Thursday, January 22, 2015

Twenty-Two Reasons Not to Give Up on My Church

I’ve read plenty of Internet stories lately that explain why fewer and fewer people--including one-time Evangelicals--go to church. In response, I offer a few reasons why you ought to consider going to (liberal!) Lawrence Park Community Church (LPCC) before you give up on religion altogether. 
  • Yes, we think there is a gay agenda, and we’re for it. Gay—or trans, or bi, or whatever—all sexual orientations are definitely welcome at our shop.
  • Not married? Living together? Nice. Welcome. 
  • Evolution is a theory like gravity is a theory. Get over it.
  • Neither Eve nor Adam committed an original sin. And I am not guilty or condemned before God on account of any such mythic sin. This is as theologically dense as I’m going to get in this post.
  • Most LPCC members believe in God. But all members of LPCC are deeply impressed by Jesus' life and example. We don’t know how God and Jesus are related, exactly. We do enjoy wondering about that question, however. 
  • We don’t play any of that faux rock music known as Christian Contemporary Music. We do traditional church music with organ, piano, and an incredible choir. We mix in jazz, real rock and roll, folk, and even country and western occasionally. (Okay, country and western just once). 
  • A lot of people at LPCC are pretty well-to-do. I don’t criticize them for being capitalists and then go ask them for money when we need it. Our well-to-do members, after all, are trying to figure out how to be authentically Christian just like everyone else. They merely have their own unique challenges. No need to scapegoat them for that.
  • A lot of people at LPCC are barely getting by from paycheque to paycheque. Life in Toronto is expensive. We don't hound such people about tithing or anything like that. We do encourage everyone to be generous with both time and resources when they can afford it.
  • Sermons are short. Twenty minutes max. You’re in at 10:30 and out by 11:30—maybe 11:35. Why? Because I never met anyone at the door, after church, who said, “I wish you had gone on longer."
  • Still, lots of people come before 10:30, and stay long after 11:30. The coffee is good and the company is even better.
  • We don’t insist that members attend every Sunday. We have a saying at LPCC that goes like this: “We’re glad to see you when you come. We bless you when you’re away.” 
  • A lot of my preaching is about inspiring people to love their neighbours, doing social justice, and imitating Jesus. I’d love to see everyone plant a bit of Shalom whatever they do, wherever they go. At the same time, I try not to guilt members into it. 
  • We’re curious about theology, and like to hear occasional sermons that explore the great themes of Christianity. We don’t shove doctrine down anyone’s throat. Theology should be fun, like a playground.
  • We think the Bible is pretty neat. The Bible also makes us, at turns, angry, incredulous, happy, and confused. 
  • Not all sermons are from or about the Bible. We have four coming up this spring based on Les Miz, for example. The choir will be singing the texts, too!
  • Last Halloween about half the congregation came to church wearing costumes. The sermon was about death. I won't even get started on the Sunday we decorated the sanctuary as Oz, and I wore red slippers. Aunt Em's potluck, after, was delicious.
  • Hockey hero and Evangelical Paul Henderson, who most certainly doesn’t agree with most of what passes for theology in our church, preached here last year. So did Maria Toorpakai, a world-class Muslim athlete. Both preached during a four-week series on Sports and Spirituality. This year we’re doing a January series on Social Media and Spirituality.
  • Our motto is “United, Unlimited, Unorthodox.” We’re not really sure what “unlimited” is supposed to mean, anymore, but we’re having too much fun to worry much about changing our motto. Ambiguity can be good.
  • The pope suggested this past week that birth control is really bad. At LPCC we don’t think so. And I’ve never warned members not to breed like rabbits. 
  • The Youth Group is studying the Spirituality of Star Wars this semester. They go on retreats. Lots of pizza and fun.
  • We support community causes with generous gifts and volunteer hours: Out of the Cold, New Circles, and Camp Lake Scugog come to mind. We encourage people to give time and money to other causes than just church.
  • We had a three-day art show this past year that included a worship interview with one of the artists.  
And I’ve only just started. If you’re wondering about what you believe, if you want to be with other people similarly curious, if you admire the example of Jesus, if you want community, if you want great music, if you want people trying hard to be honest and good rather than hypocrites, if you want to go to a cool church, you ought to check out Lawrence Park Community Church, a United Church of Canada congregation that meets at 10:30 am on Sundays at 2180 Bayview Ave. in Toronto.

Monday, January 19, 2015

What Denominations Are Good For

Years ago, I heard Roman Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft speak. He was born Christian Reformed but changed his mind in grad school. During his talk he explained one thing he thought denominations were good for. As best as I can remember it, he said something like this:

“All God ever wanted was one Holy Catholic Church. But humans had their own ideas, and eventually they divided the church into hundreds of different denominations.

“God, being gracious, decided to make the best of it. And so God conceived of every denomination as a treasure chest, and gave to each a spiritual perspective to hold safe and sound against some future crisis, when the Church Universal would need to relearn just that perspective to carry on.”

Kreeft’s defense of denominationalism is heart-warming, even though one can think of other ways of preserving differing perspectives. Books come to mind, for example! But his vignette raises a larger question. What are denominations good for, really?

A few months ago I wrote a post entitled, “The Trouble with Denominations.” You can find it here: That post generated quite a bit of response, both on the web page and back channel. In the meantime, fairness suggests that I should also write a post on the benefits of denominations. What are they?

The question is especially interesting in view of the fact that many congregations, large and small, liberal and conservative, do not belong to denominations. Independent, nonconformist, and dissenter churches have a long and colorful history of success. So why denominations?

To answer that question, I’ve come up with a list of ten things that denominations can potentially do well—along with a brief cautionary note in most cases. It adds up to a sort of “on the one hand . . . but on the other” commentary.

1.     Denominations are communities of memory. This echoes what Kreeft said. A denomination’s central convictions, borne of some ancient insight or conflict, as well as its stories and heroes from the past all work together to shape a shared outlook and sense of purpose among people in the pew today. On the other hand, many of those cherished memories go back to schismatic battles about points of doctrine now considered mostly beside the point. A lot of toil and trouble, and sometimes blood has been spilled to make our memories and fill our doctrinal treasure chests.

2.     Denominations promote a sense of belonging to something larger and more ancient than most local churches. In a way, denominations, regardless of their ethnic makeup, have a tribal quality that promotes belonging and shared purpose. However, tribe members don’t usually think critically about their mores, convictions, and culture. Tribes are very oriented to the cultural status quo and tribe members are prone to submitting to peer pressure. To top it off, tribes tend to  be unfriendly to, or at least suspicious of, nonmembers.

3.     Denominations can collect resources from all their local churches and strategically use those resources to achieve goals that churches acting alone might not be able to achieve. What sort of goals? New church planting where there is a high potential for success. Support for initiatives undertaken by leaders or churches that have a proven track record. Unfortunately, denominations have too often used their resources to support barely viable churches that are on the wrong side of plateauing membership, or to support central bureaucracies doing all sorts of things that independent churches have shown you can do without. Examples might include holding denominational meetings, supporting international (rather than local) ecumenism, or going through yet another round of denominational restructuring.

4.     Denominations can also used shared resources to support a national seminary that celebrates and builds up the community of memory it is rooted in. On the other hand, as I noted in the essay I provided a link to, above, most seminaries seem more interested in arguing and promoting their distinctive traditions than helping churches engage the difficult realities they face on the ground. And besides, there are plenty of seminaries around North America that do as good a job as the one your local denomination supports.

5.     Denominations can support clergy by offering educational and networking opportunities. They can use their intellectual and financial resources to pull people doing church on the ground together to think and talk about what they face. Too often, however, denominations offer little more than a list of seminars that ministers have to take in order to keep their credentials in order.

6.     Denominations, at their best, promote mutual accountability among local congregations and leaders for doing every kind of good. That is, denominations can provide a forum for, and inspire congregations to share best practices, best rules and regulations, and best understanding of the culture congregations and pastors find themselves in. Okay, so this is a lot like number five, and doesn’t happen much anyway.

7.     In the same vein, denominations almost always have a set of rules that govern how local churches should interact with members, pastors, other churches, and national bodies in a way that promotes the mission of the church, justice and good order. These rules cover matters as diverse as financial transparency, ownership of assets, and mediating disputes. In the United Church this set of rules is called The Manual. In my previous denomination, it was called, The Church Order. Boring as such documents are, they offer denominational members and employees rules for the road that help manage everything from hiring and firing to finances and rules for making congregational decisions. These documents also explain how denominations can hold congregations and members to certain civil or spiritual standards. Unfortunately, such manuals are often far too prescriptive about far too many matters at a time when the culture and laws are changing fast.

8.     Denominations can educate and speak on behalf of members on important, often national and international, matters of social justice. Denominations do so by electing inspired leaders, by supporting independent religious journalism, and by having mechanisms for addressing government. On the other hand, when denominations educate or speak on behalf of members, they often set of a firestorm of protest from members who disagree with such statements. Not that intense discussion about such matters is undesirable!

9.     Denominations can help local congregations navigate the increasingly complex legal environment of our litigious society. How do you do arrange for police checks? Who needs them? What level? What about best practices for health and safety rules in the building? What about workplace violence? Peanuts? Equal opportunity employment? Building access? And so on. On the other hand, most of this information can be found on the Internet, too.

10.  Denominations can enforce individual and congregational adherence to core doctrines or mores through church discipline. But of course, that leads to schisms, fights, and less than stellar PR. Providentially, this doesn’t seem to be a huge problem in my new denomination, which is committed to being a big-tent church.

The bottom line? Because there is staying power in numbers, and because they pool memories and resources, denominations have helped Christianity remain a force in North America. But most denominations soon lose focus on the central convictions that led to their formation, and change their focus from mission to institution building and maintenance. And this, in turn, tends to alienate people in the pews, as well as clergy not well integrated into the power structures. I’d love to see the United Church in Canada, in particular, give serious consideration to: 1) pruning its central bureaucracy by giving it less sway over local congregations, and, 2) by adopting the Fishing on the Other Side report, which recommends doing away with Presbytries and Conferences, while offering some alternative structures, especially for the care and supervision of pastors. Check it out at:

Monday, January 12, 2015

When Ministers Age

Yesterday, with my wife Irene listening, I said to an old friend in ministry something like: “I don’t have the energy that I used to. I can’t work ten- and twelve-hour days anymore.”

“Whoa, did you hear what you said?” Irene asked, afterwards. “Is that really true?”

It is true. The realization that I’m slowing down has been rattling around in the back of my consciousness for some time now. But I’ve resisted putting that feeling on the table to examine more closely. This sense I’m slowing down is humbling, a bit scary, and the occasion for more than a little insecurity on my part about what it takes to be a pastor these days.

After all, the church is in crisis, right? We need better, sharper pastors than ever. Better communicators, more hip, multi-taskers, people who can run with the younger crowd that doesn’t want to come to church to hear some old-geezer who (from their perspective) can’t possibly know what life is like for Millennials or Gen Xers like them. How is an old guy—I’m 58—going to find the energy to run with this younger crowd?

Sometimes I wonder. A bit of background is probably in order. I have never been the sort of pastor to work too hard. I’ve never put in those fifty- or sixty-hour weeks that I keep hearing other pastors talk about. I tend to think lots of pastors either exaggerate about how much they work, or waste too much time and call that work.

I’ve always been good at setting reasonable boundaries and explaining them to parishioners. For example, when I had little kids, in the days before email, I asked people not to phone me between 3:30 (when they got home from school) and 8:00 pm (when they were in bed). I explained why, and said that emergencies were excepted. Parishioners were always very good about respecting those boundaries and the other ones I set as time and circumstances changed.

I also understood, from the beginning, that I wasn’t and will never be a high-energy person. But still, I always got my sermons written by Friday afternoon, my pastoral visits done, and found plenty of time for reading and for doing my hobbies—some of which, like genealogy, can be time-consuming. Organization helped. Being focussed on the clock helps. Not having a TV helps. Not being one for shopping or going to movies helps.

But lately, sometimes I feel as if the energy I’ve been able to focus on my work—which was always more than enough—is sagging. In truth, this realization has been creeping up on me for a few years now. Where I used to go to two and often three meetings a week after the kids were in bed, now one is about all I really want to get out for, if I can manage it. Where once I used to be able to spend hours in the evenings reading, now I tend to have a hard time concentrating after ten pm. Where once I had the get-up-and-go to start new Bible Studies and Second Services and be a member of a small group and serve on Presbytery-level committees and write book reviews, now I’d rather sit at home and read a book for a the few hours I can before I fall asleep.

What really surprised me when my wife asked me about my energy level, upon reflection, is that the friend I had been talking on the phone to mirrored my comments. He too struggled with how much he had to give to his church now, compared to thirty years ago. And if I think about it, I’ve heard plenty of ministers in private settings with other ministers who, approaching 60 or 65, have confessed that they’re either just putting in time or struggling to finish well. They are tired.

Does this mean I’m a bad pastor?

No, I don’t think so. I think that I’m more skilled, steadier, more emotionally in tune with my parishioners than I was at thirty, half a lifetime ago. I think my preaching has evolved and improved a lot. I think I work a lot smarter than I used to. I don’t major in minors nearly as much. I can remember, in one church I served, going to the mat to get them to switch from individual cups to a large cup for dipping. In another church I spent months educating and promoting and begging the council to use a certain Eucharistic liturgy that I loved. In both cases I didn’t understand about how there is a right time for everything, including change. I’ve grown up, and in many ways my church is getting more bang for its bucks now than ever, I think.

Still, I am running the last lap of my mile in ministry. Even if I finish the race well, as I certainly plan on, this last lap is going to be a bit slower than the first three. And I wonder what that means, exactly, for the church I’m serving.

Will I have the energy to manage major change, if that is necessary? Do parishioners sometimes wonder why I’m not busier? Am I rationalizing with myself when I think I’m better than I used to be—at least better when it comes to time management and quality of work?

My current congregation isn’t unreasonable in their demands. They are a very supportive bunch. No one is complaining. I like what I’m doing immensely, and don’t feel as if I’m putting in my time, at all. But this is a topic—how one’s energy for the work fluctuates with the seasons of life—a topic that I have not heard many ministers talk about publically, as opposed to privately.

Do we short-change our churches in this go-go culture as we age? Are we fooling our congregations sometimes, just to make it through? Or are older, somewhat wiser (we hope) though somewhat weary (probably) pastors sort of like used-cars? If you can take a few dents and higher mileage, they represent a better deal? Even though no one really wants a used car? What do you think?

Monday, January 5, 2015

Experimenting with a Liberal Interpretation of the Christmas Narratives

So how does one preach “Christmas,” when the story itself—for all the many reasons all commentators wrestle with—is understood as being legendary? Or maybe just made up?

In fact, having moved from an Evangelical to a Liberal Christian context, finding that “new” voice is one of my greatest challenges. I’ve had lots of practice, over the years, of trying to make it sound as if accounts of angels and mangers, shepherds and magi, immaculate conceptions and detailed genealogies are historically accurate. Doing so made me increasingly uncomfortable.

But having rejected the “it’s history,” explanation for the Christmas narratives, I’ve needed to find another angle. And doing so is definitely a touch and go exercise. I’m not deeply convicted that I’ve found the right approach. So what follows is my attempt to understand the Christmas story from my new perspective. I know that some of my readers will disagree with this approach. I don’t hope to convince them. But I do hope that it is internally consistent and that it contains a relevant message for today. I guess you will have to be the judge. The sermon, based mostly on John 1:14, follows. Any advice my fellow UCC pastors or friends have to offer would be much appreciated!


I remember camping with my boy’s club when I was about 12 or 13 years old—winter camping. The leaders built two long rows of lean-tos out of tarps and two by fours, over straw. The tall ends of the lean-tos faced each other about six feet apart. Between the lean-tos half a dozen fires kept us toasty warm in spite of falling snow and biting wind. It was an adventure—sparkling logs, hot chocolate, stars, and us boys in our sleeping bags, like ears of unshucked corn roasting on a grill. A perfect adventure.

I remember another camping trip, when my boys were little. I had a new propane Coleman stove. However, when I lit it, the burners barely worked. I thought that maybe some of the gas was escaping from the hose, so I tightened the nut some. Unfortunately, I didn’t know that those nuts had reverse threads, and so instead of tightening the nut I loosened it. The escaping gas caused a small explosion. Flames fired six or ten feet straight up from the tank. I lost my eyebrows and facial hair. The park was evacuated, the fire department came, and after a few hours order was restored. But year after year, Irene, the boys, and I kept on camping anyway—with an old pump stove, mind you.

Why put up with cold winter camping? Why continue to camp in spite of disasters like the one I just mentioned? Well, the answer is complicated. We camped for the camaraderie and smores and the illusion of roughing it.

But we camp for other reasons, too. The sound of birds that waken us. The shadows of tree branches seen through the tent at dawn. Sand between my toes down at the beach. You can canoe around a bend in the river and feel like you are a hundred miles away from everyone else in the world. I camp to get back to nature, for the aroma of coffee brewing on an open fire, and for a glimpse of deer and maybe even something more exotic.

I camp, because because I love it.

One interesting footnote to the Christmas story is that in John 1:14 Jesus’ birth is described as camping. John writes, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” The word there, for “lived among us,” is the Greek word “skene,” which means tent. When he was born, Jesus tented with us, he camped with us.

I wonder if Jesus loved camping with us.

We’ve romanticized Jesus’ birth, of course. The stable was, a best, a shack. Maybe a lean-to against the inn—possibly just a hollowed out overhang under some rocks. If you have ever owned a horse, or worked on a dairy or pig farm, you know it can smell very bad. Jesus’ manger didn’t come with a supply of blankets or pillows, or a Coleman stove. No vending machines or privies, either. Any townie who knew that Joseph and Mary were out back would have spat on the ground and cursed the flood of refugees from the North.

So what was there to love, in camping, for Jesus?

Now, before I answer that question, I should remind you I’m doing so from within the frame of the story. The story is true, but true only in some ineffable, mysterious sense that we humans can merely scratch at. So while I want to talk about the meaning of the Jesus’ birth in a shack, I don’t want you to be scratching your heads and asking, “how is that historically possible?” This story wasn’t written like an objective newspaper account might be.

But in telling his story, Luke was on to something—something that Christians have been trying get their heads around for two thousand years. It is this—what Jesus loved about camping in Bethlehem was . . . us. Jesus—who in this story stands in for God—loved us. That’s why Jesus tented among us.

In many—not all, but many religions, the point of religion is to appease God. You offer sacrifices to get God to do stuff, like give you healthy babies or a great harvest. Even some Christians—many Christians, actually—believe that if you pray enough, using just the right words, with a heart inclined the proper way—even many Christians believe that they can somehow manipulate God to heal them, or make their church grow, or save them from enemy bullets. In many though not all religions the whole point of temple and sacrifice is to appease God and thereby manipulate God to give us what we want.

But at the heart of the Christmas story a very different portrait of God emerges. Even before we prayed, even before we made that extra large donation to the church’s operating budget, even before we overcame temptation and did the right thing, God loved us. We don’t have to cajole God or bribe God. God just loves us.

In fact, God loved us so much that God—in the telling of this story that is—God loved us so much that God decided to camp with us, to be with us. According to the story, God stepped down out of heaven, left the angels at the throne, and put on human flesh, because from God’s perspective, humans are very special, because God loves us.

Look. The planet earth is not the center of the universe. And humans are not what the cosmos is all about. And we muck things up pretty good, again and again, as a human race. When it comes to treatment of the poor, or taking care of the planet, or embracing enemies we are not pros, or semi pros or even amateurs—we’re just not very good at these things.

But as much as all this matters to God—whoever, wherever, however God exists, whether in every living thing as soul or even if God exists merely as an ideal—what is lovely about this story, is that it insists that God loves us so much that God decided to camp out with us.

Listen, this is strange. Sometimes I get on this pulpit, and I feel—momentarily—like I can shed light on all this religion stuff. I have two Masters degrees in theology, after all. And a Ph.D. in hermeneutics—that is, in the interpretation of texts like the one we read a few minutes ago. But at bottom, I really don’t know much about God, or how to explain God, or how to answer the hard questions about why we exist—or suffer.

          When I had to tell a man, years ago, that his wife and child died in a car accident, my theology education wasn’t all that helpful. When I hear in the news that a man lying on the ground crying out “I can’t breathe,” nevertheless was choked to death, I don’t know what to say, other than this is evil. After I saw the museum to the atom bomb in Hiroshima I fell into a deep spiritual depression that still haunts me at times. I don’t get it.

But we have these divine stories for just those occasions that linear theology and propositions fail us. The Bible’s storytellers, for example, tell of how once upon a time God camped with us. The storyteller Luke suggests here, in the gentlest way possible, and yet with great force, that the point of life is to live it for others, even as Jesus lived for others at great cost to himself. Why was Jesus born? Because God loves us. And so whatever else we make of this Christmas story, remember this. If God so loved us, why shouldn’t we love each other, too? It’s hard, usually, I know.

And yet, it is good to remember, as we try, that the storyteller insists that to love each other is actually divine.