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My journey has led my family and me across the country where I have been introduced to a lot of people and a lot of different ways of doing things. One passion, though, runs through all these experiences: building beloved and sustainable community. "Sustainable" community is kind of a strange notion, as communities (people) change constantly, and things are always in motion. So, the latest chapter of my life has led me to the notion of "impermanence"—not an idea that comes naturally in a culture that likes to build monuments to our greatness for future generations to view and admire. But, I'm trying to practice my awareness of impermanence—the idea that nothing is permanent, nothing is forever, and things are always in flux.

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                   Eric Ledermann

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Death-Throes of a Denomination #pcusa

I read a lot—not as much as I want, but a lot. I love reading as much as I love being in conversation with people. The conversations I have been having lately seem to revolve around a few common threads:

  • our church is not what it used to be
  • the world is not what it used to be
  • I just want it to be like it used to be

But the reading I’ve been doing seems to be in conflict with my conversations. I’m reading about decline and even death as an opportunity for hope and vision.

I just read a beautifully written response to decline by my friend Theresa Cho, posted at the Two Friars and a Fool blog. I strongly suggest it to you. Go ahead. Read it now, I’ll wait. . . .

The words that caught me in her piece are:

Survival is a transformational process. Being lost is not a location. It is a transformation. . . . Transformation requires fresh eyes, fresh ideas, but mostly requires acceptance that things are different.

But, as she writes, transformation, real transformation, may require staring death right in the face and seeing with new eyes “something wondrous and inspiring.” Is this where we are as the Church, particularly my context in the PC(USA)? Have we gone far enough down this treacherous spiral to really look death in the face?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. Maybe we have to individually answer them, or at least in our individual contexts. But I found Theresa’s piece after reading a post by Randy Woodley—associate professor of Faith and Culture at George Fox Evangelical Seminary—entitled, “Authentic Jesus Generations: Woodstock to Wild Goose”, as part of his lead up to speaking at the Wild Goose Festival, a Woodstock-like festival for Christians in Oregon coming up in a few weeks (anyone want to sponsor a pastor, I’m open to it!). Woodley kinda slams the “Sunday morning church-building crowd” as being inauthentic, lifting up instead those spiritual pioneers in the emerging “faith movements” when he says:

What most of the Sunday morning crowd doesn’t get that other faith expressions are seeking to learn about, is authenticity. Part and partial of knowing the authentic Jesus is having a primary concern for the poor and marginalized.

Ok, he doesn’t “kinda slam”, he pretty much tries to lay us out flat. I don’t know much about his context other than what is on his professional profile. I don’t know what his experience has been in those “Sunday morning crowd” churches, but it doesn’t sound like it has been all that positive. I consider myself steeped in the “Sunday morning crowd” with a foot in the “emerging Christianity” scene. I take offense at his insinuation that this crowd that I serve is somehow less authentic than the emerging expressions of faith, and that we have no concern for the poor or marginalized.

I serve an intentionally social-justice minded congregation who sees themselves as authentically seeking to be in the mind and heart of Christ with a clear vision to reach out to the poor, the homeless, and the marginalized, and more than just with our checkbooks (though we do that too). We reach out to the immigrant (whether documented or undocumented), and being in Arizona we are at ground-zero of the immigration issue, seeking to lift up the humanity of our immigrant sisters and brothers who, for the most part, are simply trying to provide for themselves and their families, not steal jobs or corrupt our nation. We are intimately involved with the homeless in our area and trying to address not just the symptoms of homelessness but also the systems that throw people into the situations that put them at risk.

What makes us unique, compared to “service organizations” is that our calling to these ministries is born out of our understanding of Christ’s call on our lives. We are not always good at it. We are not always successful at it, but we keep trying. We keep calling one another forward, and we keep trying to look at what is in front of us as opportunities for hope and vision. And to throw us under the bus as Woodley does is irresponsible, unfair and anti-Body of Christ, in my mind. Again, I cannot speak to his experience or context, but I’m not sure he has taken good look at what is happening on those Sunday mornings, or the rest of the week in those buildings, to really get a good idea of what is really happening (can’t judge a church solely on Sunday morning, there is usually much more happening outside that time and location).

I don’t believe we’re dying, though we may be in crisis (lost at sea, etc.). I don’t believe we are inauthentic or somehow “less spiritual” than other emerging or ancient expressions of Christian faith and community. I do believe we are trying our best to look reality in the face, recognize that things are not as they used to be and will never be, and to take the risks necessary to live into whatever new reality we find ourselves, in order to remain faithful to the love of God that pulled us into this in the first place.

If you are part of the community I serve or another, I’d love to hear where you see authenticity in that community. What visions of hope or transformation do you see emerging from your context? There may be a lot of death-like stuff happening, or at least “lost at sea” moments, and those are important to name as well. But, at the risk of tipping toward Pollyanna (and I’m not convinced that is necessarily a bad thing), I am confident that even in the most dire of circumstances there are glimpses of wonder and inspiration while holding in paradox the tragedy or crisis that lays before us, and I would love to hear what you see.

8 comments to Death-Throes of a Denomination #pcusa

  • I read Gil Rendle’s book Journey to the Common Good last year. It uses the analogy of the Israelites wandering in the desert for our decline of mainline denominations saying…perhaps we have to wander lost and destitute for a while so we can be remade by God for a new land of hope and God’s presence. To me it spoke directly to mainline protestant denominations’ tendency to rely on structural organization and bureaucracy rather than listening, prayer, and reliance on God’s sustenance.
    When will we stop looking for the latest fix (ahem golden calf) and find our rest and strength from what God gives (manna)?
    From a Methodist perspective, I think the best answer is simply in returning to what we know. Not the programs and organization, but to social holiness, class meetings, spiritual accountability, doing all the good we can…
    These are the things that people are hungry for then and NOW.
    What does that look like for your life? For your faith community?

    • Sarai, thank you so much for taking the time comment! It was great meeting you last week (I hope I didn’t interrupt your day too much with my unannounced drop in). Your comment reminds me of the disciples after Jesus’ resurrection. He told them to go to Jerusalem and wait (Acts 1). Though the text tells us they devoted themselves to prayer, they got restless. So, they did the natural, bureaucratic thing: they cast lots (threw the dice) to replace Judas with Mathias–then we hear nothing more of this 13th apostle. I guess it’s the natural thing to do when we don’t know what else to do in these desert seasons: we move the chairs around hoping it might inspire something.

      I wish I was more versed in Methodism, but the “social holiness, class meetings, spiritual accountability, and doing all the good we can” to me speaks of the one thing every human being longs for but struggles to find (more so now, it seems): community, a sense of belonging, a sense of connection to the Holy through our connections to one another.

      Good stuff to ponder and reflect upon! Thank you for your contribution to the conversation! I look forward to breaking bread with you sometime soon. I’ll email you some dates and times, maybe we can have lunch.

  • I’m fond of saying, “Civilization is just a slow process of learning to be kind.” I sense that on all sides of the theological, cultural and political spectrums, there is an urgency and impatience to cut through the crap and get things right. The pervading notion is old ways aren’t working, and we old codgers are running out of time to see things rectified. So we step up the rhetoric, push for action,offend and live with polarization. Things are just too important to be satisfied with unity, collegiality and the 1950s model of church of gutless, platitude-filled religion. More times than not, I think we in the PCUSA would be better off to let the conservative folks go their own way so they can fracture again some day when gay rights and social justice causes start rocking in their tents. No stopping change. Serve the suffering and disenfranchised, fight for the rights of women, minorities, LGBTQ, speak out against corporate greed, condemn male and female genital mutilation, work for sanity in global warming issues and so much more. The church can be a force for the good and just or just a social club.

    • Lawn, I’m sure you are not alone in your thinking and feeling. However, what is the point of pushing so hard we push others away and find ourselves standing by ourselves? I agree that there is a time to take action, but when that action only serves to further split and polarize, then we are being counterproductive to the living into the Kingdom of God here and now. I would not call the church model of the 1950s gutless or platitude-filled–it served a purpose and worked for that time. If we read the likes of Phyllis Tickle, we are in the midst of a much larger shift than that given the pattern of such re-formations every 500 years or so since Jesus. The shift we’re in far pre-dates the 1950s, and how the church shaped itself then was only in response to the shifts that were happening earlier in the 19th and 20th centuries.

      Patience is not something we talk about a lot when folks are anxious, and people are anxious right now. But I believe we need to keep speaking our truth as best we can, without the volatile rhetoric that only divides only in order to keep our ears open and our hearts soft enough to be able to be changed by those whose perspectives differ from ours. Otherwise, we are no better than those we label “opponents”, or worse, “enemies.”

      The point is to continue the dialogue. This is not going to end any time soon, and any attempt to do so is only going to stifle the open dialogue we desperately need in order to move forward, be transformed, and move into whatever new age/season God is leading us into.

      It is an honor and a privilege to be on this journey with you, Lawn. You are a valued and much needed voice! Thank you!

  • Sally Niles

    That is the problem with generalizing a group – as in the case that Prof. Woodley is doing to the Sunday church going crowd. He apparently does not see the individuals that make up the fabric of authentic community and authentic mission work that we we at UPC see and feel every week. The challenge for most Presbyterians who lament and reminisce about the way it used to be is to understand they are in “a small boat in the big ocean” and they need to start moving in a direction that provides “being found in Christ’s call” as it is today. Eric, I think you are helping us find our oars. Thanks for the provocative essay. : ) Sally

  • DaMav

    The description of your congregation, “an intentionally social-justice minded congregation”, makes it sound like you strive to be a local chapter of the Democratic Party. Did I miss in the Bible where Christ directed us to aid those breaking immigration laws?

    Christ spoke of giving our own personal clothing to those in need, not raising taxes, growing government, and taking from others to redistribute to those in need.

    Meanwhile I wonder if your flock rises to the defense of the unborn? Supports by action those Christians under daily attack in this country and abroad? Speaks out against popular culture which mocks Christ, or a government which rides roughshod over religious beliefs by forcing Catholic institutions to fund abortifacient birth control?

    Of course you as a leader will know the answer to these questions. I wish you well as we confront the transformation… perhaps the best means of survival is to dwell upon that transformation revealed when the stone was rolled away so long ago… the stakes are so much more long term.

    • DaMav, I have a hard time replying to someone who throws darts from the distant protection of anonymity. The tone of your comment is just not helpful for the ongoing conversation of how we move forward. So let me take some of your points one by one:

      “…makes it sound like you strive to be a local chapter of the Democratic Party”: Though a good portion of our congregation leans to the left theologically and politically, we are a community from a broad spectrum of political affiliations. My guess is that a good portion of our folks would not profess trust in either of the two major parties that seem to be the only two at the table.

      “Did I miss in the Bible where Christ directed us to aid those breaking immigration laws?”: Jesus himself broke rules, laws and customs for the sake of justice. He communed with prostitutes, tax collectors (who regularly ripped people off with the sanctioning and protection of the Roman government), and others who were less than reputable. When the laws, rules, or customs are unjust and result in the subjugation of a particular people, then they need to be broken for the sake of God’s kingdom. “Let any of you who have not sinned cast the first stone!”

      “Christ spoke of giving our own personal clothing to those in need, not raising taxes, growing government, and taking from others to redistribute to those in need.”: No one is talking about “redistribution”. And, in fact, a good portion of the jobs lost under our current president have been government jobs: he has reduced government, though our debt has increased during the biggest and most global recession since the Great Depression. Though the overall debt increase is still less than any of the last four presidents.

      “Meanwhile I wonder if your flock rises to the defense of the unborn?”: Our denomination is not pro-abortion. In fact, I don’t know anyone who is “pro-abortion”. I imagine those in my congregation hold to a variety of thoughts, opinions, and perspectives when it comes to balancing the rights of unborn and mothers. I imagine most of my congregation holds in delicate and uncomfortable balance the value of the life of unborn children and the value of a woman’s life and her choices. I, personally, try to follow the vein of trying to discern a “consistent ethic of life” as it pertains to abortion, death penalty, war, and violence in general. It is not an easy path and each conversations/issue is heavily nuanced.

      “Supports by action those Christians under daily attack in this country and abroad?”: I am very aware that Christians are subjugated, sometimes violently, in many countries. I’m curious what you consider “attack” in the U.S.

      “Speaks out against popular culture which mocks Christ, or a government which rides roughshod over religious beliefs by forcing Catholic institutions to fund abortifacient birth control?”: Again, the people in my congregation are free to think for themselves with their God-given sources. I imagine most of the people in my congregation give very little mind to the response of the broader culture’s opinions about Christ, but seek to be faithful themselves and share the love and grace of which Jesus spoke and lived out so passionately, even on the cross.

      I’m sure this is not what you wanted to hear, if you take the time to even read my response (admittedly, very late). I wish you well, too, DaMav, in your journey.

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