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Re-post: Wrestling with Christianity’s Issues

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Rev. Shavon Starling-Louis, NEXT Church interim communications specialist, will be sharing particularly timely past NEXT Church blog posts. These posts point to hope and wisdom for these days that you might have completely forgotten about but are faithful reflections. We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.

This article was originally posted on November 18, 2014. The author’s ministry context may have changed since then.

by Yena Hwang

I attended the Brian McLaren conference at George Mason University in October, having enjoyed his book “Why Did Jesus, Moses, the Buddha and Mohammed Cross the Road.” I have heard Brian McLaren’s “talks” at various events in the past, so I knew that the conference would be good and that I would benefit from what he had to share and teach. As expected, Brian McLaren’s presentation helped me to gain a deeper insight and helped me to acquire new vocabularies and ideas to engage in more meaningful interfaith dialogues. The structure of the conference, where participants were invited to listen to Brian’s presentation and then invited to engage in more intimate conversations through table discussions, provided a good framework to help me digest the contents being presented.

What I realized through this conference is that we as Christians need to do a better job of understanding our own issues, before pointing our fingers at others’ religious issues. At the beginning of one of our table discussions, each participant was asked to share a personal story involving our encounter with a religion that was different than our own. This is the story I shared.

My encounter was not with a different religion. I was a freshman in college and had joined a campus Christian fellowship geared towards Korean Americans, called Agape Ministry. It was customary to share our joys and concerns at the weekly gathering, where we sang praise songs, listened to someone’s testimony and shared fellowship. That particular night, I had shared a prayer request for my mother, who just learned that her brother, my uncle, had died in Korea. My mother’s grief was compounded by the fact that she had hoped to visit him and share the Gospel with him, but she had missed that opportunity. I shared that it was comforting to be visited by our pastor and that we had a service at home, since my mother could not attend the funeral being held in Korea. At the end of the night, during the free fellowship time, someone came up to me and said, “I’m sorry about your uncle…but you know that he is going to hell, right?” I don’t remember how I responded, but I do remember how I felt. I felt confused. I felt sad and then angry.

That night, I decided that there was something wrong with our understanding of Agape God, that there had to be more than just orthodox teachings and doctrines heaven and hell and about salvation in general. That was the beginning of my journey into questioning and wrestling with my Christian belief and faith and identity. How do we encourage fellow Christians to engage, struggle, strife, and wrestle with our own Christian issues? Until we come face to face with our own demons, name them and claim them, we will continue to live in a fear-based, “strong and hostile” attitude towards those ideas and beliefs that are foreign to us. Until we work through unpacking our own baggage and sift through what is valuable to keep and what is no longer useful, we will not even be ready to understand that “strong and benevolent” Christian identity is possible.

As someone from our table shared, we need to be the best Christian that we can be–the kind of Christian who puts into action/practice the greatest commandment to love God by loving our neighbors as ourselves, no matter what that neighbor’s religious beliefs are and most certainly, no matter what that neighbor may look or sound like. May it begin with me. May it be so. Amen.


 Yena-HwangYena Hwang is the Associate Pastor of Christian Formation at Fairfax Presbyterian Church. Yena was born in Seoul, Korea and moved to the United States with her parents when she as 11 years old. Yena received her M.Div. from Princeton Theological Seminary and a M.A. in Marriage and Family Therapy from Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. Yena is married to Rick Choi and together, they are parents to two children, Justin and Nathan. 

Confronting the Dominant Gaze of White Culture

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate and Jen James are curating a series featuring videos from National Gatherings and suggestions for how they might serve as resources for ministry. We’re revisiting speakers from this most recent National Gathering in Seattle as well as speakers from previous years. Our hope is that inviting you to engage (or reengage) their work might invite deeper reflection and possibly yield more fruit. What is taking root and bearing fruit in your own life and ministry? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

In his keynote at the 2017 National Gathering in Kansas City, Dr. Soong-Chan Rah discusses the changing landscape of our culture, how that affects our churches, and how the dominant gaze of white culture continues to divide and disconnect us from our neighbors. Dr. Rah’s keynote would be a great resource for a committee, session, or team to watch and discuss, or even for a youth group as a way to dig into the surrounding culture.

What changes in the culture do you see in our world? In our country? In your neighborhood?

Dr. Rah describes two commonly used images of diversity:

  • Great American melting pot
  • Salad bowl

What are the images you have heard? As you reflect, how are they helpful or harmful?

Dr. Rah discusses how the dominant gaze defines everybody else – that culture is defined by the dominant group. Those not in the dominant group are either viewed as a pet or a threat.

Where have you seen people of color viewed as a pet? Where have you seen people of color viewed as a threat?

Can you think of examples where dominant culture saw a pet become a threat? How did the dominant culture react? How did you react?

Dr. Rah says that white dominant culture isolating itself has created a loss of connection and that the church needs to step in. He leaves the audience with two challenges to consider:

1. What is the world you have surrounded yourself with?

The last 10 books that you’ve read – who are the authors?
The last 5 people you’ve had in your home – what race and culture were they?
The furniture in your home, how would you describe it in terms of culture and ethnicity?
What are the books on your coffee table?
Who are the main stars in the top 5 tv shows that you watch?
What other questions might you ask to examine yourself?

2. Who are those who have shaped you? What race and ethnicity are the mentors in your life?

What step might you take to intersect with cultures different from your own? How will you hold each other accountable to take this step?

2017 National Gathering Reflection: Tim Hart-Andersen

Rev. Tim Hart-Andersen, senior pastor of Westminster Presbyterian Church in Minneapolis, MN, gives a reflection on interfaith dialogue during Tuesday morning worship at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Tim has also made his manuscript available as a resource:

We are grateful to Tim for providing his thoughts; to Meghan Gage-Finn for coordinating the video and text components of the reflection; and to Eric Adams for editing providing the video to be used during this reflection.

Toward the Purple Church

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Sarah Dianne Jones is curating a series written by our workshop leaders at the 2017 National Gathering. What excites them about the Gathering? What are they looking forward to sharing and discussing during their workshop? We invite you to join the conversation on Facebook and Twitter!

by Dan Lewis

“It wasn’t always this way,” she said.  

I’d called to check in on her, a longtime member of our church. I wanted to see how she was doing after the presidential election. She was ok, she said, “Trusting in God.” But had I noticed, she asked, the deep sense of uncertainty around the church? Had I felt, as she had, a real reluctance to engage in conversation about these things? I had. “It wasn’t always this way,” she went on. “Not so long ago, we’d pull into that same parking lot, one car with blue bumper stickers and another with red, and it wouldn’t be a problem at all. We’d joke with each other, even around election time, poking fun. And then we’d head off to Bible study or worship together, laughing. Now we just stay quiet most of the time. And angry.”

What changed? Surely we’ve always had disagreements in the church as in the nation, different viewpoints and preferences concerning politics, theology, and such. But why is it that these differences now seem profoundly debilitating? Why are we so unable, or unwilling, to be around those with whom we disagree?

The answers to these questions are surely complex. Sociologists and historians will point to any number of factors, including increased immigration and globalization, as well as the gradual weakening of public institutions – including the church – that had once served as a kind of American cultural glue.  

But we in the church of Jesus Christ do not think of ourselves as simply another institution, do we? We are a body – a living, breathing “enfleshing” of God’s purposes in Jesus Christ. He is, the scripture says, our peace, breaking down the dividing wall of hostility between us. For us, the problem of division is far more than a mere frustration – it is an existential threat. We cannot not seek unity in the church of Jesus Christ and still be the one body of our Lord. Our witness demands that we push back against the division, and actively work for new unity.

Yet it must be said that there are no easy solutions. Inasmuch as the apparent unity of yesteryear was just that – apparent – it is no model for the church of today. The unity we seek cannot be achieved through the silencing of dissent and the marginalizing of minority voices – both of which were a part of the church of the 1950’s. We seek a deeper and more organic unity now, something founded on surer stuff than the sameness of days gone by.

This March, my friend Pen Peery and I will be leading a workshop at the NEXT Church National Gathering called “Toward the Purple Church.” We are both ministers serving churches striving to find a new middle way through the current divisiveness in politics and theology. We want to talk about ways to move toward the church that is less clearly red or blue in its orientation, but more purple – that is, more representative of the diversity of our great nation and church, more reflective of a coming kingdom that we know must supersede all ideologies and platforms. The key word here is toward, because we must admit we all “see in a glass, dimly” regarding these things. Pen and I simply want to share a bit of what we’ve learned in church-based research projects aimed not only at examining the various causes of our many divisions, but also exploring new unity in Christ. Will you come and join the discussion? See you in Kansas City!

Toward the Purple Church” is being offered on Tuesday during both workshop blocks 2 and 3 at the 2017 National Gathering.


Dan Lewis is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Statesboro, Georgia. His DMin project, “Stories to Bridge the Gap: Postliberal Preaching in a Changing University Town,” uses the theological perspective of Hans Frei, applied to preaching, to speak to a diverse and growing congregation.

Pen Peery is senior pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Charlotte, North Carolina. His DMin project, “Identifying Suspicion as a Way to Move Forward in Hope,” challenges a large and ideologically diverse congregation to find new unity in celebrating, rather than flattening, difference.