GCR: Julie Clawson and Ryan Kemp-Pappan

Where does that coffee come from? What does that chocolate bar have to do with slavery? How do our everyday choices affect the global economy and human rights? Julie Clawson wrote a book on these very things.

Carol Howard Merritt talks to Julie Clawson about her unique perspective on the Emergent Church as well as her book, Everyday Justice. Then Carol talks with Ryan Kemp-Pappan about what Julie had to say.

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Church for the 21st Century: Transforming Existing Congregations

I’ve been delving into the Church in the 21st Century subject for a few blog posts now. So, far I’ve set up the background, because we can’t imagine what a church will look like until we get an idea of what its participants and landscape will look like. I’ve sorted through things with a generational lens—especially looking toward younger generations.

I often get push-back when I look at things generationally. Many people feel old or irrelevant when we focus our attentions on younger adults. Often people will point out the burgeoning church in the retirement community. I know growth and wonderful ministry can happen with older adults, and I would never want to diminish that.

But, as I mention a lot on this blog, the average age of the PCUSA is over 60, and the average age of most denominational churches is almost 60. Older adults are not neglected in our churches. They are doing well. Our leadership is made up of older adults, and those who have most of the power are older. They are getting plenty of attention and voice. Most of our denominations are dedicated to them. It doesn’t hurt to shift our attentions every once in a while.

We’ve set the landscape: we looked at work, family structures, finances and ethnic make-up. Now, we need to ask, what sort of church would work in a new generation? What is our vision for the 21st Century? There is no one answer to this question, of course. It depends on each context, and there are all sorts of models out there. We’ll start with transforming existing congregations.

Some congregations will revive. I currently serve a church that was up for a vote to close its doors about 30 years ago. But they didn’t. Now they’re a healthy, growing congregation. We’re a regular church, for sure. With all sorts of regular church problems. But Western is a good guide for transformation. We’re very traditional, with pipe organ music and written liturgies. How did we turn around?

The older generation let go of power. They had an older generation of leaders who allowed younger leaders to take charge in significant ways. Without that key, the whole thing probably would not have worked, but the older generation gave over real power in pastoral leadership and committees (even while they were underwriting most of the budget). They didn’t just expect a younger generation to do everything their way. They even allowed a theological shift.

They focused their ministry outside of their doors. Western began to serve the homeless in their neighborhood. With Miriam’s Kitchen as well as other outreaches, the church began to look outside of its doors, and the community began to notice them.

A middle governing body I visited challenged each church to ask itself, “If your church closed tomorrow, what would your community miss the most?” If the church couldn’t answer that question, then they became committed to finding a ministry that meant something to their neighborhood. All sorts of things could come out of this–community gardens, arts programs, music support, feeding programs, or homeless shelters. Traditionally, churches have flourished in all of these areas.

They focused on a new generation. When a campus ministry at a nearby university was about to lose its funding, Western reached out and housed the ministry. This made them focus on the surrounding campuses and the needs of students around them. They didn’t focus on “young families,” but began their outreach to emerging generations much earlier—with college students, grad students, and singles. It was a loving investment that paid off, even in our transient D.C. culture. Now, the college students are starting careers. Some who are in careers are getting married. Some who are married are having children. But whatever a particular family looks like–whether it’s a nuclear family or an urban tribe–we try to make sure that all are welcome.

Alisa Harris: Raised Right

I’m a pastor in Washington, D.C. The job is not at all what I supposed it would be. When I lived outside of the beltway and looked in, I saw a group of power-hungry, egomaniac talking heads, yelling at television cameras or rabid crowds.

I didn’t expect what I encountered—a group of idealistic individuals, who love God and love their neighbors. They have allowed their dreams of what the world ought to be seep into what they do each day. They work for nonprofits (or as they say around here, NGOs, non-governmental organizations). They lobby for the environment, lead with teachers unions, and work on the Hill. I don’t serve one of those congregations where the superstar politicians go (there are those churches), but I serve the one where people might be hanging out with a guest at Miriam’s Kitchen on one day and affecting policy on the next.

Of course, we have a thread of ego-driven power-mongering in all of us as well. We are a church, after all. But for the most part, after pastoring this congregation, I’ve learned a bit more about day-to-day politics and the people who are rightly known as “civil servants.”

I had a chance to think about this a lot this weekend. Not only was it the 10th anniversary of September 11, but I’m also participating in the Patheos Book Club Round Table discussion on Alisa Harris’ book, Raised Right: How I Untangled My Faith from Politics. I loved reading how Harris went from Hillary bashing at a goat pageant to burning thrift-store bras as a feminist protest at her conservative college. So much of her story resonated with my own.

As I sat, consuming the pages, I wondered, What now? I may be over-reaching in my analysis, but I dare say that we are watching the coming of power of many women who learned the ways of politics through the pro-life movement.

Think about it… we’ve got Sarah Palin. We’ve got Michelle Bachmann. We’ve got a whole bevy of Mama Grizzlies. You may scoff, but they became solid political figures as a result of their activism. Liberals scratch their heads, wondering why so many Republican candidates are wearing power skirts, while those who fought for women’s rights still seems to be overwhelmed with old white guys. But those of us who grew up in the Religious Right hotbed know exactly why (and if you’re wondering, read Harris’s book).

I’m a full-grown, full-blown progressive now. Palin and Bachmann make me feel like I gulped down a glass of milk before realizing it was six-months out of date. But I was raised looking up to women like them, and I often wonder, If I were still conservative, would I be running for Congress right now? The truth is… conservatives are better at developing young leadership than progressives…. They’re even better at developing their young women.

Which brings me to my earlier point about my congregation, about the everyday work. Harris’s book didn’t make me want to give up on politics, or even completely untangle my faith from politics (even though they are now woven together in a different way now). But it did make me realize that if we represent a new generation of political creatures, then we need to roll up our sleeves and get on with the daily grind. Not just in rallies and protests, not just in posters and sound-bytes, but also in day-to-day justice. In being honest journalists and courageous pastors. In making sure that our daughters hear a different message.

One bit of the book keeps rolling around in my mind, and I find myself wrestling with Harris’s words:

Unless you are smuggling soup to the Jews in your attic, I think a political act can’t be an act of love. It can be a good act, even a noble and heroic, but love is something that takes place behind a barricade; it happened in the breaking of bread and the passing of cups. Political love is theoretical, directed at some vague “humanity,” and Jesus didn’t say to love humanity but to love your neighbor.

I suppose that I agree more with what Cornel West famously said: “Never forget that justice is what love looks like in public.” I know that politics is messy, but I also believe that individual acts of love are only going to go so far. As one hand feeds the hungry, the other needs to be working on the larger scale.

Putting energy into helping one homeless person does not keep you from defending the poor in the political sphere. Loving my daughter does not keep me from fighting for women’s rights. Recycling one can does not keep me from working to make sure regulations are in place so that environmental degradation does not consume our planet. One action informs the other, and we need to keep doing both.

It is a profound moment for a new generation of politics, especially as we learn to engage our faith in the public sphere. And reading Harris’s story is a good reminder that our faith should never be tightly wound up into one political party. And as we engage our faith in different ways, we can remember that being involved in politics means that we must keep thinking for ourselves.

Blogging around….

Although I haven’t been here, I’ve been at a few other places… It is my dream that someday I will have a site that will automatically pick up the feeds from the other places I blog, and put them here. Until that dream becomes a reality… I have to keep up my erratic cross-posting.

I’m at Clayfire Curator, talking about Liberating: the Sermon.

At Duke’s Call and Response blog, we’re discussing the relationship between seminaries and churches. What can we do to strengthen that bond? Also Daniel Kirk has picked up the discussion on his blog.

At the Huffington, I reflected on Amy Winehouse’s death and talked about the Columbian Free Trade Agreement.

In other places… Bo Sanders has been hosting an interesting discussion on the use of terms evangelical/liberal/progressive.

Also, my mom just gave me a heads-up on this lovely eulogy that Rob Kirby, the Senior Editor of Beliefnet wrote about my dad.

That’s an eclectic list of topics…. Hopefully there will be something there to interest you!

Illuminating the Darkness

Text: John 1:1-18

I write regularly for the Huffington Post, and this week, they asked for nominations for the Religious person of the year. Since I was on vacation, I didn’t do any research or nominate anyone, but the question did occupy my thoughts when I was in Florida. Who made the greatest impact in religion? I thought of the many Muslims who have not hidden in the face of discrimination, but they have worked for deeper understanding. I thought of Jews who have worked for peace. But on the site, I represent a Christian perspective, and so I began to think of Christians who have impacted our faith, and the question grew for me, from the past year to the past decade. Who made the greatest impact on religion?

And I imagined all of those men and women. I don’t know their specific names. I could only recognize their shaky voices and blurred profiles. They were the people who have stood up and turned in their priests, pastors, or missionaries who were predators. I thought of all of those who risked the suspicion and disbelief of their friends, loved ones and community. They were brave enough to stop the lies and cover-ups, and they told the truth. Now that I have worked in churches for thirteen years, I know how good they are at suppressing secrets. They are like families, businesses and other organizations. Powerful forces arise when someone has a complaint of this magnitude. And yet, these men and women did what John describes: They shined light into the darkness.

Since the day when those victims began to raise their voices, they became survivors. Many people have had the courage to step up and shine a light in that deep darkness. Now, in our church and in most denominational congregations, we have strict rules to protect children. One adult is not allowed to be alone with one other child. We try to keep two Sunday school teachers in the classroom, and if we can’t manage that, then we have our Christian Educator who floats and checks in on all the classrooms. In our nursery and classrooms, we have clear glass on the doors so that parents will know that their children are being cared for properly. In our denomination, we have strict rules on how a report is to be made, and how the perpetrator will be disciplined. We have men and women who work to make society safe for children. Are we perfect? Absolutely not. It is a struggle in all walks of life to protect the vulnerable and those who cannot speak for themselves. Yet, many have become aware of what can happen when we try to hide things, and they have worked tirelessly to bring those things in the deep darkness to the light.

I grew up knowing that our former pastor was a pedophile, and so it was often hard for me to go to church. Even though I realize that pastors and priests are human, the depth of hypocrisy that it takes to carry out something like that is astounding, and so I always had a difficult time with religion in general.

I have watched people take different positions when the church betrays them or their family. They can reject the church altogether. Or they can proclaim that they are “spiritual but not religious.” In other words, they appreciate the goodness, teachings and practices of spirituality, but they cannot abide the darkness of church. They don’t see much good in the professional clergy, the buildings, or the governance.

I understand this thought and I would never try to argue with someone who has made that determination, but I have made a choice to be a religious professional, in spite of all the darkness that I know is in our midst. The reason is because we are human. There is no way to have a spiritual experience apart from our humanity. And with every human endeavor, there is light and there is darkness. Even when we try to be good, even when we try to be noble, even when we try to do the very best and right thing, there is some darkness.

I have read discussions on MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s blog when it comes to the environment. In order to help the environment, she employed the “if it’s yellow, let it mellow; if it’s brown, flush it down” tactic. And yet, she found that she had to use harsher chemicals when cleaning her toilets. A commenter was concerned the hamburger that she bought everyday, and how bad her beef consumption was for the environment, so she decided to order salads instead. But then she became frustrated to find that her hamburger was served in a small piece of paper, but her salad was served in a giant, plastic dome. I heard a story on NPR recently that said that many dishwasher detergent companies took phosphates out of their soap, because of the terrible things that they can do to the environment. But the story explained that there was a concern about how it was taking more water to wash our dishes now. We buy CFLs, but then we find out how toxic they are when they break.

We can see the same thing when it comes to technology. The community and relationships that can arise through social media fascinate me. Men and women are able to talk to other people who have the same hobbies. They can share ideas. Artists can sell their art. People with the same political passions can create constellations of hope around their causes or candidates.

But at the same time, we have also seen how people can be bullied to the point where they have killed themselves. Men and women, who may never be so uncivil to a person face-to-face, can become nasty with the anonymity of the Internet. Racism can thrive. The darkness of the technology, having your face hidden in those shadows, seems to create monsters out of some people.

We see it with science. Incredible discoveries were made. We learned about atoms, and then we figured out how we could split those atoms. And the world has never been the same.

We even see it with the medical profession. When wonderful achievements have been made to prolong a person’s life, sometimes we begin to wonder, “Does this person have the right to die?” We appreciate ground-breaking medications, but we also realize their side-effects.

Over and over again, our technology, our science, our advancements have led us to new problems. But does that mean that we should give up on caring for the environment, on technology, on medicine, on science? Of course not. As progressives, we will keep working for the good of all people and the care of the earth. We will work for education and freedom for all men and women. We believe that we will keep moving forward and pushing for a better world.

With every advancement, we understand that there will be light and there will be darkness, and we keep shining the light, even when deeper, darker corners arise. In each of our professions, in each of our passions, we cannot give into the complacency of walking away and in giving up. But we need to keep striving and moving forward.

And I feel the same way about religion. It is my passion and my calling. I have seen religion do incredible harm to women, men, lesbians, gays, and children. But I have not been able to walk away from it and I have not been able to separate “religion” from a spiritual life. I have not been able to sequester myself into an individual spiritual practice, devoid of our life together in this sanctuary. Because I know that we can do more when we are gathered. We have more light to feed homeless people, to care for prostitutes, to teach art to children, and to provide medical care for people in Ethiopia.

There is darkness among us. I cannot deny that. And I realize that my comparisons are faulty in many ways. I am not saying that pedophilia is the inevitable outcome of something that is well-intentioned. No. Not at all. But I am saying that there is darkness that I’m not willing to walk away from, and many of us have been called to the diverse and colorful beauty that our collective light can bring.

Thoughout these days of Christmas, may we remember the light that was born within us, and may we be called to keep illuminating the darkness as Christ did.

Through our Creator, our Liberator and our Sustainer. Amen.

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.

Another death certificate for the emerging church

So the Wall Street Journal has proclaimed that Emerging Church has fizzled out. Brett McCracken has declared it a hipster trend and we’re moving on, because the hipsters were never about Jesus.

I don’t really want to talk about whether it’s dead or not. I don’t know. I know a lot of intelligent people who are still involved, and I think that it will have a huge impact on American religion for many years to come. My sense is that what died was “emerging” as an evangelical re-branding effort. The evangelical movement could not control the Gen Xers, so they will declare them dead. But the people who were writing interesting things are still writing. Those reeling from the after-effects of evangelicalism have not gone away. People who struggle to respond faithfully to postmodernism have not gone away. Whatever is happening, it’s clear that a transition is occurring and there are things that we can learn right now.

I say “we” with discomfort. I have felt shut out of the “Emergent” movement. I am a pastor in a historic, intergenerational congregation with traditional liturgy. A few years ago, when I asked an Emergent writer and leader if there was room for me, if the conversation could be about both/and (both innovation and tradition), he told me clearly and emphatically, “No.” Denominations were going to die at any moment, and I was holding onto a lumbering dinosaur. I was not part of a denominational church so that I could live out the fullness of my calling in a community of faith, but in order to gain power for myself.

As someone who grew up in a church that systematically oppressed women, who was constantly told that my calling into ministry was a sin and the only reason I felt a longing to minister was because I could not accept my God-given role of submission, and I was all about power, the soundtrack sounded the same…even though the intent was different. I feared that people in the movement did not understand the difference between abusive power and spiritual empowerment. I bolted.

(And, yes, for anyone who doesn’t believe me, I’ll be happy to give anyone the name, place, date and precise time of the conversation. I will email it to you though. I won’t do it publicly. But, remember, if you keep questioning the validity of people who complain because your experience has been different, then you just might be contributing to the problem.)

Many people wonder why I often make a distinction that I am not a part of the capital “E” “Emergent” movement, even though I write about being faithful in the midst of postmodernism and cultural shifts. Not to mention the fact that I dearly love many who are in the heart of the movement. It’s because that was one of many conversations that I’ve had. In spite of this, I have found friends among the loyal radicals—those who are in the midst of denominations, understand the shifts in culture, and are working to respond faithfully to them.

The Emergent movement might be dead. Denominations might die. But God’s not dead. I guess the question is, what we can learn in all this? How can we retool? How can we keep being the hands and feet of Christ in the midst of the shifts and changes? What is God calling us to become? Here are a couple of things that I have learned from this larger conversation.

First, we need each other. We need the tradition and wisdom of the generations who have come before us. We need the Boomers and the Builders. And we need the church movements of the past. We need the wisdom that comes from church structures and we need the passion that breeds in the postevangelical movement. There is no way that we can shut out all evangelicals and all denominational Christians and expect that a movement will survive.

Second, we will need to be kind with each other when it comes to financial security. Often times, in our new church movements, we can heap shame on each other for not starting new churches, or guilt one another for not giving everything up and living with the poor. If a person receives a pension then she’s a sell-out. If he receives book royalties then he’s a sell-out. Shoot… if a person runs ads on her blog and gets a monthly check for $1.27, she’s a sell-out. If he blogs for Beliefnet, he’s a sell-out.

If we continue this sort of hardcore attitude, it may be difficult for us to sustain in the long run. Many of us have families. We have student loans and mortgage payments. We love Jesus, but our kids need backpacks to go back to school. Many of us hope that we will not be eating dog food when we retire. We will keep having difficulty planting churches and working for social justice if we don’t have some realization that sometimes we need money. Our ministries need money. That doesn’t make us greedy capitalists. That doesn’t make us all about power. It’s just reality.

Third (and I have been clumsy as I’ve talked about this in the past, but I still think there’s more to say), when people complain that they are being left out (women, LGBTs, different ethnicities), there has been an assumption in the Emergent movement that there is no power structure, so there is no way that people can be left out.

It’s important to understand when we have power. And it’s vital that we use it to empower others in their ministries. If we want a diverse conversation, we will need to make sure that it happens. There are many people who have been historically left out of church leadership. Some have been ill-treated blatantly or discreetly. As a result, they just don’t have sharp elbows. They will not push themselves up to the table and make a place with ease. Those of us who are people of privilege will need to understand this. We will need to keep making spaces and extending invitations.