The Shrinking Middle

One of my early dreams for DOOR centered on the idea that it was a good thing to create a safe space to explore who God is.   I do not think I ever anticipated how controversial such a dream would become.  I have always been somewhat amused by the liberal-conservative divide in politics.  It makes for great TV and provides excellent source material for late night comedians. It has been my hope that the church would find a way to move beyond and above such inane divisions.  Lately I have begun to wonder if the church has been sucked into the same mentality as our politicians - you are either with us or against us.  This kind of “either/or” speak makes for great TV; it just doesn’t work anywhere else, especially in the faith community.

Debate, exchanging opinions, and sharing ideas should be the hallmarks of a strong faith community.  I am not aware of any imperative from Scripture that demands we all think and believe exactly the same.  When Jesus was cornered by the religious leaders he simply said love God and love your neighbor.  Love allows space for difference.

This year I have received more emails and requests asking DOOR to take official stands on every imaginable “hot-button” issue – the military, homosexuality, abortion, and marriage to name a few.  In the midst of all of this there are those who think we are too liberal while others cannot believe how conservative we are.

It saddens me to think that that church is buying into the same rhetoric and divisiveness we see in the political world.  When we become like the world around us we also give up the right to be prophetic.  I want to propose that people of faith are most prophetic when they create space for alternative understandings, ideas, and discussions.  It is in these places and spaces that the kingdom of God is revealed in all of its richness and diversity.

A Disappearing Majority Culture

One of my favorite work responsibilities is visiting one-on-one with our board members.  Last week in Miami I met with a Haitian pastor and local board member.  Our conversation moved freely from family matters to church work to local theology.  Near the end of our time together we started discussing cultural realities in Miami.  For him what is happening in Miami is a precursor to what the rest of the country will face in the coming years. In his words Miami is a city with a disappearing majority culture.  Only 18% of the population is Anglo.  All by itself this is a fascinating statistic.  What is even more interesting and to be honest, somewhat alarming, is reality is impacting Anglo churches.  As Anglo churches have lost influence and power they have become more theologically conservative and much less interested in having anything to do with people of faith who believe differently.  In their minds any church group that doesn’t see the world exactly the same as they see the world should be viewed as unsafe, too liberal and probably not Christian.

I walked away from the conversation hoping his assessment was wrong.  The more that I reflect on our time together the more I suspect that his conclusion is correct.  As the Anglo church losses its influence and power rather than embrace a new reality, it seems to be entrenching itself in a strange form of conservative theology that leaves no space for other perspectives.

When the church moves towards a fear-based, you’re-going-to-hell theology, everyone loses.  Conservative theology and politics share a cut and dried vision of the world - you are either with us or against us.  Slogans like “no-compromise” and “stick to your guns” energize these folks.  From a certain perspective these sounds good.  The problem is that it is not a sustainable way to live or believe.

If the disappearing majority culture (Anglo) is going to survive and thrive it will only come through a willingness to engage people, beliefs and politics that are different.  This is not easy or simple.   Recognizing that a belief or understanding is wrong looks a lot like flip-flopping or compromising on the issue.  Developing the courage to compromise requires humility, love, faith and hope.  You might even say that compromise is the most Christian thing any of us can do.  When this happens we will not have to mourn the disappearing majority culture but rather celebrate the in-breaking of the kingdom of God.

The Church

One of the great privileges of my job is that I get to work with church leaders and members from many different faith traditions.  Some come from very structured church communities while others come from less formal more Pentecostal contexts.  There are churches that see the Bible as one of many holy books they would turn to for advice, while others come from traditions where the Bible is viewed as the inerrant word of God and the only Holy Scripture that should be consulted.  The labels people of faith give themselves and each other are telling as well - Fundamentalist, Evangelical, Liberal, Progressive, etc. After almost two decades of interacting and leading all these different “Christian” groups I find myself fascinated by the similarities between the extremes.  Take for example Scripture.  Both Liberals and Conservatives require a high degree of “Selective Reading” in order to maintain their understanding and reworking of the Christian faith.

My more liberal (or progressive) brothers and sisters don’t really like the Apostle Paul.  They seem him as a sexist and homophobe.  More often than not their approach is to simply ignore Paul and focus on Jesus and his message of Grace.

My more fundamental (or evangelical) brothers and sisters have so confused American Civil religion and Scripture that they can no longer tell the difference between the two.  Take for example the “life issue.”  The vast majority of conservatives are both pro-life and pro-war; at best this is an oxymoron.

I cannot help but wonder what it would mean for the church to take Scripture seriously.  Conservatives would have to give up their sexism, homophobia and need for violence.  Liberals would have to give up their eliteness, smugness and educational arrogance.

Here is the good news.  Every week DOOR hosts multiple church groups, representing a wide spectrum of the Christian faith community.  It is true that the church leaders sometimes judge and condemn each other, but the youth have very little interest in finding reasons to divide.  They are interested in a Christian faith that moves beyond posturing, politics and rhetoric.  For them faith is about taking Scripture seriously, loving God and loving neighbor.  When this happens walls of division become unimportant.

Don’t you believe what the Bible teaches?

The other day I was asked to sign a petition.  It had to do with one of those burning “Christian” issues.  At this point you need to know that I am not going to name her issue, as naming it would shift the focus of this blog to the issue. My standard response to petitions is that I am a Canadian and probably shouldn’t sign.  Most people let me off the hook at this point.  In this instance I was once again let off the hook, but before she went on to ask for more signatures she proceeded to lament to me about the state of Christian belief in this country.

“Why can’t people just believe what the bible teaches?”  For her the Bible spoke clearly to her issue.

I have thought about her statement for a while now.  Like her I believe that Bible is clear about some things.  For me loving God and loving neighbors are at the top of the list, but once we get past these two subjects clarity quickly fades.

Think about all the things that divided Christians:

There are many believers who defend a literal six day creation. However, Christians were among the first to suggest that we need to understand the Genesis stories symbolically.

Christians are among the strongest supporters of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan and Christians are among the strongest opponents of these conflicts.

Think about the current debates over gay marriage and women’s right to choose. It is Christians who are the strongest supporters and opponents.

Then there is the healthcare debate.  You can find committed followers of Christ across the “what should we do” spectrum.

Taking Jesus and Scripture seriously does not always provide clear-cut answers.  It takes a tremendous amount of courage to accept people of faith who fundamentally disagree with you and your understanding of the truth.  That said, authentic Christianity always allows for the possibility that my particular understanding of the issue might be wrong.

The DOOR-Cloud

Apple has the I-Cloud, but my place of employment has an even more impressive cloud! This past week the DOOR summer kicked off.  The 10-12 weeks following the Memorial Day holiday, DOOR hosts approximately 2,500 Discover participants in 6 cities.

After almost 18 years it is tempting to fall into a “look what I have accomplished” mentality.  More than 30,000 people have participated; many have made significant faith commitments as a result of a week with us; leaders have been empowered.   Claiming all of this as my own not only leads to arrogance, but is dangerously wrong.

Hebrews 12 talks about a cloud of witnesses.   These are people who have gone before us and walk with us, offering wisdom, correction and encouragement.  Without this cloud of witnesses effective authentic ministry is not possible.  If I am going to brag about anything, it is the “DOOR-Cloud.”  This cloud includes the visionaries who first began thinking about structured service trips in 1985, years before youth mission trips were on anyone’s radar screens.  Then there are the gatherings of 2005 and 2006 when we brought together all our local board members of color and asked them to help DOOR be less racist.  These were not easy meetings.  It is never fun to confront individual and institutional racism, but the courageous work of these men and women helped us to better understand the radical inclusiveness of the gospel.

This cloud also includes former and current staff.  There are the women of DOOR who have fearlessly and compassionately lead even when men have questioned the legitimacy of their call.  We have immigrants who have endured insults and unwelcoming attitudes, yet they have loved and cared for participants in ways that mirror Jesus’ love for us.  We have gay staff members that have been told that they are somehow outside the reach of God’s grace yet in spite of this they have loved and cared for the very people who are condemning them.  We have staff of color who have endured both subtle and blatant racism and still they have not let this ignorance and mean-spiritedness stop them from reaching across racial barriers and seeking places of understanding and friendship.

For 18 years I have been surrounded by the DOOR-Cloud.  If you count yourself as part of this group, thank you!

Un-Documentable

In the last three weeks I have been drawn into at least five separate conversations regarding immigration.  The general tone of these encounters has been critical of current USA policy.  At the more benign level people argue that Christianity and hospitality are connected.  This call to hospitality demands that Christians advocate for an open immigration policy.  On the more radical end there are those who say that the USA made its wealth by taking much of the American Southwest from Mexico and continues to reap benefits from unfair trade practices and sweat shops.  For these folks immigration isn’t so much about hospitality but rather it is about reparations.  People are coming here because they want their “stuff” back. As you can well imagine, these discussions are filled with a whole lot of emotion.

The exchange that I keep coming back to occurred this week.  It was with my friend Anton Flores.  He runs a small not-for-profit in La Grange Georgia called Alterna.  Alterna is a group of people that offers community, fellowship and hospitality to the “un-documentable.”  It is important to note that “un-documentable” does not equal criminal or terrorist.  These are people who have come because providing for their family in their home country has become all but impossible.  More often than not the conditions that have driven them to the USA are tied to foreign policies and actions of the past and present.

I empathize with those who wish for stricter immigration laws and regulations.  The desire to feel safe and secure is powerful.  What I do not understand is why the church so often supports these laws uncritically.   Hospitality and making things right are cornerstones of the Christian faith.  As believers our first loyalty is to each other and humanity.  When this loyalty comes into conflict with the laws of the land, our faith commitment must always come first.

Safety

In the next 16 weeks we will host close to 2500 youth and young adults in our Discover program.  There are many reasons why this is the time of year when I start losing sleep.  Last year we had a group of youth that came to our DOOR-Chicago program.  They arrived Sunday afternoon and by Sunday evening the adult leaders had determined that the neighborhood was too dangerous.  From what I could discern by talking to our staff and their sponsors their danger determination was based on the fact that the neighborhood was different.  It is a majority African American neighborhood and they let their stereotypes turn into real fear, and they left. This summer will mark my 18th year of inviting groups of people into the city.  Safety is a big concern for me.  We don’t intentionally put people at risk, but we do challenge stereotypes and this can masquerade as risk.

Have you ever prayed the safety prayer?  It is the prayer we pray before road trips and mission trips.  It goes something like this.  “God please guide us, protect us, and keep us safe.”  Have you ever wondered why we pray this prayer?  The Lord’s Prayer does not have a safety clause.  Jesus did talk to God about not going to the cross, but I am not sure that counts as a safety prayer.  In John 17 Jesus does pray for protection but he was praying for our souls, that they would be protected from the evil one.

When Jesus did talk about becoming a follower, ideas like self-denial, self-sacrifice, and picking up one’s cross were always present.  The safety prayer was not Jesus’ go-to prayer.  If anything Jesus emphasized the need to count the cost before choosing to follow.

I sometimes wonder that in our efforts to make Christianity palatable we ignore the difficult stuff.  Jesus never called us to safety.  If anything security is connected to confronting our fears, ignoring the impulse to judge, and embracing what culture says is dangerous.

Attitude

I have two teenaged boys.  Every once in a while they develop what can best be described as an “attitude.”  Please do not read this as a positive thing!  Their negative attitudes can be quite diverse.   One moment I am a lousy incredibly unfair parent and the next they see no reason to participate in family activities.  They argue about the importance of homework, getting enough sleep, going to church, and the friends they hang out with.  During every one of these discussions they spend a significant amount of time ranting about how uninformed and out of touch I am.  None of this is good for my self-esteem. I cannot help but wonder how often I cop an attitude with God.  For example, I am the Executive Director of DOOR.  In my mind this means I need to be powerful.  For me, power has something to do with an ability to control.  Then I read Scripture and Jesus seems to contradict this idea.  For Him power is about service and self-sacrifice.  On paper this sounds almost idyllic, but in reality service and sacrifice can be view as indicators of weakness.

Can you imagine living life as a servant?  Servants are people who need to figure out how to survive under the power of a master.  What happens if the master is evil?  Aren’t Christians called to defeat evil?  If we are going to win this battle then we need to be people of power.

Donald Kraybill is credited with coining the term “Upside-Down Kingdom.”  This is another way of thinking about what Jesus was called his followers to.  In this kingdom everything we know about leadership and power is reversed.  Enemies are to be viewed as future friends.  Non-violence is always the response to violence, even when terrorists attack.  Service to others, regardless of social position, is always the starting point for relationship.

Living and acting this way is counter-cultural.  Living counter-culturally is not easy; sometimes it leads to copping an attitude with God.

Different

Stanley Houerwas is one of those theologians known for provocative statements; I suspect he enjoys making people think.   This is from his book Dispatches from the Front: Theological Engagements with the Secular - “Mentally handicapped folks are segregated, not because they cannot learn, but because they are segregated for being not like us.  Furthermore, we fear those who are not like us.” My initial response was to check out the copyright date of the book, it was published in 1994.  In my mind the societal fear of differences may have been true a generation or two ago, but not in 2012.

Have we made progress?  Do we still separate from one another based on how we are different?  During the last election cycle President Obama regularly said, we are not a collection of red states or blue states we are the United States.  I like the idea that our unity trumps all the things that divide us.  I cannot help but wonder if disunity and differences are what we cling to.

Just listening to politicians talk about each seems to confirm how divided we are.  Politics is not the only place of division.  Sunday morning worship is still one of the most divided hours in the week.  There is Conservative and Liberal options, multi-racial churches are still the exception, family values divide gay from straight, we have hymn churches and contemporary music churches.

This trend extends well beyond church and politics.  Communities divide over school districts, crime rates and ethnicity.  What will it take to get beyond our fear of different?  When I speak to DOOR participants I spend a great deal of time explaining the different is only different.  When we fear different the possibility is created to define different as bad, evil or sinful.

It takes a tremendous amount of courage to tame our fear of different.  When we do this a whole new and exciting world of possibilities open up.

Black-on-Black

I am always amazed how rumor and innuendo and become truth and fact if they are repeated enough.   For example, if the news media or anyone with a powerful voice says something often enough eventually it becomes “true.”  This is the case with “black-on-black” crime.   If one listens long enough to the rhetoric it becomes possible to conclude that “black-on-black” crime is a raging epidemic in the USA.   All this talk about “black-on-black” crime leads at best to irrational fear and stereotyping and at worst it gives license to do harm to any black person who comes with our field of vision – stop them before they harm us. There are other ways to describe what listening to this rhetoric is – brainwashing and indoctrination are two concepts that come to mind.  Why are we so easily persuaded to believe half-truths and lies?  It embarrasses me that supposed Christian pastors think that all Muslims are only interested in destroying America.  Yes Muslims believe differently, but different does not equal evil or bad; it is just different.

Is this the kind of society any of us want to live in - a society that defines different as bad, as evil to be destroyed?  Aren’t there are enough real things to fear, things like: a government that is too easily persuaded to go to war, the environmentally dangerous fracking practices energy companies are engaging in, and lack of access to affordable healthcare.

It takes courage to confront irrational fears.  After all there is a tremendous amount of peer pressure asserted to keep our enemies our enemies.  Can you imagine a world where rhetoric and innuendo are quickly dismissed as silly and unimportant ramblings?  Can you imagine a world where we start by assuming the best of each other?  It almost sounds like the Kingdom of Heaven that Jesus was so fond of talking about.  The kind of world I want to live in.

Ministry 101

I have a friend who likes to talk about his decision to come to Denver’s Westside.  It was 1965; his thought was that he would stick around 3-5 years, because that was the commitment needed to fix poverty, violence, and poor education.  It is 2012 and he is still there. There is a popular idea among church and ministry leaders that goes something like this: “I will stay around just long enough to work myself out of a job.”  On the surface this sounds noble, empowering, and a little romantic.  However, the more I think about this notion the more I dislike it.

Authentic ministry always includes things like presence, community, mutuality, and walking alongside the other.  When leaders stand behind statements like “I am going to work myself out of a job,” it often becomes permission to stand apart from those we have been called to work with.  Standing apart is not terribly Christian.

A number of years ago John Perkins wrote about ministry in and among at-risk communities. For Perkins ministry needed to be done together and it needed to be done right. Perkins proposed three “R’s” for ministry – reconciliation, redistribution and relocation.  Anyone who has taken these ideas seriously knows that it isn’t about working yourself out of a job. It is about becoming a part of a community.  When you join a community their issues become your issues.  People cease to be ministry projects that require fixing or guidance and instead become family and friends who need a hand to hold.  When we become family, walking away becomes unimaginable.