A Meetup Story

SnowshoeingMy last post on the third great end, “The maintenance of divine worship” clearly revealed how I am approaching my work as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission. I am deeply committed to keeping one foot squarely in the Church world and another foot in the world of emerging spiritual values and forms of the Pacific Northwest. Thus, over the next two months my Sundays will be equally split between worship in churches and worship in the mountains. I have four preaching gigs scheduled and four snowshoe adventures locked into my calendar. My life is good!

connectingAt the end of my blog, I commented that the task of the church may be to become more aware of the spiritual values and forms of worship that have taken root in the lives of people beyond the church. One astute reader commented that the problem may not be the church’s lack of awareness. The problem may be more one of not knowing how to make the connection. It’s the practical question. The reader wrote, how do we in the church “own (those worship practices) ourselves and join them on their journeys.” The commenter challenged me and us to get practical.

So, here is a practical suggestion from my experience in the pastorate.

Before taking this position over four years ago, I organized and facilitated three different Meetup.com groups. Two of them were groups focused on movies and one group was focused on connecting with the Sacred through outdoor adventures.

Here is the story of one of those groups—Movies and Meaning—that I facilitated in Portland for five years and how it unfolded step by step.

TheaterStage One:         I developed an idea that felt like it could be a bridge between the church community and the people who call themselves “spiritual but not religious.” I came up with this “movies and meaning” idea where we would attend a current movie in the theater and then retreat to a pub or wine bar for discussion. The purpose of the discussion was to share our responses to the film from our particular religious, spiritual, and/or philosophical values.

Stage Two: I signed up for a Meetup.com account, crafted my description and invitation to the group, and hit the “activate” button. Within one week, 75 people had joined.

dining out

Stage Three: Over the next three years the group grew to 175 with an average gathering of 10-15 people each event. The group was generally about 85% “spiritual but not religious” and 15% church members. People described themselves as Buddhist Christian, agnostic, spiritual but not religious, lapsed Catholic, spiritual artists, dance spiritualists, and progressive Christian. It was a group rooted in spiritual values but very diverse and eclectic.

Stage Four: Not every month had a good movie that fit the focus of the group. After a few “dud” movies, people in the group finally asked me, “Brian, on the months when there aren’t good choices can we pick a movie and watch it at the church?” I naturally said, “Yes.” The group moved from being an activity sponsored by the church to an activity occasionally meeting in the church.

Stage Five: It became clear that there was a community forming made up of a small percentage of church members and a much larger percentage of community members. The goal had always been to build bridges between these two communities. It was becoming clear that there were areas of shared interest.

lecture

In the last year before I shifted to another church position we held two adult study series that served as a bridge and connecting point between the two communities. Adult studies averaged 30 people with half from the church and half from the community at large. We had moved from being two communities sharing one building to one community (at least during those adult studies) learning and studying together.

What are the lessons from this:

  • People in the Pacific Northwest do want to engage in meaningful discussions about religion and spirituality and connect to other like-minded people.
  • It is possible to build community between the traditional church-going member and the person who identifies as spiritual but not religious;
  • People aren’t necessarily attracted to church. But they are attracted to relationships of trust and integrity.
  • Building community in this age takes time. Simply opening the doors to the church on Sunday is not enough.

I have had success in bringing people together through the Meetup platform three times over the last 15 years. It doesn’t take a Master of Divinity degree to do this, but it does take a person gifted in building relationships of understanding, trust and respect.

Here is all you need:

  1. Just one person with a hobby, an interest, or an idea to share with others;
  2. A commitment from the church to pay the $14.99/month hosting fee;
  3. A commitment from the church to pray for and be open to people who have a different, but equally life-affirming spiritual orientation.

Click HERE to learn more how to connect your church to the community through Meetup.

Need ideas?

  • Hiking groupOutdoors, Tourist, Hiking, Walking, Explorer
  • Cycling group
  • Knitting group
  • Quilting groupA young woman's hands quilting
  • Fine dining group
  • Philosophy group
  • Lectio Divina group
  • Bible study group
  • Meditation groupmeditation
  • Tai chi group
  • Yoga group
  • Cultural travel group
  • Pilgrimage group
  • Lectionary group
  • Story-telling group
  • Poets and writers group
  • Dance groupdance
  • Women’s Issues group
  • Racial/Ethnic Support group
  • Caregiver’s Support group
  • Grief and Loss groupwriters group
  • Singles group
  • LGBTQIA group
  • Board Games group
  • Gluten-free cooking group
  • Musical Jams group
  • A cappella group
  • Divorce Support group

Quite honestly, it is not that difficult to build spiritual community in this age. People are hungry for connection and depth. We just have to get out of our church comfort zone and learn how to MEETUP with people on their turf and their terms.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Weird Church

I just finished a book titled “Weird Church: Welcome to the Twenty-First Century” written by co-authors Beth Ann Estock and Paul Nixon. The timing of reading it was good. I am making my way through the Six Great Ends of the Presbyterian Church. After moving ahead last week, I am now returning to the third great end: the maintenance of divine worship.

weird churchImplicit in the chapters of this book is a message to the church about worship. The book is split into two major sections—the first addresses the “meta shifts” that are occurring in our religious communities that point to the end of Christendom, or said another way, the end of the church as we know it.

The second section highlights sixteen models of what the church might look like in the future. I appreciated the authors’ self-awareness with respect to this. On the one hand, they acknowledged that they and probably no one really knows what the church is going to look like a generation from now. At the same time, they make the point that we aren’t completely without evidence of what is coming. There are hints of what might be next. So they highlighted a number of innovative, experimental start-up Christian communities that point to a possible future.

But what really struck me about those sixteen models with regard to our focus today was how few of them looked anything like what we consider worship today. Of the sixteen, I think only four of them would be recognizable as “traditional Christian worship” highlighting singing, preaching and praying.

snowshoe 1I get this. A few weeks ago a colleague surprised me when we were casually talking about what we did over the weekend. She shared engaging in various family activities and then I shared that I had spent Sunday up on the mountain snowshoeing. She replied, “Oh, is that where you worshiped this Sunday?” The question caught me by surprise, as if I just been caught doing something wrong. I replied, “Yes, that is exactly where I worshiped,” and I meant it.

Webster’s defines the act of worship as “to adore; to pay divine honors to; to reverence with supreme respect and veneration.” I can honestly say that when I am grinding my way up a mountain through a foot of new snow, with the sun glistening off the pine branches, and the deafening silence of the forest all around me that I am in a deep place of worship. Words such as awe, wonder, beauty and mystery accompany my every step. I actually don’t think about God when I am on the mountain in the same way that a person doesn’t think about their lover when they are in their lover’s embrace.

Staircase Leading Up To Sky At Sunrise - Resurrection And Entrance Of Heaven

A few weeks ago, I was hiking in one of the local forests near my home. As I crested the peak there was a young couple looking at some sort of a guidebook, I thought. I paused for bit thinking they might have needed some directions. It turned out the guidebook was a Bible and I had become an easy target. The man quickly launched into the usual questions about whether I was saved, whether I believed in God and did I want to go to heaven.

I have too much experience at this to settle for giving easy answers. And so I pressed him on what he meant by heaven, his definition of God and what I was being saved from. He kept trying to pin me down to an answer that would satisfy him and then he finally asked, “Do you pray?” I responded, “Yes, I am praying right now. My whole body and soul are in prayer on this mountain.” I wanted to say, “Yes, I was praying until I met you,” but I kept my sarcastic tongue to myself.

snowshoe 3I was serious about my answer. The apostle Paul says that we should learn to “pray without ceasing” (1 Thess. 5;17).  I have discovered that the two places in my daily routine when my prayers are deepest are when I am engaged in my stream-of-consciousness journaling in the  morning and when I am hiking, cycling or snowshoeing in the mountains. The mountains have a way of pitching my mind, heart and soul to divine things. In other words, I go to the mountains to worship.

Woodburn 1In the next two months, I will worship every Sunday. But the truth is that about half of my worship will be in a sanctuary of our own creation—a church building—preaching, praying and singing with my Presbyterian community. The other half will be in a sanctuary of God’s own creation, on a mountain, in the trees, heading up a trail, with my mind, heart and soul enjoying the blissful presence of the Divine.

The third great end is the “maintenance of divine worship.” I think it’s a keeper.

But the challenge of the 21st century church is not how to get people into our buildings to worship our way. Our challenge will be to start recognizing the many ways people engage in worshipful practices.

Despite steep church decline, I don’t think worship is going away. In fact, I think we humans are hard-wired to worship. We do best when we seek out sacred places to experience awe, wonder, beauty, reverence and gratitude.

If my Sunday experiences teach me anything, it is this—worship isn’t a particular place; it’s a way of life, a way of engaging with the world.

See you on Sunday–on the peaks and in the pews!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Meaning of January 6

The Presbytery of the Cascades is moving toward the final adoption of new mission and vision statements that will direct our corporate life for years to come. In the weeks remaining I will continue to use this space to work our way through “The Six Great Ends of the Church” as we think about our core identity and commitments in our modern context.

epiphany

I am going to skip ahead one week since the theme of Epiphany and our country’s January 6 anniversary are colliding on the same day. Rather than address the third great end, “the maintenance of divine worship,” it felt perfectly appropriate to chew on the fourth great end, “the preservation of the truth” as we wrestle with the truth of January 6 and the attack on our nation’s Capitol.

I think the difficulty that we as a nation are having with regard to the January 6 events is rooted in the same difficulty that we have in our churches when it comes to truth. Our great end states that we are committed to the preservation of the truth. In order to preserve something you have to know what it is you are preserving. This great end assumes that the truth is already known. There is a difference between seeking and preserving.

truth 2Twenty years ago, I helped a loosely organized group charter their own religious community. As they discerned the best denominational fit for them, they landed on the Unitarian Universalists. Part of their attraction to this denomination was their Fourth Principle (sort of like our Great Ends): “the free and responsible search for truth and meaning.”

As they considered various denominations, they were uncomfortable with the truth claims of most Christian denominations and liked the humility inherent in the language of “searching for truth.” I think most of them weren’t sure enough about what constituted truth to be in a denomination that wanted to preserve it.

But getting back to January 6 and the attack on our Capitol building. It would seem to me that resolving this issue should be easy. But in order for it to be easy we would have to agree on more than just the facts; we would have to agree on the meaning of those facts, something that we often call truth.

January 6
Objective or subjective headline?

The problem of January 6 is not in what happened, but the meaning we assign to what happened. No one disputes that it happened on January 6. No one disputes that people scaled the walls of the Capitol building, broke through windows and doors and violently forced their way into the House chambers. What is disputed is whether this constitutes insurrection or whether it is just a protest that got out of hand. What is disputed is whether people should only be held accountable for acts of vandalism or the higher crime, acts of sedition.

It is objective fact that people broke into the building. It is a subjective claim to label the acts either of the following—merely vandalism and protest or insurrection and sedition. Which of these is true? Truth is much harder to pin down. We can agree on the facts. Where we differ is on the meaning of those facts, something we often call the truth.

I write this as we prepare to observe Epiphany, when we celebrate the truth of God’s light coming into the world through Jesus Christ.  I write this as we are investigating the January 6 attack on our Capitol building and seeking the truth of those events.

I feel strongly that truth is not something we can prove. It is something we share. Facts are provable. Truth takes trust and a leap of faith.

Truth IS something worth preserving, as our Fourth Great End states. But we would do well to know the difference between objective facts and subjective truth.

Confusing the two gets people killed.

This is a dialogue. Thoughts?

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission

Advent: A Man’s View

Note:  The Great Ends series will resume after Advent and Christmas on January 6.

I am convinced that I have been looking at and preaching the themes of Advent and Christmas through the lens of being a man my entire career. For years, I have worked over the themes of expectation, preparation and waiting. When I was raising children, the Advent calendar reinforced these themes—25 days of waiting finally being rewarded on Christmas morning in an eruption of joy and pent up anticipation.

pregnant womanI wonder how much my experience of being a man has shaped my understanding of Advent and Christmas. As a man, I was able to accompany the mother of my children through the long months of pregnancy, but I also knew that my experience was not her experience. I didn’t experience morning sickness. I didn’t gain weight. I didn’t watch as my body ballooned. I didn’t experience back pain. My body didn’t go through a metamorphosis. I mostly waited, practiced a new level of sensitivity, and prayed, all the while looking pretty much the same as I always had.

Quite honestly. I was also a little jealous. While I enjoy being a man. I also imagined that I would never have the same level of intimacy with the world and with my children that my then wife had. I knew that her experience gave her a different lens on the world and a different relationship with our children (and Creation itself!)

I write this to you because Advent and Christmas feel different this year to me (and to most of us, I assume). And I wonder if that difference is the same difference that men and women experience with regard to birth.

Advent candlesOn the one hand, all of us are waiting for this doggone pandemic to be over. But the longer it has drug on the more I am convinced that this isn’t just a matter of waiting. It is also a matter of allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed in the process. I wonder if our approach needs to be more like the women in our lives who entrust their bodies to the process of pregnancy and birth.

We don’t know how this pandemic is going to change us, but already there are signs our body politic is being radically transformed. In the last couple of months, millions of people have left their jobs. A Barna poll just reported that 51% of mainline Protestant pastors across America have considered leaving the ministry during this time. Medical professionals and teachers are burning out and leaving their professions. People are re-prioritizing their lives after nearly two years of staying closer to home and focusing on family and relationships. We are not going to look the same or be the same after this.

Christmas is when we celebrate the birth of Jesus after a very long, historic wait. But birth is not just a period of waiting as we men often experience it. It is also a period of allowing ourselves to be changed and transformed. It is more than just waiting for God to show up. It is also allowing God to move in us, to grow in us and to reshape us in Her own image.

Birth is both a holy process and a sacred event—just like Advent and Christmas.

Someday this pandemic will be over. But I have a feeling that we won’t look the same when we come out the other side.

Happy Holy Days to you…

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Great Ends: Just Do It!

One of the beauties of inviting a dialogue is that it uncovers realities that I hadn’t even planned on. That was definitely the case this week.

Last week I shared my experience of leading a congregation nearly thirty years ago as an idealistic, ambitious and, also, naïve and unseasoned pastor. I assumed that just because the church said they wanted to grow that it meant they were ready for the work and the changes that would accompany that growth. My mistake was that I was thinking more like an employee than a pastor. An employee carries out their employers wishes. Pastors treat churches more like patients—leading them to health, but not always doing everything the church asks for.

A number of people responded to my blog both in the comment section and privately. The one thing they all had in common was an acknowledgment that churches and groups always have a gap between their ideals and their reality. This was something I completely missed thirty years ago.

tattooed womanBut where my readers parted company with each other was in the ways they felt that they should deal with it. A couple of readers wrote important responses about the deep spiritual and psychological work that it takes for a congregation to come more into alignment with their actual ideals. Another reader who came to the PCUSA from an evangelical tradition acknowledged that he and his wife (who are younger) often felt the targets of an exclusive church culture (by virtue of their dress, hair, talk, music, etc.), but that the inclusive theology was so refreshing as to put up with the exclusive reality. Another reader talked about creating a congregational culture where everyone’s quirkiness is tolerated and appreciated.

I appreciated the short anecdote shared by one reader who told the story of the church who wanted to know what their pastor would do to help them grow. The potential pastor said, “That depends on how much you are willing to risk. You already have everyone who is like you here.” Dang! I wished I had that much wisdom thirty years ago!

Finally, I got one email from a church member who asked me if I had written the blog directly to their church—the implication being that my story mirrored nearly exactly the conflict they were experiencing. I let this person know that I was glad that the timing was good, but I didn’t have them specifically in mind. But I do know this story plays out one way or another in most of our churches. The lucky ones work through the conflict gracefully. But, even the ones who experience conflict are still better off than the ones who never allow the tension and awkwardness of growth to seep into their church community. Those are the churches who slowly die.

Different DrumM. Scott Peck, in his book The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace, speaks of three stages of community.

  1. Pseudo-community: where everyone seems to be getting along, but by virtue of a shallow culture that doesn’t allow much real truth-telling;
  2. Chaos: when some person or event reveals a truth that is in conflict with the reality of the community (even if not in conflict with the values), and;
  3. Authentic community: where everyone seems to be getting along in a culture of vulnerability, honesty and trust.

Scott Peck makes the point that congregations don’t just work through these stages and then settle permanently in Stage 3. He is careful to point out that authentic communities eventually become pseudo-communities again as what was once risky becomes normative. Healthy churches allow this cycle to play out on a continual basis and thus, build muscles to gracefully move through the awkward chaos stage.

Jerry Sternin who wrote The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems has been quoted to say, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than to think your way into a new way of acting.”

With regard to bringing our reality more in line with our theology Nike may have the best advice for us. “JUST DO IT!.”

Yes, there will likely be some conflict and chaos. But if M. Scott Peck is right, a little chaos is just one step away from true community.

To all the churches who are experiencing conflict because you are serious about a theology and a practice of inclusion, I say, “Bless you! You are on the right track.”

Just remember to be nice to each other along the way.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Great Ends: Inclusion

“The shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

That is the second of “The Six Great Ends of the Church.”

I want to get to this through a story because quite honestly I think it gets to the core of the contradictions inherit in how we have lived out this particular great end.

FamilyIn the mid-90’s I accepted a position to a church of 215 members that broadcasted the typical yearning of an aging congregation—“We want a pastor who can reach the families and young people of our community.” I was 33-years old at the time and felt like I was the perfect fit. I believed I had the pastoral sensitivity for the older members of the congregation while fitting the profile of one of those “families with young people” and, therefore, able to understand this underserved and under-represented demographic.

Over the next three years in a number of awkward fits and starts, I was able to lead the congregation to attracting about 90 new people, mostly young families to an evening Sunday worship service and gathering. I think it would be fair to say that the majority of the people had grown up in the church, but had abandoned it shortly after high school. Now, in their late 30’s and 40’s they thought of themselves more as “spiritual seekers.” In many ways, they represented the children of the older members of the church—grew up in the church and carried on the values of the church without the need to be in a church.

oil and waterThe short story is that my attempts were like mixing oil and water. It was an uncomfortable mix for many. When the group grew, it began to shift the perceived identity of the church in the community. It was said by many, “We are beginning to be seen as that church with the weird group on Sunday nights.” In order to avoid a church split the Session and I agreed to my resignation. With my resignation the ninety people also quit. And I left pastoral ministry.

Two years later leaders of this group approached me and asked if I would help them organize as some form of a church. A year later, they organized under the umbrella of the Unitarian Universalist denomination (UUCLC) and I spent three years voluntarily helping them charter the church while setting aside my ordination so as not to compete with the Presbyterian Church that had given birth to them. I grieved for years over the fact that the Presbyterian Church preferred that the group separate themselves than to go through the growing pains of including people very much like their own children.

The second great end of the PCUSA is “the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.”

There is clearly an uncomfortable tension between this great end and that experience. The church wanted families and young people, “but not those families and young people.” Were they not children of God also?

Most Presbyterians would support the idea that theologically we believe that all people are children of God. But it begs the question then, which children of God actually belong in the Presbyterian Church. How far does one stretch the boundaries of inclusion—Buddhists, agnostics, Muslims, skeptics, African-Americans, Baptists, LGBTQIA, spiritual seekers, etc.?

Is there a difference between whom we see as the children of God and those whom we welcome into our church buildings?

Stole Children 2I wear a stole sometimes when I preach called the “Children of the World Stole.” Every color of child is represented on that stole. But I am struck by the irony that we are proud of promoting diversity for children of God on our stoles, t-shirts, bumper stickers, banners, etc. But in the pews? That seems to be another matter.

Why is there is such a big difference between our good theology and our actual practice?

Have at it.

Your turn.

Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Great Ends: The Ashland Response

As I have read and listened to the comments these last three weeks it has become clear that, with regard to The Great Ends of the Church, that two lenses are used to interpret them. In some cases it is an either/or and, for others, it is a bit of a both/and.

threadsResponses seemed to fit within a continuum based on our historical memory and our personal Christian experience. These two threads seemed to show up. Do the Great Ends represent the sins of a colonial and genocidal past? Or do they represent a Christian identity that keeps us rooted in a sacred purpose and community?

I heard the bristling response from those who hear in the language another example of a colonizing tradition. And I heard from those who found in the language a reminder of the riches of belonging to a community with a tradition of having a deeper (even divine) purpose.

One particular church community has found a way to marry both of those experiences—address the sins of a colonizing past and invite the individual members to join as a community in a deeper purpose. It is a deeper purpose rooted in one of the essential components of Reformed worship—corporate confession.

After my first blog on the subject, The Great Ends: Christian Arrogance, I heard immediately from the pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Ashland, the Rev. Dan Fowler. The church had just held a ceremony to dedicate a plaque to acknowledge that their church was located on Native ancestral lands. It is important to listen to the short dedication and prayer. Listen here:

In addition, the Session of the church has committed to making regular reparation payments to the Grand Ronde and Siletz tribes. They are also working to set up a scholarship account at Southern Oregon University for Native American students.

I am going to leave the blog here today and just ask you to listen to the dedication ceremony asking the following simple question for your response:

Is this something the Presbytery of the Cascades should encourage for all of our congregations?

Why or why not?

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Great Ends: Proclamation

Wow! I said, “Let me have it!” and you did.

It’s all good. This is a conversation that we must have in our tradition, by our churches and for our institution. I had a number of comments on the blog as well as a handful of emails responding to this past blog. There are so many issues that could be addressed, but rather than go down every rabbit hole I will move into the first Great End and look for some of the themes that emerged from the comments.

The First Great End: The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

urban churchFirst, let me remind you why I invited you to step into this with me. Many of our churches have struggled with connecting with the broader culture, language and values of the people of their surrounding community. When I realized that my readership represented a cross section of people who are both in the church and beyond it (but still care enough to read my blog) I felt that this was an opportunity to have this conversation and for the people of our churches to listen in (and participate, as interested). The blog format provides a little more safety and anonymity to be honest without jeopardizing actual relationships in a church or community.

One of the things that is exceedingly clear in this dialogue is that we are suffering from the sins of our own past. Many of the comments referred to the damage that we have done in the name of Christian religion and for the sake of “bringing salvation to all humankind.” Whether it says it overtly in our great ends it is a history that most of us know. For many, they can’t hear the first great end, “Proclaiming the gospel for the salvation of humankind” without hearing colonization, imperialism, and an “us vs. them” attitude.

ListeningBut many other commenters saw the clear call to Christian identity. All of the language is rooted in scripture and, as one commenter noted, “It is Biblical.” This gets to the heart of this series. I asked the question, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian.” For many the answer is right here—to share the liberating message of Jesus Christ for the “salvation of” or least, for the good of all humankind.

I felt one commenter was able to hear both the reaction from those who bristled at the language and those who rely on this language for a sense of Christian identity and purpose. He posed (my paraphrase), “Is it possible for us to share our experience in a way that also honors the experience of others?”

I admit that underlying this series is the assumption that we now live in a globally interdependent world. I would also maintain that it is now arrogant to think that we are responsible for the salvation of all humankind. But this one commenter seemed to cut to the heart of this by posing a question that honored our Christian identity and experience without imposing that same experience on others.

diverse world

I wonder if this even deepens our concept of salvation. Might the word salvation (or something close to it) still be appropriate? Rather than thinking that salvation is based on people accepting our “gospel truth,” what if salvation is the natural and organic result of people sharing their experience, listening to the experience of others, and discovering God in the midst of relationship. What if salvation is not some far off reward for believing the right things, but a quality of life found in mutuality, respect, and appreciation for the rich diversity of humanity?

Could it be that this great end is still as foundational as ever, but that it needs some freshening up in language and a new lens that helps us hear it, interpret it and live it out in a globally interdependent world?

Thoughts?

Next week we will start unpacking the second Great End, “The shelter, nurture and spiritual fellowship of the children of God.” Remember we are trying to answer two basic questions, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian,” and “How do we best communicate that to the rest of the world?”

Also, I will be highlighting the recent decisions of First Presbyterian Church, Ashland, as they wrestle with these issues in real and tangible ways.

Keep commenting and emailing me.

We won’t solve everything, but at least we are talking about things that matter.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

The Great Ends: Christian Arrogance

I wonder if the dam is breaking.

I invited you all last week to join me in a dialogue to get to the heart of our Presbyterian identity and the language we use to communicate it to the world. Using “The Great Ends of the Church” to aid in this I expected that last week would just serve as an innocuous introduction. The real meat of this dialogue series would start with my reflections on the first great end—“The proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind.”

I was wrong!

floodingThe response was immediate and swift. From readers who are both inside and outside of the Church, as well as some who admit to being on the very edge of the Church, one theme stood out above all others—the Great Ends of the Church reveal a certain Christian arrogance, an assumption of religious superiority, and an obvious “us vs. them” mentality.

I had assumed that I would, with your help, run through these six great ends incisively looking for the values at their core. Then we would explore more accessible language to the everyday 21st century American. What I didn’t expect was a nearly unanimous gut level reaction that essentially said, “Get rid of the arrogance and maybe these six great ends are salvageable.”

One reader reported that she is absolutely committed to truth-telling in this time, but she is not hopeful that the church will survive its own self-inflicted wounds. Another reader provided an objective analysis as she wondered if where we are at is the result of the church being less an outgrowth of the movement of Jesus and more a reflection of the expansionistic imperialistic Roman empire. Another reader  acknowledged that he felt that not all of these great ends could or should go forward into the future.

It is not difficult to see the source of these reactions. The great ends use language of “proclaiming, maintaining, and preserving.” There is an implied assumption that we have been given a treasure that others don’t have. The language of being “a chosen people” is woven into the DNA of our great ends. With Presbyterians representing about 1 of every 285 people in America it is not difficult to see why a group that thinks they have THE gospel truth for all humanity seems just a wee bit arrogant.

Indiginous PeopleWhat was interesting about this week was this sense that a great convergence was happening. It is what makes me wonder if a cultural and ideological dam is breaking. While this invitation to a blog series revealed a visceral distaste for the Christian arrogance of our great ends we were also honoring Indigenous People’s Day in what we formerly celebrated as Columbus Day. We went from honoring a colonizer to honoring those who suffered at the hands of colonizing.

At the same time, I received a call from an executive in another denomination over concerns that our two denominations might be exposed for abusive practices in the establishment of missionary boarding schools. He said that it was just a matter of time before stories of “well-meaning” Christians are come to light for eradicating whole cultures in favor of a Christian identity.

Right wingAnd, all of this is happening while we are wrestling with our participation in the structural racism of our society. I could not help but notice that a white Christian nationalist could take all six of our great ends and make a case for their particular brand of religiously based terrorism. While I do not think very many Presbyterians would identity as white Christian nationalists, the ideology of white Christian nationalism has its roots in language very much like “The Great Ends of the Church.”

Is a cultural and ideological dam breaking? Has our particular brand of Presbyterianism run its course? Are our great ends salvageable? Is there too much Christian arrogance and us vs. them thinking to carry them into a future of global interdependence? Can a religion based on offering salvation to all people survive in a world not all that concerned about our particular brand of salvation?

Bible 2I have to admit that I write all of this with some fear and trepidation. In the back of my mind I can hear a voice saying, “Brian, as a church executive shouldn’t you be holding up and reinforcing the core values and assumptions of our tradition?” But, I have a louder and even deeper voice that is telling me that if we can’t answer these questions, the church as we know it will disappear into the annals of history. As I write I think of the lyrics to one of our old hymns, “We’ve a story to tell to the nations, that shall turn their hearts to the right…” There it is again.

Readers this past week chimed in together, “Enough with the Christian arrogance!”

What do you think?

Am I being too harsh? Not harsh enough?

This is a dialogue.

Let me have it!

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, Presbytery of the Cascades

Insider Language

NOTE: This post is only for church people and non-church people. Everyone else can ignore!

Dear Readers,

The Presbytery of the Cascades is navigating a Strategic Planning process and developing new mission and vision statements. One of the threads that has shown up is a concern that in a time when we are trying to connect with the broader community we use too much “insider” language. Others have commented that our language isn’t religious enough and could fit any do-gooding non-profit.

two sidesThe fact that comments come from both sides of the spectrum tells me that this is a core issue that we must face. It goes to the very heart of who we are and how we relate to the world. It reflects the need to answer two very basic questions:

  • What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?
  • How do we best communicate that to the rest of the world?

I am going to invite us into a dialogue that could last as little as six weeks to as many months as it takes to come out the other side of this. This is important and, quite honestly, why I accepted this position four years ago. I have a long-standing commitment to the values of the Presbyterian Church, but also to finding ways to communicate those values to a public that often bristles at church insider language.

Book of OrderThe Presbyterian Church (USA) has a Book of Order which represents one-half of our Constitution. I won’t bore with the details, but just know that it provides the philosophical and theological basis for who we are as well as the guidelines and rules for what we do. In the first foundational chapter (F-1.0304—yes, that is how exciting it is!), are named The Great Ends of the Church. They read:

The great ends of the Church are:

  • the proclamation of the gospel for the salvation of humankind;
  • the shelter, nurture, and spiritual fellowship of the children of God;
  • the maintenance of divine worship;
  • the preservation of the truth;
  • the promotion of social righteousness; and
  • the exhibition of the Kingdom of Heaven to the world.

Over the coming weeks (and possibly months) I will provide some fodder for unpacking each of these in response to the two basic questions, “What does it mean to be a Presbyterian Christian?” and “How do we communicate that to the world?”

commentsI want to invite you to comment, respond and add your own thoughts. I will stay with each of the “great ends” for as long as it takes to unpack all the nuances of them—even if this dialogue lasts six months rather than six weeks. I won’t move to the second “great end” until we have squeezed everything we can out of the first “great end.” Seriously, tomes have been written on this stuff so we could be at this for a while if you decide it is worth engaging in. Quite honestly, I hope you do want to engage. The future of the Church depends on this dialogue.

We have a real gift and an opportunity here. The comment section in my blog reflects a pretty even split between people affiliated with a church and people for whom their spirituality has taken them beyond the church. Because I will be dealing with the language that we use to communicate our deepest values (“great ends”) it could be illuminating to hear from both groups of people and to see a rich dialogue develop.

The church needs to hear from the people beyond the church. And, I believe, those “spiritual but not religious” folks who are following my blog wouldn’t be here if they didn’t have some stake in the outcome of this.

Join in.

Be liberal with questions and comments.

Let the dialogue begin.

By Rev. Brian Heron, Presbyter for Vision and Mission, The Presbytery of the Cascades