Jan 2007 – Wrappings, old and new

Church traditions are like the gift wrappings I save and re-use. They may be beautiful and bring back good memories, but eventually they become unusable. And God will never fit into any of our wrappings.

What’s the difference between seeing a pastor as “my pastor” and as “the pastor of my church”?

Feb 2007 – Signposts of renewal

In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass observes that the religious right seems to have hijacked American Christianity, causing its literalist interpretations to be mistakenly seen as the only vital and valid form of the Christian faith and making Christians with a different understanding feel isolated. In her survey of 50 thriving mainline congregations, she found that 10 practices especially  helped them to thrive. Among these are hospitality and discernment.

However, many mainstream congregations become merely religious places for social acceptability and business connections, paying little attention to people’s spiritual lives.

Mar 2007 – More signposts of renewal

Three more practices cited by Diana Butler Bass as being important in thriving congregations are reflection, testimony, and diversity.

Apr 2007 – Pictures of God

We seem to choose many of our pictures of God because we find them comfortable. Most of our pictures portray God as a person. Some don’t seem believable.

May 2007 – Vital signs

In Vital Signs, Dan Dick reports the fruitfulness of reading and discussing serious books about theology and the Bible, and of  disclosing information openly and fully. He describes 4 types of congregations—vital, dystrophic, retrogressive, and decaying—and the characteristics that seem to determine which type a congregation is. He distinguishes between members who exert toxic influence in a congregation and those who express holy discontent, which can be a motivator for needed change.

June 2007 – What makes someone a Christian?

Is it belief? Baptism? Behavior? Or simply claiming to be Christian?

Joan Chittister quotes a theologian who said “There may come a time when you have to leave the church to save your soul.” But in her view, if you leave it’s important not to leave quietly, and if you stay, not to stay quietly. If you don’t make your reasons known, your leaving or staying isn’t likely to help to change what needs changing.

July 2007 – A time that changed the world

In The Great Transformation, Karen Armstrong describes the Axial Age, in which the great world traditions that continue to nourish humanity came into being. She believes that we have now diluted our religions’ most valuable insights and replaced them with a religiosity that too often harms rather than helps—the kind of religiosity that the Axial Age reformers wanted to get rid of.

Aug 2007 – Empire, then and now

We tend not to notice how Jesus boldly resisted the Roman Empire and contrasted it to the Kingdom of God. We may not notice how empire shows up in today’s world. Thus we overlook how we need to oppose empire’s current manifestations. A telling example of how oblivious many Christians are is that my own congregation named the largest givers to a financial campaign “centurions,” unwittingly labeling these givers opponents of Jesus Christ. Helpful discussions of empire are in God and Empire, by John Dominic Crossan, and Christ and Empire, by Joerg Rieger.

Sept 2007 – Empire—still present today

In crucially important ways the 21st-century U.S. is like 1st-century Rome, say four scholars (Griffin, Cobb, Falk, Keller)  in The American Empire and the Commonwealth of God. John Dominic Crossan describes four types of power that combined to form the social power (power over groups of people) that Rome had: military, political, economic, and ideological. All of these scholars see the cosmic American empire using all of these types today to be much more powerful than the Roman Empire.

Oct 2007 – Empire and the realm of God

John Cobb sees the early church taking seriously the anti-imperial elements of Jesus’s message, but he sees that when the empire allied itself with the church, the church changed more than the empire, and that change is still in effect. In The Misunderstood Jew, Amy-Jill Levine says we’re mistaken if we think we don’t need to know much about scriptures’ historical and cultural setting. Without that knowledge, we miss the challenge in many of Jesus’s parables. Cobb laments churches’ resulting failure to resist empire.

Nov 2007 – A vision that became reality—”Living the Questions”

Two United Methodist pastors turned their vision into reality by creating the study course “Living the Questions” and later courses in a similar format. Jeff Proctor-Murphy and David Felten found that thoughtful lay people welcomed discovering what scholars had learned, but that too often clergy failed to pass this information along, even though they had found it liberating and faith-strengthening themselves. Proctor-Murphy tells how his congregation was an incubator for this innovative ministry, as every congregation needs to be for its members’ and pastors’ innovative efforts.

Dec 2007 – What should seminaries do?

Besides indoctrinating clergy with the church’s official beliefs, what most lay churchgoers seem to think seminaries’ main function should be is teaching the how-to skills necessary for being an effective pastor of a church—preaching, first, and then administrative skills. But seminary leaders often emphasize seeking new insight. Their thinking and research may be their prayer.