The Mainline Protestant Church(es) has been in decline for much of my life. The churches that make up the Mainline reached their height of influence a...moreThe Mainline Protestant Church(es) has been in decline for much of my life. The churches that make up the Mainline reached their height of influence and numbers within a few years of my birth at the end of the 1950s. Once full churches now are either closing or live with a scattering of aging members remembering better days.
There have been numerous responses to this situation. Some blame the decline on liberalism or being too tied to the culture. Others suggest that Mainline churches haven't adapted to changing realities, failing to exchange organs and hymnals for guitars and screens. There have been some, including Diana Butler Bass who have pointed out pockets of strength, even among the liberal congregations.
Derek Penwell, a Disciples clergy colleague, who has evangelical roots, has written his own response to the plight of the Mainline. He beleives in the message of Progressive Christianity, which finds its home in the remnant of the Mainline, but he's concerned that the desire to protect the status quo endangers its ability to get the message out. He's not interested in a better marketing plan, but rather wants the church to be bold in its proclamation of this message.
Derek offers us a historical perspective reminding us that there are similarities to the post-Revolutionary Age, which produced the Stone-Campbell Movement. This movement sought to make the church and its message more accessible and adaptable to the Frontier. Interestingly late in the book he questions the value of an individualistic faith, but in many ways this was the hallmark of the religious movements of the early 19th century, including our own.
I've been waiting for this book for some time, in large part because I share the same denomination with Derek. I share his concerns about the denomination and its future. Like him I'm more committed to the message than the institution. As I read the book, I liked much of what I read. I agreed with most of his analysis. At times, however, I wrestled with the tone. Part of this has to do with the style, which is informal, almost blog-like. Part of it is generational. As a late Baby Boomer, I find myself conflicted about the nature of our communities. I believe in change. I've preached change. But I'm a bit more reticent to throw out some things that those younger than me might see as unnecessary. Perhaps the best way to put it is a feeling that the tone is somewhat argumentative. I realize that when it comes to tone, everything is in the eye of the beholder.
Derek offers a biting critique, especially of churches and their leaders, who have been slow in embracing the LGBT community. I understand his impatience. I believe my congregation has gone a long way toward being open and affirming. We've made great strides and we've made it clear that all are welcome, but we've not taken the vote yet. So, maybe my conscience was pricked a bit!
The question in the end concerns what can be done. The future looks daunting. I'll make it to retirement. But will the churches I've served be able to call someone to serve in the same way I've served? Derek calls for boldness. That may be the way in which we get the message out. But I want more. I want to understand how we can take root in our communities. I want to understand how we can be inviting to younger generations, without telling older generations that they need to get out of the way. Finding that balance isn't easy. So the journey and the conversation continues. Derek gives us food for thought and resources for the conversation, even if I'm left wanting more.
I will have more to say in a later blog review. (less)
When I tell people that I'm a Disciples pastor, they will usually ask me about our identity? To make it simple, I often tell people that we're sort of...moreWhen I tell people that I'm a Disciples pastor, they will usually ask me about our identity? To make it simple, I often tell people that we're sort of like Presbyterians mixed with Baptists who have communion every Sunday. We sort of look like Baptists, but our roots are Presbyterian. We are also, I usually point out, an American born and bred denomination. We are a frontier people.
In "Whole," Sharon Watkins, the General Minister and President of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) writes about identity. She uses our denominational identity statement: "We are a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world," to speak to that question of identity. She acknowledges that we have an identity problem in part because our name sounds generic on one hand (Christian Church) and cultic on the other (Disciples of Christ).
In this book, which Sharon writes both for Disciples and those interested in our mission, Sharon seeks to outline what it will look like for us to be a church for the twenty-first century. She explores these words -- movement and wholeness. She speaks of our historic commitment to pursuing Christian unity, and explores the need to move out into the world in mission (movement).
Despite our low profile, something she has experienced all her life (she's a life-long Disciple, born to life-long Disciples), Sharon believes that the Disciples are a church for today -- our time has come. This is of course, a matter of the ideal, and often isn't the reality for us. But, our commitment to unity, our embrace of freedom of biblical interpretation, our commitment -- at least in theory -- to diversity all speak loudly to our readiness to embrace the present and the future.
Included in the book is a set of appendices that offer us identity documents and statements. It also provides the text to her 2009 sermon after the inauguration of Barack Obama as President. In that sermon, she celebrated the new President's historic fete (first person of color to serve as President), but she also spoke prophetically, calling the President to engage in works of justice. She used the analogy of two wolves that are competing within each of us. One wolf is focused on vengeance and power. The other on compassion. The wolf we feed will determine who we are. I believe that we have all chosen the wrong wolf -- the wolf of vengeance. The sermon is a good reminder of where we need to be as a nation, but also of a prophetic statement to the world.
It is a brief book, which combines personal stories, stories from churches, and the biblical story. Itis accompanied by discussion questions for each chapter, making it a useful book for studies in local churches. I know I will be using it that way in my congregation.
Every time there's a disaster the affected community must discern a path forward. There is the immedate need to get people to safety, make sure everyo...moreEvery time there's a disaster the affected community must discern a path forward. There is the immedate need to get people to safety, make sure everyone is accounted for, and emergency supoort provided. Then there's the long term question of recovery. The faith community is often at the forefront of these efforts. They provide financial support, volunteers, and moral support. They can be helpful or hindrances. The key, it would seem, is to be prepared to help and to provide hope.
Amy Gopp, now leading Church World Service, and Brandon Gilvin, associate director of Week of Compassion (Disciples of Christ), have put together an essential manualthat can help congregations prepare for a disaster ranging from a hurricane to a shooting that occurs in their building or community, to the felt need to help those outside their area who have been affected.
One of the important themes of the book, which is comprised of twenty-four brief chapters, written by people of faith who have been affected by disaster and who have assisted in relief efforts, is to use the words of Johnny Wray -- Stay, Pray, and Pay. Too often in our eagerness to help, we get in the way. We show up, hoping to volunteer, but simply get in the way -- having not thought about what tools we'll need, where we'll stay, and what we'll eat. As we learn in one of the chapters on volunteering, usually the greatest need for outside volunteers happens after the new media leaves -- three to six months later. The emphasis is also placed on the greater benefit of money over materials -- if we give money then those on the ground can determine what they need. Too often semis arrive with all kinds of stuff that is of no use and now must be stored somewhere. So what do you do? Find an appropriate and efficient relief group to work through. As a Disciple I find that working through Week of Compassion and Church World Service are the best bets.
The book includes a section at the end entitled Congregational Tool Kit. In this section you'll find all kinds of tools from lists of dos and don'ts to liturgical materials. There's even a bible study guide on disaster preparedness and care of those in need.
I think every pastor should read this book, and everyone in churches who are involved in these various areas of ministry should read the appropriate chapters. Being aware and informed is key.
If these is one area that isn't addressed it is economic disaster. I've had this conversation with both Amy and Brandon over the years. While natural disasters get lots of attention, the economic disaster that affects many rural and urban communities doesn't get the same attention. We seem to assume that these folks brought their "disaster" on themselves, and therefore should dig themselves out. Because I've been involved in starting a ministry in the city of Detroit that seeks to bring new life to communities under duress, I wish this kind of effort kind be highlighted. I think that in many ways a ministry like Gospel in Action Detroit or Motown Mission can be good places of volunteer service while financial support goes to the immediate relief of natural disasters. Both kinds of situations require our attention, but let us not forget the economic issues of our time.
I read this several years ago. Jan Lin is a Disciples of Christ pastor, now retired, I believe. He has a strong sense of evangelism and offers this as...moreI read this several years ago. Jan Lin is a Disciples of Christ pastor, now retired, I believe. He has a strong sense of evangelism and offers this as a way into the conversation. (less)
Joe Jones is a retired Disciples of Christ theologian. He is some what unique in that he has had an affinity for Karl Barth (an affinity I share as a...moreJoe Jones is a retired Disciples of Christ theologian. He is some what unique in that he has had an affinity for Karl Barth (an affinity I share as a Disciples pastor/theologian) and for John Howard Yoder. His theological work is rooted in Wittgenstein's concern for words/grammar, and he is troubled by the lack of theological sophistication among many in the church -- especially the clergy of his own denomination.
In this book, we find a collection of essays, blog posts, and sermons. Most have been written since the publication of an earlier collection was published in 2005 (On Being the Church of Jesus Christ in Tumultuous Times). The book is divided into four parts. Part one focuses on theological matters -- "Ecumenical Theologizing with Ecclesial Friends." I personally found this section to be the most provocative -- as he takes on the questions of what it means to live out a "radical orthodoxy." He talks about theological method, spiritual formation, salvation, discipleship, and the eucharist.
In part two, writing from a Yoder-influenced perspective, he tackles matters of politics from the perspective of a Gospel of hope. Yes, his politics is liberal, but his roots are in the gospel -- for the question is whether we are American first or Christian first.
In Part Three, he takes up a number of conversations -- beginning with the story of his life growing up in Oklahoma and on to his decision to pursue theology rather than law -- being the son of a respected judge. He takes us to Yale Divinity School and introduces us to H. Richard Niebuhr.
Finally, in Part four, we have before us a number of sermons preached for various occasions from his daughter's ordination to the funeral of a friend. In each of these pieces we are drawn into the biblical story and the need to draw close to the God witnessed to by this story.
What comes through these various pieces is that Jones is committed to the church and to the one who calls the church into existence. We hear a clarion call to consider the importance of the Trinity to the life of this church -- a call that is not always well received in a church that is doggedly non-creedal (at least of the traditional kind).
Being that this is a collection of various kinds of written materials, different pieces will speak differently to a person, but as with the Pauline epistles, these are occasional pieces that give witness to the gospel for our day. (less)
In 1840 Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the movement that gave birth to my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), establ...moreIn 1840 Alexander Campbell, one of the founders of the movement that gave birth to my denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), established a college near his home in what was then Bethany, Virginia. He did so out of a belief that citizens and Christians need to have good well-rounded educations. In an age when most institutions were church-related, what made his somewhat unique was his decision to try to go beyond the classical education (Greek and Latin language and literature) to bring in the sciences, as well as Scripture. His belief was that education could contribute to the moral and intellectual development of young people.
The result of his endeavours, which had to compete with numerous other religiously affiliated institutions from his own movement, was an institution that has had its ups and downs, and while evolving over time, over its nearly 175 years of existence (the oldest institution of higher education in the state of West Virginia) it has sought to retain that balance between liberal arts and sciences and vocation. What has changed, rather dramatically, over time is the role of religion. While Bethany was not founded with the need to train clergy as its focus, its primary target audience was other Disciples. Today, the Disciple presence is relatively small -- dwarfed by that of Roman Catholics, and religion is considered private -- mandatory chapel was abolished in the 1960s.
Duane Cummins, a former president of the College, a long-time leader within the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and a historian takes us on a journey from the beginnings in 1840 to the present. He sets the story within a broader story -- the development of educational policy and practice in the United States -- especially the trend that moved education from private to public providers, along with its original religious context.
This is a book with a number of audiences. It will appeal to Bethany College alums as they prepare for the college's Sesquicentennial in 2015. It will be of interest to persons seeking to understand the role of the liberal arts college in american education. It will also be of interest to those who seek to better understand the denomination in which they find themselves. I'm not an alum, but I do have interest in the role of the liberal arts (I'm of the opinion that the move away from liberal arts to professional arts is one of the reasons why our nation is so divided -- we don't know our history and culture). I'm also a Disciple historian and pastor who wants to understand this part of our story. I will add, that one of the Presidents -- Perry Gresham -- was the second pastor of the church I now serve as pastor.
It's a good book written by a Disciple historian and educator who served the college. He understands the full range of realities that have faced the college through time. From my vantage point I'd like to know more about the religious elements, especially over the past century. If at the turn of the 20th century the school was dominated by conservative factions within the movement, how did it ultimately move away from that perspective -- one that seems to have rejected higher criticism and evolution. Was it pragmatic or was there a theological reason for moving away?
I do have a question/concern. Cummins writes as an insider, having participated in the story. Therefore, I found his use of the third person in the chapter where he is featured disconcerting. That might just be me, but I think the story would be better served if he had switched to the first person in describing his own era, especially since it is a rather lengthy chapter.
In any case, if you're interested in Bethany, higher education, or the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) you might find this book of interest! (less)
As a "successor" (many years later), I find this to be a most helpful book to understand the complexities of my own congregation. It is also a helpful...moreAs a "successor" (many years later), I find this to be a most helpful book to understand the complexities of my own congregation. It is also a helpful read to understand what liberal Protestantism was like in the 1940s -- when American exceptionalism was interspersed with a hopeful progressive Protestant faith.(less)
Elesha Coffman has provided us with a wonderfully written, thoughtful, challenging depiction of the role that The Christian Century magazine played in...moreElesha Coffman has provided us with a wonderfully written, thoughtful, challenging depiction of the role that The Christian Century magazine played in forming what became known as Mainline Protestantism. Born as a Disciples of Christ journal in the 1880s it became the leading liberal voice in the denomination, both before and especially after C.C. Morrison took over as editor in 1908. When it became increasingly difficult to sustain the magazine as a Disciples journal in the early 1920s, Morrison took it into the realm of an ecumenical journal, a status it holds to this day.
Coffman helps us understand the hopes and dreams and the challenges that the editors of the Century faced over the years. She reminds us that while Morrison would have liked a larger spectrum of laity to read the journal, it's primary readership was clergy -- whom have made up the majority of its readers. What the journal lacked in readership, it made up for in cultural capital -- seeking to influence religious leaders, especially clergy. It saw itself as the vanguard of a progressive Protestant establishment -- that is, it portrayed itself as speaking for Protestantism as it pursued the winning of the American soul. It wasn't until the 1950s that this vision began to dissipate and the Century had to revision itself -- still progressive, just not as grandiose in its claims.
If you want to understand what became Mainline Protestantism, you have to read this book. If you're a Disciple -- well you really have to read the book.(less)
Chris Hobgood has written a brief but insightful book that tells the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it's foci and values, whil...moreChris Hobgood has written a brief but insightful book that tells the history of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), it's foci and values, while at the same time helping us understand the importance of dealing with the fact of racism in our midst.
The Disciples of Christ, the denomination that I serve in ministry, has made unity our "polar star," our purpose for existing. We were born on the fro...moreThe Disciples of Christ, the denomination that I serve in ministry, has made unity our "polar star," our purpose for existing. We were born on the frontier and were driven by that ethos as we moved west with the pioneers. But as we moved, for the most part, our focus was upon making white Christians.
In this little book Sandhya Jha takes us on a tour of the lives and mission of those who lay outside this white European focused community, bringing into the conversation those who lived on the margins from African Americans to Asians. It took many years and much heart ache for the Disciples to achieve any sense of equality in our midst. It won't take long to read, but reading it will help Disciples better understand the often dark side of our history. (less)
Reading this sermon, preached by the founding pastor of the congregation I now serve, one gets a sense of how much preaching has changed over the last...moreReading this sermon, preached by the founding pastor of the congregation I now serve, one gets a sense of how much preaching has changed over the last half century or more. The language is much more formal and eloquent. It is also much longer than I would be allowed to preach in the same congregation today!
One of the interesting points made in the foreword by the author is that he had preached this numerous times. It was, he said like a "certain famous lamb, most every place I went, the sermon was sure to go."
Following upon the publication of the Stone Campbell Encyclopedia (Eerdmans), a group of Stone-Campbell movement historians decided that there was a n...moreFollowing upon the publication of the Stone Campbell Encyclopedia (Eerdmans), a group of Stone-Campbell movement historians decided that there was a need for a narrative global history of the movement. Thus, scholars from all three branches of the movement worked together to tell this story. At times it reads like a lot of names, dates, and places, but it also helps us understand the complexity of this movement that sought unity among Christians, even as it divided over the means to that end. What makes this unique is the breadth of contributors, which takes away any partisan edge, and the global nature of the work. Thus, we're introduced to the multiple mission efforts around the world.
As one reads, one will find much to celebrate about the movement. But, the authors aren't afraid to reveal the dark side of the movement, especially a pervasive racism that plagued the movement during its first century of existence (and beyond).
The editors are to be commended for their excellent work.(less)
Read this in college. James Murch didn't hold back anything. You knew his biases, but he did offer a lot of insight into the development of what we ca...moreRead this in college. James Murch didn't hold back anything. You knew his biases, but he did offer a lot of insight into the development of what we called the Independent Christian Churches. (less)