Church

What Struggling Congregations Need to Renew Their Churches

Photo via Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com

Photo via Goran Bogicevic / Shutterstock.com

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.

Blaming the Victim

WHEN I WAS 15, my church youth group was not a safe place. Like most youth groups, there were college-age volunteers who served as counselors and Bible study leaders.

One counselor, Paul, took it upon himself to constantly tell me I wore too much makeup, my clothes were too tight, and that I was a flirt. These actions took place in public for six months while other counselors and students watched and laughed. The interactions came to a head when he commented on my lipstick color and I snapped back at him. He grabbed me, forced me onto his lap, and told me I liked it.

At the time, I just thought Paul was creepy; I now recognize his behavior was sexual harassment. I also recognize that the other members of my youth group, including the leaders, saw his behavior and failed to intervene. Why did this happen? Both Paul’s behavior and the leaders’ silence belong to a larger set of attitudes in our culture—and churches—that allows sexual violence and sexual harassment to become normal, even expected, behaviors.

This set of attitudes is known as “rape culture.” When we fail to confront these toxic attitudes in our churches, we undermine our love for our neighbors, ignore the Bible, and misrepresent God as misogynistic.

The language of “rape culture” emerged in the 1970s as a way for feminists and sociologists to consider why acts of sexual assault were common within U.S. society; since then, it has become an increasingly important phrase for many people working with survivors of rape and domestic violence. While some have raised concerns about the language—fearing that it risks blaming culture instead of the perpetrator—using a phrase such as “rape culture” can help us recognize the broader cultural context surrounding individual acts.

To understand experiences like mine, we must first recognize that rape culture is not just about rape itself, but our reaction to all forms of sexual harassment. This includes:

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N.C. Sheriff Bans Sex Offenders from Church

Photo via North Carolina Sheriffs' Association / RNS

Graham County Sheriff Danny Millsaps. Photo via North Carolina Sheriffs' Association / RNS

A sheriff in one of North Carolina’s smallest counties told registered sex offenders they can’t go to church, citing a state law meant to keep them from day-care centers and schools.

Graham County Sheriff Danny Millsaps told sex offenders about his decision Feb. 17, according to a letter the Asheville (N.C.) Citizen-Times obtained March 6. About 9,000 people live in Graham County, which abuts Great Smoky Mountains National Park on the Tennessee line in western North Carolina.

“This is an effort to protect the citizens and children of the community of Graham (County),” he wrote.

“I cannot let one sex offender go to church and not let all registered sex offenders go to church.”

He invited them to attend services at the county jail.

The Unbearable Whiteness of Being

I WAS ONCE told that “racism is our nation’s original sin.” This statement jolted me. While I didn’t dispute its truth, I have come to realize racism is much more complex than this.

In order to dismantle the structural sin of racism, we have to first set it within a larger context that acknowledges racism’s sociopolitical dependency and structural interconnectedness.

First: “race” is not real. It is not a scientific category; biologically, it does not exist. Race is a social construct, something built systematically. It has no inherent value or true significance beyond what we give it. In order for race to have real social consequences—which it undoubtedly does—there must be other phenomena at work that validate, sustain, and reinforce the social significance of race.

As a result of sin in our fallen world, human bodies are appraised and given a value based upon certain criteria. As a result of sin, men are privileged over women, white skin is privileged over darker skin, able bodies are privileged over disabled bodies. Historically, certain bodies are acclaimed while others are defamed. Race plays a starring role in this larger drama of embodiment.

Within this racialized schema, whiteness has evolved into an exclusive fraternity. Whiteness has been judicially regulated, legislatively reinforced, and institutionally endowed with power. Whiteness bestows privileges upon its preordained clientele.

While privilege is only one small part of whiteness, and while not all of these privileges are realized (or even equally distributed throughout its membership), these privileges are uniquely accessible to its members.

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What the Church Can Learn from the YMCA

YMCA as thin place. Image courtesy Pressmaster/shutterstock.com

YMCA as thin place. Image courtesy Pressmaster/shutterstock.com

Last week I was a little under the weather, so when my husband and kids took off after church for a hike, I headed to the YMCA. It’s only a two minute drive from our house and we’ve been members for nearly 5 years now.

As I sat in the hot tub, watching folks come and go, I had the sensation of being in a thin space. According to Celtic tradition, a thin place is when Heaven & Earth feel particularly close together. Or, as Eric Weiner put it in his New York Times travel article a couple years ago, it’s "where the distance between heaven and earth collapses and we’re able to catch glimpses of the divine, or the transcendent."

The YMCA might seem a strange place to behold the holiness of God, but this is what I noticed while I was sitting quietly with the water swirling around my feet:

I heard Mandarin, Spanish, Korean and what I think was Amharic. I heard English, too, of course, and for a brief moment, English with a heavy Nigerian accent. I saw brown skin and black skin, tan skin, white skin, splotchy skin, and smooth skin.

I saw a young girl and her mama soaking together in the hot tub, the mom still fully clothed with her head wrapped. I saw heavily tatooed 20-somethings heading for the steam room. I saw three women, probably in their seventies, with drooping skin and sagging suits, laughing uproariously on the benches near the shallow end of the pool. I saw fat folks, skinny folks, tall folks and short folks.

I saw a middle-aged man limp slowly along and finally sink down into the hot tub. I saw two women walking arm in arm, one obviously leading the other who could not see, to the sauna. I saw two of the lifeguards re-positioning and working with tools on the lift that lowers those who are wheel-chair bound down into pool if they are unable to get in on their own. There was a man sitting beside me at who talked to himself at length.

I was there for about an hour and as I sensed the nearness of God in that space, it occurred to me what I was seeing — I was seeing the Kingdom of God.

Weekly Wrap 10.24.14: The 10 Best Stories You Missed This Week

1. Black People Riot Over Injustice; White People Riot Over Pumpkins and Football
Title says it all.

2. Where Did Ottawa Shooter Get His Gun? 
Michael Zehaf-Bibeau was under criminal prohibition from obtaining firearms because of past convictions. A helpful glimpse into Canada’s system of gun rules.  

3. The Paradox of the Christian CEO
Fr. James Martin expounds on Catholic social teaching to address the difficult question: “The question I would ask Christian CEOs is blunt: What do you want to say to Jesus when you reach the gates of heaven? That you took as much as you could, or as much as the market would bear, because the board okay’d it? Or that you accepted what you thought was just,and understood the needs of your fellow men and women, who may have worked even harder than you?

4. A Sandy Hook Father’s Plea
Mark Barden lost a child in the Sandy Hook massacre. In this moving testimony, he offers a plea that we all do what we can to stop the next school shooting before it happens.

Secularism Grows as More U.S. Christians Turn ‘Churchless’

“Unchurched Adults Are More Likely To Be…,” graphic courtesy of Barna Group/RNS.

If you’re dismayed that one in five Americans (20 percent) are “nones” — people who claim no particular religious identity — brace yourself.

How does 38 percent sound?

That’s what religion researcher David Kinnaman calculates when he adds “the unchurched, the never-churched and the skeptics” to the nones.

He calls his new category “churchless,” the same title Kinnaman has given his new book. By his count, roughly four in 10 people living in the continental United States are actually “post-Christian” and “essentially secular in belief and practice.”

If asked, the “churchless” would likely check the “Christian” box on a survey, even though they may not have darkened the door of a church in years.

Kinnaman, president of the California-based Barna Group, slides them into this new category based on 15 measures of identity, belief and practice in more than 23,000 interviews in 20 surveys.

The research looked at church worship attendance and participation, views about the Bible, God and Jesus, and more to see whether folks were actually tied to Christian life in a meaningful way or tied more by habit or personal history.

From Church Triumphant to ‘Least of These’

General Theological Seminary in New York. Photo courtesy of Eden, Janine and Jim via Flickr/RNS.

News articles about turmoil at General Theological Seminary had immediate impact on those of us who attended Episcopal seminaries.

But the news “went viral” far beyond that small coterie and for reasons beyond nostalgia.

For one thing, it’s a juicy soap opera. Faculty playing hardball, then finding themselves unemployed. A dean pushing back, then losing credibility as word about him spread. A board looking confused and high-handed. Students wondering if they, too, should go on strike.

But impact goes beyond the particular event itself. For something fundamental seems to be changing.

Full-Body Repentance

THE CRY OF the church to the world should be “Forgive us.”

At a time when the American church struggles with finding its place in the world and struggles with asserting its identity, could the church be known as the community that models confession, repentance, and the seeking of forgiveness? At this moment in history, the American church is often ridiculed or portrayed as unforgiving and ungracious. Could the church offer a counter-narrative, not of defensiveness or derision but of an authentic confession and genuine reconciliation? By examining seven different areas where the church has committed sin, we ask the church to consider the spiritual power and the theological integrity of a church that seeks forgiveness for those sins.

Our scriptures testify to the necessity of confession. Confession is central to the Christian faith. The importance of confession arises from the Christian view of sin. Sin is a reality and must be taken seriously. Evangelicals consistently begin our gospel presentation with the centrality of sin to the human experience. American evangelicals often assert that the beginning of the work of God’s forgiveness is the recognition of our need for God because of human sinfulness.

It is antithetical to the gospel when we do not confess all forms of sin—both individual and corporate. The reason evangelicals can claim to be followers of Jesus is because there has been an acknowledgement of sin and the seeking of God’s grace through Jesus Christ that leads to the forgiveness of sin.

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