Needs Help

specialofferings1_medium250The Presbyterian Church (USA) is taking a beating this week over the marketing materials it published for its campaign of special denominational offerings. Two images in particular have drawn widespread condemnation on social media and in statements by groups like the National Hispanic/Latino Caucus of the PC(USA).

The ads are being condemned as racist and insensitive to the struggles of addicts. They are being denounced as flashy and edgy attempts at relevance that achieve gross insensitivity instead.

More informed people than I can speak on the decision making that led to these ads, because I honestly don’t know any of the people involved and I don’t have any reason to doubt their integrity. But here’s what I’m tucking up under my own hat from this episode: as compelling as the justification may be for doing something unconventional and perhaps out of bounds–you’re trying to save lives; you’re trying to save souls–, if the product can’t pass the nose-crinkle test it isn’t worth doing.

We have a copy of this poster in our office. It came in the mail last week and has been sitting atop the office counter untouched for days. After spending the morning reading angry screeds on Facebook, I grabbed the above image and showed it to our church’s Office Manager, the sweetest conservative evangelical middle-aged white woman you’d ever want to meet who’s not even a member of our church.

specialofferings2_medium250“What do you think of that?” I asked her. She studied it for a moment and then–as if involuntarily–her nose crinkled up into an uncomfortable stance and she said, “Hmmm. That’s interesting.” Confident there was more there, I pressed her: “Say more.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Not “offensive.” Not “insensitive.” Not “racist.”

“It gives me a bad feeling.”

Nose-crinkle test: failed. Done. Scrap the campaign. Go in another direction.

Perhaps these images were shown to focus groups before they were published and distributed. I don’t know. But “It gives me a bad feeling” is precisely the kind of thing a focus group will tell you. And that’s more than enough to guarantee that whatever kind of motivation or inspiration or compassion you’re trying to elicit is going to be harpooned by the icky feeling people get first and that the damage to your mission isn’t worth it.

The denomination has issued a statement to the effect that the campaign will be redone. Unfortunately, the bad feelings it has already created won’t go away as easily as paper.

Bruce Reyes-Chow and Company Are Planting A Church! Yes! Online? Oh . . .

One of the developments I covered in my Winterfest presentation on churches and social media is an online Presbyterian church start-up that was announced (hat tip: Lesslie Scanlon) last week by former PC(USA) Moderator Bruce Reyes-Chow. Peoples’ reactions were generally skeptical. Many were downright dismissive.

And for as much as I quote Douglas Rushkoff and talk about how people in churches need to understand the biases of these digital technologies so that they’re using them in helpful ways and not unwittingly giving up their non-digital assets, I’m interested in this. I’m keeping an open mind about it to see what happens.

Why? Because there are some seriously legit people behind it. Reyes-Chow is no Johnny-Come-Lately technophile; he held the highest elected office in a national denomination. And he’s not doing this alone. He’s gathered a team of Presbyterians: men and women, ruling and teaching elders, racially and ethnically diverse. Of that team, I know Mihee Kim-Kort and Steve Salyards (aka @ga_junkie) the best, and anything those two thought was worth their time and effort has immediate credibility in my book.

Read Reyes-Chow’s blog post announcing the church here and explore their Facebook page here.

Who knows what this could be? What are your expectations?

The Fellowship Theology Draft

Yesterday I posted my response to the Fellowship of Presbyterians’ Polity Draft. This post will briefly summarize and respond to the companion Theology Draft released at the same time on the groups’ website.

The Theology Draft does three things: it addresses the question of a theological standard (namely, confessional statements) for the New Reformed Body, articulates some Essential Tenets, and then asks some critical questions about the theological practices that will shape the group’s life together. I don’t consider myself a participant in the Fellowship, but I’m taking them at their word that they want public input.

I’m most interested in the Essential Tenets. The current Book of Confessions of the PC (USA) is the proposed answer to the question about standards and statements, which is sure to please many and rankle others. The third section of the Theology Draft sketches out the “theological friendships” that the Fellowship hopes will become a normative part of the life of pastors and elders in their new denomination. But, to me, the Essential Tenets are what deserve the closest attention.

And not really the tenets themselves. I have plenty to say about them, but I think the most significant fact is that they’re offered at all and that they’re given such weight  in the Polity Draft. The Fellowship clearly expects adherence to these tenets to create a kind of theological cohesion that they are disappointed does not presently exist in the PC (USA). I have serious doubts about that expectation, both in its intent and likelihood.

As to their intent, the authors of the Theological Draft write in its foreward:

a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them. our theological ideas and inclinations as a church are far too diffuse to unite us. we reject the proposition that theology divides. instead, we affirm the proposition that truth tends toward unity, yet we are the first generation of presbyterian officers who do not have in the same ordination question the words truth and unity. identifying essentials necessarily and rightly focuses our theological conversation and our life together.

That “a collection of confessions lends itself to the wisdom of identifying what is essential within them” is a questionable assertion. The move to name essentials within the Reformed theological heritage strikes me less as an imperative driven by wisdom as one driven by efficiency. An agreed upon list of essentials is a useful rubric for determining membership in a body and for establishing the boundaries of its teaching. But I don’t think it follows that wisdom dictates such a move.

Wisdom compels people toward what is good, right, true, just, and honorable–not necessarily what is essential. There’s a lot in the Book of Confessions that is good, right, and true, and our life as confessional Christians ought largely to be taken up with mining that gold for Christian formation and mission. But the essentialist project wants instead to select a few confessional gems and convert them into plastic rulers for measuring fidelity to the covenant of church membership and ordination. To do so cheapens them.

Here, then, is my greatest objection to the Theology Draft: it’s inelegant. It’s a rude instrument for assessing (or even coercing) the “rightness” of faith. It’s full of the language of Reformed theological tradition (see the wordle below) and sentences like, “In his essence, God is infinite, eternal, immutable, impassible, and ineffable.” But it reads like an ordination exam. It reads like something written by someone who’s hand shakes as they write because their disapproving teacher is lurking behind them and peering over their shoulder.

This is how Essential Tenets must read, like traffic citations. And that’s why I don’t like them and don’t want them. But to those in the Fellowship who seek in them a ground of covenantal unity and who will press them into the service of concentrating a self-selected group of Christians into a theological corps bound together by its agreement in faith’s fundamentals essentials, may you find what you seek.

The Fellowship Theology Draft as a wordle

The entire Book of Confessions as a wordle

The Fellowship Polity Draft

The Fellowship of Presbyterians (about whom I’ve written here and here) released drafts yesterday of the polity and theology documents that will guide their January gathering in Orlando. This post will lift up the most prominent characteristics of the polity draft.

I tweeted my highlights of the document on my first read-thru, and you can see those quotes here.

Here’s what the document looks like as a wordle:

Clearly the local congregation is the most important entity in the polity that will shape the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body. Fellowship leaders have said as much, and they’ve been accused of being Congregationalist in their polity. They’re rebutted that claim. At the very least, it’s fair to say that this polity draft establishes that its most important function is to serve the mission and ministry of local congregations.

For comparison’s sake, here’s what the PC (USA)’s Form of Government looks like as a wordle:

Congregation is one of the most prominent polity element there too.

Some of the highlights of what congregations do in this polity:

  • receive, hold, encumber, manage, and hold property: 4.0101(a)
  • prepare required annual review and mission narrative documents for the presbytery: 3.0103(m)
  • request transfer or dismissal from their presbytery or from the New Reformed Body at a called congregational meeting: 1.0503(d)

The other big element in this polity is the presbytery. It defines a presbytery not as a “corporate expression of the church” as in the nFOG of the PC (USA), but as a “covenant community” of congregations. That may seem a pedantic distinction, but I think its significance lies in the fact that, as it does with members of congregations, the Fellowship polity makes voluntary participation in a covenant the substance of participation in a church body.

The presbytery also has a much more active role to play for the Fellowship in the coaching and encouraging of its pastors. The mechanism for this is a peer review process (2.0402) that must be completed at least annually by every installed pastor. The substance of the review is pastors’ health and  future ministry goals, as well as the sharing of best practices and insights.

The controversial stuff about church denominational affiliation pops up in the fifth chapter, titled “Ecumenicity And Union.” What’s described there is a process by which congregations or presbyteries may affiliate with the Fellowship’s New Reformed Body through a union arrangement or by joining a new entity called an Affinity Network. The process laid out requires a 2/3 majority vote of either the congregation or the presbytery respectively, as well as the consenting judgment of the PC(USA) body to which it is currently subject. And in the case where PC(USA) and Fellowship rules butt heads, “the less permissive rules shall govern”(5.0202 and 5.0203).

A few other interesting tidbits:

  1. There’s no General Assembly. The Synod is the highest council in the NRB
  2. Pastors “ordinarily” shall hold an MDiv. degree from an accredited seminary
  3. No CPM: presbyteries come up with their own credentialing and calling mechanism for pastors
  4. Members of congregations are called “Covenant Partners” (see note about presbytery membership above)
  5. Honorably Retired pastors can’t vote at presbytery

Finally, a word about the Essential Tenets. I’ll review those next, but they appear in the polity draft often and they clearly play a unifying role. The Fellowship clearly expects members of churches, congregations, elders, deacons, and pastors to adopt the Essential Tenets they’re laying out, and even to do so “without hesitation” (2.0103c). The lack of a uniform theological standard has been a constant critique of this group, and this polity draft clearly intends to establish the Essential Tenets document as the norm to which everyone must subscribe in order to belong.

Desmond Tutu to The PC (USA): Good Work

One of the prominent arguments against ordaining gay men and women to church office is that the “global church” finds the move unconscionable. Conservatives in America have become enamored of the “global church” of late, often claiming that departing from it in this matter is nothing short of  theological arrogance.

Now, a letter addressed to Gradye Parsons, Stated Clerk of the Presbyterian Church (USA) by none other than Desmond Tutu casts serious doubt on this “global church” position. Tutu is a retired Bishop of the Anglican Church in South Africa and a Nobel Peace Prize winner for his efforts to fight apartheid.  He wrote to Parsons to express his support for the PC (USA)’s recent change to its constitution that will permit gay ordination. Here’s an excerpt:

I realize that among your ecumenical partners, some voices are claiming that you have done the wrong thing, and I know that you rightly value your relationship with Christians in other parts of the world. Sadly, it is not always popular to do justice, but it is always right. People will say that the ones you are now willing to ordain are sinners. I have come to believe, through the reality shared with me by my scientist and medical friends, and confirmed to me by many who are gay, that being gay is not a choice. Like skin color or left-handedness, sexual orientation is just another feature of our diversity as a human family. How wonderful that God has made us with so much diversity, yet all in God’s image! Salvation means being called out of our narrow bonds into a broad place of welcome to all.

That a prominent churchman from another part of the global church community supports the change in ordination standards does not, of course, mean that the issue is settled. Many brothers and sisters across the globe do not support it and find it deeply offensive. But Tutu is an important voice of reason in the conversation. His letter disqualifies blanket appeals to the global church as, in and of themselves, conclusive.

Monday Morning Quarterback, Presbytery Edition

Last night, at a called meeting, the Presbytery of San Gabriel adopted a Gracious Dismissal policy. This policy lays out the process that will be followed if one of our member churches ever seeks dismissal to another Reformed denomination. It was drafted at the urging of the 218th General Assembly that presbyteries create such policies in order to demonstrate how they will exercise their constitutional responsibility to “divide, dismiss, or dissolve congregations in consultation with their members.”

A few bullet points about the policy we adopted:

  • It’s a theological document. It sees gracious witness in times of conflict as a missional imperative for congregations and presbyteries alike.
  • It dislikes litigation. The process described seeks to avoid lawsuits over church property and expresses a commitment on the part of the presbytery to not react punitively towards churches seeking dismissal from the denomination
  • It’s a process. When a church seeks dismissal, a presbytery team is assembled to meet with the leadership and the congregation and first seek reconciliation; the congregation elects a special committee to negotiate terms of dismissal with that team, attending to all relevant property issues; those negotiated terms are presented to the congregation at a called meeting for a vote; a 75% or greater vote on the part of the congregation is “validated” by a vote of the presbytery at a stated meeting.

There were several amendments proposed to the policy, all of which made it better in my view and most of which were defeated. An amendment was proposed to strike a clause citing I Corinthians 6:1-11, as in, when churches take each other to court they “violate” said scripture. It was defeated. A subsequent amendment was proposed to truncate the last three verses of that citation, leaving off references to the “Fornicators, idolaters, adulterers, male prostitutes, sodomites, thieves, the greedy, drunkards, revilers, robbers” who won’t inherit the Kingdom of God. It was defeated. An amendment was proposed to add a paragraph guaranteeing a forum for a loyalist minority of whatever size to press its claim to the presbytery that it has the resources and vision to soldier on as a PC(USA) congregation. It was defeated.

Arguments against the policy seemed to be based on an a priori opposition to congregations leaving the PC (USA). I too oppose such situations, but my experience has been that when congregations and their leaders get up a head of steam to do that, it’s much better to have some process in place for the presbytery to respond than to have nothing at all. Whether it’s an Administrative Commission or a non-litigation policy, you’d better have something, because the orchestrations of dismissal typically plunge presbyteries into unchartered waters where the lack of a navigation plan can cause great harm.

I voted for this policy. There are things about it I don’t like, but I think that, for where we are, it’s a serviceable document. I can live with it because, for all of its aversion towards litigation, it does not restrict the right of the presbytery to seek that in a particular case if it deems it necessary.

Thanks to those who worked hard on it, and pray, God, we don’t actually have to use it.


The Fellowship Gathering: Third Thoughts

“It’s a mad mission/Under difficult conditions”

Patty Griffin (for Casey Wait)

My first thought was, “I’m not one of these evangelicals anymore.”

My second thought was, “We see the world’s needs very differently.”

My third thought is, “We see mission very differently.”

Uses of the term “missional” were more prevalent at the Fellowship Gathering in Minneapolis than the little butter discs that came with the bread basket. I suspect definitions of that term were just as abundant.

I’m not a progressive mainline despiser of missional-speak. I’ve read everything the Gospel and Our Culture Network has published. In seminary I chased Darrell Guder around like a puppy dog. I’ve served the church as a volunteer in mission twice. My current call has “mission” right in the title. What I notice, though, is that “missional” has become for evangelicals an orienting idea, the ramifications of which are not being fully grasped.

The big idea behind the missional turn is that North America is itself now a mission field. Indeed it always has been, but decades of a single-minded focus on foreign missions efforts obscured that reality. Today, people like Alan Roxburgh and Alan Hirsch are becoming household names in evangelical circles by forcing that issue, and even by asking, “Can The West be converted?”

All of this is a good thing. A very good thing.

Yet to hear the term “missional” employed in Minneapolis, one would think its application is limited to practices of evangelism and to a congregational polity. I noted that in almost every instance where a speaker urged a more “missional” church, they did so in connection with affirmations about unchurched people in an unchurched culture. And they did so with a clear and repeated application to congregations and not to presbyteries or the PC (USA).

[excursis: the irony of the polity observation is that, while many evangelicals in the PC (USA) express an earnest desire to be more missional than the denomination seemingly allows them to be, many of them have used the withholding of shared support for the denomination’s mission efforts as a means of protest against it.]

This equation of mission with evangelism and congregations troubles me because I owe much of my own sense of call to ordained ministry to an experience with a PC (USA) mission program, one that didn’t involve me in explicit evangelism, and one that can’t be sustained by a single congregation but depends on shared mission support.

Also, I belong to a presbytery that is being profoundly impacted by an experiment in shared mission.

[another excursis: The Presbytery of San Diego has intentionally started to call itself a “relational community” that strives to become a “mission agency.” That would seem to indicate a belief in the presbytery as a locus of Christian mission]

The mission of the church in a North American 21st Century context will probably be driven primarily by congregations, but those congregations will depend upon the support of larger networks of congregations called presbyteries and denominations. In that light, it will be interesting to see the extent to which the Fellowship of Presbyterians proposes sharing mission support with the PC (USA).

That mission will also require witness and action that includes explicit evangelism but is not limited to it. The church will need to speak in its common life and in written statements to the “powers and principalities” of our culture. That is as much mission as preaching the gospel.

In Minneapolis, that didn’t seem to be part of the “missional” emphasis.

The Fellowship Gathering: Second Thoughts

“Weigh the pros/the cons come first/I’ve got a black belt in doubt.”

Cold War Kids

The Rev. Dr. David Swanson of First Presbyterian Church, Orlando, said during his address to the Fellowship gathering something to the effect of: the world badly needs to know what the church believes.

That was the moment of epiphany for me.

I’ve recounted my first thoughts about last week’s Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in Minneapolis here and here, and I’ve commented on my perception of that movement’s overall aims here. Now it’s probably time to deal with some of the substance of my disagreement with it.

Swanson’s pivotal assertion was made breathlessly and in the context of deploring the lack of theological clarity that evangelicals in the PC (USA) are certain has been introduced by Amendment 10-A and the removal of standards of “fidelity” and “chastity” from the church’s ordained officers. To many, that change represents a departure from a traditional understanding of sexual ethics and Biblical authority. That departure is intolerable for lots of reasons, and prominent among them is a perceived ambiguity about sexual morals that will hurt the church’s witness and evangelism.

“The culture needs to know where the church stands. It doesn’t need the church to bless its sin but to call it what it is, unequivocally and without compromise. The mission of the church requires a clear stand on sex.”

[excursis: ceasing to condemn same-gender romantic orientation as such is clearly a moral move that pronounces the church’s conviction and conscience. I threw that gauntlet down some time ago]

The epiphany for me is that evangelicals have a very different perception of peoples’ needs than I do. As I read the gospels, I don’t detect an overwhelming concern on Jesus’ part to impart conviction to people. I can’t recall a single time when Jesus instructed his disciples to share their conscience with the world by pronouncing on ethical matters. The driving concern of Jesus’ ministry seemed to be accompanying people (“sinners”) who the religious establishment had cast out, feeding them, healing them, and sharing the good news of God’s judgment and mercy with them.

Surely a clear moral stake-in-the-ground is required, and Jesus drove that stake down as far as it would go. The problem for evangelicals is that Jesus repeatedly dodged peoples’ attempts to force an articulation of his moral position out of him. He was much more interested in making friends with the people that religious leaders made their living condemning.

Of course, that reveals a clear moral conviction. And while I’m never going to claim to get that conviction, pursuing it and living it out is, to me, the driving force behind Christian faith, ethics, mission, and ministry. It’s what I understand the church to be driving at.

That seems to be a different orientation from the evangelical pursuit of moral clarity. If Swanson is correct and the world’s most pressing need is to know the content of the church’s convictions about moral and ethical issues like sex, then I’m not sure the church I’m after can meet that need.

The Fellowship Gathering: First Thoughts

“I remember when we shared a vision, you and I”

The Mountain Goats

I’ve just returned from The Fellowship of Presbyterians gathering in Minneapolis. The event was organized by a group of evangelical pastors within the PC (USA) who called like-minded pastors and elders to join with them in creating a New Reformed Body connected to the current denomination and yet separate from it. Though I’m not one of those like-minded pastors (as evidenced by this post), I attended on behalf of my presbytery to listen to The Fellowship’s proposals and to work with local colleagues around them.

Better bloggers than I have summarized the gathering’s accomplishments. Here’s a summary from a sympathetic participant and one from an unsympathetic not-participant. Rather than summarize, I need to process. Thank you.

[update: I contributed to a roundup of reactions over at Two Friars and A Fool that gets more into the mechanics of the event]

I’m troubled by a couple of things. This post will process one.

I’ve been underestimating the distinct theological, methodological, and sociological DNA of evangelicalism and its expression within mainline denominations like the PC (USA). Which surprises me, given my evangelical breeding. I was baptized in a charismatic church and went to college at an evangelical Presbyterian school. I fumbled a job interview at a progressive church with an uncritical recitation of the reasons why gays shouldn’t be ordained, and the first chance I had to vote on the issue, I stood for the status quo (the “fidelity and chastity” standards).

The Fellowship is an expression of the core convictions of American evangelicalism: that the church exists to seek and save lost sinners (read: everyone), that the Bible is the only admissible guide to faith and life, and that Christians stand in a position of loving opposition to the wider culture in which they’re situated. My time in Minneapolis illuminated how differently I relate to those convictions now than I did even five years ago. It’s not that I don’t believe them, it’s that words like “sin,” “save,” and “guide” (not to mention “sex“) have acquired meanings for me that they didn’t have before. The old meanings haven’t been replaced so much as nuanced, complemented, and, pray God, enriched.

I have to believe that God has been in this process, while I still acknowledge that I could be wrong.

This unsettling realization has sent me running to historians of the evangelical movement to help me better understand the ways in which The Fellowship movement is replaying an oppose-and-separate movie the church has seen before (I’m starting here and here). Every Christian denomination has evangelicals in it, even though the vast majority of evangelical Christians belong to church expressions that aren’t affiliated with anything like an organized denomination. For mainline protestants in the U.S., that has always been the case, and it has always been a source of tension, if not all-out conflict (see the First and Second Great Awakenings). Since coming into mainline protestantism in my early 20’s, I’ve understood myself to be an heir of the evangelicals in those conflicts.

I don’t anymore.

My gut reaction to the things happening in Minneapolis showed me that I’m now standing somewhere else. I’m not sure what to make of that.

Portrait of A Young Adult Volunteer (Or, More Fun with Call Recorder for Skype)

A couple of weeks ago I used ecamm’s Call Recorder for Skype to have a talk with Miriam Foltz, one of the PC (USA)’s Young Adult Volunteers this year. She’s serving in the program’s Belfast site (of which I’m also an alum), and I spoke with her and her supervisor, Mark Sweeney, about the nature of the YAV program and of her work. We also talked about the site where she’s serving, East Belfast Mission.

We’re going to show this video in worship on Sunday, June 5th, the week before the Pentecost Offering. That special offering supports the YAV program, as well as a number of other ministries with children and youth.

I got the idea to do this at the NEXT Church event in Indianapolis last February. A number of participants at that event lifted up the YAV program as a significant source of vocational formation in the life of the church. I’m a big believer and a major beneficiary of it, so I decided to use my connection with Miriam, who I met at Triennium last summer, to give it just a little push from my corner of the world.

Share this video as you wish. Also, I’m a film production rookie, so I’d love y’all’s feedback.