Church

Churches Must Be Safe Places

Tarchyshnik Andrei and Colorlife/Shutterstock.com

Tarchyshnik Andrei and Colorlife/Shutterstock.com

Church leaders often worry that Sunday morning is the “most segregated day of the week.”

On Sundays, churchgoers gather inside congregations that are remarkably monochromatic. Whites with whites, blacks with blacks, Latinos with Latinos, Koreans with Koreans, and so on.

This phenomenon, however, is more than discomfort with diversity. It is also a search for safety. In the historic black church, for example, worshippers can assert the dignity and worth that a white society denies them. For three hours on Sunday, the need to avoid offending whites doesn’t govern their lives.

As we are learning in Ferguson, Mo., African-Americans feel unsafe — far more than many whites have realized. Young black men, for example, flinch whenever a police car passes — a vulnerability that money, job, and education can’t overcome.

Are All Christians Really Hypocrites?

ArtFamily/Shutterstock.com

ArtFamily/Shutterstock.com

According to one of my favorite authors, Brennan Manning, "The single greatest cause of atheism in the world today is Christians, who acknowledge Jesus with their lips, then walk out the door and deny Him by their lifestyle. That is what an unbelieving world simply finds unbelievable." It is just a much more eloquent way of saying that the world thinks we’re a bunch of hypocrites. 

To be quite honest, most of the time, the claim is warranted. I have a friend who wants nothing to do with Jesus because his father, a very religious man, was active in the local church but was abusive behind closed doors. Another friend continues to distance herself from anyone associated with the church because of their judgmental glares about her lifestyle choices. 

Whatever their reasoning, I understand. I, too, have personally encountered the hypocrisy they see in our communities of faith. And if I'm at all honest, the number of times I have been the hypocrite who has turned others away are too numerous to count.

Should Pastors Complain About Their Salaries?

But a blogger for Sojourners worries that talking about compensation packages distracts from a pastor's true purpose: serving God. "Seminaries are places for the formation of pastors, not employees. I am afraid, however, that we have lost the sense of that," wrote Tripp Hudgins, the director of admissions at American Baptist Seminary of the West. "Have we lost our middle-class status? I wonder why we had it in the first place."

Taking the Long Road Home

HERE’S WHAT Slow Church is not: A how-to manual with five easy steps to make your congregation more thoughtful. A celebration of how using the word “community” often on your church website will multiply your pledge and attendance numbers. An ode to really, really long worship services.

Rather, Slow Church explores being church in a way that emphasizes deep engagement in local people and places, quality over quantity, and in all things taking the long view—understanding individuals and congregations as participants in the unfolding drama of all creation. Authors C. Christopher Smith and John Pattison are self-proclaimed “amateurs,” insofar as they are writers-editors and lay leaders, not professional pastors, theologians, or congregational consultants. But this book is richly informed by their experience in their own church contexts (Englewood Christian Church in a gritty neighborhood in Indianapolis for Smith; an evangelical Quaker meeting in small-town Oregon for Pattison), conversations with other church communities, and close reading of classic and contemporary literature on culture, Christian community, scripture, and spirituality.

The book’s name is a reference to the International Slow Food Movement, which resists the homogenizing and industrializing effects of globalization on food. Smith and Pattison cite sociologist George Ritzer’s argument that fast-food principles, what he calls “McDonaldization”—marked by efficiency, predictability, calculability, and control—are taking over broad areas of culture in the U.S. and beyond. The authors see McDonaldization affecting churches as well, as church-growth methods and the pace of consumer culture push congregations to seek faster gratification and achieve business-inflected benchmarks. Slow Church is an argument to return to the countercultural roots of the church, the ones that call it to be salt and leaven in the places it is planted. Smith and Pattison write:

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8 Things the Church Needs to Say

iluistrator and Visual Idiot/Shutterstock.com

iluistrator and Visual Idiot/Shutterstock.com

If Christians stopped bickering about church, presenting sex as a first-order concern, telling other people how to lead their lives, and lending our name to minor-league politicians, what would we have to say?

We need to figure that out, because we are wearing out our welcome as tax-avoiding, sex-obsessed moral scolds and amateur politicians.

In fact, I think we are getting tired of ourselves. Who wants to devote life and loyalty to a religion that debates trifles and bullies the outsider?

So what would we say and do? No one thing, of course, because we are an extraordinarily diverse assembly of believers. But I think there are a few common words we would say.

Have Churches Become Too Shallow?

Image via CreationSwap.com

Image via CreationSwap.com

Christians ultimately attend church to meet with God. But sometimes we turn our churches into distractions, and spiritual leaders mistakenly prioritize things beyond God, becoming obsessed with marketing, consumerism, and entertainment — creating false idols.

The diluting of church happens in both subtle and obvious ways:

Scripture is substituted for a stirring YouTube video.

Worship is tweaked to incorporate flashing lights, fog machines, and synchronized graphics.

Visitors are given nicer gift baskets.

Contests are held. Websites are updated. Social media is expanded. Apps are developed. Promotional clothing is given away — a brand is created.

Into the Playhouse

Playhouse, mubus7 / Shutterstock.com

Playhouse, mubus7 / Shutterstock.com

My sister has one of those plastic playhouses in her backyard for her two boys. When she hosted a garage sale a few years ago, children accompanying their shopping parents would see the playhouse and join in.

I remember looking over at one point and seeing five children playing together. Different ages, different sexes, different races. All strangers. All playing together.

When they looked at each other, they saw a playmate.

In his autobiography, Nelson Mandela noted that children have an innate openness that tends to get closed off as they spend more time in the world.

“No one is born hating another person because of the colour of his skin, or his background, or his religion,” Mandela wrote in his autobiography. “People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.”

Breaking Down the Invisible Walls

OVER THE PAST 2,000 years, Christians have found myriad ways to divide the body of Christ. We are now more divided than ever, with more than 40,000 Christian denominations worldwide. Perhaps, in this context, we are asking the wrong questions. Do we really understand God’s desire for the church to be one? Do we as individuals have a yearning for the unification of the body of Christ? Why do we create the divisions we create? Why do we maintain the divisions that already exist? How can we break through these barriers to heal a broken church?

Christena Cleveland sets out to answer all of these questions and more in her latest book, Disunity in Christ. Cleveland is a young, energetic, and brilliant teacher, speaker, and researcher in the fields of social psychology and faith and reconciliation. For those concerned with reconciliation in the church, which should be all of us, hers is a voice to take seriously.

In Disunity, Cleveland quickly breaks the ice by poking fun at herself and by pointing to her own personal prejudices and biases that have led to her categorically labeling fellow brothers and sisters in Christ as either a “right Christian” or “wrong Christian.” The reader is immediately able to connect with her and realize the ways in which we have created division in our own lives, whether because of race, gender, orientation, education, location, socio-economic status, theology, or political affiliation. It also becomes apparent why we prefer our homogenous groups.

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No Longer the 'Best Kept Secret'

SINCE HIS ELECTION as the 265th successor of St. Peter, Pope Francis has provided a refresher course on Catholic social teaching to the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics. “Catholic social teaching is no longer a secret,” says Jean Hill, director of peace and justice for the diocese of Salt Lake City. “Everything Pope Francis is saying comes from social doctrine and is about social justice.”

Through his various homilies, speeches, and meetings, Francis is “reading the signs of the times” and making practical application to the issues of the day. Some of his most powerful statements to date were made in his first pastoral document, “The Joy of the Gospel,” including this declaration: “I prefer a church which is bruised, hurting, and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church that is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security.”

Pope Francis is calling the faithful to be more merciful, compassionate, joyful, and centered upon the needs of the poor and vulnerable. He wants a church that sees the human person before the law and one that does not “obsess” about a narrow set of issues, but affirms both human life and human dignity. He invites

Catholics to pray, reflect, and embrace the beauty and breadth of Catholic social teaching—a rich tradition that is predicated on the dignity of the human person.

The United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (USCCB) defines Catholic social teaching as “a central and essential element of our faith. Its roots are in the Hebrew prophets who announced God’s special love for the poor and called God’s people to a covenant of love and justice.” This teaching is also founded on the life and words of Jesus. It posits that “every human being is created in the image of God and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and therefore is invaluable and worthy of respect as a member of the human family.”

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Sacrament as Subversion

The power of the sacraments is in the faith of the individual and the grace of God. Magdalena Kucova/Shutterstock.com

Anyone who thinks much on theology will tell you that you go through patterns of thought. For a long time, I was intrigued — and still am in many ways — by the notion of Jesus as a “third way” prophet, offering something different than both church and secular culture most of the time. As I learned of different interpretations of the crucifixion, I became obsessed with nonviolent activism, and the idea of responding to force or bloodshed with something else entirely.

Now, my latest mental track is sacrament. I am interested in what makes something a sacrament, yes, but also in the power connected to sacraments and what human beings do with that power.

I am part of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), a denomination that has Alexander Campbell as part of its roots. Campell was notorious for supposedly causing a stir in his local church around the sacrament of communion. At that time, the Church handed out tokens to those it deemed worthy to participate in communion. No token? No communion. So this one particular day, Campbell entered the church with his token in hand, but when they offered the elements to him, he refused, tossing the token on the ground and walking out. He went on to help start the Disciples based, in large part, on the concept of the open communion table.

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