he is already there, already working, already doing what only he can do.

The transformation, the power doesn’t belong to us. We are just cracked pots that migrate from place to place, time to time, carrying for a short time a cargo dictated by his lordship, not our own. We are exiles, aliens, sojourners here, and our citizenship is not of this world.

“You are a king, then?”

“You say I am a king. But my kingdom is not of this world. If it was of this world, my followers would fight.”

Following such a king, whose kingdom is not of this world, we are cautious about holding too tight to the roots we think we have put down.

Dandelion fluff. Chaff on the wind.

Monday, July 25, 2011


I've been on a bit of a tirade lately on this blog. Tirades are fun, but it's easy to miss the point in the middle of it. I think it's important to point out that I'm not against denominations. I'm not against bishops or hierarchies or traditions or pipe organs or nondenominational churches or any of that. I simply don't care about these things, with one significant exception.

I believe with all my heart that all existence, including and especially human existence, starts and ends -- flows from and flows to -- Jesus Christ and the kingdom he came to proclaim. He is the source of all things, and in him all things hold together. Like the T-shirt says, Jesus is life. The rest is just details.

So the only reason -- the only reason -- I care about any of these things is if they impact people's ability to connect to Jesus and his kingdom. So if denominations and hierarchies are a vehicle that authentically connects people to Jesus, I'm all over that. In their origins, each denomination grew and blossomed and bore fruit because it served this goal. If denominations and hierarchies and all the rest become an obstacle that prevents people from connecting with Jesus and his kingdom in an authentic, life-giving way, get a bulldozer and move them out of the way, or just abandon them and leave them to themselves and follow Jesus where he is going.

My experience over the last couple decades is that mainline denominations, by and large, are failing to connect people to Jesus effectively. The fruit that denominations have borne in the last couple decades, for the most part, is slavery to traditions and hierarchies more than leading people to follow Jesus. (I recognize that this is a blanket statement and that there are significant, wonderful exceptions to it. Here and there in the sea of mainline churches are Jesus-focused leaders and congregations who do an amazing job of making disciples and building the kingdom of God. This is beautiful. But it is also the exception.)

I ponder frequently the number of mostly small congregations across America who identify themselves by their denominational affiliation. Sadly, the smaller congregations are more vulnerable to this mindset because they have believed the lie that they are weak on their own, that they need to be affiliated with a larger group to do any significant mission, that their size leaves them vulnerable to all kinds of dangers and that a denominational affiliation somehow helps them stay safe and / or effective.

It does not occur to them to identify themselves as a church that belongs to Jesus. Somewhere deep in their understanding they know that Jesus is at the core of things, but they don't think much about that. They think about being Lutheran or Presbyterian or Methodist or Episcopalian or whatever. The week-to-week identity they live in has to do with their denomination more than with the kingdom of God.

This is tragic and unbiblical and it is not what Christianity is supposed to be. The more these congregations, and the individual believers within them, identify themselves with their denominational affiliation, the more vulnerable they are to weakness, unfruitfulness, and death. The more they, and the individual believers within them, are authentically connected to Jesus and spend themselves to build his kingdom, the more God's Spirit will infuse them with strength and the more good fruit they will bear.

When I was seventeen years old I heard a challenge straight from the Spirit of God (through the mouth of a speaker at my college) that called me to "live for Jesus Christ and his kingdom." That challenge, that call, is not only for individuals but it is for congregations as well.

So for Central, my own congregation in Elk River, Minnesota, here's where I come to ground. We recently (winter of 2009-10) went through a grueling process of disaffiliating ourselves from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). We then joined Lutheran Congregations in Mission for Christ (LCMC). If we now approach our affiliation with LCMC as a denominational identity that defines us, and if we focus on what it means to be LCMC, we are in significant danger. If, on the other hand, being in relationship with other congregations that have a similar heritage and are passionate about Jesus and dedicated to pursuing his kingdom and helping other people become his disciples -- if this is helpful to us (which I believe it is) then our LCMC affiliation can reinforce and strengthen what the Spirit of God is doing at Central to help us as a congregation to know Jesus and to live in authentic relationship with him.

Why worry about denominations? Simply because our existence starts and ends with Jesus Christ and his kingdom. Whatever pulls us closer to him is to be valued; whatever prevents us from knowing him and living in his kingdom is to be rejected.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

What if ... ?

"What if what happened then, happened now?"

It was the slogan that spurred one of the greatest churches of the 20th century, Willow Creek Community Church just northwest of Chicago, to spend their resources and their money for the single purpose of developing completely devoted disciples of Jesus Christ. They read the accounts in the book of Acts and said, What if what happened then, happened now?

It's such a simple idea. But think how far we've drifted from that simple idea. We think there's no way. Our lives are so much more complex. Our technology has come so far. Our understanding of the natural world is so far beyond theirs. Life is just different today.

Yes, but not in the important ways. In the important ways, you and I are no different from Nicodemus or Priscilla or Mary Magdalene or Peter. We love, we hurt, we worship, we grow, we develop wisdom, we make stupid mistakes, we yearn for something beyond ourselves.

So why not try to build a church based on the idea that what God did in Acts, he could do again?

I am not a simplistic person. I don't leap to easy answers. But so often churches are guilty of, number one, selling God short and not believing he's capable of giving us more than we now have; and number two, we complicate things far more than they need to be complicated and in doing so, prevent ourselves from experiencing the simple truths of God's presence, his love, and his power in our lives.

So the portrait of the church in the book of Acts contains a few very simple characteristics. We could go on at length about each of these, but for the moment let's just list them:

  1. The church was centered, focused, laser-like, on Jesus Christ, because they believed Jesus was God's plan for the world.
  2. The church was led by those who knew Jesus personally. Initially this meant those who had physically eaten and talked with him after his resurrection; later it meant those who had experienced his presence and his power, and who spoke and taught and led in concord with those who had been eyewitnesses.
  3. The church met primarily in two places: first in people's homes, and second in the temple courts. From other evidence we also see that there were tiny clusters of three or four people who worked together, held each other accountable, and built depth in to their relationships. The church existed in these three ways -- temple, home, and cluster.
  4. The church was good news. Not just that they talked about good news, but they did good news to the people around them.
  5. People within the church were held accountable for their actions. This was a community with accountability, and people's character and conduct mattered. Not that everyone was perfect, but stuff didn't just get swept under the rug either.
  6. The believers met together to center themselves in the Bible's teachings.
  7. The believers met together to pray for each other and for God's mission in the world.
  8. The believers were bold in the face of danger and persecution and resistance.
  9. These believers described themselves as "followers of the Way" by which they meant that their faith in Jesus moved them to action.
  10. The church believed, taught, and acted on the idea that Jesus was still at work, and that by the power of his Spirit working among them and giving them strength and guidance, they had to be a part of that work because that's where abundant life happens.
Not too complicated. That's a beginning of what it might look like for the church today to be what it was in the book of Acts. For all we know, Peter painted a big sign that said, "Our Savior's Lutheran Church" and hung it above the doorway to the upper room in Jerusalem. What we do know is this: if such a sign existed, it did not define what this church was about or who was welcome. Jesus had already determined that.

Friday, July 22, 2011

More thoughts on theological education, sort of


In the 20th century, the height of denominationalism, and the height of Protestant Christianity, and the height of optimism for the future, and the height of our cultural Christendom (which wasn't really Christianity but was a fine imitation -- it was, along with "In God We Trust" on our currency and "under God" in the Pledge of Allegiance, simply a product of our fear of Communism in the Cold War years) all occurred about the same time, namely the early 1960's.

This apex of churchianity in America was fueled by a generation of young men who had the hell scared out of them in Europe or in the Pacific during World War Two. They returned en masse and thousands of them chose to attend seminary in record numbers. The mainline churches in North America benefited in the 1960's from a generation of pastors who largely grew up in churches, had a deep experience of war, then entered theological education to try to make the world a better place. I have the deepest respect for these men (almost all were men) as individuals. Their scholarship, their character, and their willingness to lead are beyond compare.

So follow my logic here. The 1960's sees a generation of skilled, well-trained professional pastors who have been trained in the late 40's and early 50's, and who by the early 1960's are really hitting their stride in church leadership. Coincidentally (or not) the baby boom happens at the same time, and our suburban churches are booming and building like crazy. Drive around the first tier suburbs of most American cities and you'll see brick church after brick church built in the early 1960's. Church membership in the 1960's soared. Youth ministry was practically invented in the early 1970's as churches scrambled to entertain, teach, and even disciple reams of children who were rapidly turning into teenagers. By the 1970's and early 80's the church leaders -- these post-WW2 pastors -- were in the prime years of their careers, when their seminary training, church experience, and accumulated wisdom should have been coming together to create a pinnacle of church life in America. If Protestant Christianity in America was ever to have a Golden Age, the 1970's and 80's should have been it.

Given that fact, why did we see the mainline churches in North America across the board begin to founder, decay, and die in the 1970's and 1980's???

Is it possible -- just possible -- that the health and well-being of the church is NOT tied to professionally trained, full-time, pension-earning, theologically astute pastors?

And if that's the case, what does the church actually depend on for health and well-being?

Wednesday, July 20, 2011


So the bottom-line, end-product of our current denominationally driven model of theological education is
  • church leaders who have been infused with comfort in and loyalty to a bureaucracy;
  • church leaders who have all the right answers to the wrong questions when it comes to real-life ministry;
  • church leaders who are out of touch with the real needs of their congregations;
  • church leaders who may have all the right initials behind their names, but who may or may not be qualified to lead the church in making disciples;
  • church leaders who might well be leading the church in directions the church should not go.

Theological education

Here's a slight but significant detour in this discussion of denominations.

Let's talk for a minute about how we train church leaders. Since its earliest days, the Protestant movement (which was born in a university at Wittenberg, Germany) has made use of colleges and seminaries to do this task. We have believed for hundreds of years that a university-style education is the best possible environment to train theologians, pastors, and church leaders.

At the same time, many in our congregations have harbored a deep resentment that their pastors and leaders and theologians are so desperately out of touch with their daily lives. Pat Kiefert, one of my seminary professors, used to tell stories about going back to Montana where he was raised, where people worked in the silver mines and drank Budweiser and where they listened to both kinds of music -- country and western! Pat, meanwhile, had gone hundreds of miles away to school, got a bachelor's degree, then a master's degree, then a doctorate. In the process he developed a taste for fine wines and jazz music. So when he went home, he couldn't relate to the people in his hometown. They patted him on the head and ignored him, and he couldn't speak their language or understand their concerns.

This is what our traditional model of theological education has produced. We have decided somewhere along the way that pastors should be outsiders to their community, outsiders who have a great deal of specialized education and who are concerned with things like divergent models of the Trinity and the difference between Docetism and Gnosticism. As outsiders, the pastors have a hard time connecting with their people. The pastor's authority usually comes from superior knowledge about the Bible and about theology.

What if we adopted a different model of theological education? What if we decided that spiritual authority came from closeness to Jesus rather than academic degrees? What if we recognized that the best theological work is being done in congregations, among real people's problems, rather than in the ivory towers of seminaries? What if instead of initials like "M.Div." as a qualification for church leadership we looked for someone with God-given gifts, personal authenticity, a proven track record of relationship with Jesus and ability to lead people? What if we took people who are capable leaders and then taught them -- in their own context -- whatever church history, biblical knowledge, and theological stuff they need to know?

What if seminary education was more about learning to live in community, learning to meditate on scripture rather than dissect it, and learning to be formed and shaped by God's word?

How would this impact our churches? What would it be like for you to have a pastor trained in these ways? What would you gain? What would you lose? If you've ever done any theological training in academic settings, how does this sound to you? I'm curious.

Monday, July 18, 2011

What's the alternative?

In my last post I exposed my dislike for denominations. So what would be a better way for the church to exist? And how do we begin to move that direction?

One thing we need to acknowledge right up front -- professional church leaders are one of the greatest assets AND greatest liabilities in the church. The fact that so many individuals (myself included) make their living primarily from the church is very, very dangerous. Think not only about pastors but about bishops and other denominational leaders, seminary professors, youth leaders, ministers of music, professional theologians, and all the administrative assistants and custodians and others who make their living, directly or indirectly, from the bureaucracy of the church. This immense group of people has a vested interest in the structure of the church, its finances and bureaucracy and policy making and everything else, remaining as-is.

Take pastors as one example of this group. Your pastor goes to a denominational gathering where the assembly is going to vote on a proposal to, for example, begin moving toward a structure of house churches rather than large congregations. One of many factors that goes into this vote is the following series of thoughts:

  • That's not the way I was taught to lead churches.
  • If we start to move toward house churches, what happens to the time and energy I've invested over the years in leading congregations?
  • Will this affect my salary package?
  • Will this affect my pension funds?
  • Are we saying that traditional congregations (where I've invested myself) are not as good?
  • House churches will be led by people that don't have as much theological training as I do, and they won't be able to lead as well.
And the parade goes on. The trouble is, your pastor is a sinner and he is more often than not going to vote in his (or her) own self-interest. So the bureaucracy of the church is a self-perpetuating organism. Add to this pastor's hypothetical vote a few delegates who come from your congregation. In nearly every case, these delegates are long-time members of a congregation who have an emotional and financial and relational investment in keeping the church they way they like it, and voting for things that keep their pastor happy because they like their pastor and don't want things to change.

(NOTE: If it's a major struggle in the average congregation to move worship from 9:30 to 10:00 on Sunday morning -- and I've fought that battle a few times and still have the scars -- why on earth would we think that the average church member would vote for a different leadership style or a different church structure?)

So there's an inherent resistance to change that comes from having a massive group of professional church leaders. I'm not saying that we should simply abolish salaries for church employees; that might be a bit rash and do more harm than good at this point. But when we start thinking about change, we do need to recognize that the salaries of many, many people are tied up in this and we're going to have to be willing to face that resistance in order to bring about change.

In many ways, the position of the church these days is not different from the U.S. military. As the military has slowly transitioned from a post-World War Two footing that maintained huge bases both at home and across the world, toward a more flexible, smaller-overhead, faster response kind of structure, one of the casualties has been the closing of many military bases. Do you remember what a flap that was? And the biggest outcry against base closures was the impact it would have on the communities where the bases were located. Nobody argued that the military needed the bases -- rather, people argued that the communities needed the military bases and the dollars they brought into the local economy. It's a very similar situation when it comes to streamlining or restructuring in the church.

Well, that's a lot of rumination about resistance to change. We still haven't addressed the question of "what might be better?" I'll keep plugging away at it, but I'm also curious what you're thinking as you read these thoughts. Feel free to comment and share stories of how you've seen resistance to change in the church, or maybe start jumping ahead and defining what a post-denominational church might look like.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

More thoughts on denominations

I have spent a great deal of time in the last few years thinking about denominations. When I was a child, your denomination seemed like a pretty big deal. Did you identify yourself as Lutheran, as Baptist, as Catholic, as Episcopalian, as Methodist, as Assemblies of God? There were a few -- a rarity in my youth -- who did not see themselves as "Christian" at all. Because most of us shared the basic assumptions of Christendom, denominations were a big deal.

Today denominations seem less important. People drift from Presbyterian to Wesleyan to Nazarene to Foursquare at ease, like drifting from an Italian restaurant across the street to Mexican, or maybe downtown to a burger joint. The big question seems to be, what fits your appetite?

Lately, though, I have been thinking differently about denominations. I have come to believe that our traditional denominational structures are a serious liability to the Church of Jesus Christ. Why?

First, denominations have an institutional inertia that inhibits their members from following Jesus Christ. Anyone who buys into the denomination's identity has to navigate through structures of authority, committees, policies and procedures in order to do anything. Often by the time we navigate these twisted roads, the opportunity -- the call of God's Spirit -- has moved on.

Second, denominations practice a collective self-deception. Most denominations see themselves, in some measure, as the church. Rather than recognize realistically that the church exists far beyond our denomination, we put on blinders and only see our own traditions, our own congregations, our own leaders. Strangely, these blinders are removed at the very top and the very bottom of denominations. The titular head of a denomination is usually involved in some kind of ecumenical talks with other denominational leaders, and so this individual, or a very small team of ecumenical workers in the nosebleed seats of the denomination, see close-up the work of various church bodies. At the far end of the spectrum, those "members" of a denomination who are at the very bottom and feel less loyalty to the denomination may surf from one congregation to another, partaking of Vacation Bible School, food distribution, worship and communion and Bible study in many different congregations with ease and comfort. These consumers recognize that there is little difference between the various initials on the church signs they pass. For the masses in between, however, the denomination defines the reality of the church.

Third, denominations create complacency. One chilling example of this in our own day is the way mainline denominations look at each other and feel better about the cascade of descending statistics. It's as if a busload of people rocketed off the top of a cliff, but as they're falling, they look around and say, "Sure, we're going down pretty fast. But look around -- everyone who was on the bus is doing exactly the same thing, so it's probably okay." I've heard this reasoning over and over again from mainline church leaders who comfort themselves as they look at the drastic drops in membership, giving, mission, outreach, and every other measurable statistic for their denominations. They review the salient statistics but then say, "All the mainline denominations are experiencing similar declines," as though that makes everything okay. Should they not rather say, "How do we make changes that will stop this decline?" Instead, they go on in their complacency and their members who look to them for leadership are pacified when they should be outraged and motivated.

Fourth, denominations create an inherent temptation to compromise. Denominational gatherings and resolutions always shoot for the lowest common denominator. Rather than pursuing the excellence of knowing Christ and following his Spirit's lead, denominational policies must be voted through, so they are inherently insipid and inoffensive.

I could go on, but you get the idea. There are huge liabilities to creating political institutions within the church.

There are a few counter-arguments. Some respond to these thoughts by saying, "Yes, but there is a need to gather together and define orthodoxy. We need to agree on statements of what is true Christianity and what is not." There is a long and honorable history of this argument going back at least to the Council of Nicaea in 325 a.d. when Constantine called the church's leaders together to establish some answer to the question of Arianism. However, let me quickly point out that denominational structures are NO guarantee of orthodoxy. We've seen just in my lifetime that denominations can assent collectively to grievous, non-biblical heresies and feel proud of themselves the whole time. The existence of denominations (see "complacency" above) allows congregations, church leaders, and believers to avoid the responsibility to 1) know scripture and 2) know the tradition of the church's belief, what has been considered orthodox and what heresy.

Some say that denominations allow us to do more ministry together than we can do separately. I disagree. Thriving congregations generally are thriving in part, at least, because they are actively engaged in ministry to their local community and across the world. Dying congregations may faithfully send delegates to their denominational gatherings, but they are rarely involved in life-giving ministries locally or globally. What a denominational membership does is allow the illusion that we are doing something by sending a few dollars away each year to support "mission". Denominational leaders support this illusion by telling stories of the grand things that are accomplished each year with the use of these dollars. In reality, if each congregation was motivated to do ministry (not just maintain itself) in its local community, we'd have many more thriving congregations -- and those who would not do ministry would shrivel up and fade away, and that would be okay.

So what would the church look like without denominations???

Friday, July 15, 2011

Metaxas' new biography of Bonhoeffer

For the last two and a half weeks I have been reading Eric Metaxas' new biography of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. I've read multiple biographies of Bonhoeffer before, and I've read a great deal of his own writing. However, this book for some reason has taken me deeper into Bonhoeffer as a person, as a pastor, and as a role model for me personally. I'm not done with the book yet; at present I'm reading through 1941-42, when Bonhoeffer was embroiled in plotting against Hitler, reaching out to the Allied authorities for some hope of support for the Germans who didn't support Nazism, and had just become engaged to Maria von Wedemeyer. In all of this, he still remained deeply committed to the Confessing Church, the minority within Germany who resisted Hitler's command that the churches and pastors should see their loyalty to der Fuhrer as part and parcel of their Christian faith. In several cases, Bonhoeffer distanced himself from the Confessing Church precisely because he knew his identity as a conspirator would require him to take actions that might well reflect badly on the Confessing Church. It is dramatic, well-written, and even -- strange to say for such dark subject matter -- fun reading. I highly recommend it.

So far in the book the part that has had the biggest impact on me is Bonhoeffer's struggles in the early days of the Confessing Church, from 1933 to about 1938, when those who would not give their loyalty to Hitler fought to have their churches recognized as legitimate, even though they were separate from the church that was loyal to the Reich. It is chilling to read about the Reich Church -- the state church of Germany, the traditional Lutheran church -- that accepted as a matter of course that Christianity must be divorced from its Jewish roots; that the Old Testament was not to be read or trusted much because it was too Jewish; that the essence of Christianity was a set of principles, rather than a relationship with Jesus Christ. This traditional church had been deeply shaped by the legacy of scholars like Schleiermacher and Adolph von Harnack, who moved theology away from trust in the Bible toward a humanistic, scholarly, philosophical approach to Christianity that attempted to get away from the "mythological" elements of miracle stories, personal prayer, belief in a relational God, etc. Bonhoeffer and others stood against these movements. When Hitler appointed a Reich Bishop -- a church leader who would be a state official, loyal to the Nazis, in authority over all the pastors and churches in Germany -- the Confessing Church demanded to be recognized as a separate church.

It strikes me that much of Central's move away from the ELCA -- starting in 2004 and culminating in our vote to leave in 2009-2010 -- was informed by the Confessing Church and those who stood against the Reich Church in Germany in the 1930's. Certainly the ELCA is not demanding loyalty to a human leader like Hitler. But the liberal scholarship that is the rule rather than the exception within mainline denominations -- certainly including the ELCA -- casts doubt on the authority of the Bible and in many cases attempts to "demythologize" Christianity. Scholars like John Shelby Spong in the Episcopal Church or Marcus Borg in the Lutheran tradition are respected and honored while they teach that the "historical" Jesus was nothing like what the gospels portray. In other words, they teach that Jesus was certainly not born of a virgin, that he never physically rose from the dead, and that most of the miracle stories in the New Testament were non-historical inventions of the human authors designed to make a theological point. Mainline seminaries and colleges teach an approach to the Bible and Christian history that is based on the methods of Schleiermacher and von Harnack. Skepticism toward the Bible and toward the historicity of the gospels is the rule, not the exception, in mainline higher education.

This liberal scholarship could not help but give rise to loosening theological standards, which then leads to a tepid, passionless life on the part of the average member. What fruit has been borne in mainline churches over the last fifty years? We have come to a point where most mainline churches are actively pursuing policies that directly contradict a plain reading of the Bible. Denominational gatherings spend more time talking about malaria prevention and fair trade chocolate than they do about Jesus. Missionaries from mainline churches, as a rule, go into all the world not to make disciples for Jesus Christ but to do social service work. They expect to live out a gospel of tolerance rather than giving their passion for Jesus and his kingdom.

We at Central -- and I daresay other churches that have abandoned liberal denominational structures in the last few years -- are not innocent in these things. We are infected by the same complacency. This bothers me so much precisely because I see myself as infected with this same skeptical nonbelief rather than living out of a passion for Jesus Christ. Bonhoeffer is such a role model for me precisely because in the face of complacency and compromise, he fled to the cross and lived at the feet of Jesus. It excites me to think what that life might mean for me, for us, here and now.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Catching my breath

My family just returned from a two week odyssey through North Dakota, Montana, Idaho, and Washington. It was an amazing road trip -- nearly four thousand miles, tent camping and staying with friends the whole time. The upside was lots of family time, lots of fun, and lots of time in the car to sit and think while driving across the country. The downside was that four people, camping equipment, and luggage in a Subaru left little room for my laptop -- so this blog has been sadly neglected for a couple weeks. I do have some things to write about and look forward to posting them in the next day or two -- thanks for being patient!