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.

Monday, January 09, 2017

Kicking off the 500th anniversary of the Reformation and the 50th anniversary of Good Shepherd

In 1983, the world observed the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s birth. I was 11. So frankly, although I know it was a big deal (I own a number of Luther biographies published that year), I don’t really remember it. Maybe there were red sprinkles at a church ice cream social?

Now, it’s the 500th anniversary of Luther posting his 95 theses. I’m 44, mid-career, in public ministry as a pastor. So this anniversary resonates more. I don’t post disputations on doors, but I do post arguments on this blog, and social media. And I’m very curious if we are in a comparable moment in world history where a shift will take place, a different way of being human (and religious) in the world.

The world really does seem to be making a rather big deal of the Luther year. Germany is on FIRE with their observances. My own denomination is keeping a calendar of events (Reformation 500), and publishing many resources through the year. And 1517 Media, our publishing house, is hosting a daily Road to Reformation Facebook page.

The 500th anniversary of the Reformation is very much about Luther, even if it’s also about the movement (the Reformation) that looks back to the posting of those 95 theses as the origin of the Reformation. If this were a comic book story, the 95 theses would be Luther’s origin story.

This year there will be many voices attempting to curate perspectives on Martin Luther and the Reformation. I’m as curious to see how his life is portrayed, and his message, as I am anything else. There was just one Martin Luther, and we know an awful lot about him… but on another level, there are many Martin Luthers, perhaps as many Martin Luthers as there are interpreters of his life.

At Good Shepherd Lutheran, we’ll be observing the 500th anniversary of the Reformation concurrently with the observation of our own 50th anniversary as a congregation. Throughout the winter and spring, we’ll be offering a weekly adult forum on topics in the Reformation and Lutheran history. Join us Sundays at 10:15 a.m. It’s guaranteed to stretch your imagination.

If you’re the type to do so, mark your calendars for a few additional ways we’ll be observing our 50(0)th.

February 5th we’ll celebrate the signing of the Good Shepherd charter. February 24th, in our commitment to continuing reform, we host Liz Edman, author of Queer Virtue. March 18th we’ll host the Bethany College choir for a concert. May 14th we’ll observe the official anniversary of Good Shepherd. And on October 29th, we’ll host Beth Lewis, CEO of 1517 Media, as a guest speaker and preacher in observance of Reformation day. In the month of October, we’ll be observing some kind of Oktoberfest, about which we have very few details other than we plan to party a lot and cause trouble.

For lots more Reformation 500 resources, visit this list, and then add your own ideas.

Friday, January 06, 2017

So, how bad are things, really?

If the people of the United States of America had elected Hillary Rodham Clinton as their president, life for Christians would have been easier. A broad cross-section of Christians, from mainline Protestants to cradle Roman Catholics (although, see this), are wedded enough to neoliberalism as to have been quite cozy with how things would have proceeded.

But we didn't elect her. Instead, a perfect storm of populism, our electoral college, and now apparently Vladimir Putin, elected Donald Trump as our next president. And although neoliberalism will still hold sway, it will be coupled with a variety of heresies and dangerous political tendencies that will result in Christians needing to resist in ways that are clearer than Christian resistance otherwise construed.

Under either presidency, under the leadership of either of our (unfortunately limited) two parties, Christians would have had a lot of work to do. In one instance, their work would have been easier but less focused. Under the second, the work will be much harder, and therefore clearer. There is already, and will continue to be, many levels of resistance to engage.

But how much resistance is necessary? How bad are things, really? 

This is an important question to answer correctly. Many supporters of Trump, and clearly a large cross-section of the Republican establishment, seem to think things are going swimmingly. As just one example, yesterday while I was grabbing a coffee, four men stood up from a table next to me, clapped their hands, and exclaimed, "Let's go make some money!" One of them then said, "You know, who would have known electing Donald Trump would do such great things for the market? I mean, I can't stand the guy, but I love this!"

You might at this point think I'm confusing my politics and my theology. But here we need to remember that it was white evangelicals as a block that in particular ensured our recent shift to the right, and their solidarity as voters this election was beyond remarkable. Politics and theology are married, and for obvious reasons. Christianity has a kingdom ethic. It is an alternative politics. It's just that, in my estimation, perhaps the majority of Protestant Christians, and increasing numbers of Roman Catholics apparently, have misunderstood the core of the kingdom ethic.

Those of us who are worried (and I am definitely in the very worried category) about a Trump presidency and a global shift towards populism and ethno-nationalism, are worried because we see very clear comparisons between previous totalitarian regimes and present capitulations. That is, the very things those who are not alarmed dismiss as not alarming, we find incredibly alarming. Authoritarianism doesn't arrive all at once. It arrives via small capitulations. Much of the power of authoritarianism is freely given.

But people who disagree with me politically and theologically disagree with my basic assumption--that we are at risk of such authoritarianism. Therein lies the rub. How do we communicate with, even organize with, those who apparently live in the same country and yet inhabit a completely different country? It's like China Mieville's The City and the City. Two countries occupying the same territory. 

We're going to need resources for the resistance, roadmaps for how to move forward together as a people who know the stakes are very high right now. We're going to need a language for how to describe clearly what we're seeing. And we're going to need tools for the fight, equipment to do as well or better what obviously we've been schooled in.

Towards that end, I highly recommend everyone that can read Jane Mayer's Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right. They've been playing the long game, and they're winning. Those of us who hope to make a difference will need to learn from a play-by-play of how they did it. Along those same lines, it might behoove anyone and everyone to read Machiavelli's The Prince. And then if you want to understand how Trump thinks, consider reading Rhonda Byrne's The Secret

On this last one, you might think I'm joking. But I'm not. 

A good number of Christian leaders in our country have been trying to offer us a language, and more than a language, a model for organizing, and a movement to join. The leading light (we might consider him our contemporary MLK Jr.) is William Barber II. His book, The Third Reconstruction, describes the organizing they have been doing as progressive Christians in North Carolina over the past couple of decades. Since the new organizing is going to need to take place at the state level, his book is focused the right way--Christian organizing based out of faith communities that make a difference in their local communities, and then take issues to their state capitols. 

The thing is, although our national politics gets the lion's share of our media attention, the practice of discipleship takes place in our local communities, and the politics that shape our daily lives is as much part of our republicanism as it is our federalism. We live in states. Christians, committed to the practices of the kingdom of God, will find themselves at odds with many state and federal laws. 

One thing is certain: it will be easiest for Christians who belong to privileged groups to remain comfortable in the new political climate. Less is at stake for them personally. In some instances, in particular the rich, there may even be wonderful short-term gains (by which I mean, even more money). 

But if the privileged shrug off all the abuses of power and warped self-interested plutocracy posturing as democracy, not only are they selling their souls and silently allowing a decline that will ultimate affect them--they are also turning a blind eye to the immediate suffering that is already resulting from this shift. 

Those on the margins of our society--from the poor, to the immigrant, to people of color, to women, to minorities of all types--are already more vulnerable. You can see the changes happening daily. And what they see is that white evangelicals are especially complicit, as the largest bloc supporting the agenda of the radical right, and so not only are we (anyone with privilege) turning aloof and cold to their plight, we are actually failing in our Christian witness because now the gospel of Christ is wedded to a way of being in the world quite antithetical to Christ's own life.

Not only are we not living into the kingdom. We are actively, with our lives and politics, proclaiming a false gospel.

Hence the difficult clarity of our moment. Educate, agitate, organize! We have only as those committed to discipleship engaged a bit of educating and agitating (and we think blogging and posting such counts as sufficient), and we have been outflanked by the organizing of the right. We've got a lot of work to do, and we have some role-models from whom to learn. Perhaps the first step is to tell the Jesus story again in ways that remind us of a world as it might be--as the coming kingdom of God.

Barber is not the only Christian theologian aware of our need of articulating forms of radical discipleship. I link to a few of these below, for your further reading.