Category Archives: Ecclesiology

Bye Bye Christendom

I have tried to avoid much commentary on the presidential election. Quite frankly a lot is being said, and some of it quite good. There is, however, one thing hanging on the tip of my tongue after a week.

I hope this is the last nail in the coffin for American Christendom.

I believe that religious leaders who openly supported a candidate finally drove that nail home. Neither candidate presented a campaign that aligned with any tradition I know of. Trump’s obvious disdain for immigrants, women, the disabled, and blacks, let alone his serial philandering should have been enough. But Clinton had her own problems. I didn’t once hear my progressive peace church friends call out her hawkish approach to international affairs nor her neo-liberal economic policies that created much of the income disparity we see today. (To be fair, I have rarely heard those critiques of Obama who has deported more immigrants than any other president and has turned drone warfare into the newest tool in American Imperialism.) Instead, our religious leaders stepped up behind the nominee of both parties ignoring such glaring inconsistencies. In a way, American Christianity has finally become more identified with the Democratic and Republican parties than it has with the teachings of Jesus. And in so doing, the church has fallen lock step in line with the vision of the American Experiment. It has given up its social vision for humanity to the political mechanisms set in place over two hundred years ago.

After the great wars in Europe, sparked by the fissures of the Reformation, the Founding Fathers sought a path for the new nation that would shift the church from its once significant place in social unity. Having witnessed horrific violence in the name of religion, the early American leadership turned to the new theories of social contract, put forth by Enlightenment philosophers, to design a government that would mediate between the differences naturally a part of every human community. Before the Constitution, religion was literally the binding practices for any society. And in Christendom Europe this was even more the case, such that as new forms of Christianity began to slip the singular bond of the Roman church, violence erupted. Princes and clergy aligned, later in what was called the Peace of Westphalia, to secure local sovereignty. So when the Founding Fathers set to form a new experiment, they did so intentionally breaking the link between Church and governance.

Fast forward two hundred years and the mediating role of the Church in society was nearly replaced by the government. Instead of presenting a holistic social vision based on the teachings of Jesus, the church gave over much of the binding work of a mediating institution to the government. However, in the late twentieth century, particularly with the Eisenhower presidency, politicians began to court religious leaders to legitimize the usurping
role of the government. By the start of the twenty-first century blocks of Christianity were solidly within the camps of one political party or another. Pollsters and politicians alike began categorizing voting blocks, like the evangelical parts of the church, as solely beholden to one party.

Now, in this election these voting blocks followed through with their quest to find their views legitimized by the only mediating institution left in the country. And they did so proclaiming the betrayal of their values by their deafening silence about the inconsistencies in their own candidate.

It is my hope and prayer that in the postmortem review of the 2016 election that Christian leaders will finally see their own duplicity in the quest to keep their party in power. And in so doing, we all will see that the politicians who count on us to vote in particular blocks do so only feigning moral clarity, and are just as interested in political power over others.

When we finally see that, we will come to terms with the glaring contradiction to the example of Christ himself, who sought not power over others but a kind of power that willingly took the servants towel.

It is my prayer, then, that the American Church will finally stop seeking legitimacy from the political process, cease trying to enforce a moral vision for the country through political power, and return to being the church. We will reach out to the marginalized, refusing the racist and classist hierarchy of American culture. We will care for the immigrants as scripture commands regarding the stranger in the land, rejecting the fear mongering of politicians and pundits. We will care for our neighbors, even those most different from us, contrary to the elitism of our capitalist economy that teaches us to see them as people to be out done or threats to our economic security. We will open our homes, share our wealth, and protect the most vulnerbale in the compassionate spirit of Christ, contrary to the divisive nature of our political structures. And we will do all of this, not because we want to enforce a kind of moral vision on the country, but because it is simply our civic duty not as Americans, but as citizens of heaven.

So if you are relieved by outcome of the election, or if you are disheartened, take a moment to consider how your own values were compromised in the casting of your vote. Consider how politicians have co-opted the church for their own gain. And consider how the church has increasingly become irrelevant to an entire generation of young people who see right through the power games and recognize that the church has become just as obsessed with power over others as the worst of politicians. And then, consider how we might all return to the valuable mission of God in the world, where all peoples are made one again in the only true mediating presence of Jesus. And finally, may we let go of Christendom and return to being the church.

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The Church is Dead, Long Live the Church

The church is dead. Or at least every marker we would hold up as a sign of life is in decline. Membership is down across the board, and worship attendance is but of fraction of what it once was. Budgets are in decline as congregations and denominations struggle to find ways to support their ministries and leaders.

On top of that, nearly every denomination is fighting within itself. Leaders and laity a like are asking not “if we split” but talking about “when we split.”

Of course, this is not news. Even if saying it so bluntly causes you to gasp, we have known that the church is dead for some time, and known it deep in our bones. Each year the anxiety builds towards budgeting season, and every pastoral transition brings a whole new season of “visioning.” Lay leaders are hard to come by, and those who do say “yes” seem to be the same ones year in and year out. Words like change, relevance, adaptation, and even mission fill board minutes and sermon manuscripts in nearly every congregation. When sociological research confirms again and again that the US is growing less religious each year, church leaders scramble to find new and attractive ways to stem the tides.

Denominational statistics confirm what many know from social research, namely that our members are aging. Membership numbers across the board are in decline, and have been for some time. Of course the subsequent financial decline is following. Congregations are often faced with mounting costs— property, utilities, and staff salaries—and must choose between keeping the lights on or keeping the pastor at full time or continuing important ministries and allocations. Institutional systems constructed with financial windfalls fueled by the baby boom and peak numbers of church attendance now find themselves struggling to maintain staff, program, and property. In the last decade nearly every mainline denomination has undergone significant restructuring in order to responsibly meet the new financial realities.

All the while church leaders, both evangelical and mainline, seem flustered by the emerging realities, especially the growing marginalization of the church in general. The new normal is a constant state of anxious panic.

In cultures governed by monarchies every change of leadership was a microcosm of panic. Each time a king or queen died, there was a moment of possible anarchy as the power changed hands. Lodging the succession of the crown in family lineages was one way to keep that window of transition as small as possible. A phrase quickly emerged to help the people stem the moment of anxiety. When the monarch died, it would be proclaimed around the realm “the king is dead, long live the king.” Though there were sure to be changes as a result of the transition, the lines of continuity were well in place. The people need not panic, or act from their anxiety.

To be honest, we have very little that assures us as the church of any continuity. The modern structures of church life like denominations, congregations, and even church buildings no longer provide us with the sense of security and continuity they once did. More simply, the ways of “being church” are dead or dying.

So we panic. We act from our anxiety, as if the future of the faith depends on our ability to shore things up, or change things to meet the times.

The church is dead, long live the church. That is now my new motto. As a historian I can point to any age and name the ways the church was different from the age before. And yet, when I step back and look at the longer trajectory of history, the church continued on. That was, for instance, the brilliance of the Reformation. Amidst the dramatic cultural, political, economic, and religious change, leaders like Luther were able to root the continuity of the faith through the scriptures. While everything around them was in turmoil, there was at least one line that could be drawn back in time to the first Christians. As the religious loyalties of the princes shifted, and thus the official religion of the territory changed with him, the people could still find their roots of the faith in the scripture.

I am finding myself asking not “what needs to change” but rather “what keeps us rooted in the long history of the church.” In other words— The church is dead, long live the church.

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Midwife Theologians

When we were expecting out first child we decided to go with a midwife. Actually, there were several midwives in this particular practice. In the course of our many visits we saw each midwife so that we would be familiar with whoever happened to be on call when we arrived at the hospital. 

On the night our son was born the midwife amazed me. My wife had started induction earlier in the day and progress was slow. That night, when hard labor came, the midwife was in our room the whole time. She coached on occasion, and she waited patiently while we did what we could to make it through the contractions. When it was clear that a little more intervention was needed, she stepped right in and confidently guided my wife. 

At some point in the last few minutes the IV line pulled out of my wife’s hand. At the sight of the blood on her arm I began to panic. But the midwife looked at me with her cool face, and told me everything was fine. She was the epitome of what counselors call a non-axious presence. 

I was reminded of the work of a midwife in a conversation with my theologian, poet friend Dana. We were talking, as we usually do,  about the new energy in pockets of the church and the age old question of what a church bureaucrat is to do with old wineskins and new wine. Maybe this is the time for midwives of the church. Maybe we need those people who recognize the pain, and point to the birth of something new.

Some argue that as institutions and structures begin to crumble there are open places that emerge. These open places are the perfect place for creative and new things to take shape. What is need though, are those persons who can inhabit the fissures and work in the open space. It is a weird mix of being within the structures yet challenging old visions and dreaming new dreams. It is in this middle place of the now and not yet that the midwife is most needed.

We need coaches who know the signs of pain for pain’s sake and pain that births something new.

We need leaders who can discern what that “something new” looks like, even if it is just visible in outlines.

We need pastors who aren’t anxious and can hold the space for conflict and struggle, not taking it personally but offering counsel and guidance when those around are too mired in the structures as they are to see the possibilities. 

And we need compassionate guides who see the failures in the way things are now and can invite others into new modes of faithfulness. 

We need more midwife-theologians.

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Sect or Community

Bounded vs CenteredSet_ChristIn recent discussions (see here and the discussion here) of Neo-Anabaptism, historical Anabaptism and Radical Pietism, and even Missional theology, one refrain continues to surface: These groups or categories are just still to “old school.” In an age such as ours where pluralism is the norm and distaste for the all things religious, we theologians need to open the doors and sell off the old baggage of “Church.” In a way, such a thesis is a response to the charges of sectarianism leveled at the Radical Reformation traditions. By dumping the baggage in what can easily be identified as one of Phyllis Tickle’s 500 year rummage sale, the hope is that faith will find that the Spirit of God is out and about within wider world. Babylon may turn out to be much different from the heathen culture we have deemed it to be in our holier-than-thou sectarian confines.

This is true- in part. Our sectarian ideologies were simply too naive. To withdraw from the world as if to create the heavenly equivalent in the confines of a pure community simply created communities of control. Defining the stark boundary that should not be crossed by clothing, transportation, worship styles, and even purity codes and creeds missed the scriptural reminder that God is restoring the cosmos to its original intents- reconciling all things, as Paul says in Romans, to God’s self.

Jesus’ retreat to the desert was limited. It was not his whole life and ministry. Rather, such a reorienting withdraw sent him back into the culture of Roman occupied Palestine to answer the questions of faithful living.

Paul, with a foot in both Roman and Hebrew worlds, spoke in two languages, able to see the redemptive work of Christ for both the Jew and the Gentile.

Yet, each of these examples reveals that the redemptive work was done within these cultures and despite these cultures. Jesus didn’t accept all the ways of Rome and Paul did not adopt all the ways of his own Hebrew tradition. There is a sorting that goes on as we live faithfully within the world around us. In spiritual terms, we do some discerning to know if what is before us is of God or something else altogether.

That means we as followers of Christ don’t just sell off all the churchy stuff and jump into the ways of the world. In fact, it is too easy to see around us that things are not as they should be. Scarcity defines our economics to the extent that few have much and the many have very little. Wars dominate the societal visions for control as one country or group finds more and more efficient ways to terrorize and defeat their enemies. And politics, once the quest for the common good, has come to mean nothing other than brinksmanship so that a few may prosper.

Looking at these facets of the “world” should temper any vision that all is good in the land of Babylon.

However, there are places where God is clearly at work. There are times when life is nurtured, people are loved, resources are shared, and peace defines a time. We, as followers of Christ, have the occasion to see these moments for what they are- thin places between heaven and earth; horizons of the world as it is and the coming reign of God.

So we can’t just flee the world, nor can we just say that all is spirit and light. We must “discern the spirits” around us. And where else do we learn to see beneath the veneer but in the formative context of Christian practice. As James K.A. Smith reveals in his book Desiring the Kingdom, we must come to terms with the reality that the practices of the Church and the liturgies of the world are in competition. This is not to draw the stark boundaries of sectarian withdraw, sorting out the Church from the world. Rather, it simply names that we come to recognize God at work in the world through the embodied narratives (liturgies) of the Christian community. For it is there that we hear the shared stories of scripture that witness to the ways of God; share the testimonies of how God has been at work here and now; share a sparse spread of bread and wine as a foretaste of a grand feast; and take part in the needs and joys of each other in the recognition of our interconnected lives. These very practices confront the dominant societal narratives of self-interest, immediate gratification, isolation from and yet power over others. By seeing the contrast between the ways of God in the formative life of the Christian community, we come to look for these signs in our life in the world.

It is in Christian community, not sectarian life, that we come to discern just what God is doing  in, around, and hopefully through us as followers of Christ.

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What is Missional Anyways?

In case you have had your head in the sand or just don’t pay attention to the forthcoming titles on publisher sites you probably haven’t heard that my Neo-Anabaptist, and fellow Chicagoans, Dave Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw have a new book coming in March. Check out their video discussion of why they wrote the book (filmed at a McDonald’s of course).

Emergent church guru Tony Jones picked up the video and reflected on the nature of names and how they serve as an umbrella term for a diverse range of folks, many of whom probably wouldn’t be caught dead in the same room with each other.

“I’ve written before about the term “missional.” It bends a lot of ways. It’s a term that basically anyone can use for what ever purpose they want — from a stalwart Southern Baptist neocon like Ed Stetzer to an Anabaptist pacifist like David Fitch. And then you’ve got the neo-Barthian camp like Darrell Guder and John Franke. They’re all “missional,” and so are a dozen church planting networks like TransForm, Forge, and the Parish Collective.”

Tony then offers a kind of rhetorical exercise:

“So here’s a test. Imagine a Christian leader saying this: “I’m not missional.”

There is some truth to the statement. Yet, it also betrays a fundamental lack of understanding of just what is meant by Missional. Even a basic reading of one or two resources would reveal that what is meant by Missional is not just being about the work outside the church. So to actually answer Tony’s rhetorical test- Of course a leader wouldn’t say he or she is not missional, but it also does not mean they get the general assumptions within Missional Theology proper.

A quick glance at the table of contents of Prodigal Christianity reveals just what grounds Missional thinking– “Signpost One: Post-Christendom.” From the early works of Leslie Newbigin, the fundamental perspective of Mission Theology was the Church’s shift in cultural location. While this shift is clearly one still in process, it is evident both from the backlash of the religious right and the recent data on the rise of the nones (those who name no religious affiliation on American Religiosity studies) the church in North America is slipping from its once established cultural pedestal. As I have said in other settings, the logic of American experiment is reaching its logical conclusion. Missional thought, then, isn’t just about getting outside the church doors. Rather it begins with accepting Post-Christendom as a gift for the renewal of radical discipleship.

Unlike “emergent,” which purposefully focused on the questions and conversation, Missional Theology begins with this simple core understanding of the Church’s position within the wider cultural frame. While it indeed is a term that gathers together Presbyterians, Non-Denominational, and Jones’ favorite, Hauerwasian Mafia there is still a core imaginary that reaches across the spectrum. The Church is no longer the spiritual advisor to American culture.

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The Impact of the Gaze

After the summer of 2011 I began using a phrase to describe the way I understand the church. In the midst of our extended denominational conversation about sexuality we intentionally gathered the responses from the local hearings that were taking place. Far from statistically sound, the information gathered did provide an interesting picture of the denomination as it thought about the question. The committee that reported back noted that about 2/3rds of the church existed right about in the middle while 1/3 was divided between either end of the spectrum. Students of any trend would say that such a range of opinions would match what is known as the bell curve- the center populated by two thirds of the population and the ends tailing off in either direction. Leading up to the report, some said that there was no bell curve among the Brethren, and that two thirds in some way opposed opening the question regarding sexuality. To be sure, this is true. When the curve is assessed from the perspective of opening the question, there is a more than 50% + 1 who would oppose the question. But that does not mean that all are in agreement with the reasoning why. When I walked away from the report in 2011, I quickly latched onto another reality. There is a church in the middle of the poles. There is a church in the middle who has yet to be convinced by the heightened rhetoric of the extremes.

Of course there were some who quickly replied that I was trying to take a middle road on an issue that there could be no middle road- that justice or purity would tolerate no middle ground. But that was to prove the case even more- the ends of the spectrum have too handily defined the conversation.

The Middle Church, or the 2/3rds who chose church unity, have yet to be convinced by the extremes. And we, as the leaders of the church have yet to ask the question that gets at the heart of the middle ground.

Take for instance what happens when you cut an apple. Any kid is fascinated when an apple is cut and the star of seeds appears in the center. But if the adult is cutting on the easier angle- with the natural feet of the apple steadying the fruit for a bisecting cut from the stem- the magic star vanishes. In other words, how you cut defines the picture that emerges. In the scientific lingo of the Heisenberg principle, our very gaze impacts the outcome.

In the case of our heated debates about sexuality, gender, and politics we are cutting on the angle that may be the easiest but reveals an unconvincing image. What if another approach or angle is available, but we lack the imagination to turn it over? What if the ends of the spectrum have so captured our thoughts that we can’t see the forest for the trees?

Recently, it was said that the political climate of the US isn’t dividing the church, and that even without the binary rhetoric of the Democrats and Republicans the church would divide based on competing theologies. That maybe so, but I am not convinced that the middle church isn’t asking a completely different question than the so-called poles, even within the realms proper to the church.

And that is just it. For all the talk of the polarization of our culture, both in and out of the church, there are usually only two options. In the jargon of post-structuralism that is called a binary- an either/or. Better stated, we are constantly presented with a false dichotomy.

In the past six weeks I have been apart of four different arguments that were stuck in the world of binaries. The problems, as those in the argument saw it, were that either one is Catholic or Anabaptist, Academic or Lay, Voting or Not-Voting, Naive or Just. Thankfully, in just about each of these, it became clear that the binary was bull.

Whether or not one is schooled in the esoteric world of post-structuralism, it doesn’t take long before something smells afoul when the rhetoric employs the words “either” and “or”. The more I encounter the either/or arguments the more I realize there is a whole group of people in the middle longing for a different question all together. Two things have made that clear to me in the same six weeks.

As the editor of this blog, I took some heat for publishing a post asking if voting was the virtuous act that so many claim it to be. Some clearly were angry that the question was even asked, while others pressed for a more balanced, if not binary series- a pro and con kind of conversation. I was amazed at the post I received the day of the election. While the two postings argued for different actions, the intent and nuance in the middle was strikingly similar. The concerns that emerged from this intersection of the two posts sounded very similar and yet, the call to action was different. In the end, the question about voting didn’t seem all that heated since the two sets of writers clearly were talking the same language.

The second event is still in process. As a group of us Brethren theologians have gathered privately, it has become clear that a new mode of conversation is needed. Shaped by a new medium of discourse, we are asking theological and practical question, in a clearly conversational way. In other words, social media is redefining the very modes of theological discourse. As one of these NuDunkers put it, we are looking for ways to be practical and theoretical, concerned about people and passionate about ideas, pastoral and academic. The trick is clear, those binary thinkers around us want us to be either/or. Are you NuDunkers gonna offer anything of substance? Subtext: Are you going to gather the liberals or conservatives.

Short answer: No, we are cutting the apple another way. We are looking for the star and not the poles.

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