Posts tagged with: church

Finding the right pastor or priest for a congregation can be a trying ordeal. It is stressful for the candidates, stressful for committees, stressful for elders and bishops (where applicable).

In some cases, qualified ministers have no church, and churches have no permanent minister. What accounts for the disconnect between what sort of candidates are vying for churches and the sort for which churches are actually looking? In economic terms, why is there seemingly a dissonance between supply (ministers) and demand (congregations)?

In order to get a better look at the problem, I have designed a brief survey (1-2 minutes, just 10 questions), asking the question, “What do you look for in a pastor/priest?”

If you are interested in discovering trends that might give a better picture of the source of the problem, please consider taking this survey and passing it on to friends and fellow church members.

I’ll keep the survey open for a month and post the results after that, as well as further follow up surveys if necessary.

You can access the survey here. Thank you!

1381251187-miller_storylineWhen it comes to theology of work, the church has enjoyed a healthy season of self-critique and introspection. Sermons, books, and seminars abound. Dead theologians and forgotten works are routinely remembered and resurrected, challenging a host of our modern assumptions about wealth, exchange, and the nature of work itself.

We have, as one commonly hears it, begun the process of tearing down the “divides” between Sunday-morning spirituality and grindstone temporality.

In line with such a development, bestselling author Donald Miller recently shared his own work experiences, which include plenty of transcendent purpose and edification. For Miller, however, such a worshipful encounter is offered as support for why he needn’t attend “traditional worship service”:

I learn by doing the very thing I don’t learn by hearing! My guess is because teaching is a kinesthetic discipline rather than an auditory discipline. But that’s a side note. Here’s the real question: How do I find intimacy with God if not through a traditional church model?

The answer came to me recently and it was a freeing revelation. I connect with God by working. I literally feel an intimacy with God when I build my company. I know it sounds crazy, but I believe God gave me my mission and my team and I feel closest to him when I’ve got my hand on the plow. It’s thrilling and I couldn’t be more grateful he’s given me an outlet through which I can both serve and connect with him… (more…)

New RadicalsI recently expressed my reservations about David Platt’s approach to “radical Christianity,” noting that, outside of embracing certain Biblical constraints (e.g. tithing), we should be wary of cramming God’s will into our own cookie-cutter molds for how wealth should be carved up and divvied out.

In this month’s cover story in Christianity Today, my good friend Matthew Lee Anderson of Mere Orthodoxy does a nice job of summarizing some additional issues surrounding the broader array of “radical Christianity” books and movements.

Sprouting from a diverse set of personalities ranging from Platt to Shane Claiborne to Kyle Idleman to Francis Chan to Steven Furtick, “the radical message has found an eager market,” Anderson explains, with sermons and books that “have both incited and tapped into a widespread dissatisfaction with many Americans’ comfortable, middle-class way of life and the Christianity that so easily fits within it.”

Anderson appreciates the energy and sincerity of those seeking to subvert “comfortable Christianity,” but offers a helpful critique of the overall urgency of things, beginning with an observation of the movement’s “reliance on intensifiers”—a reality that, for Anderson, demonstrates a distinct blind spot:

These teachers want us to see that following Christ genuinely, truly, really, radically, sacrificially, inconveniently, and uncomfortably will cost us…The reliance on intensifiers demonstrates the emptiness of American Christianity’s language. Previous generations were content singing “trust and obey, for there’s no other way.” Today we have to really trust and truly obey. The inflated rhetoric is a sign of how divorced our churches’ vocabulary is from the simple language of Scripture.

And the intensifiers don’t solve the problem. Replacing belief with commitment still places the burden of our formation on the sheer force of our will. As much as some of these radical pastors would say otherwise, their rhetoric still relies on listeners “making a decision.” There is almost no explicit consideration of how beliefs actually take root, or whether that process is as conscious as we presume.

This gap becomes further evident, Anderson argues, when one observes the narrow range and overly dramatic thrust of the narratives and testimonies held up by the movement:  (more…)

I was one of the estimated 200,000 faithful who arose at the crack of dawn to join the crowds swelling St. Peter’s Square and its surrounding streets. I was also joined by millions more by way of television, radio, and the internet. We had come on this historic day to express deep personal affection and solidarity for Benedict XVI, whose February 27 audience served as his last public appearance and farewell address in Rome.

DSCN0117Benedict reassured us that he will resign his papacy tomorrow “in full consciousness of its gravity and also novelty, but with profound serenity of soul.” He therefore confirmed his full personal freedom to do so, as originally announced on February 11 and in accordance with the Church’s legal canons which protect against forced resignations.

All said, there was not an air of gloom-and-doom in St. Peter’s Square. The unexpected spring-like sunny weather broke weeks of an endless stormy winter (literally and figuratively) in Rome. This glorious day, surely, was seen a positive sign for the Church’s future. The theological virtue of hope was indeed palpable among the vivacious crowd who expressed their gratitude with brightly colored banners of affection (“You will not be alone!”, “We love and thank you Holy Father!”, “We are young and will not fear!”) and culminated in festive joy as a Bavarian folk band broke into song. There was a cheering confidence, as if the Pontiff were on a final “victory lap” in his popemobile. The normally non-emotive German pope went off script during the rhythmic, joyful chant of Italian “Be-ne-det-to!”: “I am truly moved! And I see the Church is alive!”
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There are no more Christian churches in Afghanistan — not a single public house of Christian worship is left standing. In other news, NATO success against the Taliban may have been intentionally exaggerated, although we already knew that progress in that country is… slow. It’s no surprise, of course, that the United States hasn’t been able to establish self government-in-a-box in a country where, according to the State Department, religious liberty has declined measurably even in the last year.

Religious liberty must be at the heart of any free society, because if it is not protected, all other defenses are sure to fall. The abuses of Christians in Afghanistan violate not only their rights of conscience, but also their rights of property and even of free movement — their churches are seized and they are imprisoned. Contracts with Christians are not enforced, converts to Christianity are openly persecuted, and Afghan politicians approve of all of this.

We should not expect that in ten years our diplomats could have effected a constitutional transformation of Afghanistan. Liberty “is the delicate fruit of a mature civilization,” as Lord Acton said, “from the sowing of the seed at Athens, two thousand four hundred and sixty years ago, until the ripened harvest was gathered” in Western Europe. (He delivered that address in 1877, so you’ll want to update the numbers.)

But a backslide is cause for concern. It suggests that there is something wrong with the conception of human freedom that is motivating our efforts.

During my seminary days at Asbury Theological Seminary, Tony Campolo spoke at a chapel service and offered a litany of denunciations of greed and corporate America. However, one thing he said especially caught the attention of a professor of mine. During his talk, Campolo equated material poverty with spiritual righteousness. Later in the day during class, while the rest of the campus was still gushing over Campolo’s visit, the professor rebuked Campolo rather harshly. He said he stood with him until he started declaring the poor were righteous because of their poverty. We were of course reminded eloquently and emotionally that our righteousness was in Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30).

In Campolo’s zeal for building a new kingdom for the poor on earth, perhaps he did not mean to imply that righteousness is found apart from Christ, but he gave a window for a wise professor to impart correction.

Having graduated from a Wesleyan seminary, I was fortunate to hear many stories about the holistic care for the poor that is at the heart of Methodism. Nevertheless, John Wesley always understood first that the spiritual condition must be changed if the social condition was to be improved. Even when Christ heals somebody physically, there is a deep spiritual symbolism with somebody like a paralytic. Paralysis in the gospel represents the crippling power of sin and the inability for man to change not just his physical condition, but his spiritual condition as well. Blindness, leprosy, death, the woman with the issue of blood, deformities, deafness, sickness, and Jesus’ healing of those maladies all carry deep spiritual symbolism about mankind.

Just as I talked about the problem of reducing Christ to political activist in “Jesus as Budget Director?,” there is also a danger in reducing “poverty” to just the material and stripping it of its spiritual components. This is especially true with a glib and partisan quote like “What Would Jesus Cut?”, in a budget-cutting context.

Many Great Society programs point to the unintended consequences of ignoring the spiritual components of poverty for the material. One such example being the crumbling of two parent homes, especially modeled by what has occurred in American inner cities over the past forty plus years. It is always essential to think holistically and spiritually about poverty. The state is unable to do so, and is ultimately not able to address any deeper needs. At the Acton Institute, we understand the main way that poverty is alleviated is through enterprise and access to markets. We also understand that there are important moral foundations for a society and that it is essential that one is a moral agent within the market.

During our discussions last week in the office around some of the issues of “What Would Jesus Cut,?” I also posed the question “What Would Judas Cut?” It was in part for humor, but there is an important lesson there too. It was a question I formulated with the help of my pastor when we were discussing the “What Would Jesus Cut?” campaign. If we strip the Gospel of its spiritual source in addressing these issues and hardly discern the holistic need of the poor, we are making demands for the poor with the wrong intention (John 12:4-8).

In his evangelistic fervor across 18th century England, John Wesley brought the Gospel to the poor and marginalized. The man who encouraged him to take his ministry outside of church walls was the fellow Methodist evangelist George Whitefield. There is a story about Whitefield that is one of my favorites. Whitefield first took the gospel message to the poor working class coal miners of Kingswood, England. They were disliked for their rowdy unclean ways and disdained by society. After preaching from Matthew 5: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” Whitefield recorded the scene in his journal: “Miners, just up from the mines, listened and the tears flowed making white gutters down their coal-black faces.” One miner declared, “I never knew anybody loves us.”

Jesus is the “Bread of Life” and a social gospel without him or one that dilutes his saving power ultimately leads back to the same spiritual maladies symbolized so well in the scripture.

Following up on this week’s musings related to the local church, I’ve posted some thoughts on the idea of “The Church as Social Network” over at Mere Comments.

In this week’s Acton Commentary, “Local Churches Hard Hit as Recession Spreads,” I examine some of the lingering and widening effects of the Great Recession. I focus particularly on an upward trend in foreclosures of church properties across the country. As the WSJ reports, “Just as homeowners borrowed too much or built too big during boom times, many churches did the same and now are struggling as their congregations shrink and collections fall owing to rising unemployment and a weak economy.”

I identify one particular threat in the current situation and a basic remedy. As to threats, local governments that are facing their own budgetary pressures are tempted to use the financial woes facing churches to force them to close in favor of tax-yielding properties. As to solutions, I write, “…this economic downturn and its cascading effects throughout society remind us of the solidarity of our social life. We are all dependent upon others, to a greater or lesser extent, and this is a reality that points our way forward through the various threats and dangers we negotiate today.”

A report was released this week that examines charitable giving patterns, especially among those who give to local houses of worship. On first glance the analysis offered by those who conducted the survey might seem to go against the situation as I’ve depicted it. As Ron Sellars, whose firm conducted the survey, says, “Americans who give to their church or place of worship are more likely to give, period — including to charitable organizations.” He concludes, “Rather than be in competition for the donor dollar, it seems that giving fosters giving.”

What the survey basically finds is that those who give at various levels to local congregations are far more likely to give to other charitable causes, and to do so in a substantial way: “For example, donors who gave less than $100 to a house of worship also donated an average of $208 to other charities. Those who gave between $100 and $499 to a congregation gave an average of $376 to others. Donors of between $500 and $999 to places of worship gave an average of $916 to others.”

But if we place these findings within the broader context of giving trends over time, and the conclusion that the share of charitable dollars going to local congregations is diminishing, the picture is rather different. This broader trend points to the possibility “that fewer people are seeing churches as the primary conduit for meeting the larger (charitable and evangelistic) need.”

Part of this has to do with the mission of the local church as opposed to other parachurch or ministry organizations. They do, in fact, have different purposes. But one place where the mission of the local church and social service ministries meet is in the office of the deacon, and that’s a place where I look for significant renewal and serious thinking to take place in the near future.

Shawn Ritenour, an economist who blogs at Foundations of Economics (titled for his book of the same name, which is reviewed in the most recent issue of the Journal of Markets & Morality), concludes on point:

Churches should fully fund their diaconate and charge them with earnestly ministering to the needs of the poor as they become aware. The diaconte should be pro-active and eager to minister. However, they should be wise in their ministration, so as not to promote the very problems they seek to alleviate. More importantly, the church should preach the Gospel to all, making disciples of all people. This two-pronged approach will minister to both the material poverty of the poor, and, more importantly, the spiritual poverty of those who do not know Him.

Deacons are, as Lester DeKoster and Gerard Berghoef put it in their Deacons Handbook, “seeing eyes, hearing ears, and serving hands of the congregation.”

These material and spiritual aspects of our lives, and consequently of the church’s and Christian’s concern, has sometimes been called the “double vocation.” What we need to recover is this sense of double vocation, the responsibility of stewardship in its fullest sense, and the proper relationship between the material and the spiritual, the penultimate and the ultimate.

As churches face the kinds of budgetary pressures I’ve outlined, I can think of no better solution than to re-examine these fundamental questions, particularly in their implications for the execution of ecclesial duties.

Tom Oden


In the forthcoming Winter 2011 issue of Religion & Liberty, we are featuring an interview with Thomas C. Oden. The interview mainly focuses on the importance and wisdom of the Church Fathers and their deep relevancy for today’s Church and culture. The content below however delves into Marxist liberation theology and the direction of Oden’s own denomination, The United Methodist Church. Some of the below portion will be available only for readers of the PowerBlog.

I’d like to add a short personal note about Tom Oden as well. His work and writings have been an immense blessing in my own life. His research was vital to my own spiritual formation in seminary and beyond. I have many friends and colleagues who would testify to the same. I still read his three-volume systematic theology as a devotion. It was a pleasure to spend time with him during this interview and his pastoral heart is every bit as big as his heart for scholarship.

– — – — – –

Thomas C. Oden is a retired theology professor at The Theological School of Drew University in Madison, N.J. He is the author of numerous theological works, including the three-volume systematic theology The Word of Life, Life in the Spirit, and The Living God. Currently he is director of the Center for Early African Christianity at Eastern University, St. Davids, Pa. He is the general editor of the Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture and the Ancient Christian Doctrine series. He recently spoke with Religion & Liberty’s managing editor Ray Nothstine.

Obviously Marxist theology peaked in the 70s and 80s, to a large degree. Is liberation theology as a Marxist construct on the decline? And if so why?

Marxist praxis has been since the Gulag’s of Stalin, the Great Leap of Mao, and the poor economy and police state of Cuba. By the Berlin Wall it was intellectually caput. But theologians were late in recognizing its vulnerabilities. That is because they were far too indebted to the basic moral assumptions of modern consciousness: hedonic narcissism, absolute relativism, and naturalistic reductionism. The rapid decline of Marxist solutions was not recognized by many of its advocates, especially those in the knowledge class.

There are a number of different kinds of liberation theology, so if you’re asking about feminist liberation theology or black liberation theology, or more in a global sense of the liberation of colonized nations from Colonialism, those are all different questions.

I have a personal history of being slow to give up those illusions, but not as slow as many of my theological colleagues, still stuck in a pseudo-revolutionary dream. I was very deep into the socialist imagination until about forty years ago. I read a lot of Marx for 20 years before unmerited grace changed the direction of my life.

The Marxist vision of history is a deterministic one, an economic determinism that imagines it knows how history is going to turn out. It proved to be a very dangerous imagination. For Christians, the unfolding of universal history is guided by providence, but not so as to deny human choice. For a Marxist, that unfolding is due to an economic determinism which pits class against class. What you are trying to do in Marxism is raise the consciousness of the proletariat, in order that they will rebel against their oppressors. That basic model is easily seen analogously in most forms of liberation theology.

What I had to go through is a disillusionment of my Marxism. How did that happen? It happened by the recognition of the immense injustices created by Marxism. I’m talking about millions of people killed in Cambodia, one fourth of the population— a Marxist vision inspired in expatriate pseudo-intellectual salons in Paris.

When you actually look at the social consequences of Marxism, it is extremely hard to defend them. I found it harder and harder to defend them. The Marxist view of history is on the decline because it’s a historical failure. There are a few little pockets where it still pretends to be the future, as in Venezuela, which is mimicking Cuba. But look at Cuba. Cuba has already decided that communism doesn’t work after how many years now? Sixty sad ones. The Cubans are trying. They’re trying very hard, actually, to get their economy out of the box of a state operated system.

You are a United Methodist and have been a lifelong Methodist scholar. What do you think about the future of the United Methodist Church? I think a lot of conservative evangelicals hear negative things about the denomination as it relates to theological liberalism. But what are some positive aspects?

Many aspects are far from depressing. The liberal Protestants still have the Scriptures, their hymnody largely intact, and their confessional standards, which in my tradition are the 25 Articles of Religion and Wesley’s Standard Sermons. We still have our doctrinal standards. They are a part of our constitution. They cannot easily be tampered with.

There is obviously an awful lot wrong with our present liberal bureaucratic form of governance. Our question is really: What is there to be learned from this? I’m now working on a four volume work on John Wesley. I think the key answer is Wesley himself. Liberal churchmanship is like being a Lutheran and not having read Luther, or being a Reformed Evangelical and not having bothered to read Calvin. We have a lot of Methodists that haven’t even touched the great wisdom of Wesley. Now let’s tie in Wesley with the patristic tradition. Wesley happened to be at Oxford at a time when there was a great patristic revival going on. That means that these early Christian writings were being avidly read in Lincoln College at Oxford in their original languages. Wesley could easily read Clement of Alexandria in Greek, or Cyprian or Augustine in Latin. He brought all this wisdom with him to the evangelical revival of the 18th-century. He published a lay person’s version of the Ante-Nicene writers.

I think that most of the Methodist tradition and the Anglican tradition from which it came, and as well, I believe, the Presbyterian and Lutheran traditions, are all experiencing the same kind of amnesia toward their own roots. In each of those cases, as in the case of Luther and Calvin and Wesley, all of these were far more grounded in the ancient Eastern and Western traditions of orthodoxy than in the contemporary church. So I want to see Methodists read Wesley. I also want to see them read the ancient Christian writers.

The core of the dilemma of liberal Protestant ecclesiology lies in our clergy and the seminaries that spawned them. The laity, on the whole has remained loyal to the faith once delivered to the saints. They come and sing the hymns of the church and they listen, sometimes to bad sermons, sometimes to good sermons. But the laity’s faith hasn’t really changed. It’s the clergy’s faith that has grown weak, and after fifty years of living within the liberal seminary ethos, I charge that largely to the confusions that have occurred in the seminaries. More specifically the responsibility has been flubbed by the trustees of seminaries. The original benefactors of the seminaries would be shocked. Donor accountability is lacking. The bishops have defaulted on their major task of being the guardians of Christian doctrine. The doctrine they agreed to uphold in their ordination vows. They have created a problem that will take a long time to correct.

We do have already within the United Methodist Church, a lot of very active, significant movements giving resistance to the “church of what’s happening now.” I’m thinking of the Confessing Movement within the United Methodist Church that began in 1993 and now has over 600,000 correspondents. It’s not something either the bishops or seminaries can ignore.

The Acton Commentary this week from my friend John Teevan compares church budgets to government budgets, and what “government thinking” might look like if it were reflected in charitable and ecclesiastical budgeting. He writes, “If we think the government is the best source of compassion for the needy and the engine of economic growth, then it makes sense to set taxes at high rates so the government can do all good things for the people.”

On that point, over at Evangelical Perspective Collin Brendemuehl asks some salient questions in comparing government welfare to private charity.

Is the government 50% efficient? 75% efficient? I can’t venture a guess. But apparently neither can the bureaucrats. But even so, is it a stretch to say that the government is more than likely much less efficient than these charities? Not a tough one, really. Though government has the advantage of being in tough with society on a broader scale, it is also much less capable at targeting specific needs in a short amount of time. Anyone remember how fast Feed the Children and others got into New Orleans ahead of government? They were there faster, with just as much material, and actually met needs. (They did not randomly hand out $2,000 debit cards without accounting.)

Now that’s not to say that efficiency is the only valid factor to consider when evaluating charities or government programs. But it is an important factor and has to do with meeting one’s obligations as a steward of other people’s money or property. It’s in this sense that, as Collin writes, “Government is a servant. At least it ought to be.”

On the question of giving to charities and churches, D. G. Hart has raised this question of extra-ecclesiastical giving in a couple of posts over at Old Life. My final commentary of 2010 made the point that “Christian Giving Begins with the Local Church.” But as I said in a follow-up post over at Mere Comments, I don’t think Christian giving ends there. I wonder why Hart has focused so much on The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and Redeemer City to City in particular. It seems his critique would apply equally as well to other organizations like the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals and Ligonier Ministries.