Tag: diversity

Reconciliation and the Ministry of the Local Church

I’ve been busy writing my Fuller DMin dissertation on the church as a reconciling community. Two things are becoming more apparent to me each day that I research and write on this topic. First, the church’s primary ministry is reconciliation. The Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians:

 17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come! 18 All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ and gave us the ministry of reconciliation: 19 that God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting men’s sins against them. And he has committed to us the message of reconciliation. (NIV/1984)

I believe that as part of the two great commandments that Jesus taught — love God, love others — reconciliation is between God and us, and between persons and groups. Reconciliation covers a lot of territory including forgiveness, repentance, apology, mediation, peace-making, restorative justice, race relations, class and gender issues, and so on.  Reconciliation is a big tent that needs further exploration by local churches.

Secondly, the Church is getting left behind in the search for the methods and means to reconciliation between persons and groups. We’re pretty good at proclaiming and teaching about the reconciliation God offers us as God’s creation, but we’re not so good at extending that reconciliation to others, both as individuals and as groups. For example, a recent study (which I’ll write about tomorrow) indicated that “marrying out is in.” In other words, interracial or cross-cultural marriages are increasing in our society. I have yet to see anyone address constructively this developing trend. I know in our community interracial couples (meaning black and white) are rarely part of anybody’s congregation.

I intend to write more about reconciliation, and how churches can develop an intentional and thoughtful ministry of reconciliation including consideration of multiculturalism, race relations, social and economic class, and gender issues.  Marriage is a hot topic right now, and part of the reason for the high level of both interest and hysteria is unreconciled differences between persons and groups of persons within our communities.

Finally, although I’ve used my two points, reconciliation practices open the door to masses of unreached people who are not like us in at least one way — color, country, faith, or class being four of the biggest categories that divide people. Of course, I realize that there are “irreconcilable differences” sometimes, but most of our differences are caused by a lack of understanding and intentionality about reconciliation and all its attendant corollaries. I hope you’ll stick around and comment on some of my thoughts in this area. Peace.

The Echo Chamber of Religion Leads To Extremism

The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.

We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression.  Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.

Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them.  Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.

The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008.  The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore.  But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage.  Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.

The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions .  The  earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years.  The conviction carries a potential life sentence.

Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves.  But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices.  There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary.  But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture.   No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon.  Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.

Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions.  This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example,  from legitimate challenges to their ideology.

The same effect is present in the religious community.  The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice.  Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb.  Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.

But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us.  In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories.  Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments.  In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.

When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good.  When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.

To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.

It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead.  Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by.  But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man.  He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery.  In a rhetorical end to the story,  Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?”  The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised  and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.

Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance.  Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.

A Better Sermon on Babel and Pentecost

I preached on Pentecost last Sunday as “Babel Revisited.”  In that sermon I repeated the conventional thinking that God punished mankind’s attempt to build a tower to reach to the heavens.  But listen to what Wendell Griffen says,

That interpretation of Genesis 11:1-9 is not fair to God.  Do we really think the Creator of the universe is threatened by a municipal construction project?    Are we dealing with a Being who is so insecure that a few people who put a city together and build a skyscraper get on His nerves?  If God is that petty, God should not be called good and gracious, but petty and tyrannical.

Instead of reading the passage to mean that cultural diversity is divine punishment, we should understand it to show how cultural diversity is part of the great redemptive purpose of God.  God is not threatened when people cooperate to construct cities and tall buildings.   One story buildings and rural settings are not entitled to divine favor.

What the passage truly shows is that God wants humans to be spread throughout the world and enjoy cultural diversity without being afraid.  If there is a condemnation in the passage—and I use the word if intentionally—it condemns the idea that cultural sameness is the way to salvation.  We are one people because we have a common Creator, not because we speak the same language or live in the same location.  Our oneness lies in who we are before God, not who we are physically related to by human ancestry and geography.  God loves our diversity.  God intentionally caused our diversity.  God is glorified by our diversity.

— from Babel and Pentecost by Wendell Griffen

I wish I had said that.  I will not think of Babel in the same way again.  Griffen’s interpretation gives even more meaning to the Pentecost event, as God’s means of bringing diversity together again to send us back out into the world with God’s message of hope and salvation.  Read the entire sermon here.

Judge Wendell Griffen is a former Arkansas appeals court judge; the first person of color to join a major Arkansas law firm; CEO of Griffen Strategic Consulting; pastor of New Millennium Church; professor of law at the University of Arkansas’s Bowen School of Law.

Students Open to Faith and Culture Conversation

ut-knoxville-campusToday I talked with 35 students who expressed interest in contributing to a faith and culture news website written by college students.  I was one of 14 roundtable discussion leaders who met with over 100 University of Tennessee journalism students today.  The seminar was a “public conversation of web journalism.”

The event’s organizer, Dr. Jim Stovall, journalism faculty member, was pleased with the turnout of both students and media professionals.  I represented the religious community.  I talked to the students about blogging and building an online presence.  I also discussed how blogging can lead to other opportunities like conference speaking and writing books.

Jim Stovall told me that several students sought me out because they wanted to discuss faith in the media.  I presented the idea of Krayo.com — a faith and culture news website.  The articles, we hope, will be written by students and for young adults.  Krayo.com is a news site featuring a faith angle to news and feature writing.

Ed Stetzer’s new book, Lost and Found, concluded that young adults (under 30) were more open to faith conversations and were more spiritual than those over-30.  My experience today seemed to bear that out.  Tomorrow I speak to two journalism classes and meet with a book publisher.  I’ll keep you posted.

The right way to do church?

Maybe there is no “right way” to do church. That thought occurred to me the other day while reading Mission in the 21st Century by Andrew Walls and Cathy Ross. The “right way” to do church may be the way that is authentic to the group of Christians at any given location and time. For instance, the first followers of Christ were Jews. They went to the Temple, they observed Jewish dietary laws, they avoided eating with non-Jews. But Paul was quick to tell non-Jews they did not have to do “church” like the Jewish Christians. Gentile Christian churches took on a markedly different style, form, and practice than Jewish Christian churches.

The same thing is happening today. A smorgasbord of church polity, practice, and priorities are evident across the Christian community today. Churches in the two-thirds world exhibit authentic spiritual vitality in forms unlike their Western counterparts. Maybe there is no right way to do church. Maybe the right way depends upon the context, witness, and authenticity of the group from which it emerges. Or, to put it another way, maybe all churches aren’t driven by the same purposes. Which means, not one cookie-cutter approach, but the rainbow richness of God’s Spirit moving in various ways in various places. What do you think?

Small Churches are important in The Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s book, The Long Tail, describes the effect of more choice on consumer sales. Anderson explains it this way –

Our culture and economy are increasingly shifting away from a focus on relatively small number of hits (mainstream products and markets) at the head of the demand curve, and moving toward a huge number of niches in the tail. The Long Tail, pg 52

In other words, the more stuff there is to choose from, the more choices we make. Take books, for instance. The typical Borders retail store carries 100,000 titles. Amazon offers 1,000,000 titles. And, here’s the long tail — 25% of Amazon’s sales come from outside the top 100,000 titles. Again, more choice, more sales.

W hat does this have to do with church? Here it is:

longtail-copy.jpg

  • The red indicates the 10% of the churches that account for 50% of church attendance. Megachurches dominate the church world, like Top 10 hits dominate the music world.
  • But, the other 50% of church attendance (in blue) is spread throughout 90% of churches, and most of these are small by comparison.
  • The median church worship service has 90 people (the black line indicates the approximate median). In other words, half of all churches have more, half have less on a Sunday morning.

Small churches account for about 25% of all church attendance, but provide more diversity, flexibility, and sustainability than megachurches. 

Small churches are part of the long tail of the church world and are filling a niche that megachurches cannot fill.  Plus, small churches “fit” the culture of the 21st century — more choice, more diversity, and more discretion is what people are seeking.

The next time someone mentions “small churches,” just remind them that we’re part of the new economy and make up the Long Tail in the church world.