Saturday, July 29, 2006

Preaching to the Unchurched

This is probably no more than a patch of ice, which doth not a winter make, but even so, it is still fascinating:

Before the last presidential election, [The Rev. Gregory A. Boyd, pastor of Woodland Hills Church in St. Paul, Minnesota] preached six sermons called “The Cross and the Sword” in which he said the church should steer clear of politics, give up moralizing on sexual issues, stop claiming the United States as a “Christian nation” and stop glorifying American military campaigns.

“When the church wins the culture wars, it inevitably loses,” Mr. Boyd preached. “When it conquers the world, it becomes the world. When you put your trust in the sword, you lose the cross.”

Mr. Boyd says he is no liberal. He is opposed to abortion and thinks homosexuality is not God’s ideal. The response from his congregation at Woodland Hills Church here in suburban St. Paul — packed mostly with politically and theologically conservative, middle-class evangelicals — was passionate. Some members walked out of a sermon and never returned. By the time the dust had settled, Woodland Hills, which Mr. Boyd founded in 1992, had lost about 1,000 of its 5,000 members.
Why is this fascinating? Well, in part because it means the "Dominionists" aren't as dominant as we might be inclined to think they are. Fascinating because the decline of political influence was inevitable; fascinating because it is coming without any reference to the Jeffersonian separation of church and state, to the "wall" that should be between them. In fact, this is rooted in good old fashioned Protestantism.

Protestants carry a memory of the power of the state that is almost genetic. It's nearly like they remember the persecution of Luther; but it isn't that at all. Calvin, after all, ran Geneva as a theocracy. It's a memory more rooted in the experiences in Europe, where Catholicism as the state religion simply gave way to Calvinism or Lutheranism or Anglicanism as the state religion; and Mennonites and Baptists and others, were not welcome. So they came to America, among other things, and they accepted Jefferson's separation of church and state long before he formulated the idea (Rhode Island and Pennsylvania were both founded as places of refuge from religious persecution). As the Rev. Boyd says, "When the church conquers the world, it becomes the world." That is, in large measure, still the picture of the Roman Catholic church still carried by most Protestants: a church as corrupt as the long-gone monarchies of Europe, a church still stained by the indulgences which outraged Luther, and one as well left behind as the "Old World" itself. It's not a correct view, by any means; but it's still the position beneath the surface for most non-RC Christian Americans.

So the "Dominionist" policies of church running the world, while it may have a fine Calvinist heritage, grows in stony soil for most Americans. Not all, of course; 1000 members left Rev. Boyd's church, some probably thinking like this man:

“When we joined years ago, Greg was a conservative speaker,” said William Berggren, a lawyer who joined the church with his wife six years ago. “But we totally disagreed with him on this. You can’t be a Christian and ignore actions that you feel are wrong. A case in point is the abortion issue. If the church were awake when abortion was passed in the 70’s, it wouldn’t have happened. But the church was asleep.”
That sentiment, of course, could as easily have come from a "progressive" Christian, concerned about the silence of the mainstream churches which, they would argue, has led us to where we are today. To which Rev. Boyd might reply:

He said there were Christians on both the left and the right who had turned politics and patriotism into “idolatry.”
But this part I particularly appreciate:

He said he first became alarmed while visiting another megachurch’s worship service on a Fourth of July years ago. The service finished with the chorus singing “God Bless America” and a video of fighter jets flying over a hill silhouetted with crosses.

“I thought to myself, ‘What just happened? Fighter jets mixed up with the cross?’ ” he said in an interview.

Patriotic displays are still a mainstay in some evangelical churches. Across town from Mr. Boyd’s church, the sanctuary of North Heights Lutheran Church was draped in bunting on the Sunday before the Fourth of July this year for a “freedom celebration.” Military veterans and flag twirlers paraded into the sanctuary, an enormous American flag rose slowly behind the stage, and a Marine major who had served in Afghanistan preached that the military was spending “your hard-earned money” on good causes.
I may have mentioned before that I don't like flags in churches, but most Protestant churches have them. It seems to be a post World War II phenomenon, since I've seen pictures of churches from before that war, and no national flags were on prominent display. I hosted a German pastor, a woman about my age, on a tour of UCC churches in Houston one day, and the flag in our sanctuary disturbed her, largely because of her memories of Nazism and the conflation of church and state Hitler wrought, and the Barmen Declaration opposed. I agreed with her, but her chaperone, a man of my father's generation, stridently defended the flag as a reminder of soldiers who had died for our religious liberty.

I didn't mention that no one had thought that connection a necessary one for worship in America until, apparently, the mid-20th century. Such is memory in what Gore Vidal calls the United State of Amnesia. Nor did I point out how lightly he skated over the concerns of our guest. Clearly "we" are never like "them."

But how can we allow the cross to get mixed up with fighter jets? It has happened, of course, and it will go on happening. Still, it's a good idea, once in a while, to at least stop and ask: what are we doing here? And why are we doing it? Just because an idea is promoted with particular vehemence by some, doesn't mean it is accepted with equal enthusiasm by all. 1000 members left Rev. Boyd's church; but 4000 stayed. And while I might disagree with Rev. Boyd on some points of theology, I agree completely with him on these:

In his six sermons, Mr. Boyd laid out a broad argument that the role of Christians was not to seek “power over” others — by controlling governments, passing legislation or fighting wars. Christians should instead seek to have “power under” others — “winning people’s hearts” by sacrificing for those in need, as Jesus did, Mr. Boyd said.

“America wasn’t founded as a theocracy,” he said. “America was founded by people trying to escape theocracies. Never in history have we had a Christian theocracy where it wasn’t bloody and barbaric. That’s why our Constitution wisely put in a separation of church and state.

“I am sorry to tell you,” he continued, “that America is not the light of the world and the hope of the world. The light of the world and the hope of the world is Jesus Christ.”

Mr. Boyd lambasted the “hypocrisy and pettiness” of Christians who focus on “sexual issues” like homosexuality, abortion or Janet Jackson’s breast-revealing performance at the Super Bowl halftime show. He said Christians these days were constantly outraged about sex and perceived violations of their rights to display their faith in public.

“Those are the two buttons to push if you want to get Christians to act,” he said. “And those are the two buttons Jesus never pushed.”
It might not be the Church of Sacrifice for Meaning and Belonging that I would envision or try to lead; but it's a very good step in that direction. And what is most encouraging is, it seems to be working.

In the end, those who left tended to be white, middle-class suburbanites, church staff members said. In their place, the church has added more members who live in the surrounding community — African-Americans, Hispanics and Hmong immigrants from Laos.

This suits Mr. Boyd. His vision for his church is an ethnically and economically diverse congregation that exemplifies Jesus’ teachings by its members’ actions. He, his wife and three other families from the church moved from the suburbs three years ago to a predominantly black neighborhood in St. Paul.
At least in this case; but that's enough for me. I don't want to change the world. I just want to find some sign that God's spirit is still working in it. The story of Rev. Boyd tells me only two things, but those two things are important. One is that the "dominionist" position will always be with us, but it won't often find much welcome. The second is that not all megachurches are built by people with marketing degrees and business goals; but many people still think they should be:

Mary Van Sickle, the family pastor at Woodland Hills, said she lost 20 volunteers who had been the backbone of the church’s Sunday school.

“They said, ‘You’re not doing what the church is supposed to be doing, which is supporting the Republican way,’ ” she said. “It was some of my best volunteers.”
We had a name for people like that, in seminary: the unchurched churched.

The Rev. Paul Eddy, a theology professor at Bethel College and the teaching pastor at Woodland Hills, said: “Greg is an anomaly in the megachurch world. He didn’t give a whit about church leadership, never read a book about church growth. His biggest fear is that people will think that all church is is a weekend carnival, with people liking the worship, the music, his speaking, and that’s it.”
Rev. Boyd and I would definitely find a lot of commonality on the issues of ecclesiology. Finally, in a line that many in left blogistan would like:

One woman asked: “So why NOT us? If we contain the wisdom and grace and love and creativity of Jesus, why shouldn’t we be the ones involved in politics and setting laws?”

Mr. Boyd responded: “I don’t think there’s a particular angle we have on society that others lack. All good, decent people want good and order and justice. Just don’t slap the label ‘Christian’ on it.”

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