Church

Tom Ehrich 3-07-2013
Peshkova / Shutterstock.com

Young man looking on city. Peshkova / Shutterstock.com

CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. — We did a focus group here as part of strategic planning at Trinity Episcopal Church.

Question: if you stood on the edge of your church’s property and looked outward, rather than inward as we usually do, what would you see?

A public school kindergarten teacher spoke about kids who come to school hungry and wearing shabby clothing. She started to discuss the family chaos her kids describe during sharing time, but she began to weep and couldn’t speak at all.

Tom Ehrich 2-27-2013
Bubbles, Sarahbean / Shutterstock.com

Bubbles, Sarahbean / Shutterstock.com

Life inside a bubble can feel complete, even dynamic, as the bubble’s surface shimmers and yet retains form.

When the surface is breached, the bubble collapses immediately, shattering into a liquid spray faster than a metal object can fall through where it used to be. What looked like a permanent structure is, in fact, uncertain and quickly lost.

We saw a ”tech bubble” burst 13 years ago. What had seemed durable and laden with value turned out to be vapor. The “housing bubble” came next. Some think another “tech bubble” is about to burst.

The bubble I see bursting is establishment Christianity in America. It is bursting ever so slowly, even as millions of people still find life, meaning, safety, and structure inside. But one failing congregation at a time, the surface of shimmering shape is being breached.

Elizabeth Palmberg 2-11-2013

Frank Mugisha

Frank Mugisha, executive director of Sexual Minorities Uganda

Aimee Kang 2-11-2013

The Cry of Tamar: Violence Against Women and the Church's Response. Fortress Press.

Solange De Santis 1-18-2013
 Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

Man holding a communion cup. Suzanne Tucker / Shutterstock.com

As the flu outbreak spreads across 48 states, some religious leaders are advising their flocks to take precautions, but others say avoiding infection is just a matter of common sense.

Several Catholic dioceses, including Manchester, N.H., Boston, and New York, are advising priests to consider not offering the shared chalice of consecrated wine at Holy Communion at Masses. Communicants would only receive the consecrated wafer.

In addition, Manchester Bishop Peter Libasci had other suggestions, reported The Eagle Tribune of North Andover, Mass.

“The faithful should be encouraged to share the Sign of Peace without touching hands or kissing,” he said. “This may be done with smiles and a bow of the head in reverence to one another.”

Christian Piatt 1-16-2013
Photo: Downtown Portland, DRGill / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Downtown Portland, DRGill / Shutterstock.com

It’s easier to guide the vision and mission of a church you start. It’s another thing to help a 135-year-old congregation reimagine what it means to be a downtown urban church in a world that has changed dramatically all around it. At Milagro, the church we founded in our living room some nine years ago, we set the course for what we wanted that community to look like: a refuge for the spiritual walking wounded, safe haven for questions, doubt, and a culture of mutual encouragement, support, and accountability that would allow people to explore their own relationship with the Divine. We have since set that community free and already, it is becoming something different.

As well it should.

Now we find ourselves at First Christian Church in downtown Portland — a different animal entirely. In some ways, the two communities are very complementary, in that one has what the other tends to lack. But we’ve discerned that, first and foremost, our job is to help cultivate a spirit of radical openness and welcome. But what does this mean, and how do we even begin to change the makeup of an institution that has exited for more than five generations before us?

Sometimes, it’s the simplest things that say the most. We had a tradition at Milagro of “mugging” people when they came for the first time. This meant one of our hospitality stewards (AKA, “muggers”) would approach them and give them a coffee mug filled with candy and some information about the church. With First Christian, however, most people know we’re here; the bigger question lingering in the public mind is why.

In this case, instead of a brochure describing programs or institutional history, Amy included the welcome statement that follows, which she borrowed and adapted from a Catholic community.

Many young adults are leaving the church these days. Two 20-somethings reflect on what keeps them in the pews.

Religion News Service photo courtesy of Nate Phelps

Nate Phelps, shown here with fiancee Angela Feldstein. Religion News Service photo courtesy of Nate Phelps

The estranged son of a Kansas pastor famous for protesting the funerals of soldiers and AIDS victims has condemned his family’s plans to picket the funerals of the 26 people — including 20 children — who were killed when a gunman stormed a Connecticut elementary school.

In the wake of Friday’s massacre in Newtown, Conn., members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kan., posted Twitter messages saying they would picket outside Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown. The messages provided no information on the time of the planned picketing.

"Westboro 'God hates Fags' Baptist Church is planning to picket at Sandy Hook, to praise 'God's judgment,'” was posted by Margie Phelps, the daughter of Westboro leader Fred Phelps Sr. Her sister, Shirley Phelps-Roper, tweeted Saturday that the group would "sing praise to God for the glory of his work in executing his judgment."

Kenneth Tanner 12-14-2012
Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

Christian woman receives communion wafers in Kashmir, India. Photo by Yawar Nazir/Getty Images

When it comes to sharing the Eucharist among faithful but separated Christ followers, I wonder if Jesus is waiting for the churches simply to be the Church?

For the sake of this uncommon meal and the One who gives himself to us in it we can partake together, not on the shaky foundation of our present tragic divisions but on the firm ground of our promised unity by joining now in the Great Feast we will celebrate with him forever in eternity.

It is, after all, his table. It is a table set not only in the presence of our enemies in this world but set also in the unseen realm of Christ’s anticipated future rule that in a mystery comes to each of our houses of worship simultaneously as we gather in hope to encounter his resurrected person, week in and week out.

In this scenario, we remain mindful and respectful of our present divisions yet act on the coming unity we know is ours now by promise because no prayer of Jesus, certainly not his prayer that we be "one," can ever fail (John 17).

Christian Piatt 12-03-2012
Photo: Woman praying, © John Wollwerth  / Shutterstock.com

Photo: Woman praying, © John Wollwerth / Shutterstock.com

I’ll preface this piece my saying I know I am making some broad generalizations based on gender, and that there are always exceptions to every trend. But despite that, I do think there are some cultural trends that can offer us some useful insight.

Anyone who has been paying attention has noticed that, of those left within the walls of most churches, the majority still hanging in there are women. Some, like the advocates of so-called Masculine Christianity, see this as a crisis. The Christian faith and its symbols are becoming softened, feminized, compromised into being something other than what they were meant to be.

Granted, when you take a faith whose principal authors historically have been men and then place that same faith in the hands of women, some things will inevitably change. Personally, I welcome the exploration of other, feminine expressions of the divine and values such as embodied spirituality that many female Christian leaders value. But aside from these assets, I think that women bring something far more critical to institutional religion.

Without them, it may cease to exist.

Nyambura J. Njoroge 11-27-2012

Adapted from "Women as Compassionate Champions: The Doers and the Leaders," by Nyambura J. Njorage, in Women, HIV, and the Church: In Search of Refuge.

Beth Newberry 11-27-2012

Your congregation—large or small—has more to invest than you might expect.

Beth Newberry 11-27-2012

A small congregation in Kentucky demonstrates how your church may have more money—and power—than you think.

Melissa Otterbein 11-27-2012
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.

Christian Piatt 11-12-2012
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?

Why it's time for a conversation about Slow Church.

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.

Christian Piatt 10-12-2012
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.”

Phil Haslanger 10-11-2012
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.

Christian Piatt 10-03-2012
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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