Where is the ground most fertile?

Where is the ground most fertile?

Photo by FORREST CAVALE on Unsplash

Here’s one of the most interesting pieces of church data I’ve come across this year:

This is, of course, an incomplete picture, starting with the fact that it only represents white Christians. The full (and fascinating) Census of American Religion is available here.

It also labels us in ways we may not always agree with. Mainline protestants are a group that includes Methodists, Episcopalians, and the largest representations of Lutherans and Presbyterians in the United States. Evangelicals typically include Baptists, Pentecostals, and a big chunk of churches who would describe themselves as “non-denominational.”

These words aren’t always especially helpful. I’m a United Methodist, which means “mainline” in this study. But there are plenty of United Methodists – in our East TN/Southwest VA Holston Conference, in the church I grew up in and the churches I’ve served, and elsewhere – who would more closely identify themselves as evangelicals.

That word, of course, means “good news.” What’s the good news in a study like this?

Maybe think of it this way: what’s the fastest growing religion in the United States? In the last decade, the answer was, “None of the above.” Those who are unaffiliated still make up a larger percentage than mainline, evangelical, or catholic churches alone.

But in the last five years, the fastest growing of those four groups – and the only one to show significant growth – is mainline protestants.

How come?

Because we all want our churches to be good. It’s usually just a matter of what “good” means. If you’d use “good” to describe a church – if you’d use it to describe your church – what does it sound like?

I grew up in a good church. The kind where Sundays were hopeful. My mama was the children’s director there for two decades, so I’m a little biased, but the kind where people knew they were loved, starting from birth, reaching out through their whole lives. And, in part because they were so good at those things, the kind that grew.

And I’ve served good churches. The kind where people try to believe they are in it together, even fully aware of their differences. The kind that challenge your best-case scenarios. The pass-the-hat, do-we-need-more-chairs, sounds-crazy-but-let’s-give-it-a-try kind.

We’ve all got our lists of what a good church means to us. And all of them have been challenged by the pandemic. It’s still dangerous to talk about this thing in anything other than the present tense, but the challenges we’re facing now sure feel less black-and-white than last year’s. Now it’s less about whether your doors are open, and more about what’s different inside those doors.

But we did learn last year that the ground can be fertile in ways you didn’t realize before.

What’s interesting to me about that study is the potential movement from one kind of church to another, as Diana Butler Bass goes on to discuss in that Twitter thread. A potential movement among some evangelicals who are leaving their churches…but not leaving Christianity. Who may have found enough “not good”, or whatever you want to call it, to leave one thing…but enough good in Jesus to look for him somewhere else.

If we’re choosing words to describe our churches, I do like “fruitful” more than “good”. I like “growing” a lot, and don’t think it should be shied away from. But growth, in and of itself, is an idolatrous endgame. Fruitfulness is what we’re called to: it’s the very first thing God says to human beings in Genesis 1. And it can be a beautiful thing about different kinds of churches: there’s more than one kind of fruit.

In the same way, my least favorite expression in church world is, “We can’t grow until…”. Because the more you believe that – the more you blame the season – the easier it becomes to find the next reason why you can’t. To be led more by what we tell ourselves we have to say no to than what we can say yes to.

And hey, it’s easy to blame the season, especially an unpredictably harsh one. Sometimes I have to remind myself that all the agricultural metaphors in the Bible came without the AccuWeather app on my smartphone, or the seven-day outlook, or even the Farmer’s Almanac. Perhaps to them, “unpredictable” was just another word for “today.”

Yet still, they planted. They watered. They prayed. In exile, they sought the welfare of the city.

There’s almost a stubbornness to it – maybe that’s a good quality for a farmer – in believing that the church can always be fruitful. That God has already given us everything we need.

So that’s one danger: that we would stop sowing. That we would believe the ground isn’t fertile anywhere right now, or won’t be again until we’re back to “normal” or beyond a denominational issue.

But I think this study also reveals the danger of only sowing in one direction.

If the fastest growing churches in America are mainline protestants? According to the study, that means the fastest growing churches in America are also more diverse:

  • 22% of Republicans and 16% of Democrats identify as mainline protestant, compared to 29% of Republicans and only 9% of Democrats who identify as evangelical.
  • The median age among mainline protestants is 50, down from 56 among evangelicals. “None of the above” still trends younger here with a median age of 38.
  • For those in our part of the world, there’s a tremendous opportunity for conversation in diversity. The county where I live is 40% evangelical, 25% mainline, and 23% unaffiliated.

There’s a story I love from 2 Kings 5, where Naaman, an Aramean general, is sick. But he hears there is a prophet in Israel, Elisha, who could heal him. When he reaches the prophet’s house, Elisha simply sends down a messenger to tell him to wash in the Jordan River seven times. And Naaman doesn’t like this, because he expected the solution to be more dramatic.

It’s his servant who quietly comes to him and says, “If they asked you to do something difficult, wouldn’t you have done it?” (2 Kings 5:13)

Or, as Eugene Peterson paraphrases it in The Message, “Father, if the prophet had asked you to do something hard and heroic, wouldn’t you have done it? So why not this simple ‘wash and be clean’?”

Sometimes we tell ourselves that growth, fruitfulness, the path forward, or whatever we think of about being a good church…whatever it is, it must be dramatic. We sow hard and heavy in political issues, running hard and fast to the right or the left. Because the turning point in this study for mainline protestants is 2016, I think it’s fair to ask how a church’s relationship to politics may have impacted its fruitfulness.

It can feel like taking a stand for whatever you’re taking a stand for is absolutely the best way ahead.

But perhaps we’ve missed that the most fertile ground is a little less dramatic and a little more in the middle. More simple. More Jesus. And probably already right underneath our feet.

After all, that’s the ground where the most number of people might find their faith putting down roots. And that’s the kind of church that has a chance to reflect the kingdom of heaven, which I believe will include democrats and republicans and Lutherans and Baptists and young and old and, I hope, Methodists.

A fruitful church is best defined by the nature of fruit itself: is it healthy? Does it taste good? And does it contain within itself the seeds of its own multiplication? Does the good news people encounter in your church make a difference in their lives and in their community? Is it a gospel they want to share?

And I think those things are still found best in simple obedience: to love first, and love well. To love our neighbors, which we cannot do unless we know them. To believe in Jesus, who tells stories of farmers who sow everywhere.

And to believe the most fertile ground might be right underneath our feet.

Hey, I wrote a book!

Hey, I wrote a book!

So, over the holidays in 2019, I started working on a book.

Whenever I’ve started at a new church, there’s always been this question: “What should I preach first?” Where do we begin with God? What can I share about faith that will also share about myself, and invite others to discover more of who they are? And I’ve often ended up in Eden: the beginning, of course, seems like a good place to start.

As the pandemic forced people and communities of faith to reevaluate some of those questions, now there’s a sense that we’re looking for a good place to restart. And it gives me both hope and comfort that the beginning might still be the best place to start.

The things we want to believe most about God are still present there in the first truths from the Garden of Eden. And in those first truths, we also find the most important things to believe about ourselves.

I’m thrilled to share that Roots of Eden is scheduled for release in July 2021. Sign up for updates at rootsofedenbook.com.

Love of a Jealous Kind

Love of a Jealous Kind

Photo by Andy Feliciotti on Unsplash

Our church is walking through the Gospel of John from January 1 through Easter, and Thursday morning’s passage finds Jesus turning over tables in the temple. It’s a striking image, one we often associate with the idea of righteous anger. That’s the temptation with anger: to believe it’s righteous when it’s my own, but not when it’s someone else’s.

That story comes one day after everything at the Capitol. “Everything” is the best word I’ve got.

The few hopeful moments I felt yesterday came in some form of, “Maybe this will do it.” The images from the Capitol, maybe those will be enough. The level of surreal shot to the top of a crowded leaderboard. Maybe that recognition – that this should not be real – will be enough. Maybe things can begin to move in a different direction. Maybe.

It’s always maybe.

The name of Jesus was on display there too. The first one I saw actually made me laugh initially, the giant JESUS 2020 banner (it’s hard to find images of these to post here that don’t come with their own commentary, understandably so).

I don’t believe he was on the ballot, of course. And while I don’t know who was responsible for that banner, and would be interested to hear their thought process…if the larger theme of the rally was re-electing TRUMP 2020, that seems to be a conflict of interest. “Jesus for president, but also the incumbent!”

(This made me think of the SNL Superfan Ditka sketches:

“Bears vs the assembled choir of heavenly angels?”

“…angels, but it’s close.”

“Alright, Ditka vs God in a golf match. Now, he’s a good golfer…”)

The other one I saw simply said, “JESUS SAVES.”

This appears to be the work of Sam Bethea from Charlotte, a regular downtown fixture with that same message.

Mr. Bethea’s thoughts here echo the sentiment of seeing that sign in the midst of that everything: Jesus saves…but not like this.

We use the image of Jesus turning over those tables most often when it suits us, suits our own anger. I think the better choice, if we’re bringing Jesus into this, is always to invoke not a few verses but the larger picture of who he is:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

who, though he was in the form of God,
    did not regard equality with God
    as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
    taking the form of a slave,
    being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
    he humbled himself
    and became obedient to the point of death—
    even death on a cross.

Philippians 2:5-8 (NRSV)

It’s in the very nature of Jesus – in the very nature of God – to be self-sacrificial. To empty yourself. To lay yourself down.

I made a C+ in the servant leadership class in seminary, so what do I know. It was one of those online classes where you do x number of message board posts per week, plus respond to at least two others, plus respond to every response on your own posts. I remember emailing the professor with all the self-importance of someone in their 20’s, telling him how as a full-time pastor I just didn’t have time for all of that every week. So C+ sounds about right. I did get to write a research paper on Chick-fil-A, so it wasn’t all bad.

And I did learn enough to know we often base our entire thinking on servant leadership from another story of Jesus from the Gospel of John, where he will wash his disciples’ feet.

For us, this is most often a story we encounter once a year during Holy Week. I can assure you the lowest attended worship service of the year is the one that involves foot washing. I don’t think this is because we want to keep our distance from the idea of service as much as we want to keep our distance from the intimacy it involves. But just as it’s easy to skip the Maundy Thursday service, it’s also easy to leave the idea of servant leadership there, one day a year, one story. Pat ourselves on the back for a good thing we did for someone “lower” than us, and move on.

But servant leadership – and Jesus – are much more about a consistent identity of self-sacrifice than a single act of stooping low.

Jesus comes to lay himself down. You cannot skip to the second half of that Philippians passage – the one where every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus is Lord – without going through the cross. The cross is self-sacrifice. The cross is Jesus telling his disciples to put away their swords. The cross sharing in his death, so that we might share in his life. Lay yourself down.

Jesus saves…but not like this.

In this sense, one of the holiest things about Chick-fil-A is that they’re closed on Sundays: not because it allows their employees an opportunity for rest and corporate worship, but because in doing so they set aside the opportunity to make more money. They set themselves down.

Maybe it will be different going forward. Maybe this notion that we should govern based on the terrible things we’re told the other party would do if they were in charge will go away. But I’m afraid little will change, even after days that should not be real, if we fail to find true servant leadership.

The good news is still good: in this Jesus, we have more than enough grace. It’s always maybe from there. It’s always up to us.

I have no idea if we’ll find it in Washington. The best we can do is find it in our own communities. To hold fast to the stubborn belief that there is something bigger than us going on here, that our lives are about more than just us. To stop chasing power and holding on so tightly, and to embrace the cross…because I believe that is still the only way we truly embrace life.

Jesus saves, but not by sword. By sacrifice.

Easter Is Not Like Christmas

Easter Is Not Like Christmas

Photo by Bruno van der Kraan on Unsplash

I’m not sure if social distancing and spending more time with the people we’re closest to are making us more or less honest. But I’m an optimist. And, if we’re being honest, one of the first thoughts I had when all this started was, “Thank God it’s not football season.”

Maybe it will be eventually; I definitely would’ve had a different answer if we lost last year’s basketball season, when Tennessee had a real chance to win it all. Still, losing opening day, The Masters, and the NCAA Tournament is sad. But losing football season? We’ll do anything to keep that from happening (and we might get our chance to).

Football drives life in the south in ways you can’t escape, even if you don’t care for the sport or the idea. It weaves its way toward December, a three-month lead-in to another inescapable truth: Santa Claus.

This is a more universal concern, even in the south: “Thank God it’s not Christmas.” So much of what we actually look forward to in December – presents, presence, etc. – would’ve been lost to unemployment and quarantine. And no doubt, even nine months from now, there’s no guarantee things will be the same as they were before.

But for now, football and Bethlehem are safe. Instead, college basketball is over. And Easter might be next.

I’m a United Methodist pastor; all of our churches, at least in our East Tennessee/Southwest Virginia conference, were closed by our bishop. I’m not sure anyone knows what it will take to reopen them right now. In Virginia this week, the governor put a 30-day ban on gatherings of 10+ people, which would carry us a week past Easter on April 12. Meanwhile, the president is using Easter as a hopeful restart date for the country.

There’s a sense that Easter could grow into a significant point of tension. For churches, sure, we’d like to meet in person! Along with everything we miss from every Sunday we’re together and all of our vibrant Holy Week traditions, there’s the practical: Easter is always the most-attended Sunday of the year. That often makes it one of our best Sundays for giving; losing in-person worship on Easter might mean losing a big piece of an already-thinning financial pie.

But the truth for most of us, even us Christians? We’d rather lose Easter than Christmas.

And I get it. Me too.

I’m not here to shame you for caring more about Christmas than Easter. I’m here to say, if you’re consumed with worry over losing Easter? Or if you’re propping it up as something we absolutely, positively have to have in person, no matter the cost? Because celebrating the day Jesus rose from the dead matters more than anything?

We might actually be selling that day short.

We might be missing the fullness of resurrection.

Do you know why we have church on Sunday mornings?

It’s not the Sabbath. Our Jewish friends would be quick to point out that Sabbath takes place from sundown Friday to sundown Saturday, the seventh day of the week, when God rested.

In the resurrection accounts in the New Testament, only a few details show up in all four gospels:

  • Women and at least one angel were there at the tomb.
  • The stone had been rolled away and the tomb was empty.
  • And all of it happened in the morning on the first day of the week.

Which is Sunday.

Which is why you go to church on Sunday.

Easter is not like Christmas. This is true for our personal reasons that make us secretly grateful this is happening now and not then. But it’s also true theologically.

Christmas is an event we celebrate on December 25, plus a month of build-up (if you’re a good person; more than that if you hate Thanksgiving and love Hobby Lobby and Hallmark). One of my wife’s grandmothers, born on Christmas Day, often shares a saying from her mother: “Nothing is ever quite as over as Christmas.”

But Easter? Resurrection is not an event we celebrate on the first Sunday after the first full moon of the vernal equinox, and then move on to the next story. Resurrection is the story.

If I stood in front of you holding a candle on Christmas Eve and asked you to live every day like it was Christmas, you’d appropriately roll your eyes. But living every day like the tomb is empty is exactly what we’re called to do.

Alongside the resurrection accounts in the gospels, the words of Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 are the most thorough New Testament argument for the importance of resurrection. Listen to the way he talks about it:

  • “For I handed on to you as of first importance what I had in turn received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the scriptures, and that he was buried, and that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the scriptures…” (1 Corinthians 15:3-4)
  • “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins.” (verse 17)
  • “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (verse 19)
  • “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.” (verse 32)

Essentially, if there’s no Resurrection, let’s move to Vegas, baby, for tomorrow we die.

But that’s the thing:

  • “Death has been swallowed up in victory. Where, O death, is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?” (verse 55)

Resurrection is not a thing we celebrate one Sunday a year. It is the reason for Sundays. It is the reason for everything.

This is not a matter of secondary importance, and not some obscure thing we believe. The Apostles’ Creed, a shared statement of faith for churches of so many different names from one century to the next, spends more time on this than anything else. Our core doctrines and most meaningful truths – who is Christ, the forgiveness of sins, eternal life – are all held together by resurrection.

And even when other parts of the calendar work to our advantage – “Thank God it’s Lent,” perhaps – resurrection still breaks through. If you gave up something for Lent and thought you signed up for 40 days, if you count the Sundays as well you’re actually getting 46 days. That’s because on Sundays – every Sunday – we celebrate the resurrection. And nothing – nothing gets in the way of that. When I was a kid I used to think this was cheating at Lent, and good Christians did the whole 46. Now I believe good Christians seek to understand and live the fullness of resurrection.

If we can’t meet in person on April 12, I’ll be sad. But the resurrection cannot be contained by one Sunday. If we think it’s only a story for springtime, we sell it short. When we’re consumed with meeting in person on that day no matter the potential cost to others, we misrepresent it. When we’re tempted to tether it to a political party or the health of any economy, even our own, we misplace it.

Resurrection is not just a thing we celebrate on Easter. It’s a thing we celebrate every Sunday. It’s our very life. As Eugene Peterson says in his paraphrase of 1 Corinthians 15:30-33 in The Message:

It’s resurrection, resurrection, always resurrection, that undergirds what I do and say, the way I live.

More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

More Powerful Than You Can Possibly Imagine

Photo by Josh Howard on Unsplash

So much of the fun with these things is the build-up. And among these things – Avengers, Lord of the Rings, and whatever the next generation’s will be – Star Wars is both author and perfecter. It is the reason we make trilogies. And in many ways, it is the reason we have build-up.

In the fall of 1998 I sat in yearbook senior year and watched a trailer on the internet. Whatever you believe about The Phantom Menace, know that two minutes and twelve seconds of it were the greatest thing you’d seen in your entire life in the fall of 1998. The fact that you could watch any trailer online back then was amazing. The fact that it was Star Wars, for the first time in 15 years, was even better.

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Naked and Unashamed

Naked and Unashamed

Therefore a man leaves his father and his mother and clings to his wife, and they become one flesh. And the man and his wife were both naked, and were not ashamed.

Genesis 2:24-25 (NRSV)

Nakedness was the first truth of Adam and Eve’s relationship. And when they ate the fruit, it became the first thing to go.

But I think there’s something in us that wants to get back to that place.

Nakedness is obviously compelling, but it’s so much more than that. It’s the implied intimacy in relationships as much as anything else—the fullness of who we are being seen by someone else without any presence of shame. The kind of intimacy that drives us toward the oneness described in this original relationship between Adam and Eve.

Nakedness, of course, can happen in a moment. Some of the shame that wants to define our sexuality can come from the fact that we sometimes get naked (literally and figuratively) much too quickly.

True intimacy always takes time.

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A Delight to the Eyes

A Delight to the Eyes

Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the Lord God had made. He said to the woman, “Did God say, ‘You shall not eat from any tree in the garden’?” The woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden; but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.’” But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not die; for God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate; and she also gave some to her husband, who was with her, and he ate.

Genesis 3:1-6 (NRSV)

Why did the serpent choose this lie?

He didn’t tell Eve that God is really a cruel dictator or a figment of her imagination. And he didn’t tell her the fruit would give her fantastic powers, like flight or x-ray vision.

The serpent doesn’t tell big lies; those are easier to spot.

It’s the small ones that got Eve. The serpent pretending to be on her side. The idea that God might be holding out on her. The thought that there might be something better.

In his commentary on Genesis, Terence Fretheim notes the serpent asked the initial question in a way that is difficult to give a simple “yes” or “no” answer to. Crafty, indeed.

Eve saw that the tree was not only good for food; it was also a delight to the eyes. These facts eventually became the center of her decision-making: If it’s good for food, it won’t hurt me. If it’s a delight to the eyes, it will give me pleasure. And that’s what is best for me.

We’ve been tempted to live that lie ever since.

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Be Fruitful and Multiply

Be Fruitful and Multiply

Then God said, “Let us make humankind in our image, according to our likeness; and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the birds of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the wild animals of the earth, and over every creeping thing that creeps upon the earth.”

So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.

God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over every living thing that moves upon the earth.”

Genesis 1:26-28 (NRSV)

At what point is one qualified to speak on relationships and sexuality?

When I started doing this job, single and in my mid-20’s, I was amazed that anyone would come sit in my office and ask me about anything. I spent those first couple of years just working on my poker face. (It did improve with every visit.) But 13 years later, I’ve yet to acquire the overwhelming confidence or accompanying facial expression that says, “Oh yeah, definitely tell me about your relationship stuff. I’ve got that down.”

I’ll tell you who I would trust when it comes to relationships:

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A Church Like That

A Church Like That

In the United Methodist Book of Discipline is a section called the Social Principles, which contains our denomination’s stance on seventy-six different issues. From abortion to bullying to sustainable agriculture to collective bargaining…you name it, we have some thoughts.

But the Social Principles are not church law. When you come forward to join our church, we don’t ask if you agree with our stance on any or all of these issues. We ask if you repent of your sin and confess Jesus Christ as your Savior. And we also ask if you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves.

So you can be a United Methodist (or a United Methodist pastor) and disagree with any portion of any number of our stances. With 76 items on the list, everyone does. This is one of the primary ingredients for the incredible diversity that can exist within our church.

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This Post is Sponsored by Jesus Christ

This Post is Sponsored by Jesus Christ

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

How do you talk about your church?

Last week a church marketing ad showed up in my Facebook feed. I clicked the link and traded my phone number and email address for a template that would supposedly solve all my problems following up with first-time visitors.

Nevermind the two texts, four emails, and one voicemail the company somehow left without actually calling me over the next 24 hours; I figured I was getting into some version of that. I was more surprised by the content of their can’t-miss strategies to reach visitors, like apologetic emails that know you’re busy but hey, could you maybe squeeze in church this week? Please?

Or emails designed to go out on Saturday with some form of, “I’ve been working on the sermon, and I’m excited about it!” Would a more honest version of this actually be more effective?

  • “Hey (name), I’ve been working on the sermon, and I just don’t know about this one.”
  • “Hey (name), it’s Saturday night and I’m convinced my sermon is trash, but sometimes that ends up being a good thing on Sunday morning. Come see which one it is this week!”
  • “Hey (name), I know I’m going to get an email from these three people about this week’s sermon. If you correctly guess how many additional emails I get this week, you’ll be entered to win the new car we’re giving away on Christmas Eve!”

All of this, plus the fact that their template encourages me to follow up with first-time visitors in various ways for six days in a row. If I met anyone for the first time and they contacted me each of the next six days, I would call the police.

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