Church

The Circle of Life

EXCLUDING WOMEN from leadership weakens the commitment and contributions of churches, theological institutions, and the global church in their participation in God's prophetic mission. It translates to women's priorities and specific needs being inadequately articulated and under-resourced.

For instance, matters of sexuality, reproductive health education, and justice are hardly ever discussed in churches or theological institutions, except when governments want to legalize abortion. Similarly, little attention is given to maternal health care despite the high rates of maternal death and infant mortality in Africa. It is not enough for churches to focus on baptizing children, blessing them, and welcoming them into the house of God when they neglect to care for their well-being from the time they are in their mothers' wombs, especially now that so many children are born HIV-infected. Responsible and healthy sexuality, childbearing, and parenting are matters that require full engagement of both women and men, and the churches should be at the forefront of providing much-needed education.

Women have been left to shoulder the burden of the times: preventing HIV transmission, facing HIV-related stigma, handling deaths, and addressing the myriad other adverse impacts that the HIV pandemic has created. Similarly, in the Circle of Concerned African Women Theologians, of which this author is a founding member, women have provided leadership in naming theological, ethical, cultural, and religious beliefs, as well as harmful practices and leadership styles, that fuel gender disparity, social injustices, and the spread of HIV in religious communities and in society at large. The Circle also has endeavored to provide theological and ethical reflections that are empowering and transformative to the behaviors contrary to God's will for how women and men relate to each other in families, religious contexts, and everyday life.

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Getting Started

WANT TO PUT money to work for the common good? Your congregation—large or small—has more to invest than you might expect. Here are three questions to get you started.

1. Where does our church bank? "Many churches choose a bank based on proximity to the church or the church treasurer's home," Andy Loving says, but it doesn't have to end there. Approach the finance committee and say, "We want to put our money somewhere that has implications for what we value as a church," suggests Loving. Find a bank that empowers economically depressed areas through brick-and-mortar locations and socially responsible loan practices.

2. Does the bank we're considering provide options for the poor? Where are the branches located? Does it loan to people or businesses who typically don't get approved by mainstream lenders? One institution Loving recommends is Self-Help Credit Union in Durham, N.C., which has locations throughout the state—and also a web-based interface convenient for members outside the area. Another place to hunt for justice-oriented banking is the National Community Investment Fund website, www.ncif.org, which allows you to search by location and banking practices.

3. How can our church enact justice with the money we have?Loving recommends asking this of your church or a group within it, such as a Sunday school class, in order to start a discussion about surplus capital and investing. A good resource for discussion is Ched Myers and Loving's DVD series and study guide, From Mammon to Manna: Sabbath Economics and Community Investing , available at www.chedmyers.org.

Image: Coins and sprout, Anthony Berenyi / Shutterstock.com

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Multiplying Loaves

"WE DON'T WORK toward justice; we bring about justice through systemic change," says Rev. Cindy Weber, with a fierce and loving smile, when asked how her congregation, Jeff Street Baptist Community at Liberty, seeks justice through reaching out to the community. There is no pride or bravado in her statement, but a firmness that comes from more than 20 years of pastoring a small, community church that actively helps bring about God's peace on earth.

Jeff Street, located in Louisville, Ky., has an active membership of approximately 100 people—a David-sized congregation compared to many mainline or mega-churches. However, the creativity, dedication, and passion of the church's members, manifested in hospitality programs for and with the homeless, have made a giant-sized impact on local economic justice issues. And the congregation didn't stop there; as part of a coalition of area churches, Citizens of Louisville Organized and United Together (CLOUT), the church has made an impression with policy work and community organizing on the state level as well. Jeff Street's commitment to empower poor people has even reached internationally: Members have invested in Oikocredit micro-lending programs to the tune of $180,000.

"We are a church that knows the difference between justice and charity, and also between charity and hospitality," says Weber.

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Top 5 Best and Worst Bits of 'Christian Sex' Advice

Heart-shaped lollipops, © Julian Rovagnati, Shutterstock.com
Heart-shaped lollipops, © Julian Rovagnati, Shutterstock.com

“Your body is a wrapped lollipop. When you have sex with a man, he unwraps your lollipop and sucks on it. It may feel great at the time, but, unfortunately, when he’s done with you, all you have left for your next partner is a poorly wrapped, saliva-fouled sucker.”

I cringed behind the wheel, appalled at the quoted words I heard coming from my audio copy of Half the Sky as authors Sheryl WuDunn and Nicholas Kristof discussed this statement uttered by Darren Washington, an abstinence educator, at the Eighth Annual Abstinence Clearinghouse Conference.

Sadly, it wasn’t too far off many Christian messages I’ve received about sex.

But let’s go back to the beginning.

It’s Not All Going to Be Okay, and That’s Okay

Photo: Karl Marx monument in Germany, e2dan / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Karl Marx monument in Germany, e2dan / Shutterstock.com

If we try to mold faith into something more certain than simply faith, it becomes something else. A crutch, perhaps, or a drug. So how or when does this happen?

It happens when someone is suffering and we tell them that everything happens for a reason. In the bigger picture, this is that opiate of certainty and assurance being cast over all the chaos, suffering, and doubt in an effort to keep it all tied up neatly in a religious package. But what it creates beneath the surface is a bastardized image of a God who sits in the Great Beyond, plotting out our fortunes and misfortunes, causing loss and heartbreak in our lives for some greater unknown plan. This makes us no more than so much collateral damage in some narcissistic divine game.

Is that really the God we believe in?

Slow Down and Know That I Am God

IN SPRING 1986, a group of Italian activists led by Carlo Petrini launched a protest against the opening of a McDonald’s near the famous Spanish Steps in Rome. This protest marked the origin of the Slow Food movement, which has spread over the last 26 years to more than 150 countries.

Following this Slow Food effort came a host of other Slow movements—Slow Cities, Slow Parenting, Slow Money, and more—that collectively raise opposition to the speed and industrialization of Western culture. Slow movements are beginning to recover what we have lost in our relentless pursuit of efficiency. Many Christians have been challenged by these Slow movements to consider the ways in which our faith has begun to move too fast as we make sacrifices to the gods of efficiency.

This quest has sparked a renewed interest in the joys of sharing life together in local congregations and has intensified into a growing conversation—rather than a movement—called Slow Church. Slowness itself is not a cardinal virtue of Slow Church, but rather a means of resisting the present-day powers of speed in order to be faithful church communities.

The biblical vision of God’s mission in the world is God’s reconciliation of all creation (see, for example, Colossians 1:15-23 and Isaiah 65:17-25). But too often we narrow the scope of our faith and ignore the massive damage that incurs. Some Christians reduce the faith to four easy steps to stay out of hell, others to a set of techniques for growing a large church, and still others to a political ideology (of the Right or the Left). Christianity has also been reduced by some to a feel-good spirituality that has little or no bearing on the rest of our lives or in the public square.

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Kenyan Churches Claim Herbs Threaten HIV/AIDS Patients

NAIROBI, Kenya -- Church leaders are pressing the Kenyan government to scientifically test herbal medicines that are used by millions to manage and treat diseases, saying the nontraditional therapies could be putting patients' health at risk.

The leaders say HIV/AIDS patients and others suffering chronic conditions are widely using the medicines, whose efficacy is unknown.

On Religious Deserts and the Canaanite Woman

Portland skyline, JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com
Portland skyline, JPL Designs / Shutterstock.com

A friend of mine forwarded a link to a recent Huffington Post article about the most and least religious cities in the United States. Interestingly – but hardly surprising – you have to scroll waaaay down the list to find my current city of Portland, Ore.

“Looks like you have your work cut out for you,” he said. He’s right; I’ve met folks here who work in churches that tell people they work at a nonprofit when asked what they do, leaving the bit about the nonprofit being a church until they get to know each other better. And of course, we knew this when we came to the Pacific Northwest.

In fact, that’s part of what made me want to be here.

For some, there is great appeal in coming to an “unchurched” community, mainly because of the notion that this means there are that many more people in need of saving. And while this may or may not be true, there’s a lot of presumption that goes into saving those without religion, while assuming those who claim a faith are the ones to do the “saving.”

How Should Churches Address the 'Nones?'

Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Young woman near church doors, Lisa A / Shutterstock.com

OK, church folks. Fasten your seat belts. But don’t hunker down.

There’s a new study out this week that shows that one-in-five Americans has no religious affiliation. Not Baptist, not Catholic, not Lutheran, not Jewish, not Muslim. 

For those of us in the world of organized religion, this just adds more data to a trend we have seen accelerating over the last decade.

In 2007, about 15 percent of the adult population in the U.S. described itself as unaffiliated with any religion. In a comparable survey done this summer and released on Tuesday by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life, the number hit 20 percent.  And if you just focus on those under 30, the religiously unaffiliated constitute one third of that group.

Among those of us who are professional religious types, this is the kind of data that can prompt a lot of gloomy introspection about relevance and a lot of finger pointing at those who are not interested in the same kinds of religious expression that we are. 

Let me suggest there’s a less gloomy and less judgmental way to think about this data.

Is the Future of Church in Fantasy Faith Leagues?

Football diagram, Prixel Creative / Shutterstock.com
Football diagram, Prixel Creative / Shutterstock.com

I used to be in a fantasy league, but the fanaticism of the whole thing wore me out. The guys would gather online for an evening-long draft event, debate rules ad nauseam, and haggle over trades through the wee hours. I considered myself to be a fan, but these guys had practically made, well, a religion out of fantasy sports.

I was reading a piece today by Bruce Reyes Chow about what we Christians might learn from fantasy sports, and it got me thinking. One of the most interesting things being in the fantasy league did for me was that it totally changed how I watched the games. I would turn on games I never would have had interest in before, just to see how my selected running back performed. I even found myself rooting against my own favorite teams once in a blue moon when it served my fantasy team and didn’t affect the outcome of the actual game.

The whole experience drove my wife crazy, partly because of all the time it took, but also because the way I engaged sports was so different that, even if we were watching the same game, it was as if we saw two completely different things.

We’re in the middle of a similar kind of shift in the west with respect to organized religion. While folks within the walls of church may be intent primarily on keeping the institutions placed under their care alive, a growing majority of people outside the doors don’t really care about the denominational logo over the entryway, the name inscribed on the stone sign by the street or the long, rich history of all the congregation has meant to the community.

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