Thursday, January 19, 2017

Why are people in your church hiding in closets?

As a Christian pastor, one of my greatest hopes is that children of all sexual orientations or gender identities will be loved for who they are. Too many times (more times than I can count), I have had conversations with queer Christians about the burden they carry of having struggled all their lives with communities of faith telling them, “You can just pray the gay away.” But they discover through repeated effort… it isn’t true.

Young gay people in church should not have to feel shame when they can’t change. If leaders, like clergy or family, tell them they should or can, such young people trust, and firmly and really do believe that they can change. It’s the church telling them this, after all. Trusting their spiritual leadership, they really do want to change and not be different and “be a sinner and go to hell.”

It’s a terrible kind of spiritual abuse. It often ends up making young people, if not suicidal, then at the very least very unhappy, with a poor self image and the fear that God hates them for not having enough faith to change.

As one gay friend wrote: “Being gay is not as much about sex as it is more importantly about a person’s true identity. Denying your true self will only cause problems. In fact, it makes it even more difficult for people to become Christians since they will always foster resentment towards a God that made them that way and did not answer their prayers to be changed. I really don't understand why people continue to promote this harmful process. I also believe it can make the young person depressed, because it is basically teaching you to hate who you are.”

So there’s a conference in Bentonville next Saturday, January 28th, hosted by an “ex-gay” pastor who offers a “road to freedom from same sex attraction.” What I want to say to this pastor is this:

“Although I honor your own individual journey as a person, I am deeply disturbed by your marketing of it to Northwest Arkansas clergy and congregation. You are exercising a form of spiritual abuse, cultural erasure, in most ways indistinguishable from the ways European immigrants to America tried to erase Native culture, or every dominant culture in its attempts to destroy or convert difference. Please stop. Go home and enjoy your family and stop preaching a prison as if it were freedom.”

One of the topics for the conference is indicative of the wider issue. They ask: “What do you do when your Worship Leader comes out of the closet?” Well, isn’t the point that a healthy faith community would already know that their worship leader was gay? And would celebrate and affirm it? What closet? Why are people in your church hiding in closets?

See, in our community of faith, what we learn is that LGBTQ+ people have many gifts to share with us. They have a perspective on life that can teach the church how to be the church. It isn’t that they need us to help them walk away from their queer identity. Quite the opposite, we need their queer selves, precisely as themselves, to be more fully the body of Christ.

As my friend Liz Edman writes in her fantastic book, Queer Virtue:

“For too long, public discourse about LGBTQ people has tended to operate from the premise that queer identity is morally problematic, but that there are specific instances of individual queer people who live upright lives. I argue precisely the opposite: while individual queer people struggle at times with moral failing--as all human beings do--in general I perceive queer identity to have at its core a moral center of high caliber, one that is both inspirational and aspirational. My experience being immersed in the lives of and spiritual journeying of queer people tells me plainly not only that the divine is alive and well in us, but that many of us are deeply attuned to it."

So, bottom line, you can either go attend a conference where you reinforce denial, and erase identity, and ignore spiritual gifts--or--you can join communities of faith that see queer as a central aspect of faith, and celebrate that identity.

If you are of such a mind and heart, perhaps you’d like to join us at Good Shepherd Lutheran in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for a celebration of such reconciliation with the queering of Christianity. We’re celebrating our annual reconciling in Christ Sunday on January 29th, 9 or 11 a.m. worship, then hosting Liz Edman at our congregation for a talk and visit on February 24th, 6:30 p.m., social outing after.

We’re always still learning and growing. We’re here in an open posture, to learn and grow with you into the fullness of life in Christ. Really.

Wednesday, January 18, 2017

Three quotes that illumine all of Scripture

Before his death, Luther famously scribbled a few notes. He wrote: Wir sein Pettler. Hoc est verum. (Translation: We are beggars. This is true.) Less well-know, but even more intriguing, is the sentence immediately preceding it.
No one can think that they have tasted the Holy Scriptures thoroughly until they have ruled over the churches with the prophets for a hundred years. (Luther)
We remember Luther for many reasons. He was a Reformer. A father. A publicist. A man of his time, a man who made his time. He wrote a crazy lot of things (a stack of all his books would reach about 20 feet tall), including his last book, titled: Against the Asses at Paris and Louvain.

But Luther devoted his life above all to teaching and preaching Scripture. Volume after volume of sermons. A five volume commentary on Genesis. Not just one but two commentaries on Galatians. So if anyone could have claimed knowledge of Scripture, it was Luther. Yet at the end of his life, he confesses he has fallen short of the time needed by about 40 years.

And he teaches the proper context for the study of Scripture: in/with/over the church, in the company of the prophets.

In other words, Scripture is designed not to be understood, but to stand under... to engage in community over a lifetime.

I preach from Scripture weekly, study it daily, yet it constantly surprises me how little I know of it, how much there is yet to discover. I've preached some texts over twenty times now and not exhausted them. And the Scripture regularly turns me around to a new point of view when I engage it.

I recently came across this great little quote in Raymond Gawronski's book Word and Silence: Hans Urs Von Balthasar and the Spiritual Encounter Between East and West.
"All natural humanity seeks God: Biblical humanity is found by the God who seeks, and is sent out on a renewed search. (Gawronski)
This is to say, unless it's not clear, that we approach the Bible trying to find God, only to discover that the Bible grasps us, that God seeks us in and through Scripture, then turns us out and around towards the neighbor, joining God in the search.

The radical nature of Scripture is this turning, where we cease being the seeker, and instead become the sought.

Which then reminds me of that last great quote from Augustine in his On Christian Doctrine, that if the text doesn't mean love, you're not reading it right.
So anyone who thinks that they have understood the scriptures, or any part of them, but cannot by their understanding build up this double love of God and neigbour, has not yet succeeded in understanding them. (Augustine) 
If indeed you can accomplish this double love of God and neighbor on your own, then there is no longer need of Scripture. In the meantime, I refer myself and others back to Luther's rule, that it takes at least 100 years, in the right context, among the right prophetic community.

Which is just one, and perhaps the central reason, that Scripture is Scripture. It's inexhaustibly transformative.

Monday, January 16, 2017

The Third Reconstruction: Fourteen Steps Forward Together

Excerpted from The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II's The Third Reconstruction: How a moral movement is overcoming the politics of division and fear.

America's Third Reconstruction depends on a moral movement, deeply rooted in the South, emerging state by state throughout the nation. No single leader or organization can orchestrate such a movement, but we who have seen the power of fusion organizing in North Carolina in 2014 established an education center, Repairers of the Breach, to share the lessons of Moral Mondays and invest in equipping leaders for other state-based coalitions. In order to move forward together, have outlined fourteen steps to mobilize in the streets, at the polls, and in the courtroom. 

1. Engage in indigenously led grassroots organizing across the state. There is no end run around the relational work of building trust and empowering local people. Crises will bring out crowds and draw attention, but a sustained movement depends on local people who know one another and are committed to working together for the long haul. “Helicopter” leadership by “national leaders” will not sustain a moral movement. Equip and resource small groups of people who will meet regularly in their home communities to talk about the coalition’s concerns.

2. Use moral language to frame and critique public policy, regardless of who is in power. A moral movement claims higher ground in partisan debate by returning public discourse to our deepest moral and constitutional values. Any moral movement must study Scripture and sacred texts as well as state constitutions. We cannot allow so-called conservatives to hijack the powerful language of faith; neither can we let so-called liberals pretend that moral convictions are not at play in public policy debates. Every budget is a moral document—or it is an immoral one. We must reclaim moral language in the public square.

3. Demonstrate a commitment to civil disobedience that follows the steps of nonviolent action and is designed to change the public conversation and consciousness. A moral movement draws power not from its ability to overwhelm opposition but from its willingness to suffer. The Second Reconstruction brought large-scale nonviolent direct action to America through the Montgomery bus boycott. A Third Reconstruction depends upon escalating noncooperation in order to demonstrate our capacity to sacrifice for a better future.

4. Build a stage from which to lift the voices of everyday people impacted by immoral policies. A moral movement must put human faces on injustice and amplify the voice of the voiceless. We do not speak for those who can speak for themselves. We do not create a platform for politicians to speak for those who can speak for themselves. Directly affected people are the best moral witnesses. Our movement exists to let their voices be heard.
5. Recognize the centrality of race. America’s First and Second Reconstructions sought to heal the wound of race-based slavery, America’s original sin. Our Third Reconstruction must likewise be decidedly antiracist. Some will ask, Is the real issue today race or is it class? We answer: Yes, it’s race and class. Our class divisions cannot be understood apart from a society built on white supremacy. Our moral movement must be committed to the long-term work of racial equity.

6. Build a broad, diverse coalition including moral and religious leaders of all faiths. All faith traditions are not the same, but the common ground among faiths is a firm foundation upon which to stand against the divide-and-conquer strategies of extremists. We must be intentional about reaching out to marginalized groups in our states. Though they are a minority in this country, our Muslim sisters and brothers are essential to the Third Reconstruction.

7. Intentionally diversify the movement with the goal of winning unlikely allies. Often the groups most impacted by injustice have been convinced that they are enemies. Fusion politics is about helping those who have suffered injustice and have been divided by extremism to see what we have in common. We do this by bringing people together across dividing lines and helping them hear one another. We have no permanent enemies, only permanent issues, rooted in our deepest moral and constitutional values.

8. Build transformative, long-term coalition relationships rooted in a clear agenda that doesn’t measure success only by electoral outcomes. We must be clear: Fusion coalitions are not about simple transactions where I support your issue if you support mine. We must learn how our issues intersect in a comprehensive moral agenda that demands transformation of everyone—not least, of us.

9. Make a serious commitment to academic and empirical analysis of policy. Nothing is worse than being loud and wrong. Our coalitions must include activist scholars and we must commit ourselves to a serious consideration of data. Moral issues are not impractical. They can be translated into policy that is sustainable and that produces measurable positive outcomes.

10. Coordinate use of all forms of social media: video, text, Twitter, Facebook, and so forth. Mainstream media outlets are often unable to tell a story that doesn’t fit within the established narrative. We must tell our own story. Social media afford us multiple outlets for the consciousness-raising that movements have always depended upon. Use them all.

11. Engage in voter registration and education. The political power of fusion coalitions is based upon a diversified electorate that recognizes common interests. Extremists understand this. They have invested heavily in restricting voting rights and dividing potential allies. We must engage voters in each election, educating them about how candidates have voted or committed to vote on issues that are part of our shared moral agenda. 

12. Pursue a strong legal strategy. A moral movement rooted in constitutional values needs a strong legal team and a commitment to mobilizing in the courtroom. The future we imagine and embody in the streets must be established in our statehouses and affirmed by our courts. We cannot neglect this key piece of our common life.

13. Engage the cultural arts. A moral movement is only as strong as the songs we sing together. Study the history of cultural arts in freedom movements and bring music, the spoken word, storytelling, and visual arts into your organizing. Make sure the images in your art and actions convey the same message you are proclaiming with words. Speak the truth, sing the truth, and use art to help people imagine the future they cannot yet see.

14. Resist the “one moment” mentality; we are building a movement! No one victory will usher in beloved community; no single setback can stop us. We are building up a new world, moving forward together toward freedom and justice for all.

The Reverend Dr. William J. Barber II is the president of the North Carolina chapter of the NAACP, pastor at Greenleaf Christian Church in Goldsboro, North Carolina, and founder of Repairers of the Breach. He is the author of Forward Together: A Moral Message for the NationFollow him on Twitter at @RevDrBarber.

Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove is cofounder of Rutba House for the formerly homeless and director of the School for Conversion. His books include Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (with Shane Claiborne) and The New Monasticism. Follow him on Twitter at @wilsonhartgrove.

Saturday, January 14, 2017

The skinny on church growth

Truth #1: Nobody knows why some churches grow and others don't. 

Church growth shares sociological territory with rock bands and publishing. You can't always predict which books will sell, or which bands will go to the top of the charts. Remember the old publishing mantra: "There are three ways to make money in publishing... and none of them work."

Sometimes arbitrary, sometimes serendipitous, so much of church growth remains inexplicable (apart from the work of the Holy Spirit).

  • Some churches experience a mercurial rise and fall, 
  • a few grow and grow and grow and grow (less than 2% of all churches)
  • while most get to a fairly standard size (these tend to be groups of 2-3, 6-12, 20-70, 150-250, 35-400, then huge), and then remain there. It happens, but there's no formula.

Truth #2: We absolutely do know why some churches grow, and others don't. 

There are legitimate, tried and true reasons churches grow. Some of them are almost like social engineering formulas. You can bank on them. Others are more spiritual yet equally real.

  • Denominations grow because their members have babies. 
  • Individual congregations grow under the leadership of a magnetic preacher. 
  • [Some] churches grow faster if they are started in urban (suburban) locations that are growing numerically also. 
  • Churches grow if they (mostly) match the dominant culture in which they are situated. 
  • Churches grow if they believe prayer works, Jesus rose from the dead, and Scripture is the word of God.

In 21st century North America, churches grow if they are already big. 
Statistics on ELCA congregations
Again, this statistic parallels larger sociological trends. I can remember driving across the United States when I was a child, and each state, each community had its own restaurants, its own stores, lots of mom and pops places. The landscape has shifted. Everything is a chain now, and many of the chains have merged.

People like to go to big box, one stop shops. It's no surprise then that they look for something similar in their churches. 

The basic theory in church growth as I understand it: these days, churches with more than 400 in worship are growing. Everything below 400 (roughly) are not. There's a smaller barrier to break around 200 in worship attendance, a sociological barrier to move from a pastor centered (where the center of gravity for joining is around the pastor) to a program centered structure (where people join the community and events). Lots of churches bounce up into this category, then drop back down below 200, because ultimately they remain culturally a pastor-centered community.

But once a church breaks past 400, the sociological push is far more likely to facilitate their continuing growth.

You can see that in the chart of ELCA congregations above. Those with 350 or more in worship were much more likely to see substantial numeric growth.

I'd venture to guess that although the vast majority of churches in the United States will still be very small ones (because people are starting new churches all the time, and because small churches are sometimes very tenacious and fruitful), this means that there is a fairly regular pattern in play--people are moving from small churches to larger churches. Larger churches are growing because they're attracting people from the surrounding smaller churches.

In 21st century North America, the vast majority of churches (and denominations) are losing members, not growing, and nobody knows how to stop it. 

That's the plain old truth. It's not going to change. And it's going to continue, and accelerate. Quickly. But analysis of decline is for another post.

Nevertheless, there are a few churches, at every size, that grow. We can learn from them.

One massive failure of the church growth movement in the 20th century was a hyper-focus on mega-churches. The biggest and most successful churches marketed their methodologies, and leaders all across the country went to their conferences. This was of course a solid strategy IF (and this is a problematic if) your church was already big enough to benefit from the methods.

But most churches weren't mega-churches, and weren't going to become ones, so the methods that worked so well as the large church size had a different effect on all the conference attendees--they elicited false hopes and dispirited the masses.

Not only that... they also overlooked some of the realities of church growth, that much is about context, the dynamism of the leader, demographics and babies and such (remember, we both do and don't know why churches grow).

And it really overlooked a simple fact, that the largest churches often grow by attracting members away from smaller churches.


So, let's say you are a small church, and you want to grow. You know it probably won't work to use the church growth strategies of the 20th century, and you aren't even sure if it's a spiritually sound strategy to set "growth" as the primary goal of the church. 

What are the factors for growth, the ones worth considering? 

I conclude with this non-exhaustive list. If we take the two truths dialectic to heart (Truth #1 and Truth #2), I'm probably both right and wrong in this list. But these are the things that are working in our context. We average around 175 in worship right now. We have added around 50 members per year at our congregation over the past five years, this year closer to 70. We also had a major split in the congregation two years ago and lost about 40% of our people.
  • Focus on the "why" rather than the "how" of evangelism and church. Martha Grace Reese points out in Unbinding the Gospel that if you don't know the "why" of evangelism you'll never get folks engaged in the "how." In our context, the "why" includes a laser like focus on offering a progressive faith voice in our region and state.
  • If you build it, they will come. Intentionality is everything. We plan for new people to come. We host an annual catechumenal process for faith formation with those new to us. We pray over them, cultivate community with them, sponsor them, empower our people to join in mission with those who are new, and more.
  • Focus on a niche that swims in blue oceans. This may sound too business-like, so I could articulate it in a more religious mode. Reach the unreached. Don't play to the 60% of churchgoers who are already connected to a community of faith but are thinking about switching. Instead, be a faith community in the kind of shape, and in those places, that connect to people not yet connected to a community of faith. Matthew says, "Go therefore and make disciples of all nations."
  • Your new folks will be your best outreach. Really. Rely on them. They will both teach you who you are becoming, and share with their neighbors (who are more likely to not yet be connected to a church) about what they love about your church. They are the ones who believe, as I heard recently about our congregation from a newcomer, "As a church, you have the reputation for being concerned with the teachings and actions of Christ, for advocating for the disadvantaged, and for creating a community that is safe and compelling."
  • Prepare for resistance. If you are proclaiming Christ and him crucified, if you are really focused on God's mission, you will meet some resistance even within your own congregation, and definitely in the community. Plan on such resistance. Worry if you aren't encountering it. Learn from it. Take it as inspiration. 
  • Focus on Christ. There are many spiritual resources out there. People look to religion to meet some kind of need they haven't been able to meet yet in their life in the world they know. But church in the way I'm envisioning it has a particular and joyful center. It's Jesus. He's really that interesting. And intentional circling around the Christ in the company of that strange community who aligns themselves with him, does indeed make a world of difference. People will see that and will want to join you in the mission.