5 Ways Progressive Mainline Churches Can Welcome Disenfranchised Evangelicals

I’ve never considered denominationalism a bad thing. I like to think of the various Christians traditions as different facets of a diamond refracting the same light, or as workers tending to a shared garden but with unique tasks, or as a single body made of many interconnected parts (see 1 Corinthians 12). No single group owns the copyright to Truth, and we need one another. 

There is much to love about evangelicalism, but lately I’ve been receiving a lot of messages from disenfranchised evangelicals who, after a break from church, are looking to return. Many hope to find a place in a more progressive tradition, but feel a bit disoriented their first time in an Episcopal Church or at a PCUSA coffee hour.  In addition, when I travel, I meet many progressive ministers who are eager to welcome new people to their churches. So with all that in mind, here are some ideas for helping those evangelical visitors feel more at home: 

1. Update your Web site. 

Disenfranchised evangelicals aren’t looking for a highly-produced show. They aren't looking to be impressed by the latest and greatest technology. (They’ve had enough of all that, trust me.) They are, however, looking for your address. And maybe a belief statement of some sort.  

Millennials in particular tend to start their search for anything—be it a church or an apartment or even a date— on the Internet, so if your site is difficult to navigate and embarrassingly out-of-date, they may not bother to come for a visit. I also appreciate it when a church’s Web site includes information about beliefs, ministries, worship, ministerial staff, educational programs, etc.  And if your church is located in a more conservative area (say, East Tennessee), you might even want to make special note of the fact that you welcome LGBT people and affirm women in ministry. 

Just keep in mind that often our first "visit" to your church is via the Web site. So it might be worth putting some extra time and resources into it. 


2.  Take risks on unconventional church plants. 

In my next book, I feature several unusual church plants that are thriving in their communities, and many are associated with mainline Protestant denominations that were willing to take a risk on unconventional models. One such church is St. Lydia’s in Brooklyn—a small “dinner church” centered around the Eucharist as both a sacred ritual and a meal. St. Lydia's is associated with the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America. 

Another church that comes to mind is Missiongathering in San Diego, which is associated with the progressive denomination The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but which has a very evangelical “feel” to its worship because it attracts a lot of folks who come from evangelical traditions and enjoy evangelical worship but are looking for a church that welcomes LGBT people. I think too of Nadia Bolz-Weber’s House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, also associated with the ELCA.  

I’m no expert on church planting, but what these churches seem to have in common is a pastor with a vision for ministering in a unique way to a specific group of people in a specific neighborhood, partnering with a denomination that can help with resources and accountability. These days, it’s less about getting people to come to you and more about going out, serving the people, and then letting them build the church together. 
 

3.  Infuse the traditional liturgy and sacraments with some creativity. 

A lot of disenfranchised evangelicals like me are drawn to the beautiful and ancient liturgy of more traditional churches. For us, it’s a refreshing alternative to the highly-produced contemporary worship services we’ve grown used to (conversely, folks who grew up with more traditional worship may love the contemporary worship of an evangelical church). So you don’t have to replace your smells and bells with electric guitars to welcome evangelicals. But it’s nice to see a little creativity infused into the liturgy.  

House for All Sinners and Saints seems to do this beautifully. On their Web site, they explain:

“We follow the ancient liturgy of the church (chanting the Kyrie, readings from scripture, chanting the Psalm, sermon, prayers of the people, Eucharist, benediction, etc.) We also sing the old hymns of the church. So there's lots of ancient tradition at HFASS, but there's also some innovation. We always include poetry and a time called ‘Open Space’ in which we slow down for prayer and other opportunities to actively engage the Gospel; writing in the community's Book of Thanks, writing prayers, making art or assembling bleach kits for the needle exchange in Denver. We like to say that we are ‘anti-excellence/pro-participation’, meaning that the liturgy is led by the people who show up…”

St. Gregory of Nyssa Episcopal Church in San Francisco also takes a creative approach to their traditional liturgy. Check out the worship section of their Web site. 

You don’t have to make any radical changes all at once, or go as far as HFASS and Gregory of Nyssa, but doing things differently now and then actually enriches the inherent beauty of the liturgy and reminds both longtime members and newbies why it's so central and so important to the life of your church.  

 
4.   Don’t assume we know why you believe what you believe, or why you do what you do. 

The other day I had a conversation with a young woman who grew up Methodist. She explained to me that when she went to college and began attending a conservative complementarian church with her friends, she felt ill-prepared to explain why she supported women in ministry. “They had all the Bible verses,” she said. “And I had no idea how to respond to them. I guess growing up Methodist I’d always taken women pastors for granted.” She grew up knowing her church affirmed women in ministry, but she never learned why her church affirmed women in ministry.

I also hear from a lot of evangelicals who have begun attending Mainline Protestant churches precisely because they welcome LGBT people, accept science, avoid aligning with a single political party, practice traditional worship, preach from the lectionary, affirm women in ministry, etc. but these new attendees never hear the leadership of the church explain why this is the case.  This need not happen from the pulpit, but perhaps a Sunday school class or Bible study addressing these issues would be helpful, not only for those new to the church but also for those who grew up in the tradition and need a refresher. 

Also, don't assume people know all the nuances of your particular tradition. I can't tell you how often I've spoken at a Baptist church (American or Cooperative) and had readers come up to me and say, "I can't believe they let you speak in a Baptist church!" because they assumed all Baptist churches are like Southern Baptist churches. 

The Episcopal church we’ve been (somewhat sporadically) attending held “Anglicanism 101” classes recently that served as both an introduction to Anglican theology and practice and as confirmation classes. We were unable to attend due to travel, but two of our friends (former evangelicals) did, and they were confirmed this spring. They said many in the class were longtime Episcopalians there for a refresher, and many disenfranchised evangelicals just learning the ropes. 

(Note: If you're an evangelical finding your way to a church in the Anglican tradition, you will love Evangelicals on the Canterbury Trail by Robert Webber.) 


5.  Create safe places to talk and build relationships. 

We former evangelicals LOVE to talk about our faith and are sometimes surprised by how little opportunity there is to do so in a Mainline Protestant church environment. I’m not sure why this is, but it seems like Mainline Protestant churches are less likely to have “small groups” where members gather together in one another’s homes to simply share life together. (If I’m making an unfair assumption or generalization, let me know.) Obviously, such groups can be problematic when they divide everyone up by age group and marital status, but I’ve also seen them represent what is most powerful about church as members become deeply invested in one another’s lives. Weekday Bible studies can also serve this purpose, or perhaps even certain Sunday school gatherings. I’m convinced that one thing folks from my generation long for is the chance to talk openly and honestly about our faith, our doubts, our questions, our ideas, our struggles, our joys, etc. in the context of a faith community.

 

What else? How can progressive Mainline Protestant churches welcome disenfranchised evangelicals? 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/progressive-mainline-welcome-evangelicals

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

101 Christian Women Speakers

How NOT to use this list: 

1. Please do not wait to consult this list when you begin planning your next conference! This is not intended to help you find your “token” woman.  This list is intended to introduce just a small portion of the talent, wisdom, expertise, passion, and faith present among women in the church. For better or worse, Christian conferences are a reflection of the Christian culture and so ultimately, the problem isn’t that there aren’t enough women in the typical conference lineup; the problem is that people planning the conferences aren’t reading, listening to, and following women to begin with.  So read these women’s books.  Add their blogs to your reader. Watch the videos in the links provided. Learn about their ministries and organizations. Subscribe to their podcasts. These are scholars, activists, writers, preachers, church leaders, artists, healers, and world changers. They are already speaking; it’s time to start listening. 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/christian-women-speakers

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

It’s a miracle any of us survived youth group…

So as I’m writing my next book—a memoir about church— I started reminiscing about youth group and all the crazy games we used to play, chief among them Chubby Bunny—a game in which several “volunteers” cram as many marshmallows as they can into their mouths and attempt to say “chubby bunny” without throwing up or choking to death. I asked on Twitter if you remember playing such games and this is what happened: 

I received more than 200 responses. You can read through my Twitter feed for more. 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/youth-group-games

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

5 Reasons I’m Glad I Was Raised Evangelical

'RSDigby_1553' photo (c) 2010, Robert S. Digby - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/

I don’t always see eye-to-eye with my evangelical brothers and sisters when it comes to politics, theology and gender, but there are many reasons I’m glad I was raised in the evangelical tradition. For those of us who wrestle at times with the religious traditions with which we were raised, I think it’s important to remember from time to time the gifts those traditions gave us. These are just a few that come to my mind: 

1.  I know and love the Bible. 

Whether I was slaying the competition in a sword drill or racking up crowns and badges in AWANA, I grew up knowing my way around a Bible. The images, stories, and words of Scripture so permeated my life that they gave meaning and direction to my own story and helped me make sense of things. My evangelical upbringing taught me to love Scripture, to consult it, and to believe it. And to this day, nothing sparks my creative energy more than a difficult passage, a stack of commentaries, and a few hours to dig in. The Bible just keeps on giving; it never disappoints. While I certainly wrestle with the Bible more than I once did, it is the love of Scripture my evangelical upbringing instilled in me that keeps me wrestling,  that keeps me from giving up. I am profoundly grateful for this. 


2.  I have fond memories of being a teenager, primarily because of youth group.

Anyone who grew up in youth group will know exactly why I’ve titled the chapter about it in my next book, “Chubby Bunny.” I was fortunate to have had an amazing youth pastor—Brian Ward—who to this day remains one of my most important mentors, champions, and friends. (And who actually kinda hated Chubby Bunny.) High school can be a disorienting, angsty time, but because of youth group I made lifelong friends, I got to travel, I deepened my faith, I had opportunities to teach and lead and use my gifts, I learned to not take myself so seriously, and I learned exactly how many marshmallows I could cram into my mouth without chocking to death. I am glad so much of my identity was forged in the context of church and in the company of people who really loved me. Not everyone’s memories of youth group or of high school are as happy as mine, so I never want to take that (mostly) wonderful experience for granted. 

3.  I've always had a deeply personal faith. 

It’s often said that evangelicalism is characterized by a personal commitment to faith, and this was certainly true of my experience. The activism, the testimonies, the active prayer life, the hours spent reading the Bible—these things emerged from a deeply experiential and powerful relationship with Jesus and the church that until my young adulthood went almost totally unquestioned. (Check out Evolving in Monkey Town for the story of how things started to unravel.) I know not everyone who was raised evangelical felt that same connection to God growing up, so there may be a personality component involved, but I’ve never been afraid to “approach the throne of grace with confidence” because I’ve spent quite a lot of time talking to Jesus already. And I think it was because my faith was so personal, so deeply important to me, that I couldn't just let it go the moment I started having questions and doubts. 

4. Potlucks. 

Evangelicalism introduced me to deviled eggs, macaroni-and-cheese casserole, chili cook-offs, and lemon squares…and to hospitality, and fellowship, and the value of just showing up with a chicken casserole in hand when your neighbor is sick or grieving or lonely. The healing power of a chicken casserole should never be underestimated. 

5. Grace at home. 

I didn’t always experience grace in the church. I saw my fair share of legalism, division, and exclusion there, and, like most people, I’ve been hurt by other Christians. But there was always grace at home. Always. My parents—committed evangelicals—taught me, by example, to be compassionate, empathetic, patient, forgiving, open, inclusive, curious, and kind. They taught me to focus on the most important thing—Jesus—and to hold the rest of my theological and political beliefs with an open hand.  They gave me the space I needed to become my own person with my own faith, and they were never afraid to say, “I don’t know” when that was the truth. No parents are perfect, but mine have been pretty great. And so when I’m at a progressive/liberal Christian conference and people start bashing evangelicals as closed-minded and exclusive, I pipe up and say, “Hey, that’s my mom and dad you’re talking about.” They totally ruined my ability to paint all evangelicals with a broad a brush, and I’m glad. 


Of course, this is not to say these experiences are unique to an evangelical upbringing. Certainly you can find a love for Scripture, personal faith, deviled eggs and Chubby Bunny in other Christian traditions as well. 

So I’d like to open the floor to all—those raised evangelical, those raised Catholic, those raised Presbyterian, those raised Mormon or Jewish or even as secular humanists….

What are you thankful for about the faith with which you were raised? What positive effects did that tradition have on your life? 

Happy Thanksgiving! 

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/5-reasons-glad-evangelical

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.

On being ‘divisive’….

'Splintered' photo (c) 2009, Steve Snodgrass - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/

For writers, tone is a tricky thing to get right.   

It’s also one of the most important things to get right.

And like most writers, sometimes I get tone right and sometimes I get tone wrong. As a Christian, I work especially hard to make my writing as irenic and winsome as possible, while remaining faithful to my authentic voice. Which is hard. Because my authentic voice is kinda snarky. 

But when I began writing about gender equality in evangelicalism, it became apparent to me that no matter how careful my tone, no matter how reasoned my arguments, no matter how gentle my critique, my work would inevitably be characterized as “divisive.” 

“How dare you challenge a man of God?”

“The world can’t see us disagreeing like this; it hurts our witness.”

“We should be talking about more important matters.”

“Let’s just focus on what we agree on and let these minor issues go.”

“Can’t this be settled privately and not publicly?”

"You need to calm down and stop being so emotional."

“Stop being so divisive. Jesus wants us to be unified.”

Just yesterday, when I raised some challenges about an evangelical leadership conference in which just 4 out 112 speakers were women, another writer characterized the situation as a “meltdown…from which no one has seemed to emerge more Christlike” and then issued a call for unity, complete with a prayer.

Similarly, when a group of Christians in the Asian American community recently released a letter detailing some of their concerns about common stereotypes and prejudices within the evangelical community, I saw many on social media critique this action as “divisive” and “harmful to Christian unity.” One person asked why this group had to “air the church’s dirty laundry” before a watching world?

This is a common response to those of us who speak from the margins of evangelical Christianity about issues around gender, race, and sexuality, and it’s an effective one because it appeals to something most of us value deeply: Christian unity.

Like most Christians, when I read the prayer of Jesus from John 17, my heart aches for the day when the Church will be unified, when our love for one another and for the world will be our greatest witness to the truth of the gospel message. And any time another Christian suggests I’m not doing my part to help make this happen, I feel a sharp stab of guilt.

Maybe I shouldn’t say anything.

Maybe I should just let it go.

Maybe I was wrong to bring it up.

At times, these are good instincts to follow and it’s best just to let something go. But far too often, the “stop-being-so-divisive” line is used by those in power to diffuse, or even silence, difficult conversations about why things might need to change. 

In fact, I know from speaking with several survivors that in some extreme cases, this same rationale—“You don’t want to cause division in our church, do you?”—has been used to discourage victims of abuse from reporting their abuse to the authorities.

One of the easiest ways to discredit another Christian is to label their questions,  concerns, or calls for justice as too "divisive."  

Obviously, there are issues of privilege at play here. Because the reality is, some folks benefit from the status quo, and it is in their best interest to characterize every challenge to the status quo as wholly negative and a threat to Christian unity. This makes it difficult for those who perceive inequity within the status quo to challenge it without being labeled as troublemakers out to make Jesus look bad.  

In other words, the advantage goes to the powerful because things rarely change without friction. And if friction is equated with divisiveness, then the powerful can appeal to Christ’s call for unity as a way of silencing critics. This was an effective strategy for white clergy who opposed Civil Rights. 

Meanwhile, those on the margins are typically working with less power, smaller platforms, thinner finances, and fewer numbers and in the face of subtle but pervasive stereotypes, prejudices, and disadvantages that make it nearly impossible to advocate for change without causing friction.

For example, it always makes me laugh when I’m told that women shouldn’t use social media to advocate for gender equality in the church, but should instead do so quietly within their own congregations. These people seem to have forgotten that social media is often the ONLY platform women have for speaking to the church! That’s kinda what we’re trying to change! And when it comes to discussing gender issues in particular, things get extra challenging because where outspoken men are often described as “passionate,” “convicted,” and “strong,” outspoken women are often perceived as “shrill,” “emotional,” “whiney,” and “bitchy.”  So women speaking about gender issues in the church have a lot working against them when public questions or critiques are automatically dismissed as divisive and whiney. 

I don’t like being divisive. Believe me. 

But I don’t like being silenced either.

There has to be a way to discuss controversial, difficult topics—even on social media—without resorting to outright hostility on the one hand or sanctimonious silencing on the other.

And I wonder if it begins with acknowledging that friction doesn't mean division.  

We Christians suffer under this rather fanciful notion that no one in the early church ever argued about anything, that the first disciples of Jesus sat around singing hymns and munching on communion bread, nodding along in perfect agreement about how to apply the teachings of Jesus to their lives.

But the epistles would suggest otherwise. The epistles would suggest that when you throw together a group of people from vastly different ethnic, religious, socio-economic, and religious backgrounds there is going to be some serious friction. Within the early church raged debates over everything from the application of the Mosaic law, to whether Christians should eat food offered to idols, to how to handle the influx of widows in the church, to disagreements around circumcision, religious festivals, finances, missions, and theology.

So when Paul urged the Ephesian church to “make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace,” he followed this with an acknowledgement of the Church’s diversity, in which there are “apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers…so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”

This Body is still growing, so there will be growing pains. 

But if we love one another through these growing pains, “then we will no longer be infants…instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ.  From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.”

I suspect Paul combined this call for the Body’s unity with an acknowledgement of the Body’s diversity because he knew that unity isn’t the same as uniformity.

We’re not called to be alike; we’re called to love.

We’re not called to agree; we’re called to love.

We’re not even called to get along all the time; we’re called to love each other as brothers and sisters, as people united in one baptism, one communion, one adoption.

Maybe we need these differences to be animated, to be alive, to mature. Maybe friction isn’t a sign of decay, but of growth.

The world is certainly watching. But this doesn't mean we hide our dirty laundry, slap on mechanical smiles, and gloss over all the injustices and abuses, conflicts and disagreements, diversity and denominationalism present within the Church;  it means we expose them. It means we talk about them boldly and with integrity, with passion and with love. I suspect that talking about our differences is better for our witness than supressing them, and I'm sure that exposing corruption and abuse is better for our witness than hiding them.

And when it comes to injustice, a far more important question to me than "What will the world think if they see us disagreeing?" is "What will the world think if they don't?"

So when we find ourselves in a position of privilege in the Church, this means listening with patience to the concerns of our brothers and sisters from the margins, even when their calls for change strike us, at first, as bitter or unwelcome.  

When we find ourselves speaking from the margins, this means putting in extra effort to ensure that our challenges are issued respectfully and kindly, even when it seems exhausting and unfair to do so. And it means responding to shaming tactings (deliberate or inadvertent) by pressing on and continuing to speak the truth, even when it makes people uncomfortable.  

For all of us, I think it means abandoning the notion that unity requires uniformity and that arguments, even heated ones, mean we don’t love one another.

We are, after all, brothers and sisters. 

Let's fight like them. 

***

[P.S.: I think Jonathan Merritt responded in a helpful way to the situation by taking a few steps back and examining the overall Christian conference culture here.]

comments

http://rachelheldevans.com/blog/on-being-divisive

Comment Policy: Please stay positive with your comments. If your comment is rude, it gets deleted. If it is critical, please make it constructive. If you are constantly negative or a general ass, troll, or hater, you will get banned. The definition of terms is left solely up to us.