Speaking of My Religion

It is no secret that progressive, liberal, even moderate Christians are living in precarious times. Most of us are part of denominations that are losing members faster then we can count. Sometimes things are so bad that we consider it a success when we cut the rate of our losses. About a decade ago the United Church of Christ’s national newsletter published a headline that is a perfect example. I don’t remember the exact words but essentially it was implied that the UCC was doing great because other denominations were losing members faster than we were.

That is no longer the case. But I suppose it is not surprising that there was no such headline in the same periodical after one national survey recently reported that the UCC denomination is now the newest leader in losses. Apparently my beloved denomination has lost nearly twenty-five percent of our members over the last 20 years. Of course these numbers are estimates, but there is no doubt about the trend. And none of this takes into consideration the huge increase in population during this same period.

Old-line, liberal churches are in a lot of hurt. We have been categorized, stratified, stigmatized and marginalized. We are in a tough market and no matter how many times we reorganize our denominational offices or how much money we spend on advertising, we will continue to have a tough time unless we are willing to make some significant changes in the way we do church and the way we talk about our faith.

Some would suggest that we are experiencing this hurt because of our open debates over such heated social issues around gender, homosexuality, and abortion. It is true that for most of our denominations, these things have become so divisive that some churches are voting to leave their mother denominations. I have been doing church growth workshops for over a decade in churches of several denominations and I am amazed by the tension and acrimony that I often find when anyone starts talking about substantive issues or change in their church.

But I would argue that it has not our attempt to talk about social justice issues that has caused our losses, but rather it has been our inability to talk about our faith that has led to our demise. It has not been our taking a stand on injustice that has emptied our churches but it has been our inability to articulate a cohesive theology and a dynamic spirituality that has caused people to search in other places for their spiritual nourishment.

I would like to argue tonight that these should be considered exciting times, as frustrating as they might be. For you see, these empty pews may encourage us to we rethink our spiritual foundations, to recreate a living theology, and revitalize a dynamic faith in the mystery. Just maybe our dying churches will teach us once again to talk about new life. We are, at the very least, in an very interesting era.

I suppose that we could say that we are now living in an era that was not unlike the early first century Christian movements. We have limited information about those chaotic times, but we do know there were some heated debates between both James and Peter with Paul. One such report indicates that Peter and Paul at one point may have actually “duked” it out on the steps of a synagogue before Paul was finally banned from returning to Israel.

Or maybe what we are experiencing is something more like the era of Bishop Irenaeus (130-202) who in the early second century successfully took on the Gnostic Christians with his theology of the unity of one God. Interestingly, in his treatise he argued against the fall. He argued that humans had been made perfectible with the potential to grow into the “image of God.” Therefore, according to Irenaeus, sin was just part of the growing pains in the process of humanity’s spiritual development. There would not have been a need for a savior to achieve salvation, with this understanding of the Jesus story.

For Irenaeus Jesus was more of an angelic teacher and a model for human potential, or what humans could be. It does seem rather ironic that Irenaeus, who was adamant about eliminating the heresy of the Gnostics, posited something that would have been deemed heretical a hundred years later. The church deemed him a Saint anyhow.

But I think today we are actually experiencing something closer to the dramatic attacks by the young and brutal Bishop Athanasius and Alexander against the presbyter Arius and his followers. Richard Rubenstein in his wonderful book, When Jesus Became God, writes that people were incensed when Arius was dismissed and banished from Alexandria. They thronged into the streets to protest his dismissal. According to Rubenstein “there was street fighting between Arius’ supporters and groups favoring Alexander.”

I have tried to imagine what that must have been like. Can you picture a couple of alpha-males punching each other out on the streets, one yelling, “Jesus was of the same substance!?” The other yelling, “He was only of the same essence!” Substance! Essence! Substance! Essence!

Our theological issues may not have brought us to fist fights in the streets as a regular event just yet. However, I personally have been yelled at, spit upon and physically threatened because I was willing to speak openly as a progressive Christian on controversial social issues, as well as theological ones. And I have witnessed more than one pretty nasty argument in churches over the last 25 years regarding beliefs and social issues. We may not be as far from the Arius-Athanasius battles as we think.

A few years ago I was having lunch with a Catholic priest friend. For over ten years the two of us had been on a panel twice a year in the local college talking about what our religious beliefs have to say about human sexuality. We often got together in between these class events. We were friends.

One day over lunch he asked me for the first time what I believed about Jesus. I told him that I had come to the conclusion that Jesus was a unique, enlightened teacher. He was someone who had gone through a profound spiritual experience or experiences that dramatically changed his understanding of reality and the world. These experiences ultimately changed him-they changed his understanding of his relationship with others and with God. Out of that understanding he taught a pretty specific path that could lead to a similar experience for anyone who was willing to follow it. That path, I explained, is dynamic and transformative and is available today. I said a few more things but all in all, I thought that I had summed up my feelings rather well and they certainly sounded pretty cohesive and attractive to me.

But Father John looked at me for a few seconds holding eye contact and then started shaking his head. Finally he said, “Fred over the years, heretics come and heretics go. You are just one in a long line of many.”

I looked back at him and said, “Father John. With all due respect, the reason so many of them came and went is because your church either banished them, or imprisoned them or killed them. Fortunately they can’t do that to me!”

He got the strangest look on his face. I’m not certain what he was thinking. I wondered if it had ever occurred to him how many good and righteous people were slaughtered in the name of heresy. I wondered if it had occurred to him that yesterday’s heretic often becomes today’s hero. I suppose I will never know for I have not heard from Father John since that day and he no longer participates in the panel for the class.

One of the challenges that we have in our liberal churches today, is that although we may be in a fight for our lives as the Arians were in the third and forth centuries, we have not given our congregants the tools for a fair fight. Would any of them understand the significance of words like essence and substance? Would any of them realize how that shift would impact our understanding of what and who Jesus was, let alone what is God? Would any of them understand how those issues could change the shape of our religious experience today?

As Jack Good notes in his challenging book The Dishonest Church, we do not do a very good job of educating our congregants in our liberal and progressive churches. We seldom give them the language or the concepts to fight back, if I can use the same metaphor.

This reality hit me hard in about the fifth year of my ministry in the new church start I was doing. I think we had about 120 active members at the time, a new building and the bills were being paid. Things were looking good. The moderator was a highly educated, intelligent man who had been a strong leader through some of our more difficult start-up years. He encouraged me to continue my progressive sermons and he regularly attended the adult education classes I frequently taught that covered such things as the Bible and church history. I hope they also challenged people to rethink their religious assumptions.

One day in a phone conversation with this man, we were trying to identify someone in our congregation and he mentioned that he had a copy of our most recent church photo directory in his office desk. He offered to look her up. As he took it out of his desk, he made some comment about the fact that he had it covered in brown paper. At first I thought he was joking but he assured me that he was quite serious.

Later when we talked about it, he admitted that he did that so he would not have to get into some religious conversation with any of the people in his rather large office. He said he never knew what to say to them about his religious beliefs or his church. He usually ended up saying something stupid like, “well we are not like them.” I was a little shocked, certainly disappointed and maybe even a little hurt.

But I realized that it was true. We liberal Christians can be very clear that we are not one of “those people,” but the problem is the “those people” are winning the street fights.

As shallow, simplistic, superstitious, exclusive and myopic as we may believe that “those Christians” are, they know how to talk about their religion. They know how to talk about their faith. They know how to talk about their church. Far more importantly I realized that I was letting my congregants down. I was cheating them out of a deeper spiritual experience.

Well, at least this revelation got me off my duff. We created a program as part of our adult education series called “Faith Exploration.” We encouraged people to gather in small groups and learn to talk about their own faith journeys, their understanding of God, Jesus and religion in general.

I learned very quickly that if I was in the group, people seemed to more reluctant to talk about their spiritual and religious experience, as I was perceived as being the “expert.” So we developed a curriculum and four spiritually mature lay people agreed to go through a training process with me, and they began to lead these eight to ten week weekly gatherings three times a year. We encouraged all new members from that time on to consider one of these courses as part of their new member orientation. We did not require it however. We are UCC after all.

We did several follow up surveys over the years and most people who took the time to participate in this small group process reported that they were much more comfortable now talking about their faith and their ideas about religion with others in the church.

Unfortunately, very few of the participants reported that the experience had changed their discomfort when it came to talking to a co-worker or neighbor about their religious beliefs, especially someone who they thought might disagree with them. Well I understand this problem. Some of them can scare me too!

Several years later we had a breakthrough of sorts when our church voted to go through a process in order to decide if we were going to affiliate with The Center for Progressive Christianity as an official statement of the church. I had personally been on the TCPC Executive Council for two or three years at that point.

One meeting I suggested to the TCPC Executive Council that “someone” should write a study guide for the Eight Points. Everyone seemed to agree but I was still new to the TCPC Executive Council culture. I quickly discovered when someone wants something that someone usually ends up doing it. Jim Adams says, “Sounds great so   do it!” So I did.

But I did this at the same time our church was going through a process to decide if we wanted to make our affiliation with TCPC official. The church council had decided to the form small groups to discuss what it means to call oneself a progressive Christian. So while I was working on the Study Guide, I was also able to field test it with a couple of groups of about twenty people from my church. By the time the booklet was completed, two groups had gone though the evolving study guide reading and using the material and even editing and creating the questions for discussion.

I felt very good about the way they had worked with it, and I felt like it had deepened their understanding of their faith and their religious presumptions.

In a couple of cases the results were greater than I had realized. One evening my wife and I were guests of one of our congregants and his wife for dinner. We were there in part because the father and mother of this very successful and respected doctor in his late forties were visiting for the weekend. They were from Atlanta, Georgia. He was also a doctor and he and his wife were active members in the largest Southern Baptist Church in Atlanta. He had written a note to me thanking me for bringing his son “back to the Lord.” I was pretty certain he did not know which Lord I had brought him back to.

My friend was worried that the subject of the church and his beliefs were going to come up. He was hoping, he had told me, that I could help him out if they did. He had also been one of the few people who had gone through both of the study guide small groups and had made several helpful suggestions about the material.

Sure enough, about mid-way through the meal the father from Georgia looked at me and said: “Now let me get this straight, Reverend. You do consider yourself a Christian, right? Some of the things my son tells me have me a little confused.”

Just as I was gearing up to do what I thought I was supposed to do, my friend glanced over at me and with a little hesitation began to talk: “Dad, I consider myself a Christian because I have chosen to make Jesus my window to God by trying to emulate his life and by studying and following his teachings. However, I do not presume that the Christian way is the only way that one can have a relationship with God. I believe that Jesus’ practice of radical “inclusivity,” inviting everyone to his table, should be practiced in every aspect of our lives, especially in the church. That means we welcome everyone, whatever their religious beliefs, whatever their color, whatever their gender, whatever their sexual orientation into full participation in the life of the church. It is this practice, I believe, that brings us closer to God.” I noticed that as he continued to talk he seemed to become more confident.

“I believe,” he continued, “that the way we treat each other is far more important than what we say we believe. I know that there is far too much of this incredible creation that is beyond my comprehension to assume that I can hold dogmatic certainty. But I do believe that there is value and grace when we question and search.

At this point I realized that he was walking his way through the TCPC “Eight Points.”  He finished by saying, “It is not easy to live in this “Christ like” manner that is in opposition to the competitive, materialistic society that we have created and live in. So it is important that we form communities to support and equip each other for the struggle. That is why I am part of this church community.”

With that he smiled, picked up his fork and began to eat his dinner. I realized that I had not taken a breath since he had started talking. The elderly, hard core southern, Southern Baptist stared at his son for a moment and then said, “Thank you, son.” And he too picked up his fork and began to eat.

I excused myself and went to the restroom and when I was sure no one was looking, I did a little jig. Someone had got it and as it turned out he was not the only one. Over the years several other people told me of similar stories and how much easier it was to explain their beliefs.

I am not suggesting here that 100 % of this 400 member mid-size church at that point could do what this man had done. I found out later he had written out and practiced his words. But I would guess that it was at least 10% and the right 10% can change a church. Certainly it was a step in the right direction.

But somewhere along the way it became clear to me, that we were still not dealing with the most important challenge. No matter how well we learn to distinguish our beliefs from others we are still missing the point.

You see, what this man did was talk about his beliefs to someone who was already grounded in the Christian tradition. Granted those beliefs were different in degrees but the language, the concepts, even an assumption that there was something valuable about church were held in common by these two men.

It is one thing to be able to articulate your beliefs to another person who has and understands religious beliefs. It is another thing to be able to tell someone, who has little or no church experience, why they should take the time and go to church. The sad truth is few people today in our progressive churches, including clergy, can articulate what the primary purpose of church really is. What I am suggesting here we really do not know why we are business other than to do “church.” And we will have to do more than debate beliefs with other Christians if we want to stay in “business,” if we want to have something to offer to the next generation.

Two highly respected professors from Stanford University Graduate School of Business, James Collins and Jerry Porras wrote a book about ten years ago called Built to Last. The book was based on a six year study they conducted on exceptional and long-lasting corporations as compared with other companies that were not so exceptional. They wanted to know if they could identify any common characteristics in these exceptional companies.

They discovered that these special companies all had three things in common. First, all of these organizations had a clear understanding of their “core values”-essential and enduring tenets or guiding principles.  And second, these organizations, from the secretary to the CEO, all understood the fundamental reason for the organization’s existence. Each and every one of them could articulate the organization’s purpose for existence.

And finally, these successful and exceptional companies each had a common “bodacious” dream for the future that everyone involved shared openly.

Furthermore, the research with other companies indicated that if an organization did not have these three things, values and clarity of purpose, and a dream for the future, clearly defined and understood by the vast majority of the employees and participants, the organization would not thrive over the long term.

Both Dr. Collins and Dr. Porras felt strongly that these principles applied to all organizations including non-profits and churches. Because of his interest, three years after the publication of their book, Dr. Collins started working directly with churches using these principles. In one phone conversation I had with him, he stated that he felt working with these principles in the church was even more important than in other organizations because of the growing misunderstanding about the role of church in our society today.  

You see, for eighteen hundred years the church knew why it was in business. The church had the keys to the kingdom; it offered salvation; it sold eternal life. After the protestant reformation and the multiple splits and the creation of a multiplicity of denominations, there may have been debates about who had the right tickets to heaven, but everyone knew why the church was in business. We were selling the tickets to salvation. We were brokers for a “life after death” pass.

Somewhere after the 1950s, as our society tried to adjust to our growing multi-culture nation, the idea that Christianity was the only way to get to heaven began to lose hold in our mainline churches. In our universities and seminaries the biblical concepts of heaven, eternal life and salvation were quietly being debated by scholars. And over the years, rather quietly, a profound shift occurred in our liberal churches. We no longer saw ourselves as the sole gate keepers to eternal life.

There are lots of reasons for this shift and it has been treated in a variety of books. But it is normally treated solely as a theological shift. It is that of course, but I have seldom seen anyone deal with the ramifications of this shift to the church over the last few decades.

Thanks to new scholarship and new information more clergy, lay leaders and even a few congregations have begun to rethink their approach to religious beliefs. But it is the rare progressive Christian scholar or clergy who is asks the question, “What is our purpose for doing church today?”

Gather a group of your clergy colleagues or lay leaders over a cup of coffee or glass of wine and asked the question, “What do you think the purpose of church is today?” I have done this literally dozens of time and the results are always the same-a lot of confusion, lack of clarity. Most people revert to old and tired language that has held no meaning for them for years.

Building, maintaining, managing and running churches is expensive and it is very hard work these days. It requires a commitment of lots of hard working people. We really ought to be clear about why we are doing it besides the fact that we have always done this way it.

Now let’s be clear. Creating and maintaining churches has never been easy. Read the records of churches that were part of the early settlers sometime, if you think differently. But I believe it is harder today than it ever has been.

Even though some polls suggest that 90% of the people in our country believe in God, only about 25% of those same folks are in church on any given Sunday. That number continues to fall, even though we have a “born again” President and a block-buster, evangelical movie, The Passion. Organizations like the Jesus Seminar have made it easier to have conversations about religious beliefs but these scholars offers little for the churches except to give some support for clergy who are trying to forge a new Christology in their churches.

The result is that people move back and forth from church to church depending on whether one church’s beliefs match their own. But does the fact that you can articulate your beliefs bring anyone who has never been part of a church into a church community?

Are you aware that somewhere around 60% of young adults between the ages of 19-25 have never been in a church, a synagogue, a mosque, or temple-not for a wedding, not for a funeral, not for a baptism. Do you think that these young adults care one iota about our religious beliefs? They have a huge number of choices of things they could do over the weekend. Why would they go to “church?” Even the word church means very little to most of these young adults.

Sociologists tell us that we have trained our young people well. They are utilitarian by nature and they consciously or unconsciously weigh the value of something to them before they chose to make a commitment. “What is in it for me?” is not a selfish question for them. It is practical one.

If a young person with no church experience-someone who was not weighing one church experience against another, one belief system against another-if that person asked you, “So why should I go to church?” could you answer them with some clarity? Could you answer them without using ancient terms that may be familiar to you but have no meaning for them? So what is the purpose church?

No matter how skilled you may have become at sharing your beliefs, if you cannot articulate the purpose of your church’s existence, if you can not give this person a reason for taking the time to walk through your church’s door, you will only be trading customers with other churches. That is, until we run out of those who have had some church experience sometime in their life. That is why I refuse to conduct a church growth workshop now unless a church has done some extensive work among its members discerning their church’s purpose.

But I assure you, the “Alexandrians” out there know what the purpose of church is. They wouldn’t have any hesitation telling these young people either. It is about being saved from something terrible. It is about forgiveness and the reward of eternal life after death.  It is about certainty in an uncertain world. The growth of these churches has little to do with the rock music and fast paced worship services. It is about knowing why they are there.

So what is the purpose of the progressive church today? It is the same thing it has always been. It is about providing an opportunity to change, to grow spiritually, to transform. It is about providing an opportunity for seeing and experiencing our realities and our world differently. If we can not tell some one who is spiritually hungry that our way, our church, the Christian path affords them the opportunity to transform their lives, then what do we have to offer them?

C. Kirk Hadaway, a former executive with the United Church of Christ, now with the Episcopalians, wrote an excellent and insightful book, Behold I Do A New Thing a few years ago. He begins his book with the question? “What is the business of the church?” He then goes on to answer his own question. “The purpose of the church is to transform people-to bring down their self-constructed walls, dissolve their delusions and help them see God.”

According to Hadaway, only when a congregation rediscovers its purpose, can it then find its mission. “That mission” he writes “is to be a church that actualizes [its] purpose…to form a transformational community.”

Marcus Borg writes something similar in his newest book, The Heart of Christianity. In this wonderful book, he argues that Christian life should be relational and transformational. According to Borg, there are really two transformations needed and that they are twins. One is a personal/spiritual one and the other is communal/social/political. Long ago, I have concluded that if we are going to be effective change agents for social justice, we must come at that change from our open hearts, from our compassion, from our own transformation as an intentional child of God. Otherwise, we are only creating more tension, acrimony and disharmony.

In the same book Borg makes a clear distinction between belief and faith and suggests that we need to put our belief discussions on the back burner in our conversations with others who do not hold the same beliefs.

Probably no one has explained the difference between faith and beliefs better than Zen philosopher, the late Alan Watts;

Belief…is the insistence that the truth is what one would ‘lief’ or (will)or wish to be…Faith is an unreserved opening of the mind to the truth, whatever it may turn out to be. Faith has no preconceptions; it is a plunge into the unknown. Belief clings, but faith lets go…faith is the essential virtue of science, and likewise of any religion that is not self-deception.”

These differences merit another talk all together. But I would like to close my remarks by focusing on how we might speak of our faith in a positive way to the non-churched seekers. What would I say to that person who asks me why am I still call myself a Christian and why do I go to church?

First, I would tell someone that asked me those questions that church is a place for people who want to change, to heal, to grow, to search. It is not for people who know that they are perfect or do not want to change. I would tell them that I believe that Jesus provided a blueprint, a deeply spiritual path that can change the way we view our reality, our lives, our priorities and it can change the way we relate to the rest of the world. It can bring us sight in places where we have been blind. It can lead to a more harmonious life, to a greater experience of genuine happiness. Jesus called this the Kingdom of God or the Realm of God.

I would explain that there are some very clear steps on this path that he taught that are still relevant today.

What are those steps? You have heard them all before, I would explain, but it is in the doing that makes them different. Although this list is incomplete, I would start with repentance. When we repent we take responsibility for our errors and we vow to change the course. We must learn to trust the source of all life. We practice real forgiveness not conditional forgiveness. We release our judgment of others and learn to love more fully. We practice real compassion and learn to live in thanks in all things. Those are some of the practices that Jesus taught that can lead to an experience of the Realm of God. But they take time, study, courage and a community to support us and to help us be accountable if we want to follow.

I would make it clear these are not rules or laws, nor does it make you bad if you chose not to follow them. These are not oughts they are opportunities.
I would explain that living in the Realm of God does not mean living in another world. It means living in this world and experiencing it differently. It does not mean living in another place, but it is living in the same place and seeing it differently. It does not mean dropping out, it means going within. It does not mean ignoring something that is there, it means seeing something that has always been there. It can mean watching all of our relationships change.

Living in the Realm of God is ultimately living out a truth that all life is connected and interdependent; that all creation is one and that there is one Creator. It is living out the truth that the God Spirit, the ruach is in each and every one of us. It is in all creation, even in the mustard weeds; it is even in those who have been deemed our enemies. We are all part of one long River of Wonder which has been flowing longer than any of us can remember or even comprehend.

In more traditional terms it means that you are a son or a daughter of the living Spirit of Creation-you are a child of God. It is a Realm without boundaries or divisions. It is a Realm without enemies of the heart. It is timeless and eternal.
Neil Doug-Klotz refers to an experience of the Realm of God as a “powerful and overwhelming experience of unity.”

I would explain that Jesus told his followers that the Realm of God is now. It is free and available. There are no lines. No charge cards required. It is not something that you wait for. You too can experience that powerful and overwhelming sense of unity. You too can find out that you are not isolated and that you are never alone. You too can discover the truth that you are connected to something bigger than you could have ever imagined.

You don’t have to jump off a cliff or climb to the top of some 23,000ft mountain top. You don’t have to start wearing white robes and beating on drums; we don’t have to go through some 10,000 mega volt transformation.

Everything we need is right here. The God you search for is within and the spirit that wants to guide you is already at work. It only waits for your release and your openness to it.

One might ask, “If this is so great why are there not more people here?”
I would explain because it is hard. It is hard because we live in a world with a social system, with social institutions and a social consciousness (or unconsciousness) that we have created that blinds us to what is real and important. We have redefined the meaning of success in such a way that it is forever illusive or temporary; it can never be enough. We have a social/economic system that pits one child of God against another and we call that healthy competition.

We have created an ideology that suggests that if we work hard enough, fight hard enough, pray hard enough we can keep our lives under control. How then can we possibly open up to the Great Mystery of God if it is something that we cannot control? It can be very scary. But you see that is the purpose of a sacred community- a loving church- to equip, to support, to encourage, and care for each other in this search for the experience of the holy.

The Christian path that I invite you to try is about rebirth and transformation. It is invitation to fly with the wings of an eagle, to swim in the River of life; it’s about discovering that you and the sun and the moon and the stars are made up of the same divine stuff and this God stuff is in all of us. It is about discovering once and for all that you are not here on this planet just to get through life but here to discover new life.

We have been given the path, the model, the guidance and the invitation. And all you need do is accept the invitation, find a community to support you and then begin to practice, practice, practice. It can be a life changing experience.
Well my friends, that is what I would say to the un-churched seeker. I would say these things because I know they are “true.” We have a wonderful path of light to offer that we have kept hidden under the bushel far too long. It is time, I believe, to uncover the light, even if it can be a little scary.

Topics: Theology & Religious Education. Resource Types: Articles, Gather, and Practice.

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