denominations

8 Ways to Survive Christian Culture

Christian rock band performing in Ukraine, Nadiia Gerbish / Shutterstock.com
Christian rock band performing in Ukraine, Nadiia Gerbish / Shutterstock.com

Christian culture, along with the spiritual leaders, churches, institutions, communities, and other entities it consists of, are supposed to make our faith stronger. But in many cases the opposite happens, and it actually causes our faith to die. In religious environments often surrounded by cynicism, hypocrisy, hurtfulness, and disappointment, it’s easy to give up on Christianity. Here’s how to prevent spiritual burnout:

1)    Avoid Legalism

Historically, Christianity has always struggled with legalism, where churches often forced beliefs and practices on people with domineering power. Legalistic groups thrive on strict rules, ruthlessness, enforced doctrines, and authoritarian judgment.

Various agendas — that are valued more than the loving gospel of Christ — are promoted and pushed onto people. And it wasn’t that long ago (in fact, it still exists) that American believers were expected to be anti-gay, conservative, pro-choice, anti-evolution fundamentalists.

If fear, condemnation, and shame are used as spiritual weapons to gain power, influence, and control — run!

Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back

Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com
Ball and chain holding person back, Air0ne / Shutterstock.com

I’m often asked about what trends I see within Christianity, both good and bad. So in my ongoing effort to help name trends and offer an alternative way of thinking about our faith, here are the five biggest things I’ve seen that tend to keep us from doing our best work as the living, breathing body of Christ in the world today.

1. Church Buildings — Many of our church buildings were established in a time when Christianity was booming numerically in the United States. We could hardly keep up with the growth happening all around us. Understandably, churches popped up where the people were too, drawing many away from their old downtown churches to a more convenient suburban community. But as our numbers have dwindled – combined with the fact the we’re a much more mobile society now that ever before – many churches are becoming monuments to what has long since passed. They have become an albatross rather than an asset.

There’s Something in the Air: Grace

RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks
Plaintiffs speak to the media June 26 after the Supreme Court rejected Prop 8 on legal grounds. RNS photo by Adelle M. Banks

Rather than a Third Great Awakening I believe we are standing in the threshold of a Great Grace Awakening. It’s a move of the Holy Spirit drawing people away from legalistic and fear-based beliefs to a place some of us would call grace.

On the surface, it may seem to fly in the face of some traditional Judeo-Christian ethics. But it is aligned with a broader, more universal ethic that seems to be developing around genuine Christian love and grace — the very essence of Jesus’ ministry and what makes it so revolutionary — as guiding principles.

Grace is the reason for the incarnation. God became human and walked in our sandals because God knows us and wants us to be known.

Grace says that there is nothing we could ever do that would make God love us less. And grace tells us that there’s nothing we could ever do that would make God love us more. You are loved simply because you are and for all of who you are. Full stop.

Moving From the Sanctuary to Social Networks

Online church illustration, S.john / Shutterstock.com
Online church illustration, S.john / Shutterstock.com

A tech writer’s obituary for PCWorld’s print magazine — part tongue-in-cheek, part nostalgia riff — reminded me that I once devoured that magazine, now kaput.

It was an early lens into the fascinating world of personal computing. Its ads and articles stoked dreams of power and speed.

I soon became part of PCWorld’s dilemma. I dropped the print mag and began seeking tech news on the Internet. It was faster and fresher, had clickable links to other sites, great art, and brevity. PCWorld itself went online.

Much of my world has switched to the Internet. I do most of my banking and bill paying online, shop online, order lunch online, learn choir music online, teach classes online, use email and text messaging extensively, and read the news online.

Nothing unusual in any of that. Such web-centered behavior has become the new normal. Any enterprise that isn’t considering ways to move its operations online is losing its future.

In my world, more and more churches are going web. Electronic newsletters replace mailed paper. Clergy use email to communicate, as do staff and volunteers. Tweets, Facebook posts, e-blasts, and text messages carry word of emergencies. Constituents make donations online.

There’s more. Classes are moving online, as are interviews with job candidates and opinion surveys. Some congregations are experimenting with worship online and small groups. Every Sunday morning, some 600,000 people a minute access Bible verses online using one app.

'Here is the Steeple:' Church Leaders Take on Sexual Violence Within Their Walls

 'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com
'Here is the Steeple' hand game, Anita Patterson Peppers / Shutterstock.com

A movement of lay advocates speaking out against sexual violence is gaining steam in the faith communities. But are similar efforts happening inside church doors?

When it comes to leading denominational conversations on sexual violence, clergy across traditions express twin reactions: encouragement over the protocols already in place and the efforts of fellow advocates; and frustration with a culture of silence around sexual violence in the church. Despite strikingly different experiences across denominations — and church by church — the clergy, church staff, and seminarians who spoke with Sojourners are in agreement that addressing this issue in one’s own house is complicated at every level.

The result: a loss of potential by the American church to be a leading and vibrant institution of radical vulnerability and transformative healing.

The Bells

Photo: Church bells at sunset, © Magdalena Bujak / Shutterstock.com
Photo: Church bells at sunset, © Magdalena Bujak / Shutterstock.com

Our text this morning, brothers and sisters, is from the inimitable Scottish devout Robert Louis Stevenson, writing (ostensibly) about his native city:

“Indeed, there are not many uproars in this world more dismal than that of the Sabbath bells in Edinburgh: a harsh ecclesial tocsin; the outcry of incongruous orthodoxies, calling on every separate conventicler to put up a protest, each in his own synagogue, against ‘right-hand extremes and left-hand defections.’ And surely there are few worse extremes than this extremity of zeal; and few more deplorable defections than this disloyalty to Christian love. Shakespeare wrote a comedy of ‘Much Ado About Nothing.’ The Scottish nation made a fantastic tragedy on the same subject. And it is for the success of this remarkable piece that these bells are sounded every Sabbath morning on the hills above the Forth. How many of them might rest silent in the steeple, how many of those ugly churches might be demolished and turned once more into useful building materials, if people who think almost exactly the same thoughts about religion would condescend to worship God under the same roof! But there are the chalk lines. And which to pocket pride, and speak the foremost word?”

Which, indeed? 

Let us talk for a minute, blunt and honest and not polite for a change, about that which is never said and ought to be: that the divisions and disagreements among the Christian sects and traditions are silly and selfish.

Q&A with ‘Nonbeliever Nation’ Author David Niose

[Editor's Note: David Niose is president of the American Humanist Association and vice president of the Secular Coalition for America, a group that lobbies on behalf of nontheist and secular Americans. In his new book, “Nonbeliever Nation: The Rise of Secular Americans,” he charts the development and growth of the religious right and what he sees as the increasingly organized response from Americans who are committed to the separation of church and state. Some answers have been edited for length and clarity.]

Q: You write about the 1912 presidential election as one in which all four candidates were sympathetic to evolution, science and religious skepticism. Today, a presidential candidate favors evolution at his or her peril. What’s changed?

A: What has changed is the environment of politics, particularly the level of political discourse. Thanks to the rise of the religious right, many candidates today actually emphasize their anti-intellectualism as a selling point to voters. Conservative Christians have always been part of the voter pool, of course, but only in recent decades have they been organizing and flexing their muscle as a voting bloc. Many candidates get mileage by pandering to conservative religion, by openly rejecting science and emphasizing their biblical literalist views.

Going Easy On The Church

Whenever dialogue about the fate of faith surfaces, which seems like always (and perhaps it’s been this way since disciples first broke bread together), the church gets hit the hardest. The “relationship-not-religion” rap remains popular on the right, the left loves to loathe abuses of ecclesial authority, and so on; thus the internal bickering multiplies like so many loaves and fishes.

When my denominational family, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA), decided against sanctioning gay marriage at its recent General Assembly, I expressed support for the defeated measure on my Facebook page and reposted a blog that denounced some of the more bigoted remarks from the assembly’s discussion floor. An old friend who participates in a Unitarian Universalist congregation read my post and replied, suggesting that I might be “going too easy on the church,” perchance because my comments accompanying the reposting were not harsher and more dramatic in my critique of what many view as religiously motivated homophobia.

This phrase and image of “going easy on the church” stuck in my mind because the church has been quite easy for me — inviting me, a confessed sinner, into its doors and into its community, after years of walking on the slippery slopes and loose living of the wild side.

In my experience, the church has not just been easy on reformed sinners, it has been easy on the poor, the lonely, the recovering addicts, the very young, and the very old. The church makes life easier for a lot of people, with its marrying and mourning, peacemaking and potlucks, prayer groups and parenting classes, rummage sales and support for refugees, disaster relief and radical discipleship.

U.S. Christians Hope for an ‘Ecumenical Spring’

Photo by Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images
Leaders of different religions perform ecumenical service prior to Passion Play. (Photo by Thomas Niedermueller/Getty Images)

For years, advocates for greater unity among Christian churches have wrung their hands amid talk of an "ecumenical winter."

But now, 10 years after leaders took the first steps toward forming the broad-based group Christian Churches Together in the USA, some have hopes that U.S. churches may be entering a new season of closer relations.

At a recent CCT meeting in Memphis, Tenn., 85 Christians -- Catholic, Protestant and Orthodox, white and nonwhite -- made pilgrimages to historic sites of the civil rights movement. They also made plans to use next year's 50th anniversary of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s Letter from a Birmingham Jail to pursue anti-poverty projects with houses of worship unlike their own.

"I would like to think of it as an ecumenical spring and that we do not yet know what will break forth," said the Rev. Stephen J. Sidorak Jr., ecumenical staff officer of the United Methodist Church.

"I think that there's the potential for the ecumenical movement to be more alive than it's ever been because it will be more inclusive."

In many ways, the movement that has grappled with theological differences, leadership struggles, finances -- and even what to call itself -- is in the midst of major down-sizing that they hope will lead to wider engagement:

‘Seeing Through Heaven’s Eyes’ – Charismatic Christianity 2.0?

Unlike the earlier turn-of-the-20th-century Pentecostal movement, which created a plethora of new denominations, the Charismatic Movement  — with its emphasis on the felt-presence of the Holy Spirit, intimate worship, healings, and spiritual gifts as written about in the New Testament — united Lutherans and Catholics, East Orthodox and Episcopalians, promising in its early years to utterly remake ecumenical dialogues into a fully-felt move of the Spirit.

These heady early days inspired everyone from the Jesus Movement to Richard Rohr and many believed that a new fullness of Christian faith was being formed.

Then, as often happens as new movements grow and spread, things got messy. Denominational officials became suspicious; new denominations like the Vineyard were born, attracting new Christians such as Bob Dylan.

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