Tuesday, January 31, 2017

The pernicious way Ronnie Floyd is wrong on refugees

I invite you to read two public statements on refugee resettlement published in the last couple of days by prominent faith leaders. 

The first is from Ronnie Floyd, pastor of Cross Church here in Northwest Arkansas. Floyd served a term as president of the Southern Baptist Convention in 2016.

The second is from Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton, current bishop of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America.

Compare one paragraph from each:

In this spirit, earlier last week I communicated with the Trump administration asking that it not stop the U.S. refugee admissions program or stop resettlement from any country for any period of time. The Bible calls us to welcome the stranger and treat the sojourner as we would our own citizens. I agree with the importance of keeping our country secure as the administration stated in its executive order last Friday, but I am convinced that temporarily banning vulnerable refugees will not enhance our safety nor does it reflect our values as Christians. Instead, it will cause immediate harm by separating families, disrupting lives, and denying safety and hope to brothers and sisters who are already suffering. (Presiding Bishop Elizabeth Eaton)
While the Church prays for our president and political leaders to resolve these complex issues, our church and many others will continue our extensive efforts to serve the vulnerable here and abroad whatever the policy of the government. We do not advise the government regarding issues of national security and they do not advise us on who and how we serve. (Pastor Ronnie Floyd)
Each of these leaders articulates an understanding of the relationship between government as an institution and the church as an institution. Bishop Eaton calls on the Trump administration to take specific action (that is, reverse their current executive order). She does so out of deep familiarity with refugee resettlement, because, as Lutherans perhaps know better than Ronnie Floyd, refugee resettlement in the United States is completely handled by nine agencies (like Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service). The United States conducts, in cooperation with the UNHCR, the incredibly extensive vetting process for refugees coming into the United States, but it is communities of faith and non-profits who do the direct work of resettlement.

Furthermore, Bishop Eaton offers insight grounded out of her own civic responsibility and her spiritual commitments, and acknowledges the immediate harm caused to refugees if we stop admissions.

Floyd, on the other hand, strangely spiritualizes a separation between the church and government that simply doesn't exist in practice, and implies in his statement that refugee resettlement is primarily a national security issue.

In so doing, Floyd perpetuates the scapegoating of refugees. Refugees must be dangerous, so we have to vet them extremely. Floyd seems to be unaware that refugees are already vetted over a long period of time, and are perhaps the safest group of people coming into our country (he doesn't even mention this in his post). He also confuses systems, indicating early in the blog that our immigration system is broken, then shifting back to refugee admissions, in the process simply not acknowledging that immigration and refugee resettlement are not the same thing.

On his recommendation, I went and read the Southern Baptist statement On Refugee Ministry. Here's where things get really twisted in Floyd's statement, so please bear with me.

Floyd says that, and I quote, "We do not advise the government regarding issues of national security." 

And yet, the statement On Refugee Ministry, reads "we call on the governing authorities to implement the strictest security measures possible in the refugee screening and selection process, guarding against anyone intent on doing harm."

So which is it, does the SBC advise the government on national security, or not?

And why is it only national security that Floyd mentions in his blog, when in fact the more significant portions of the SBC statement on refugee ministry include the following statements:

WHEREAS, Scripture calls for and expects God’s people to minister to the sojourner (Exodus 22:21–24Exodus 23:9–12Leviticus 19:33–34Deuteronomy 10:17–22Deuteronomy 24:17–22Deuteronomy 26:5–13Psalm 146:8–9Matthew 25:35–40); 
RESOLVED, That we affirm that refugees are people loved by God, made in His image, and that Christian love should be extended to them as special objects of God’s mercy in a world that has displaced them from their homelands.
So, if we take the SBC at their own word, the highest priority in their statement is to remind the church of its commitment to care of sojourners and refugees, and remain resolved to recognize their dignity and see them as "special objects of God's mercy in a world that has displaced them from their homelands."

Ronnie Floyd, please tell me, how is scapegoating refugees as a "dangerous population" that needs extreme vetting a form of recognizing them as "special objects of God's mercy?"

Floyd seems super focused on security. He even mis-interprets the oath the president takes when he or she enters office, "I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Floyd interprets this to mean, "Our government’s first responsibility is to protect the American people." But in fact, our president's first oath is to preserve, protect, and defend the constitution." The fact that Floyd shifts the meaning of this to national security, especially as regards refugees, really displays what he thinks about refugees.

Compare this to Bishop Eaton's statement. She writes:
People of faith helped start and still sustain the refugee resettlement program in the United States following World War II. As Lutherans, many of our ancestors faced the pain of having to flee their homes and the joy of being welcomed in new communities across the United States. As we have done throughout history, millions of Lutherans across the country honor our shared biblical values as well as the best of our nation’s traditions by offering refuge to those most in need. 
We are committed to continuing ministries of welcome that support and build communities around the country and stand firmly against any policies that result in scaling back the refugee resettlement program. 
We must offer safety to people fleeing religious persecution regardless of their faith tradition. Christians and other religious minorities suffer persecution and rightly deserve protection, but including additional criteria based on religion could have discriminatory effects that would go against our nation’s fundamental values related to freedom of religion.
I would contend that Bishop Eaton knows her Bible far better than Ronnie Floyd. She knows, as Lutherans know based on long experience and deep reading of Scripture, that the fundamental insight of much of Scripture is, "Care for the refugee and sojourner in your midst, because you were once strangers in Egypt."
I think Floyd has gotten far too comfortable, too cozy with this president, and has failed to heed Scripture, which reminds us we were once strangers and sojourners, and our Christian responsibility, or spiritual role, is to call the nation in which we reside to care for the sojourner and partner with it in such resettlement.
 I call on Ronnie Floyd to repent and do better. Challenge our administration to reverse its refugee admissions reductions. If Floyd would like to publish a statement aligned with Christian faith, from a more biblical perspective, I encourage him to consider signing on to Bishop Eaton's statement. 

I should add one more thing. Ronnie Floyd appears to believe Christians should resettle refugees in order to introduce them to Christ. "Furthermore, the Church should always stand ready nationally and globally to love all refugees, meeting their needs, the greatest of which is ultimately the same as ours: A personal relationship with Jesus Christ."

Thing is, you can't get there from Scripture itself. All those Old Testament references included in the SBC statement encourage Israel to welcome the sojourner and refugee simply because they are in need--love your neighbor. And the inspiration for such welcome and care is the historical fact that Israel was once a sojourning community itself.

There's no need to instrumentalize refugee resettlement as a tool for converting people to Christianity. That would be to repeat many of the same patterns that created religious refugees in the first place. Rather, as Bishop Eaton states:
We must offer safety to people fleeing religious persecution regardless of their faith tradition. Christians and other religious minorities suffer persecution and rightly deserve protection, but including additional criteria based on religion could have discriminatory effects that would go against our nation’s fundamental values related to freedom of religion.
Christian witness is witness through neighbor love, not neighbor love in order to convert. In a nation like ours, as followers of Christ, we do the right thing because it is the right thing. We can trust the Spirit to work in such neighbor love as the Spirit wills.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Stand with immigrants and refugees

Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service
As you are likely aware, President Trump announced executive orders related to immigration today and we expect to see additional orders in the coming days. We anticipate that some of these orders will severely limit refugee resettlement. This may mean a pause on all refugee resettlement for 120 days, ending resettlement of Syrians and other nationalities, prioritizing persecuted Christians for future resettlement, and reducing the Presidential Determination for refugee admissions for this fiscal year from 110,000 to 50,000.

As these executive orders continue to garner media attention, we are calling on you to help us lift up faith voices DIRECTLY TO PRESIDENT TRUMP expressing opposition, in an effort to hopefully change these plans.

1. Join LIRS national conference call to learn more about the impact of the President’s Executive Orders on migrants and refugees and what you and your community can do to stand up for welcome. Linda Hartke, LIRS President & CEO will be leading the call. Please join one of two scheduled conference calls Thursday, January 26th at 2pm (EST), and Friday, January 27that 3-4pm (EST) by calling: 800-326-0013 and entering 1476139 when prompted for a pass code.

2. Sign this petition stating opposition to any plans to stop refugee resettlement. Remember to confirm your sign-on via your email, otherwise it won’t be counted.
3. Tweet @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS – Samples below (please personalize):
  • @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS Don't stop welcoming refugees. Resettlement demonstrates the best of our American and Christian values #RefugeesWelcome
  • @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS Keep America welcoming. Refugee resettlement is a proud American legacy with bipartisan support #RefugeesWelcome
  • @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS People of faith OPPOSE refusing protection to refugees and a religious litmus test for refugees bit.ly/FaithLeaders4ALLRefugeeshias.org/1500rabbis #RefugeesWelcome
  • @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS More than 800 faith leaders stand for welcoming refugees and are opposed to any policy that would keep Muslim refugees from seeking safety: bit.ly/FaithLeaders4ALLRefugees
  • @realDonaldTrump & @POTUS Christians oppose policies that would deny Muslims refuge and preference Christians bit.ly/FaithLeaders4ALLRefugees
 4. Send the White House a message at whitehouse.gov/contact – Samples below (please personalize):

President Trump, We are hearing that you will stop refugee resettlement and single out some refugees based on their nationality or religion. As a faith community, we are STRONGLY opposed to any policy based on unfounded fears that would endanger refugees and deny access to refugees based on their religion or nationality.
 As Lutherans, we work with hundreds of thousands of members in our churches across the country to welcome refugees every day, we oppose any plan to reduce refugee admissions and to prevent Muslim refugees from being resettled in the United States. We urge you to allow the U.S. refugee program to continue to resettle refugees that need our protection regardless of where they come from or how they pray. Thank you for your leadership in ensuring the U.S. remains a beacon of hope for all those who are persecuted that seek peace, safety and freedom. bit.ly/FaithLeaders4ALLRefugees

More than 800 faith leaders: "The U.S. Refugee Resettlement program has been and should remain open to those of any religious tradition who face persecution on account of the reasons enumerated under U.S. law. We oppose any proposal that would prevent Syrian refugees or individuals who practice Islam and other faiths from accessing the U.S. refugee resettlement program. Proposals that would have the U.S. State Department disqualify refugees from protection based on their nationality or religion fly in the face of the very principles this nation was built upon, contradict the legacy of leadership our country has historically demonstrated, and dishonor our shared humanity." bit.ly/FaithLeaders4ALLRefugees 

 5. Offer a special prayer for refugees this Sunday or the following one. The legacy of Lutherans is to be courageous and compassionate in word and service. Please use the prayer linked to this URL in your Sunday worship service http://www.lirs.org/downloads/LIRS_PrayersforRefugees_Jan2017.pdf
This is no time to stand idly by or be complacent about defending our cherished legacy of welcoming refugees fleeing war, violence and persecutions and seeking refuge in our country. This is the time to stand firm and fight for the rights of migrants and refugees and our shared American values. Every action counts. Thanks so much for all you do.

In faith and solidarity,
Director for Outreach
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Tenacity, Anti-Discrimination, and the Gospel

Yesterday I was chatting with a parishioner during a hospital visit and, wanting to shift focus for a time from health to something outside the walls of the institution, he asked, "What's on your mind lately?"

I told him I was having trouble focusing. I had made a list of my key advocacy priorities, and the list was so long (immigrants, health care, Citizens United, criminal justice reform, safety net, etc) I didn't know where to start, or focus energy.

He said, "You know, your basic impulse to focus on the problems of discrimination is a good one. Once we recognize that we're all humans, and equal in the eyes of God, a lot of the other stuff falls into place."

I was glad to hear this. Our congregation has been strengthened and transformed through the crucible of anti-discrimination advocacy, and my own life as a pastor has taken unique and life-giving turns as a result.

Over the last decade, I've learned something. If you care about something, you have to stick with it for the long haul.  In social justice work, persistence and tenacity are some of the greatest spiritual gifts. And resilience.

If you are going to proclaim a counter-cultural gospel, you're going to need to keep proclaiming. And saying it. And living it.

The prophets kept saying the same thing over and over. And they didn't do so in light fashion, proclaiming the easy route of tolerance or acceptance. Part of the prophetic is pushing past the socially acceptable into the dangerous territory of change and challenge.

The prophetic voice in anti-discrimination work goes beyond "tolerance" or "welcome" and instead looks for the gifts the "other" offers to the community. It's not enough to just "let" folks in the door. Advocacy means bringing the marginalized to the center, repenting of their exclusion, and doing the hard work of reparations by learning from the very group that had been excluded.

With full inclusion, it means queering the gospel, queering Christ, discovering from and learning the virtues of queer community.

This is why we emphasize full inclusion at Good Shepherd, why I focus so much on it in my public ministry efforts, and why we keep celebrating and talking about it, because

  • it only becomes gospel when you hear it again and again (this is why we proclaim the gospel weekly), and
  • we haven't perfected it yet, and need to keep improving.

There is a difference between the message of tolerance or welcome and the message of reparations and inclusion. Lots of churches believe they "make room" for those who are different. But inclusion means something more, it means centering on and being transformed by those who have been at the margins.

This is hard work. It means lots of change, and the burden of change on the shoulders of those who had been at the center. It means being uncomfortable. It means actual reconciliation, in Christ, the kind that transforms the community more into the likeness of Christ.

And it isn't as easy as you think to be in Christ's shoes, to be Christ as community.

This coming Sunday our congregation will be observing Reconciling in Christ Sunday. It's a chance to join with reconciling congregations all over the world as they emphasize full inclusion as an ecumenical movement. It's a liturgy thing. It's a worship thing. It's designed to challenge the congregation and community, and raise awareness.

And we hope that more of those who have been marginalized will feel welcome as a result.

But we have more work to do than just observe such a Sunday. So later next month, we also will host Liz Edman, author of Queer Virtue, who will train us and challenge us to the work of queering Christianity.

Because the real challenge of inclusion isn't trying to get LGBTQ+ folks into the doors of the church. It's changing the mentalities of the members of the churches, and the institutions and structures of the churches themselves, so that they no longer perform the exclusion that has been an unfortunate hallmark of Christianity in our culture.

We focus on queering Christianity because it's me, the white male pastor, who needs transformation. And thanks be to God some of my fellow LGBTQ+ Christians have been faithful and tenacious enough to bring me to repentance and new life.

In point of fact, they've saved and are saving me.

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, www.breachrepairers.org 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.

Thursday, January 05, 2017

The baptism of Jesus | God likes you

He just appears at the river ready for baptism. Not solitary or lonely. No.  Individual, in headline role, top billing, a dramatis personæ that will then include, underneath, John the Baptist, the disciples, and a wide cast of characters (even the Father and the Holy Spirit). "The voice of one crying in the wilderness."

The Jordan River flows south out of the Sea of Galilee, cuts through a deep valley in Israel, and ends in the Dead Sea. Somewhere along that way, John is in the river conducting a baptism of repentance, and "the Son of Man--the fire-baptizing, winnowing fork carrying Messiah--arrives. John the Baptist resists baptizing the Messiah into his baptism. It's not completely clear why he resists this. Is it humility? Does he believe the baptism isn't for the Messiah?

But when Jesus says it must be done "to fulfill all righteousness," John relents/consents (repents?). Really in the Greek it just says he stops. He stops trying to do something other than what Jesus clearly has arrived to do.

He baptizes Jesus.

It is this same baptism, with the arrival of the Holy Spirit, and the naming in the name of God and Christ, into which we are baptized. Or if you have never been baptized, it is this baptism into which you are invited.

It is still, even for Christ, a baptism of repentance. But it is more than that. It is also a baptism of positive regard--"This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased." In baptism, we learn not only that we are children of God, but that we are beloved of God. We please God.

God likes us. God likes you.

There is of course a rather complex participatory step involved in this move. You might ask, How is the baptism of Christ my baptism? How can I be baptized into Christ's baptism, even into Christ himself? Well, Paul offers the best explanation, so you can read 1 Corinthians for the full account. But the short version, something Paul says in both Romans and 1 Corinthians, is that when we were baptized, we were baptized into Christ, and specifically by the same Spirit and into his death (see Romans 6:3 and Galatians 3:27).

But my favorite line is from 1 Corinthians: For in the one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—Jews or Greeks, slaves or free—and we were all made to drink of one Spirit.

When Jesus shows up at that river, and stands before John the Baptist, no wonder John resists and trembles. It's not Jesus alone who shows up. He's at the river bank with the whole lot of us. All of us.

Who wouldn't tremble?

So we begin another year of our Lord observing on Sunday the moment of Christ's baptism. It is the start of many new things, not the least of which is his public ministry. By remembering Christ's baptism, we remember the mission into which Jesus was sent and which he remained committed "in order to fulfill all righteousness."

And then we see ourselves participating in that same mission, because we have the same baptism, aiming towards the same death, that we might rise with him.

And all of our hope, all of our joy, all of our faith, is energized by our knowledge that in baptism we have heard more clearly than at any other time in our lives a word spoken by God that cannot be rescinded. "This is my child, my Beloved, with whom I am well-pleased."

Such a word will carry us individually and corporately a very long way indeed. As far as the Jordan, and then beyond, into God's coming kingdom.