Matt Chandler, The Village Church, and the unresolved issue

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I mentioned the situation at The Village Church (TVC) in my previous post about patriarchy and sexual abuse.

(For those who don’t know, TVC tried to “discipline” a former member for annulling her marriage after she learned her husband was using child porn. Lead pastor Matt Chandler has since apologized. You can read more about the situation here.)

I believe Matt Chandler showed genuine humility and remorse in his response. He apologized publicly and privately to Karen Hinkley. He made amends. I respect him for that. His response was anything but the typical non-apology we’ve come to expect from celebrity pastors caught overstepping their authority. (For what it’s worth, Karen Hinkley showed tremendous grace in her response as well.)

At the same time, I believe the larger issue remains unresolved. TVC, like many churches, believe only men can lead, that women are intrinsically subordinate to men. For them and the other churches of the Acts 29 Network, this doctrine is “central and not peripheral.” It’s “primary and not secondary.”

And that is why they continue to be unsafe places for women—especially those affected by abuse. Which, let’s face it, is a lot of them, when you consider as many as 1 in 5 women experience sexual assault at some point—and more than two thirds of assault cases go unreported.

As long as we insist that a woman’s path to God runs through a man, as long as we insist she cannot discern God’s will for herself but must submit to the judgment of an all-male elder board—in Karen Hinkley’s case, to decide whether she should be allowed to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict—then these abuses of authority will continue.

You can apologize. You can make amends. (And, to their credit, TVC did both.) But until you address the culture and theology that require a panel of men to “validate” a woman’s narrative in the first place, you will find yourself in the same situation again and again.

Patriarchy hurts women.

Patriarchy fosters abuse by treating women like property.

Patriarchy blames and belittles survivors.

Patriarchy enables and protects abusers.

Patriarchy trivializes the actions of abusers.

Patriarchy is the problem. Not just a few otherwise good-hearted men forgetting what’s important and overstepping their authority. It’s the fact that they won’t share authority. Until they do, we’ll continue to read about people like Karen Hinckley.

We’ll know we’re ready to get serious about abuse in the church when finally share leadership with women.

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Sexual abuse won’t stop unless the church puts women in power

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Bill Gothard.

Doug Phillips.

Sovereign Grace Ministries.

Bob Jones University.

Josh Duggar.

The Village Church.

Oh, and lest we think this is purely an evangelical phenomenon—or that fundamentalists are the only ones who minimize abuse, marginalize women, and harbor their abusers—John Howard Yoder.

There is no single, magic answer to the epidemic of abuse in the church, both Protestant and Catholic. But increasingly, I’m convinced of one thing: the abuse won’t end as long as men are the sole arbiters of power.

When a woman has to go before an all-male elder board for permission to end her marriage to a confessed child porn addict, that’s a recipe for perpetuating abuse.

Sure, they might apologize later for “not communicating clearly” or for being too “heavy-handed.” But if they don’t confront the root problem—men claiming sole power by divine right—then it’s just going to happen again. And again and again. Any theology that insists on a God-ordained “male priority” (yes, that’s the term they use) is complicit in the cycle of abuse.

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If you exclude women from leadership, who holds the men accountable when they abuse their power? Other men, just like them? A God who, to them, is essentially masculine—just like them? I don’t think so.

All-male leadership fosters an environment where men act with impunity.

This shouldn’t be hard to grasp, especially for evangelicals. Those who believe in human depravity should have no trouble imagining what happens when one group claims a monopoly on power—or worse, when they claim their right to do so was given by God himself.

Yet many Christians refuse to consider the one thing that could actually help stop abuse: giving women an equal share of power.

Of course, it’s easy to point the finger at those who wear the term “patriarchy” as if it were a badge of honor. The truth is, many of us who reject patriarchy haven’t done much better. We may accept the notion of gender equality in principle. But if the composition of our leadership is any indicator, we haven’t fully embraced it in practice. (Case in point: though the Episcopal Church has been ordaining women for almost 40 years, the active priesthood is still two-thirds male.)

It’s time for a radical overhaul to church culture and governance. A theoretical commitment to equality won’t do anymore. Token gestures—like putting a woman or two on the elder board—won’t cut it, either.

It’s time for women to have a truly equal share in the leadership of our churches. That means it’s time for some of us to relinquish our unearned privilege, to let go of our monopoly on power. It’s time for some of us to step aside. It’s time to practice what we preach.

When women share equally in the leadership of our churches, it will be harder for men to get away with trivializing and ignoring—and therefore perpetuating—abuse.

That day can’t come soon enough.

Image: The Pulpit by Bs0u10e0 on Flickr

6 ways mainline churches should respond to decline

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Christianity is dying!

No it’s not.

Yes it is.

It’s just a flesh wound!

Anyway, it’s mostly liberal mainline churches that are doomed.

Evangelicals are in trouble too.

All right… we’ll call it a draw.

That basically sums up debate over the Pew study on America’s changing religious landscape.

The rise of the “nones,” those who claim no religious affiliation, can be partly explained by the collapse of cultural Christianity, as Ed Stetzer argues. Mainline churches have been hit the hardest because we had the greatest share of “nominals”—those affiliated with the church for reasons other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ. Our churches once enjoyed disproportionate cultural influence, wealth, and privilege—which is why half of America’s presidents were either Episcopalian, Methodist, or Presbyterian.

Those days are gone. Christianity’s cultural dominance is waning, so there’s little reason left to be part of the church other than a deep-seated commitment to Christ.

This is not a bad thing.

But to suggest, as some conservatives have, that liberalism is to blame—and that conservative evangelicals have nothing to fear—is painfully shortsighted.

For one thing, evangelicalism’s share of the overall population is shrinking too. Attempts to explain away this decline aren’t convincing. If religion were a business—and let’s face it: we treat it like one, which is why we argue over numbers like these—then somebody’s job would be in jeopardy over the drop in evangelical “market share” the last few years.

For another thing—to echo Jonathan Merritt—if liberal drift is responsible for a 3.4% decline among mainline churches, how do we explain a 3.1% decline among Roman Catholics?

In the US, Christianity as a whole is losing influence—evangelical, mainline, Catholic. We’re all in decline.

However, that’s bitter comfort for mainliners who are currently winning the race to the bottom.

The reality is, evangelicals have no business gloating over the decline of mainline Christianity, and faithful mainliners should take no comfort that evangelicals are in the same boat.

We have bigger things to wrestle with—namely, what the future looks like for us.

I’m an evangelical-turned-Episcopalian. I want my newfound spiritual home to have a future—for my kids’ sake and for the world’s sake. I believe we have something profoundly meaningful to offer. But change is coming, and if we fight it, we will die.

Here are six ways I think mainline churches can turn a shifting landscape into an opportunity for renewal…

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1. Embrace the decline.

We don’t have the same cultural cache we used to. Good. As I’ve written elsewhere, privilege breeds complacency. The sooner we let go of it, the better.

It’s not the church that’s dying. It’s the edifice we’ve built around it. Let the edifice die. We’ve forgotten what church really looks like. The radically egalitarian movement intent on bringing heaven to earth is sometimes barely recognizable beneath the edifice.

As members of the group Episcopal Resurrection recently wrote:

We have a choice before us. We can continue, valiantly and tragically, to try to save all the rights and privileges we have previously enjoyed. We can continue to watch our church dwindle until it someday becomes an endowed museum to the faith of our forebears. We can continue business as usual until we lose our common life entirely.

Or we can lose our life for Jesus’ sake so that we might save it.

There is no resurrection without death. What are we prepared to let die so we can envision a better way of being the church?

2. Embrace the meaning behind the liturgy, not just liturgy for the sake of liturgy.

I love the sacraments. They’re part of what drew me to the Episcopal Church. I love the way the liturgy soaks into my being, the way it anchors my faith. Big-box Christianity feels like a desperate imitation of the culture; for me the liturgy is transcendent and countercultural.

We Episcopalians can be quite fond of our liturgy. But there’s a danger in becoming too fond of the thing itself, instead of what (or who) it points us to. This was brought home for me when I read Matthew Drake’s heartfelt post on why the sacraments aren’t enough to bring him back to church:

If you’re anything like me, you might view the sacraments and the liturgy as good programs that good people built after Jesus split. Programs whose faithful practice has helped people follow God through the ages. Programs which should be honored and cherished and used to this very day. But man-made programs nonetheless.

I’m cool with those programs until the minute their sacraments become sacred. When people start associating rituals (communion, baptism, the sinner’s prayer), leadership structures (prophets, priests, pastors), organizational structures (denominations, theologies, creeds), and morals (sex, marriage, crime, punishment), as fixed quantities that can be applied in homogeneous fashion… [they] become calcified idols which are now undermining the very deep truths of the even deeper mystery they were originally built to point toward.

For many of us who’ve stumbled into the liturgy, it’s become a lifeline. It’s rejuvenated our faith. But it’s not a magic bullet.

If we’re counting on an influx of disaffected Millennial evangelicals all because we’ve got some liturgy, we’re in for disappointment. It’s going to take more than that.

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3. Dust off our Bibles.

Sometimes I like pointing out to my evangelical friends that we read more scripture in a single church service than most of them do in a month.

If only we picked up our Bibles any other time of the week.

Outside of church, evangelicals are 40% more likely than mainliners to read their Bibles. We mainliners have a complicated relationship with our sacred text. We’ve seen others use it as a weapon to clobber people. We’ve seen the damage a simplistic reading can do. We’ve seen Scripture used to prop up anti-intellectualism and justify all kinds of evil—oppression, exclusion, discrimination…

But to say we should read the Bible more is not to say we necessarily have to read it the same way everyone else does. We don’t have to use it as a weapon. We don’t have to treat it as a flat book. We can read it for what it is: a sacred collection of books with diverse literary styles, themes, and perspectives.

We don’t even have to understand everything in it.

But we should try reading it more. There’s value in knowing where our story comes from.

As Rachel Held Evans shares in Searching for Sunday, it was evangelicalism that gave her a knowledge of—and presumably her love for—the Scriptures.

What if we could do the same for our kids?

4. Recover the Great Commission.

One possible reason why evangelical churches have fared somewhat better/less badly is because they are more evangelistic. (There are other reasons, too, including higher fertility rates.)

For many of us who grew up evangelical, the word “evangelism” conjures memories of a heavy-handed sales pitch, simplistic reasoning, and outright emotional manipulation. As with Bible reading, evangelism is something we should do more. That doesn’t mean we have to do it the same way as others.

But let’s be honest for a moment: We’ve forgotten how to tell the story of Jesus. We’ve become too passive and complacent. The Great Commission does not say, “Wait for people to come into your buildings, then make disciples of them.” It says “Go.”

Or as Episcopal Resurrection put it, “We can no longer wait inside our sanctuaries to welcome those who want to become Episcopalian.”

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5. Flatten our hierarchies.

Note that I didn’t say eliminate our hierarchies. Jesus chose some to be apostles. He gave them the keys to the kingdom—authority to “bind” (forbid) and “loose” (permit) on his behalf.

We need priests, bishops, and maybe even the occasional archbishop. But our hierarchies have grown top-heavy and bloated. We’ve lost sight of the fact that every member of the church is a minister, not just the ordained clergy.

If the post-Christendom church is to “travel lightly” (as the Task Force for Reimaging the Episcopal Church calls for), then we have to take another look at hierarchy. We have to streamline and simplify. We have to make it easier for people to do mission at the local level.

There’s an even bigger reason to flatten our hierarchies. Too much power consolidated into the hands of too few people invites abuse. If we are going to be communities where all are welcome and treated with dignity—where this is more than just an aspiration or a slogan on a church sign—then it’s time we take a paring knife to our power structures.

6. Welcome—really welcome—children in our worship.

One of the things I love about my church is the way my children are welcomed at the table. They can receive before they understand. Belonging precedes believing.

But we can go farther.

Recently I had a chance to participate in worship at another Episcopal church near where I live. The kids present were invited to gather around the altar for the communion liturgy. They helped lead the prayers of the people. They helped serve the bread and the cup.

It was chaos, and it was beautiful.

Children learn by doing, by participating. Children need to know they matter—that their presence in our sanctuaries is a blessing, not a burden.

When we exclude our children from our worship, we teach them that their presence is largely irrelevant, as Tom Fuerst writes. It’s no wonder Millennials are defecting from church in droves when they grow up.

If we want our kids to be part of the church later in life, let’s make sure we welcome them now as fully participating members.

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I’m not under any illusions about the challenges facing the mainline church (and our sisters and brothers in evangelical and Catholic churches too). None of these six ideas are magic bullets that will single-handedly reverse the decline or reset the cultural landscape. There is no going back to the way things were. But that can be good news—if we embrace this opportunity to reimagine what it means to be the body of Christ.

Images: khrawlings on Flickr, Forsaken Fotos on Flickr, le vent le cri on Flickr, [AndreaS] on Flickr

Stop praying for peace in Baltimore

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Last year I wrote a blog post asking privileged, white Christians like myself to resist shallow, self-serving prayers for peace in the wake of Ferguson. The problem isn’t that we long for peace; it’s what kind of peace we long for. Peace without justice. Peace without facing up to the malignant curse of racism. Peace without confessing how astonishingly short of justice we have fallen.

Five months on, little has changed. What was said about Ferguson can be said about Tamir Rice. Eric Garner. Walter Scott. And now Freddie Gray.

This is what I wrote about Ferguson at the time, updated to reflect the current situation in Baltimore. What’s sad is how little I had to edit—an indication of how little has changed since Ferguson…how little we’ve learned. 

Five months on, we’re still praying for peace. And we are still missing the point.

(Changes to the original post are indicated in red.)

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I’m done praying for peace in Ferguson Baltimore. I can’t bring myself to do it.

Not when the word “peace,” uttered by those of us who still cling to our unearned privilege, means peace for us and our kind.

Not when peace means black citizens are told they must respond to yet another mockery of justice in ways the powerful and privileged deem “socially acceptable,” yet it’s somehow OK for law enforcement to come at them with tear gas and tanks and military-grade assault weapons.

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Not when peace means a return to the status quo, a resumption of normalcy—that is, privilege for us and discrimination for them.

Not if what peace really means is that I don’t have to face the implications of my privilege or the pervasive reality of systemic racism. Peace, as many have noted, requires so much more than the absence of conflict.

You want “peace” in Ferguson Baltimore—by which you mean you don’t want to see any more cop cars burning on TV—but you don’t want to do anything to fix a system where people have no other way to make themselves heard?

Then what you want isn’t peace. What you want is for your privilege to remain untouched.

When the privileged pray for peace—if it’s not accompanied by a commitment to justice, a willingness to lay down our privilege—then what we’re really saying is we’re OK living in a world where white mass murderers are apprehended alive, yet a young black man—whose only crime that day was fleeing an unlawful arrest—has his spine almost completely severed in the back of a police van.

What we’re saying is we’re OK living in a world where black male teens are 21 times more likely to be shot by police than white teenagers.

We’re saying it’s OK to have a 20-year life expectancy gap between neighborhoods just six miles apart. 

We’re saying it’s OK for blacks in Ferguson Baltimore to be routinely beaten by police—including a 15 year-old boy riding his bike and an 87 year-old grandmother. 

This is not peace.

As one pastor observed, it’s like trying to have the benefits of resurrection without crucifixion. Peace without justice. Reconciliation without owning up to the sin of oppression. Harmony without relinquishing any of our privilege.

It cannot be done.

Peace does not come cheap. As you watch the scene unfold in Ferguson Baltimore, as you mourn with those who mourn, do not pray for peace. Not until you’re ready to come to grips with what is necessary for peace.

Photos: Fibonacci Blue on FlickrInternational Business Times

When our kids are the ones sharing the gospel with us

My daughter has asked me to read The Story of King Jesus a few dozen times since we got our first copy. She can’t read yet, but she already knows most of it by heart.

These days, my book doesn’t make the bedtime rotation quite as often as it used to, but it still shows up every now and then. Except now, I barely read any of it to her.

She’s the one telling me the story.

(Yes, she is hamming it up for the camera.)

What if our kids knew the story of Jesus so well, they were the ones telling it to us? Imagine how it might change our approach to spiritual formation if even 4-year-olds knew the complete story—not just the fragmented, piecemeal, “pray this prayer so you can go to heaven when you die” version.

We have a tendency to oversimplify the gospel, reducing it to “four spiritual laws” or a handful of verses from Romans, because we’re worried our kids can’t handle any more than that.

I think we’re wrong.

I think our kids are up for the whole story. I think they’re up for more than we realize.

They’re so up for it, in fact, that pretty soon they’ll be the ones telling the story to us—way better than we ever thought possible.

A tale of two conversations

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L to R: Gabe Lyons, Debra Hirsch, Matthew Vines, Julie Rodgers, David Gushee, Dan Kimball

Let’s be honest. Yesterday’s Q conference got off to a rocky start—particularly for those from marginalized communities.

Q is one of the few Christian conferences I genuinely like going to. It has none of the flash of Catalyst. It’s not a heavy-handed sales pitch disguised as a conference. You can actually interact with presenters. (One of the highlights for me these year was getting to spend a few moments with Jefferson Bethke.)

Best of all, Q has a track record of bringing together voices from all over the map. They’re not afraid to invite speakers who will challenge their mostly conservative-to-moderate evangelical audience.

But there was also an important lesson in the difference between talking with those on the margins (or better yet, listening to them) and talking about them. At first, this year’s event seemed more interested in the latter than the former.

The culture wars have loomed large over the Q conference this year year, particularly the fight over same-sex marriage.

One of the first presenters, Rod Dreher, proposed a tactical retreat—what he calls the Benedict Option—in response to the advance of gay rights in our culture. His suggestion struck me more like Fundamentalism Redux. “The day is coming,” he said, “when Americans who believe in traditional Christianity [defined in this case as opposition to same-sex marriage] will see our lives involving some degree of separation from the American mainstream.”

Now, I agree we shouldn’t get too cozy with the American mainstream—especially when it comes to our culture’s glorification of violence, its objectification of women, rampant consumerism, etc. But none of these were top of mind as Dreher proposed a withdrawal from society. It was mostly about one thing: same-sex marriage. Near the end, he mentioned the recent uproar over Indiana’s RFRA law, calling it an “apocalypse” for the church.

Dreher assured listeners that the church would continue to “practice Benedictine hospitality to the stranger” while in its self-imposed exile. But this seems to be a passive hospitality—one exercised from a distance and only when pressed upon. Real hospitality—that which seeks and welcomes others, that which listens to and enters into other people’s stories—doesn’t seem to be part of the deal.

“What we are fighting for,” he continued, “is the right to be left alone”—a right Christians are told nowhere in Scripture to fight for. “We have to be prepared to be hated,” Dreher concluded. Fair enough. Jesus said as much. Only, let’s make sure we’re hated for the right reasons. And let’s remember how Jesus told us respond: by doing good to others, even those who hate usWe can’t do that very well from a distance, can we? We can’t do that by talking about those on the margins when we should be talking with them.

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Another presenter shared results from a survey measuring public perceptions of the church. It might as well have been titled “Why do they hate us?”

42% of Americans believe religious people are more part of the problem than the solution in our country. Half think that religion is not necessary for our society to do good, that “good works” would continue even without people of faith.

How did we get this reputation? What needs to change? These are the questions we should be asking. Instead, the presenter concluded that “the pendulum has swung against people of faith,” as if we’ve done nothing to deserve our deteriorating reputation.

It’s not easy to talk about our complicity in the growing antipathy toward the church. It’s a lot easier to play the persecution card than to consider those we’ve hurt, those we’ve mistreated, those we’ve pushed to the margins. We’d much rather see ourselves as the victims, as the persecuted minority.

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The conversation at Q that morning was almost entirely about gay people and not with them. Whenever this happens, it becomes too easy to see them as the Other. Even, perhaps, as the enemy. Before long, we’re not talking about people anymore but a “dilemma” to be solved.

But something changed that afternoon and the following day.

Real, live actual gay people were invited onto the stage. Julie Rodgers and Matthew Vines shared their experience being gay and Christian. The two have very different beliefs about what their identity means for them. Julie argued for celibacy; Matthew believes the church can affirm monogamous, covenantal unions. Both have experienced rejection at the hands of the church. Both have had friends leave the church and never come back.

Later, David Gushee (a recent convert to the affirming view) and Dan Kimball (a pastor representing the traditional view) debated sexual ethics. The following day, Andrew Sullivan shared the stage with Gordon College president Michael Lindsay.

As the conference wore on—and as marginalized voices were welcomed into the conversation alongside more traditional evangelical voices—something happened. The tenor of the discussion began to change. I don’t think anyone on stage or in the audience changed their minds. Gabe Lyons, the head of Q Ideas, didn’t attempt neutrality as he moderated; he was honest about his own convictions. But as the conversation shifted from one about people to one with people, it became just that—a conversation.

The dignity and humanity of everyone involved was affirmed. Participants treated one another with grace and respect—perhaps none more so than Sullivan and Lindsay. The conversation became less about the supposed persecution of Christians; instead, contributors on all sides began to acknowledge the harmful ways in which the church has treated LGBT people.

The conversation on the first morning was primarily about how LGBT issues affect us. It’s no wonder the presentations drifted so easily into a persecution mindset. But when we start having a conversation with those on the margins, we’re more likely to consider how these issues and debates affect them. We’re able to start seeing beyond ourselves. Convictions may or may not be altered—again, I doubt many people in the auditorium changed their views yesterday or today—but hearts, attitudes, and relationships?

That, I hope, is another matter.

The liberating power of a good story (a guest post by Cindy Brandt)

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Today I’m thrilled to host my first guest post on this blog, and I’m even more thrilled that it’s from Cindy Brandt. Over the past year or so, Cindy has regularly challenged and inspired me with her writing, especially her widely-read post “How I Kissed Evangelizing Goodbye,” in which she calls on us to “listen to other people’s stories as if your salvation depended on it.”

Cindy has a new ebook, Outside In, highlighting some of the voices we need to start listening to—and making space for in our churches. Read her post below, then get her book.

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I have never met Ben IRL (in real life) before. There is the small challenge of seven-thousand-six-hundred-and-eight-point-oh-seven miles between my city in Taiwan and his in midwestern America. Yet the modern marvel of the internet connects us despite geographical distance. Because of blogging we have had opportunities to engage with each other’s writing, and over social media, I know he has adorable little ones and that he leaves his Christmas lights up until March.*

I won’t speak for Ben, but our interactions online have enriched my life as our stories intersect one another in these small ways, whether it’s delighting in the pictures of his little Oliver’s meme or in celebrating his beautiful Bible storybook.

We are writing new stories all the time. I bring my mosaic of accumulated life experiences into every interaction with other dynamic people I encounter in life, and when our stories connect with one another, we create new ones together. As we listen and learn from each other’s experiences, our hearts open a bit larger, our understanding grows a bit deeper, and our lives get a lot richer. This is the magic of stories. When the storyteller speaks their story, it serves to elaborate someone else’s story. Good stories don’t demand or take from their audience, they add value to their lives, empowering them to live more fully into their own stories.

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As Christians, I believe our best chance of impacting other people’s lives is to intersect God’s Story with theirs. Doctrines and systematic theology tell us about God, while God’s Story shows us how to enter into life with God. Propositions and agendas demand a decision, while a good story compels and woos one’ heart.

The Story of God is a living, ongoing narrative, embodied both in the text of Scripture and in the context of faithful communities. It doesn’t remain static, but evolves and expands as it touches lives and creates new stories.

However, sometimes we have not told this story in the right way. We have used it not as a living story, but as a definitive script. We have said, if you want to be part of the story, you must become a character and read the lines. People are not liberated into living their own stories more fully, they are flattened and captured into a confined narrative. We limit the gospel when we require people to act a certain way, speak certain words, and even believe certain things in order to be part of God’s story.

An encounter with a living God’s story never erases or diminishes the story of the person who approaches it. That’s not how it works. God’s story affirms, validates, and celebrates the beauty of each individual story as they are. But our lives never remain the same after we intersect another story—the power of stories is such that it affects profound change in our lives. It doesn’t strip us of the rich history and mosaic of our accumulated life experiences, it makes us, as Dr. Seuss says, “you-er than you”. Somehow transforming us into more fully human, more fully ourselves.

As stewards of God’s story, we must take care to not misuse the story of God as a way of diminishing individual experiences, or absorbing them into a dominant script. This does grave injustice to the stories we bring.

In my book, Outside In, I identify ten different kinds of people, those who doubt and those who grieve; people who are sarcastic or intellectuals, those who are single or disabled, or any combination of the above and I examine how they could have had their experiences marginalized by the community of God. My hope is that we can work to ensure God’s story is one that affirms the real experiences of every person, and allow their unique and beautiful stories to encounter God’s story in a way that transforms all of our stories—moving forward the Story of God in all its vibrant diversity.

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_MG_9851_2aCindy Brandt writes about faith in the irreverent, miracles in the ordinary, and beauty in the margins. She is more interested in being evangelized than evangelizing, a social justice Christian, and a feminist. She blogs at cindywords.com, tapping words out from the 33rd floor of a high rise in Taiwan, where she lives with her husband, two children, and a miniature Yorkie.

 


*Yes, it’s true. I left the Christmas lights up till March. Here is photographic proof of my shame…

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But IN MY DEFENSE, this is March in Michigan we’re talking about. If you want to take down the lights any sooner, you have to bring a crowbar because they will be frozen to the roof.

For those who love the church without loving everything about the church: a review of Searching for Sunday

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Depending on which headline you read about Rachel Held Evans’ newest book, Searching for Sunday, she has either exited, departed, abandoned, or rejected evangelical Christianity. (To which Charisma Magazine replied with a gentle “don’t let the door hit you on the way out.”)

My spiritual journey is similar to Rachel’s in many ways. We both have evangelical roots. We both grew up believing you had to think a certain way about science and the Bible, vote a certain way in elections, and fight a certain way in the culture wars. We both grew up playing chubby bunny in youth group, somewhat against our will. (I still can’t look at a marshmallow the same way.) As adults, we both found a new spiritual home in the Episcopal Church.

Firing off a list of grievances with the church is easy. (In fairness, lots of people have good reason—more so than I—to be truly and heartbreakingly disillusioned with church.) My problem is that I can talk about how the churches of my past have let me down. But can I celebrate what they did right? Can I embrace my past without necessarily living in it? Can I leave behind what I need to without discarding everything?

This was weighing on my mind as I opened Rachel’s book. A few chapters in, one thing was clear: Searching for Sunday is NOT another how-the-church-let-me-down memoir. True, Rachel writes honestly about the pain she and others have experienced at the hands of the church. But her book is more a love letter to the church. As love matures, it sees its object for what it is—imperfections, failures, and all. That’s how Rachel sees the church.

Each [church] stays with us, even after we’ve left, adding layer after layer to the palimpsest of our faith.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Rachel took a risk by organizing her book around the seven sacraments. (There’s one section for each sacrament.) In the hands of a lesser writer, it might have been one of those clever ideas that works better in theory than in practice. Yet it’s one of my favorite things about Searching for Sunday. The sacraments provide the perfect canvas on which Rachel paints a beautiful but honest portrait of the church to whom these sacraments—these gifts of grace—were given.

I do have to agree with Daniel Kirk, who notes in his review that some of Rachel’s best writing is found in the opening chapters of each section. Here she offers short but rich theological reflections on each sacrament. In the one on confirmation, for example, Rachel unpacks the various scriptural metaphors for the Holy Spirit. This chapter was more thoughtful—and more beautiful—than any description of the Spirit I read in my theological studies.

In the end, Searching for Sunday is not just about Rachel’s quest to find a spiritual home for herself. It’s about her desire to see the church—in all its forms—become a refuge for everyone:

The gospel doesn’t need a coalition devoted to keeping the wrong people out. It needs a family of sinners, saved by grace, committed to tearing down the walls, throwing open the doors, and shouting, “Welcome! There’s bread and wine. Come eat with us and talk.” This isn’t a kingdom for the worthy; it’s a kingdom for the hungry.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

The way to do this is not through clever programming or marketing gimmicks. It’s not by tailoring church to felt needs as defined by surveys and focus groups. It’s something far more elemental:

After all those years of attending youth events with light shows and bands, after all the contemporary Christian music and contemporary Christian books, after all the updated technology and dynamic speakers and missional enterprises and relevant marketing strategies designed to make Christianity cool, all I wanted from the church when I was ready to give it up was a quiet sanctuary and some candles. All I wanted was a safe place to be.
        —Rachel Held Evans, Searching for Sunday

Searching for Sunday helped me understand my own spiritual journey better. It gave me a new lens for making sense of my relationship with the church.

This book is for anyone who loves the church without necessarily loving everything about the church.

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Disclosure: I received an advance review copy of this book. I did not receive any compensation for writing this review, nor was I required to write a review (positive or otherwise) in exchange for my copy.

Telling the story well: God’s good world

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About this series: I believe “getting the gospel right” means telling the story well. This idea inspired me as I wrote my book for kids, The Story of King Jesus.  In this series, I’m sharing a few aspects of the story that I believe are key to telling it well. 

God made the very first people
so he could share his home with them. 

He gave them a job to do:
take care of his good world. 

                                    – from The Story of King Jesus

Last year, we bought a kids’ worship album for the car. My daughter wants to listen to it ALL the time. She knows every song by heart—including the popular Hillsong Anthem, “Forever Reign,” which opens with the line, “You are good, you are good / when there’s nothing good in me…”

Let me tell you, there’s something jarring about hearing your 4-year-old daughter sing, “There is nothing good in me.”

Yet when it comes to the gospel, that’s how we typically start, with the idea that our sin defines our whole identity. It’s the first letter of the Reformed mnemonic, TULIP. Total depravity. It’s the first way station on the “Romans Road” plan of salvation. For all have sinned and fall short.

But that’s not where our story begins.

Our story begins in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. And, yes, it matters where we begin.

In Genesis 1, with each successive act of creation, God delights in the inherent goodness of what he’s made. On the sixth day, God surveys everything and sees that it’s not just good, it’s very good. Seven times God sees that it’s good—which, for the discerning Jewish reader, signaled something. The number seven signaled completion. In Genesis, it signaled the complete, utter goodness of God’s creation.

That includes us, by the way. Whatever else may be true about us, God made us good.

Obviously, a lot happened after Genesis 1. But why do we skip this part of the story when sharing the gospel? Why do we bypass Genesis 1 and go straight to Genesis 3?

Is it because we’re afraid of thinking too highly of ourselves by saying that God made us “good”? Is it because we think our salvation depends on our willingness to grovel, to confess utter worthlessness before a reluctantly forgiving God?

Some Christians seem to almost revel in their portrait of human depravity, as if trying to outdo one another in capturing the wretchedness of our natural state—as if thinking the more we beat ourselves down, the more God will somehow be lifted up.

Except it’s not our natural state, and acting as if it is actually leads to a diminished view of God. In Genesis 1, we see that we are good—not because of anything we did, but because God made us that way. Our goodness is not something we came to on our own; it’s a gift. It’s the very first gift, the very first act of grace.

In God’s story, grace precedes sin.

—//—

Starting with the world as God made it also helps us to see where the story is going.

If God made the world good, then he can make it good again.

If God made the world good, then salvation—whatever else it may entail—is going to involve this world, its rescue, its remaking.

If God made the world good, then it changes how we understand our role as citizens of his kingdom. To return to God—to renounce sin and exile—is to return to our original mission: to take care of God’s good world.

If God made the world good, then our salvation is not from this world; it’s for this world.

Of course, the story doesn’t stop at Genesis 1, and neither should we. We cannot skip right over Genesis 3. We should not underestimate its impact on the rest of the story. To paraphrase N.T. Wright, we cannot whistle in the face of darkness when confronted with Hiroshima or Auschwitz… or (we might add) Ferguson. Guantanamo. Bhopal. ISIS.

The darkness is real. Our sin is real. It’s why the world needs saving.

But telling the story well means starting in Genesis 1, not Genesis 3. God made the world good, and he is making it good again.

This is where we should begin when sharing the story with our kids.

Next up: Making the world right and good again…

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