Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and Episcopal priest based in New York. He is the author of Just Wondering, Jesus and founder of the Church Wellness Project. His website is www.morningwalkmedia.com. Follow Tom on Twitter @tomehrich. Tom's posts appear via RNS.
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What Might Tomorrow’s Faith Community Look Like?
It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules, and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.
It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.
5 Ways Churches Inflicted Pain on Themselves
Let’s be clear: The much-heralded “decline of Christianity in America” isn’t about God losing faith in humankind.
It isn’t about losing our moral compass thanks to whatever you happen to loathe. It isn’t about fickle millennials. It isn’t about zigging trendy or zagging traditional.
In fact, I would argue that Christianity isn’t in trouble at all. Churches are in trouble. Denominations are in trouble. Religious institutions like seminaries are in trouble. Professional church leaders are in trouble.
But churches can’t hold God hostage.
How Ferguson and Now Baltimore Are Altering Our Perception of Law Enforcement
I enjoy cop shows on television.
My favorite is Blue Bloods, following the “Reagan” family from terrorist threats to homicides to domestic violence.
I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a cop. Perhaps routine marked by bursts of frenzy, some of it life-threatening. One’s hometown seen through the lens of crime, tragedy, and evil. Low pay, high risk.
I like Blue Bloods because it shows upright law enforcement taking “Protect and Serve” seriously and making brave and ethical choices.
These shows are quite unrealistic, of course. Crime doesn’t get solved that easily or snap decisions made that wisely.
I don’t think, however, that I realized until recently how separated from reality those fictional accounts have been. As police shootings of unarmed citizens go viral, as minorities talk of long-standing police brutality, as we watch guards beating prisoners, and as federal law enforcement engages in creepy surveillance, internal corruption, and the arming of local police as military commandos, the veil is lifted.
Now we see in our own American law enforcement the same brutality and power-madness that have marked corrupt societies we supposedly surpassed, from the secret police in Eastern Europe to uniformed thugs in South America.
I find it confusing. Not the discovery that TV isn’t real, but to see how low we have fallen. Has this brutality been the dark side of police work all along?
What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches
I am in a lovely college town to help a congregation discern its path forward.
It faces challenges that many church leaders will recognize: leadership, finances, isolation from the surrounding community, not enough young and middle-age adults to carry the congregation forward.
It also has pluses. The members aren’t deeply divided or mired in distrust and disdain. They aren’t afraid of change. They don’t bury the future in grand laments about a lost “golden age.”
I think they have a good shot at turning a corner and building a healthy next phase. I hear reports from across the nation that things are improving for Christian congregations. A new generation of clergy is exploring new ideas. Fresh energy is emerging. Denial is losing its hold, as congregations whose average age is 60 to 65 realize they must change or die.
Denominations are slower to adapt, but they, too, are moving forward in practical ways such as training in leadership and stewardship, and flexible deployment of resources.
Yet for this fresh day to last, church leaders will need to embrace a truth that goes beyond organizational development and resolving present issues. It’s a truth that many congregations simply cannot hear.
That truth is this: There is too much shallowness, not enough depth.
Over the years, in a process that isn’t at all unusual, we have equated faith with attending Sunday worship, maybe pitching in on a committee, and forming friendships within the fellowship. People enjoy belonging to the congregation. They radiate a palpable joy in being together. They seem content.
5 Things to Watch as the 2016 Campaign Gets Underway
As presidential candidacies multiply and campaigning accelerates, we can expect much tawdriness to occur. These are difficult times in American democracy.
Money will pour into negative campaigning and ideological posturing. Lies will become the norm. Every word will evoke counterattack, and facts will lose their currency. Barbed sound bites will be mistaken for wisdom. Bullies claiming to be “Christian” will be among the loudest. On both sides.
What are people of faith to do?
We can assume, first of all, that truth-telling will be absent all around. We, then, need to be truth-seekers, reading beyond the sound bites and toxic jabs for actual insights into what candidates stand for and what is their character.
We can assume, second, that God’s name will be taken in vain by everyone. Every candidate will tell stories of personal faith, maybe even dramatic conversion. They will quote Scripture and claim to be promoting God’s work.
In fact, to judge by candidates’ behavior, their words will be insincere and their faith a concoction meant to satisfy the sweet tooth of religious leaders. We, then, need to do our own work of discerning whether they have any functional familiarity with Scripture and any real concern for Christian ethics.
Our American Spring: Shining a Little Light on Discrimination
Little by little, the direct sun of spring is vanquishing the snow of this long winter, and new life is starting to emerge.
Something similar is happening in my home state of Indiana, where the darkness met behind closed doors to conspire against certain citizens in the name of religion.
For a time, hatred prevailed. But then a more-direct sun began to shine in the American heartland, and people took notice of what the Republican-controlled Legislature and cowardly governor had done.
The people spoke out. It started with leaders in the tech community (Salesforce, Apple, Angie’s List) and, to my amazement, pillars of the sports establishment, such as the NCAA and NASCAR. Soon, citizens across Indiana and the nation condemned the state’s so-called Religious Freedom Restoration Act as little more than legalized discrimination.
Telling Old Stories, Again and Again
At a church workshop last week, I set aside my carefully planned teaching and just let people talk.
It became clear that everyone had an old story they needed to tell. Until it was heard, no one in the room could or would move on to thinking about the future. And even when it was heard, half of them would keep cycling back to the old story.
I sensed that, for some, the old story contained an identity, in the sense of “this story is who I am.” I need to keep telling this story so that you know me. Until I am sure you’ve heard it, know me, and accept me, I can’t stop.
For some, the old story was the burden on their back, the cloud over their heads. This story explains why I fall short, seem hesitant or even paralyzed. If you know my story, maybe you can accept me and forgive me.
For some, the old story was the safe place, the known that kept the scary unknown at bay. As long as I keep telling this story and presenting the me that existed yesterday, I don’t have to contemplate the ways I am changing and the tomorrow that worries me.
It was like a case study in the long-ago classic, “I’m OK — You’re OK.” People wanted to know they were OK — acceptable and maybe someday even loved.
I think back to a recent lunch with the rector of the local Episcopal church, where I kept peeling the onion, telling her one thing about myself and then, if she accepted that, telling her something more. She was doing the same. If we know each other and still accept each other, then we can be in relationship.
Inward-Focused or Outward? Christian Congregations at a Crossroads
American Christianity is at a crossroads — again. It’s the latest in a long string of crossroads.
In the run-up to revolution, American branches of European denominations — such as my Anglican ancestors — had to declare loyalty to the crown or to an emerging rebellion.
In the 1830s, congregations throughout the restless nation had to decide whether they served whites or all people, including Native Americans.
In the mid-19th century, denominations were forced to choose between continued slavery and a commitment to freedom.
On it went. During each era of change and expansion, Christian communities had to decide what they stood for and what the gospel meant to them. Would they serve immigrants who spoke a certain language or all people in the community, one class in the emerging industrial society or all people, enclaves of status and like-mindedness or whole communities?
Whatever choice was made, each congregation and denomination found a way to justify it. The choices themselves didn’t flow from Scripture. Rather, in stepping up as theologians for slavery or abolition, for white rule or open access, for changes in women’s place or perpetuation of patriarchy, preachers wore out their Bibles and seminary training looking for rationales to do what they wanted. They claimed absolute authority for what, by any reasonable standard, was simply their preferred way of doing things.
Now Christianity in America faces a similar crossroads that turns on the question: Do we serve only ourselves and people like us, or do we serve the larger community, especially its outcasts and vulnerable?
Up to now, the church has focused on who crossed the threshold into our pews and who had leadership roles within the fellowship. Now the challenge is to go out into the world, see what the needs are, and rethink how we do things in response to those needs.
The Siege Mentality of Christian Radio Stations
On my recent 4,100-mile pilgrimage across the U.S., I occasionally used my radio’s “seek” function to find stations.
I often stopped on a “Christian radio” station, sometimes a national network such as American Family Radio, sometimes a local effort featuring preachers from area churches, always conservative.
I did so because I enjoy gospel music and I was curious what the radio preachers were saying.
They tended to be excellent speakers and well-prepared. But their message seemed frozen in time, as if nothing had changed in America since the 1950s except for the identities of enemies who are allegedly “attacking Christians,” "attacking Christian values” and “attacking the American way of life.”
This siege mentality seemed basic to every preacher I heard. I suppose it’s one way to rally the troops. Get them fearful, angry, and suspicious.
If the U.S. Is a Christian Nation, Whose Christianity Do We Follow?
A recent survey found that 57 percent of Republicans agreed that Christianity should be established as the United States’ national religion.
Not only would this violate the clear wording of the Constitution and the intention of the founders to keep religion and government separate, it also raises a difficult quandary.
Of the estimated 1,500-plus Christian denominations in the U.S., which flavor of Christianity would emerge as the national standard?
Would it be conservative Christianity or liberal Christianity? Would it be Roman Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or nondenominational? Would it be church-centered Christianity or a more personal flavor, such as house communion? Would it be the 1950s-style neighborhood-church Christianity that many older churchgoers yearn for, or a contemporary megachurch?
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