GCR 3.2 Brian McLaren and Phil Shepherd: Navigating the Shifts in the Church

What do we do with dying churches? Is the emerging church male-dominated? Why? Which is more likely to reform, denominations or evangelicalism? Does Brian McLaren still claim the title “evangelical”?

These are some questions we asked Brian McLaren. Brian is an author, speaker, and activist. Most recently, he wrote the book A New Kind of Christianity: Ten Questions that Are Transforming the Faith.

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Teach Your Children Well

As the air becomes crisp, and we see the vibrant falling leaves around us, often people of faith turn their attention toward giving. Even while we get caught in the frenzy of holiday decorating and menu planning, we think about how to share the abundance of the year and how to teach our kids to give. As the children in our lives construct their holiday wish lists, we wonder how we can enliven them with a spirit of generosity. In a time of rampant consumerism, when boys and girls are bombarded with advertisements, enticing them to dream about what sorts of presents might wait for them under the tree, we wonder, how do we teach kids to share? How do we remind them of those who don’t have as much?

As we were trying to nurture a bit of generosity in our congregation, we talked to Chef Steve Badt of Miriam’s Kitchen. Miriam’s is located in the basement of our church. They provide a hot, nutritious breakfast and dinner as well as a full range of social services to our homeless guests in Washington, D.C. During this time of year, the children in our congregation actively support Miriam’s through Fannie Mae’s Help the Homeless Mini-Walk and by having a Thanksgiving fruit collection. In the spring, they’ll continue their support, as they plant and herb garden for Miriam’s. The staff at Miriam’s is innovative and insightful, and Chef Steve (who is also a dad) is particularly gifted in understanding how to get children excited about the important work of sharing. He gave us some wonderful ideas.

•Sponsor a food drive, focusing on things that kids like to eat. For instance, even though Miriam’s always needs coffee and they often encourage churches and businesses to collect it, Steve instructed us to never have a coffee drive with kids. He explained that kids don’t like coffee, so they won’t get thrilled about the gift. Instead, have them collect things that they eat and like. “If you have a food drive with children, have them collect something like cereal. They eat cereal and they can get excited about sharing it.”

• Host a trip for the children to glean at a farm. Many local farmers will welcome kids to gather apples or other produce for a soup kitchen. This is particularly important for our urban congregation, because the trips not only allow us to inspire kids to share, but it also helps us to have a deeper understanding of where our food grows. For many children, they are learning that fruit doesn’t just come from a grocery store, but they begin to realize our important connection to the earth.

• Highlight one item that the homeless need at this time of year. Chef Steve mentioned that he used to give a long list of things that Miriam’s needed, but the impact was greater when he focused on one item. The common items that many men and women need as the season changes are jeans, socks, sleeping bags, blankets, and small (sample or hotel size) shampoo and lotion. There are children in our church who point out the sample shampoo every time they go shopping with their parents, reminding their mom or dad not to forget the homeless.

As we enter this important time in our church calendars, as we begin this season of thanksgiving for all that we have, we can also teach our children how to recognize and support those who are in need.

“As Any Had Need”

A friend of mine realized that she only had one friend who went to church. As someone who cares deeply about the church, she wondered why it was. And so she began to ask them, “Why don’t you go to church?”

The answers startled her. It wasn’t what she was expecting at all. The number one answer that she received was, “I can’t afford it.”

Another young women echoed another sentiment to me recently. She said, “I was like most people in their twenties. Even though I loved church, the budget always seemed to be going to their dilapidated building or mission work that I didn’t care about.”

Another person confided his personal budget to me. “I have my salary. Thirty percent of it goes to taxes. Sixty percent of it goes to paying rent. Ten percent of it goes to paying student loans. I don’t even know how I’m living, much less how I’m going to give to the church.”

Long before the economic crisis hit the stock market and the real estate market, it was creeping into the realities of young adults. Men and women in their twenties and thirties were feeling the crushing load of student loans, high rents, temporary employment, stagnant salaries, quick lay-offs, and uncovered medical expenses. Men and women who did everything “right” in their careers and budgets still found themselves with jobs that were not able to pay off the loans. They ended up juggling bills, figuring out which ones to pay each month, and praying that they never had any medical issues.

Congregations often want to reach younger members because (let’s be honest) churches need them for the bottom line. When men and women are in the midst of a personal financial crisis, and they walk into a church with a bigger financial crisis, it can be difficult for them to keep attending. When we want some shelter from the storm, some hope in the midst of our despair, it is hard to walk into a church and have the stress hit an even higher level, along with the expectation that you will be able to save the situation. Since there is not much cultural expectation for young adults to attend church (in fact, there’s more of an expectation that they will not attend), then it’s easy for them to go grocery shopping instead of walking into another financially stressful environment.

New congregations have responded to this in various ways (I don’t advocate all of these practices. I’m pointing them out, in the hopes of stimulating more ideas.):

•Rethinking the gathering space. Rent is often cheaper than maintenance. A few innovative churches have cut down their expenses dramatically by shedding the need for a building. They can often be found nesting in the basement of a church, a livingroom, a gallery space, a coffeehouse, or a pub.

•Changing the giving traditions. A few gatherings quit passing the plate during the service, and they have “joy boxes” near the door. People can place the money in the box on their way out. Some gatherings have extensive podcast or videocast ministries, so much of their income comes from around the world, as men and women give through the paypal button on the website.

•Encouraging tentmaking pastors and gatherings. Pastors are often encouraged to be bi-vocational. Or, the church itself is bi-vocational. For instance, the gathering might also serve as a coffeehouse, a winery, or an art gallery. If a person cannot give money to the church, they might be able to give their time serving coffee, or their talents in the form of an art donation, or expertise in website design.

•Creating a culture of giving and receiving. New congregations are often small, and they tend to respond to each other’s personal needs. When someone loses his or her job, the community often knows and they give to one another. So they are able to practice something an aspect of stewardship that has been missing in many of our established congregations: the act of receiving.

Of course, these innovative communities haven’t solved our economic concerns. But they are responding with creativity, imagination, and love. In many ways, there is a new economy arising in some churches. Where “stewardship” moves beyond the tiny pre-printed envelopes dropped into a shallow plate at 11:45 on Sunday morning. Instead, we are beginning too see how each can give to each other, in our needs and our abundance.

There are less radical ideas that would help in these situations as well. Having younger members as part of the process to carefully choose the mission projects and articulate them clearly. Making sure that people know that we don’t have a church tax. And, of course, always understanding that our ministry to and with all people, is not so that it can make our income line higher, but so that we can do God’s work.

What else have you seen? What other faithful responses to our economic crisis have you noticed?

Facemashing Christianity

I was watching The Social Network, squirming as the story of Facebook opened, and the Harvard women became outraged at Facemash, the site that the Mark Zuckerberg created in order to let people compare female undergrads, ranking them based on who was hotter. I cringed as I watched the horrified women, being voted up or down like cattle at the State Fair.

I winced because I knew how they felt. I, too, had been a part of a similar “who’s hot and who’s not” contest, but in a very different venue, and with a much larger audience. It was on an Evangelical Christian Leader site.

I often write and speak about the intersection of technology and religion, and so I’m keenly aware of the benefits and the cruelty that can be generated at that crossroads. So when my name appeared on a site for “The Nines” event, and my Twitter feed filled with messages saying that people were voting for me to speak at the conference, I became interested. I went to the site and inhaled deeply. I found a list of names along with a small picture and description and a place for people to vote, with a thumbs up for “like” or a thumbs down for “dislike.” The site tallied and ranked the speakers.

I thought of the art of spiritual writing and preaching, the beauty and poetry that the church has birthed since its inception. These words have lifted spirits and encouraged men and women to walk through their darkest hours. Sermons have inspired people to commune with God, to sell everything they own to feed the poor, and work for a society where all can live with dignity. Then I saw the thumbs up and down and thought, Is this what we’ve done with our spiritual heritage? I looked closer and I found out that my husband, Brian Merritt, had put my name in without asking me. Brian is a shameless promoter, with a bit of a prankster streak. So I shook my head and exhaled. The Christian Facemash had begun, and I was about to see how “hot” I really was.

Let me give you a bit of the back-story. On September 9, 2009, Leadership Network responded to the economic crisis that had hit so many churches by holding a free on-line conference entitled “The Nines.” It was an incredible success. Thirty to forty thousand people from 35 countries watched and interacted with one another. There were probably many more people watching than that, as pastors used the event as an education opportunity in their churches. The next year, as 09/09/10 approached, the organizers tried to think of ways to generate even more buzz. Since the Leadership Network is committed to recognizing known as well as spotlighting unknown leaders, they decided to have a bit of a competition between Christians. They put their avatars in an arena to see who would outlast the lions of public popularity. They would use Twitter and crowd-sourcing to create publicity and scope out the next hot thing. The site drew over 30,000 people within a few weeks.

The world of “The Nines” is not my world. It’s a corner of Christianity where mega-pastors, with multiple-site churches claim their stake. It’s where church leaders go to learn about “rapid growth.” They seem to be doing fine things there, but the speakers at their conferences are mostly good-looking, fairly conservative men who wear jeans that someone just starched and ironed. I, on the other hand, am a small frumpy mom who wears five-year-old suits that always have stray pet hair on them. I’ve pastored Presbyterian churches for twelve years. I also write about church growth, but I encourage the steady kind. I left Evangelicalism a long time ago, mainly because of the sexism, homophobia, and conservative politics that I experienced there. So, I figured that the good folks at Leadership Network would surely sniff me out as an intruder, but because of my active social networking presence my rank kept going up.

Then the mash began. I quit looking at the site when I started to get negative votes. The “dislikes” piled up, and I got a pit in my stomach when I saw that I could see the faces of those who voted against me. I looked at their Twitter pics and wondered, Why do you dislike me? Do you know who I am? What have I ever done to you? Feeling like those Harvard women, I kept thinking, This isn’t right.

The sponsors of the event have acknowledged that there were a lot of things they could have done better, but they defended the process overall, because it generated buzz and helped them identify new leaders.

I suppose I should be used to the endless comments, criticism, and praise. That’s what our Facebook culture is all about. I benefit from it most of the time, so I ought to be able to take the rejections as well. At the end of the day, I’m not sure where I was ranked on Leadership Network’s Twitter poll. I do know that I was like many of the other smart women on the list– women like Diana Butler Bass, Julie Clawson, Phyllis Tickle, and Nadia Bolz-Weber–historians, authors, pastors, and church planters who never spoke at the conference. They are innovative giants who are changing Christianity. Yet even after the humiliation of an on-line Christian Facemash witnessed by over 30,000 people, we still didn’t get to hear from them.

Which seemed to make it even crueler.