Christian community

Is Church Still a Curator of Culture?

A cross plugged into computer screens. Illustration courtesy Bruce Rolff/shutter
A cross plugged into computer screens. Illustration courtesy Bruce Rolff/

My wife and I are attending our denomination's national assembly in Orlando this week. Last night, we went to a retirement party for one of her mentors. As a group of ministers tends to do, they concluded by gathering around, laying their hands on, and offering him a prayer of blessing. Then the group spontaneously broke out into a round of song that went on for a few minutes. It was both beautiful and touching.

The wait staff, however, wasn’t quite sure how to take it.

"Wow," one bartender said," that's amazing. You guys can all really sing."

Amy just smiled.

“That's church," she said.

Beers and Hymns

Glass of beer in a bar. Photo courtesy Valentyn Volkov/

A few months ago, Stephen Marsh, my fellow pastor, and I walked into Chief’s Tavern on the east side of Madison, Wis., ordered a couple pints, sat on a pair of stools and discussed an idea that would eventually have a massive impact on the congregation we serve together. In specifics, we wondered whether we could spark a ministry by fusing two of our most treasured Lutheran traditions: beers and hymns.

The budding idea, which originated from some creative faith communities in other parts of the country, was to find a local tavern willing to host a monthly one-hour session of hymn-inspired evening fellowship. Within a few minutes of our conversation, we were joined by Brian Mason (owner of Chief’s Tavern), and what followed was a ground-breaking partnership between parish and pub. The first Beers & Hymns event was scheduled, and as the date drew closer, our collective thoughts and prayers moved back and forth between “Thanks be to God” and “Lord, have mercy”!

Why Ash Wednesday Belongs Out of the Church and Out on the Streets

Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (
Ashes to Ashes image via Tim/Wylio. (

Repentance has a public aspect and a private aspect. Jesus speaks very clearly about doing one’s repentance in secret -- not chattering on in public about how hungry your pious fasting has left you. At the same time, the church also has a ministry to call -- publicly -- for repentance, to sometimes play the role of John the Baptist. Calls for repentance happen every week, every day, inside religious buildings, inside religious communities.  Sometimes calls for repentance need to happen out on the street corners, too.

Still, this is a strange thing to do, this liturgy outside a hospital.  It does not feel entirely comfortable to me -- but I am not sure anything about Ash Wednesday ever feels entirely comfortable.

United We Stand

When I was growing up my grandparents talked often about going through the Great Depression. I heard about Wall Street investors jumping out of windows and about the poverty most folks feared and experienced. As kids, we were reassured that we came from the kind of people who don’t give up, who go through a crisis and get closer to family and neighbor, and who possess a national pride about outlasting tough times. Gran and Pop would speak with some nostalgia about how everyone stuck together through that kind of poverty because everyone was struggling.

My parents talked often about what it was like to go through World War II. Those conversations had the same kind of “everyone pitched in” tone because everyone was equally at risk.

But the recession we are going through now doesn’t impact everyone in the same way—not everyone is struggling; not everyone is at risk. Some of us have enough financial means to be insulated from immediate threats. So what happens when a national crisis is technically a “part of the nation” crisis? Are “we” still “we”?

Almost everyone says they want to help poor people, and I think deep in their hearts, they do. It is part of our Christian heritage to “love our neighbors as we love ourselves.” It is part of our national aspiration to be the “United States.”

But in this recession we do not all face the same decisions. Those who are secure have to decide whether or not we will help those who are now out of work. This decision can’t be based mainly on our economic pain or plenty; it must be based on our principles. If “we” are still “we,” it is because we remember our faith and our common history and decide this is still the United States.

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A Confession to the Occupy Movement

A young woman in prayer. Image via Wylio.
A young woman in prayer. Image via Wylio.

As I have read about the Occupy Movement, I have noticed many individual Christians expressing support, but little public support for the movement from the Christian community as a whole.

I have had mixed feelings about this.

Certainly support of the poor, standing up for social justice, most of what the Occupy Movement is about, coincide with what we are called to as Christian people. Yet I think it would be inappropriate for Christians to try to jump into leadership roles when the Occupy Movement is so diverse and when we have so often failed to take a stand on such issues ourselves.

It seems to me that public confession and repentance might be the best way to communicate our support with appropriate humility. 

With this in mind I make the following confession as a person of Christian faith. I hope others will join me in this or similar confessions.

Six Questions for Jose Penate Aceves

1. What led you to start an intentional community ministering to gang members? Gangs have a really strong sense of community: They fight and die for their homies and they support each other. Other programs offer job skills or anger management, but don’t offer community. We offer a community like the community they have. After many years working with them, we realized that was attractive to them—they feel at home.

2. Why is local leadership so important in your work? From the beginning we said that if we really want this ministry to continue, it has to be local, because local leaders have three different qualities. a) They don’t move easily. b) Other people trust them; it takes time, but people believe them. And c) they’re used to handling big challenges—poor or marginalized people have been trained by life to confront really huge challenges.

3. What does it mean to minister “incarnationally”? If someone foreign wants to do some kind of ministry in this community, that person has to become like a baby and learn. Transformation is mutual: At the same time it’s helping others, the biggest transformation is happening in their own life. That is not easy. To submerge incarnationally and empower others sometimes is to fail. But if you look through the eyes of the kingdom of God, well, that is all about love, love, love—until they ask you why you love so much.

4. How have you seen scripture reflected in the communities where you’ve lived? In El Salvador, Luke 4:18-19—Jesus’ commission to free the oppressed—helped me to see my poor community with a different perspective. Our neighborhood was so poor: no electricity, no streets, no water. We thought this was our destiny. But through the gospel we find that, no, God has beautiful promises and we can do it together. Sometimes poor people are so divided, just trying to survive themselves, that we don’t realize that together we can transform the whole community.

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From a Shoebox to a Movement

The metaphor I have often used to describe the origins of Sojourners in the fall of 1971 is that we raised a flag up a flagpole. The words on the flag proclaimed, “Biblical faith requires justice.” Many on the ground felt the same way, but they often couldn’t see each other and felt alone. When they saw the flag we raised, they ran to the bottom of the pole where they met others—and a movement was born.

Our core group met at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in the northern suburbs of Chicago. We connected the first week of seminary and became excited about a new possibility for American Christianity. We ranged across a wide spectrum: civil rights and anti-war activists who had come to Christ; InterVarsity and Campus Crusade students and staff searching for a gospel that could reach the current generation of students; hippies and druggies converted to Jesus; disaffected Southern Baptists from Baylor University; Moody Bible Institute graduates against the war in Vietnam; and even one from Bob Jones University in the heart of American fundamentalism. We were at a leading evangelical seminary, not a liberal one; some of us chose deliberately to go there to argue with our own evangelical tradition about what the Bible really says.

For example, one of our first activities was finding every verse of scripture about the poor, wealth and poverty, and social justice. We found more than 2,000 texts that we then cut out of an old Bible. We were left with a “Bible full of holes,” which I used to take out with me to preach.

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British Clergy to Support #OccupyLondon with Circle of Protection, Prayer

occupy london
On Sunday (10/30), the Anglican Bishop of London, the Rt. Rev. Dr. Richard Chartres, met with Occupy London protesters who have encamped for several weeks now on the ground of St. Paul's Cathedral in London, in an ongoing attempt to get the demonstrators to leave church grounds.

Chartres wants the Occupiers to vacate cathedral property and stopped short, in an interview with the BBC yesterday, of saying he would oppose their forcible removal. Other British clergy, however, are rallying behind the demonstrators, saying they would physically (and spiritually) surround protesters at St. Paul's with a circle of prayer or "circle of protection."

Climate Witness as Act of Faithfulness

The earth dries up and withers ... The earth is defiled by its people; they have disobeyed the laws, violated the statutes, and broken the everlasting covenant. - Isaiah 24:4-6

Today I have given you the choice between life and death, between blessings and curses. Now I call on heaven and earth to witness the choice you make. Oh, that you would choose life, so that you and your descendants might live! - Deuteronomy 30:19

During the 1980s, many Christians were at the forefront of a movement to avert nuclear annihilation. They saw this transcendent threat as a moral crisis and felt a responsibility to nonviolently resist, including acts of civil disobedience and divine obedience. Today, we face a comparable danger -- a climate catastrophe which could decimate life on earth. Yet it seems not to have been picked up on the Christian "radar screen" in the same way. For this reason, it is actually more insidious.

A Tribute to Mark O. Hatfield

1100808-markhatfieldMark O. Hatfield's political witness shaped a whole generation of students, teachers, pastors, and social activists in the evangelical community and beyond. The voice of Christians today who plead for social justice and peaceful alternatives to war would not have emerged with its strength and clarity in the 1970s without his leadership. His death underscores the vacuum of such spiritually rooted voices uncompromising in their commitments to peace and justice within the cacophony political rhetoric today.

One of my life's greatest privileges and joys was to work as an assistant to Senator Mark O. Hatfield for nearly a decade, from 1968 to 1977. I saw first-hand what courageous leadership, combined with unswerving compassion and civility, looked like within the political life of that turbulent and formative era. Those experiences are shared in my book, Unexpected Destinations (Eerdmans).