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Nurturing Diversity in Preaching

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Patrick Johnson

About the time I was first discerning a call to ordained ministry, I had the privilege of spending some time with a nearby pastor whom everyone knew as “Pastor Dave.” The church he had served for decades was not the biggest, not the most innovative, and not the most active by a long shot. But it was widely regarded – especially by other pastors – as one of the healthiest churches around. Amid the continual swirl of tips, tricks, and programs for doing church better, Pastor Dave had patiently cultivated a diverse and strong congregation. I asked Pastor Dave one day, “What’s your secret?” He replied quietly, “There’s one question that often keeps me awake, especially on Saturday night. It’s probably the driving question of my ministry: God, what kind of people am I forming?”

Week in and week out, more than anything else, preaching forms a congregation. In small bites of 15, 20, or 30 minutes, added up over the course of seasons and years, preaching cultivates a church by shaping its questions, fostering its conversations, kindling its faith, weaving its guiding metaphors, naming its values and beliefs, setting its tone, and ultimately nurturing its diversity. How can we nurture diversity and make room for difference from the pulpit?

One place to start is simply to recognize the rich diversity that already exists in our congregations, even in congregations that look the same on the surface. You can sense this standing at the door after worship, hearing fifty or a hundred different versions of the same sermon. It’s not that the sermon was muddled, but that it was speaking into a thick context of engaged and multi-layered meaning-making. Each of us listens with a set of beliefs, values, experiences, questions, challenges, hopes, and fears that is our own personal hermeneutic. Sometimes in a sermon, this hermeneutic reminds me to stop at the grocery store on the way home, but more often it’s where the Holy Spirit does her connect-the-dots work in my soul.

In my experience, finding ways to explore my congregation’s rich diversity has made me much more sensitive to how I nurture diversity and create room for others in preaching. Feed-forward and feedback discussions – discussing the text and sermon before and after preaching – have been invaluable. They have helped me understand how a text and sermon actually intersects with the lived experience of the congregation. I have learned where the affirmations are, and where the pushbacks are, where nuances are needed, and most especially where others’ views and experiences are different from mine.

It’s also been very important to me to find ways to celebrate and affirm diversity actually in the pulpit. As a friend says to her congregation often, “God created a riot of diversity. Get used to it!” Imagine if we intentionally and regularly preached on the diversity of creation and the kingdom of God the same way we intentionally focus on stewardship, or mission, or even Advent and Lent? And surely that would include making room for a diverse group of voices in the pulpit. Any congregation, no matter how small or homogenous, needs to hear a variety of preachers. Different races, genders, life experiences, and diverse ways of speaking the gospel breaks open new meaning and makes space for others.

Of course, even as we cultivate the voices of others in the pulpit, we can’t neglect the really important work of finding and claiming our voice. Preaching that tries to be all things to all people or treats the pulpit as a “neutral space” does not, in the end, create a diverse or strong congregation. Ironically, it creates a fragile congregation, where people are afraid to be different from one another and there is little room for the stranger. On the other hand, preachers who can bear witness to God’s word to them, who can confess their core convictions and name their deep questions, and especially who can be honest about their blind-spots – in the long run, those preachers shape congregations of people who can do likewise. To put it simply, by being ourselves we make room for others. Perhaps it’s paradoxical, but well-differentiated people – and preachers — are essential to diverse community.

We’re living in such a sharply polarized time that maybe one of the few things we share in common is a deep concern about our ability to hold together as communities and plural societies. Yeats’ grim diagnosis in “The Second Coming” – “things fall apart, the centre cannot hold” – has become a daily worry for nearly all of us. One of the great promises of the gospel is that in Christ all things do and will hold together – even the most diverse congregations of our wildest imagination! The work of preaching, over seasons and years, is to invite us to live with and into that promise. When we trust that the center will hold, riotous diversity is not a threat – it is the joyful feast of the people of God!


Patrick Johnson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church in Asheville, North Carolina and an active member of the Academy of Homiletics. He is also the author of The Mission of Preaching: Equipping God’s People for Faithful Witness.

Peace, Unity, and Purity Redux: What Theological Diversity Might Look Like Now

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by John Wilkinson

Do you promise to further the peace, unity, and purity of the church?

— W-4.4003 g. Book of Order, Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.)

 

The year 2001 seems like a very long time ago in so many ways. George W. Bush was president. The top five TV shows were Friends, CSI, ER, Everybody Loves Raymond, and Law and Order. The Baltimore Ravens won the Super Bowl and the Arizona Diamondbacks won the World Series. And there were, of course, the horrific events of September 11, with continuing implications and trajectories.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was a different enterprise then as well. Larger, for one thing. More members and more congregations. (That’s an observation, not a commentary!) It’s much too soon for a historical analysis of that moment, but we can certainly remember it as a time of conflict and contention. We sparred in church courts and on the floors of presbyteries and General Assemblies about theological matters and their polity implications. The issues were twofold: 1. our Christology – our thinking about Jesus Christ; and 2. our understanding of human sexuality as it related to our ordination practices. In each issue were embedded biblical arguments, theological arguments, polity arguments, and views of culture and power.

In the midst of a particularly fractious moment, the 213th General Assembly called for the establishment of a theological task force. Its charge:

“The Theological Task Force on Peace, Unity, and Purity of the Church is directed to lead the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) in spiritual discernment of our Christian identity in and for the 21st century, using a process which includes conferring with synods, presbyteries, and congregations seeking the peace, unity, and purity of the church. This discernment shall include but not be limited to issues of Christology, biblical authority and interpretation, ordination standards, and power.

“The task force is to develop a process and an instrument by which congregations and governing bodies throughout our church may reflect on and discern the matters that unite and divide us, praying that the Holy Spirit will promote the purity of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).”

I was privileged to serve on that task force, serving then as one of its younger members, a local church pastor with an interest in church history, and one who had been active in the ordination debate while seeking to build bridges with those who disagreed. Serving on the task force remains a highlight of my ministry, both for the relationships forged and the work we did.

Both our process and our product offered, I hope, something for the church at that point and as it moved forward. People still comment to me very positively about our work. I am grateful for that. We took relationship building seriously. We prayed and worshiped together continually. We engaged in extensive Bible study. We discerned – holy cow did we discern! All of that mattered greatly. (In fact, when people point to our experience, I remind them that any group can do that – pray, worship, study, and, in fact, it’s easier to do in geographic proximity over a period of time than flying to Dallas every so often!)

We produced a report – adopted unanimously – that recommended several ways for congregations and presbyteries to renew their covenantal partnerships. All of those were widely embraced. We also recommended a new authoritative interpretation of the Book of Order. In shorthand that was called “local option,” but it really sought to reaffirm the duties of sessions and presbyteries to apply ordination stands in particular settings. I like to remember that there were members of the theological task force supportive of and opposed to new ordination practices, yet all of us supported that recommendation. It passed as well at the 2006 G.A., but with a divided house following rigorous debate. (Here’s our report.)

It is now sixteen years after our work began and eleven years since we issued our final report. Much has changed. Ordination and now marriage seem to be settled matters. The most recent General Assembly offered very little debate on the issues around which the task force gathered. Many congregations have departed our denominational family with perhaps more in the pipeline. The culture is at a different place as well, though what had felt like a consensus also feels like it is perched on an uneven surface.

Part of our work as task force members was to itinerate across the denomination, visiting presbyteries, synods and congregations, and sharing our report. It was a great privilege and a wonderful learning opportunity. People of all stripes showed up, and regardless of what they felt about the report, and in particular recommendation #5. I could tell how much passion and energy and love they had for their church. That hasn’t changed, even though the forms and faces have.

I remember one visit in a particular, which pivots to the point of this blog entry. It was in a neighboring presbytery from where I live, so I could make the drive and back in one day. After my presentation and an extensive Q and A period, a minister approached me, in his 40’s or so. He expressed appreciation for my presence and for the work of the task force. Then he said this to me: “You know, I am a conservative pastor serving in a conservative congregation in a largely progressive presbytery. I know I will be on the losing side of most votes we take. I can live with that. What I really want to know is whether there is a place for me in this presbytery, and is there a place for my congregation?”

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us?

I told him that I certainly hope so, that our report sought to make space for those who disagree. But I also acknowledged that no report, no Book of Order provision, could guarantee that deeper response. Only the quality of relationships and the spirit with which our polity is engaged in any one context can establish that place, can make that space.

Is there a place for me? Is there a place for us? Those questions abide.

We are in a very different place as a church and as a culture, very different in so many ways. I pray, in our congregations and in our presbyteries, that we can find a place for those who disagree with us on important theological matters. “Agreeing to disagree” is the shorthand way of affirming a core Presbyterian principle, engrossed even in our ordination vows. How we do that in congregations and how we do that in presbyteries, in all of our relationships as Presbyterian followers of Jesus – in 2017 and beyond – will go a very long way to ensuring our health and vitality and position us for renewal and service.

Eleven years ago, the Theological Task Force concluded its report with these words: “To be one is not to say that we will be the same, that we will all agree, that there will be no conflict, but as the church listens to Jesus pray, all its members are reminded that the quality of our life together – our ability to make visible the unique relationship that is ours in Jesus Christ – is compelling testimony to the truth and power of the gospel we proclaim.”

That affirmation makes theological diversity as a manifestation of unity not just a good idea, but a confessional mandate. How we make it visible and real in 2017 is a challenge whose daunting nature is only surpassed by the graceful possibility of the opportunity.


John Wilkinson is pastor of Third Presbyterian Church in Rochester, NY. He has been active on the presbytery and national levels, including on the Strategy Team for NEXT Church, and loves our connectional culture and confessional legacy.

Sitting Side-by-Side

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Jessica Patchett

Nicole’s eyes got big.

“It’s not you, it’s us,” Lisa said.

There had been an audible gasp in the room when I had said that we should ‘segregate’ our two financial asks for the upcoming luncheon.

It was the week after the Charlottesville riots, and we all had trauma hangovers.

“Sorry about that,” I said.

“Don’t worry about us,” Glencie said. “Just be aware when you’re out and about that people might take that the wrong way”.

“Good advice” I said. “So, let’s remove the ‘ask’ for lunch donations from the room and do that online in the Eventbrite RSVP process, so that people don’t have to know who can pay for lunch and who can’t. Then our general ask for financial support can be the only one we make live in the room.”

“How sensitive of you to think of that,” Lisa said. “I like it. I’ll make it happen.”

Nicole, Glencie, and Lisa are black. I’m white. We’re four of six core team members of a network we launched called Clergy Women of Charlotte.

It was Nicole’s brainchild. She is an ordained minister in the Baptist tradition. She’s passionate about encouraging women in ministry to live into their fullest potential. When Nicole pitched me the idea of a local clergywomen’s network, my initial internal reaction wasn’t favorable. Many of the clergywomen groups I’ve been part of haven’t lasted long (or I haven’t lasted long in them).

But quickly, I realized that this one had the potential to be different than anything I’d tried. It would be local and diverse – racially, theologically, politically, generationally, spiritually, and vocationally – in a moment when our community desperately needed leaders to break down the walls between social segments.

At our first Core Team huddle, we had to have a hard conversation about how we would name and define ourselves. There were decisions to be made: would we be explicitly Christian (yes); would one have to be ordained in a tradition in order to find a home in it (we’d hope not); would we stand for something bigger than ourselves (we’d want to be open to the Spirit’s leading).

Out of that discernment process, we articulated our intentions: Our mission is to gather women in the greater Charlotte area to support one another in cultivating health and vitality for sustaining one’s calling in Christian ministry.

At our first public event, about 40 women gathered for breakfast, encouragement, and prayer. We were largely black and white. We were pastors, professors, chaplains, first ladies, bi-vocational laborers, storefront preachers, evangelists, and authors. We were Baptist, Presbyterian, Pentecostal, Lutheran, Episcopalian, and non-denominational. Our speakers that morning included a Baptist overseer with more than 40 years in local church ministry and the director of the American outpost of an international para-church spirituality and justice movement.

And we were all neighbors.

It was a gathering unlike any I had attended in my decade of ministry in Charlotte.

Some people in the room were deeply rooted in traditions that don’t elect or appoint women to the highest leadership positions in their churches. Some hoped this network would help them on their journeys to live fully into the roles available to them in their traditions. Others hoped this gathering would stand behind them in their pursuits to shatter stained glass ceilings. Still others came as members of the LGBTQ+ community, wondering if this network would be broad enough to support them in their vocational endeavors.

When the Core Team met to debrief our first public event, we quickly realized that it would be a real miracle if all these different kinds of women kept coming together around breakfast and lunch tables year after year.

And, in the next moment, we opened our eyes to see that this would be the point of it all: to witness what beauty the Spirit of God would call forth out of our humble efforts to sit side by side, pray for each other, and affirm the dignity of each person’s unique life in Christian service.

Over the past year, we’ve continued to grow and connect with a broader circle of people. We have a web site; we’re filing for non-profit status; we’ve gained the support of seminaries, small businesses, churches, and individual donors. These are enormous blessings that will help us continue and expand our work.

But the most beautiful fruits of this effort are the deep, spiritual gifts of unencumbered friendship. Members of the network host each other for breakfast, work out together, celebrate each other’s personal and vocational milestones, and recommend each other for opportunities to work and serve in ministry.

The Wednesday after the events in Charlottesville, I met Nicole for yoga. Almost at once, we both said, “I didn’t realize how much I needed to see you!” After class, we walked to the store to rehydrate and had a good, honest talk about the week and how we were dealing with it.

And that’s what we hope will happen for many other women as they begin to live together in the diverse community of the Clergy Women of Charlotte: that we and they will continue to push past polite, become intimately acquainted with the deep longings of each others’ souls, and support one another in the ways that God calls us to serve in the world-redeeming ministry of Jesus.


Jessica Patchett serves as Associate Minister for Christian Education at Covenant Presbyterian Church in Charlotte and as a member of the Core Team of the Clergy Women of Charlotte. She loves a good book, a challenging workout, the great outdoors, and cooking for her friends. You can learn more about the Clergy Women of Charlotte at www.clergywomenofcharlotte.com.

Are We Serious?

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Pete Peery

NEXT Church is committed to diversity within our network and church — diversity of theology, race, age, geography, gender identification, stage, role, ability, church size, wealth, political views — all of it. We are committed to creating community amidst that diversity, even when that proves difficult.

That is what Jessica Tate, director of NEXT Church, declared in her blog post to kick off this current series. And I believe it is true. NEXT Church knows deeply the eschatological reality declared by Luke, “people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God.” (Luke 13:29).

Yet NEXT Church strives to reflect this reality within the sea in which it swims, within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And for all our talk about diversity, here is the reality of this communion we love and to which we are committed:

  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is 93% white, 3% African-American, 2.3% Asian, 1.2% Hispanic, .2% Native American.
  • The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) is the fourth most financially successful religious group in the USA. In 2016, 32% of Presbyterian (U.S.A.) households had incomes of $100,000 or more. In the Christian Church, only the Episcopalians are richer (35% of their households are at $100,000 or more). The top richest religious groups in the country are first, Jews, and second, Hindus.
  • In the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), 64% of adults members are college graduates and 26% have post graduates degrees, one of the most educated communions on the planet.

My experience in this communion for seventy years — forty-three of those years serving in ministry of Word and Sacrament — is that as much as we talk of diversity, when one enters a Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation, little diversity is evident.

Congregations certainly are one of the only intergenerational communities we experience today. They are also a place where people of different professions and backgrounds gather. But I wonder how often in our communion do we see a sign of when people of different races or economic status or cultures intermingle. I have seen that it is so. I have rejoiced when entering a congregation where I have found that to be true. But I have only seen that very occasionally.

I wonder how comfortable is it for a person who is of very modest means, of limited higher education, of a different racial/ethnic background than the vast majority of the members of a particular Presbyterian (U.S.A.) congregation to enter into worship and fellowship in our communion? How high stands the emotional threshold to our congregations?

If we are serious about reflecting the eschatological reality of the church, I believe we have to take very seriously the present reality of our communion. We have to take this present reality seriously even as we love, deeply love, the actual people within our congregations right now. Thank God they are there! Yet, even as they are there, how are we nudging the body toward the reality of the church God has in mind?

I’d love to hear a discussion about ways, practical ways, leaders in our communion are facing these two different realities of the church: the eschatological reality and the present reality within the PCUSA.

A couple of teasers I share in conclusion about such ways.

First, hymnody. Instead of primarily singing hymns by WDEM (white, dead, European men) or by 1970’s or 1980’s Christian rock groups (again, mainly white) sung so often in the genre of so called “contemporary services,” how about reflecting in the hymns we sing the eschatological reality of the church? Our new hymnal Glory to God has a vast number of hymns, choruses, and responses from many cultures in this country and around the world.

Second, staff. When the time comes for a search for a senior staff person — pastor, associate pastor, educator, church musician, youth, or children’s ministry director — dare we press to reflect on our church staff a glimpse of the eschatological reality of the church?

If out of faithfulness to the Lord of the church we are serious about striving for diversity, let us be serious about it not just on boards and agencies of the church. Let us be serious about it in the very congregations of which we are a part — for the glory of God.


Pete Peery is the relationship developer for NEXT Church. He formerly served as president of Montreat Conference Center and pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Asheville, NC.

 

Our Commitment to Racial Diversity

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Aram Bae

Recently a colleague asked me about the racial make-up at the church where I work. Simply put, his question was: “How many non-whites are in your congregation?” It was an easy question to answer, for I could count on one hand the folks who came to mind. While my number may be wrong in terms of actual membership, the headcount is accurate for consistent worship attendance. It’s easy to make that kind of headcount out of a sea of white faces. It, in fact, comes naturally to me; I do this wherever I am, be it at a coffee shop, on the bus, at a lecture, in a restaurant—any time and everywhere, instinctively.

Photo from First Pres Charlottesville Facebook page

The PC(USA) denomination isn’t entirely white, but we’re also not balanced in our racial make-up. According to the new PC(USA) Church Trends site, approximately 8.75% of members identified as Asian, 9.3% identified as African American, 7.69% identified as black, 4.6% identified as Hispanic, and 96.25% identified as white in 2016—just to name a few. We do, however, know when and how to showcase our commitment to diversity, especially racial diversity. It’s good for press, and we’ve got Scripture to back-up our efforts. We pat ourselves on the back for being progressive in this way, and we make efforts to keep moving forward holding hands with non-white peers. Our “progress,” however, can be felt as more of a political ploy than a commitment for partnership. Simply ask a person of color the contexts in which s/he has been invited to speak, preach, teach, keynote, or pray for the denomination on the basis of an event that is NOT about race or diversity. Yes, I’m talking about multicultural tokenism. It still exists, and we progressive Presbyterians play a role in perpetuating the diversity game—we play it when we need it; when it makes us look good.

I have mixed feelings about being a racially and ethnically diverse church. On one hand, how beautiful of an image. On the other hand, as a person of color, sometimes all I want is to be among my people and feel like a majority, even if for a few hours of one day out of a long week when I’m surrounded by anything but a sea of Asian faces. I support our denomination’s efforts in wanting to be diverse—theologically, politically, socially, and racially/ethnically. It’s biblical and right and good. But I also shed a cautionary light to those who are doing the asking. Rather than asking folks to fill a diversity need, we may want to consider asking: “What do you need from me/us?” In other words, turn the tables a bit. Give up your seat of power of doing the asking for your need to be filled, and practice some listening instead. In this way, we just might do as Paul encourages his dearest friends in Philippi: “Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand.” (Philippians 2:3, The Message translation). The helping hand, in this case, is to be a listening partner. Perhaps it’s time for our denomination to put the “progressive” aside a bit, and simply listen. Simply put, it’s long overdue.


Aram Bae is associate pastor for youth and mission at First Presbyterian Church in Charlottesville, VA, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team. 

 

Freaky Specific

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by James Cubie

“You see it, don’t you?” You see it every day if you have a smart phone. Most of us have smart phones, for better or worse. Really, the smart phones have us…. and our kids.

We see too much of the world in real time: Something perfectly awful happens, or something that’s just mildly irritating. Immediately the commentariats go to work, and the kingdom of the whatabouts comes to life.  

Businesswoman using mobile phone at back seat of the car

We’re in deep. How deep? Ever find yourself asking yourself this question: “What was that important thing that happened three days ago? I can’t quite remember, but I know whose account – or page – to go to, to remind me what it was and what I should think about it.”

When we go, we hear the question: “Which side will you take?” You better decide, and fast. Decide on the basis of who you are. Or, if you’re not sure, decide on the basis of who you’d like to be with, or be seen with. Decide “this day whom you will serve.” And “like” what was said. Better yet: Comment on what was said. If you don’t, how will anyone know where you stand? How will anyone know who you really are?

“Well, who are you?” Darn it. That’s another question you can’t quite get to the bottom of, because we might just be a ‘performance,’ all the way down. Or, maybe you’re convinced you have gotten to bottom of it, and have discovered richness, beauty, brokenness, and all that Myers-Briggs-ness. You carry a history that’s full of power or powerlessness, privilege or pain. You know your story, inside and out. You’ve read its signs and cursed the darkness that remains.  

But by now, maybe you’re a little tired of knowing yourself so well: Has your knowledge of yourself has become so specific, you’re beginning to feel a little ‘freaky?’ Freaky like: “Am I thinking about myself too much?”

Who is asking you all these questions? Is it – at the end of the day – you, or me? Or all the people and events that make up your life? Or is it Someone else? I don’t know. But Someone might be in there, and that Someone may be trying to move you to a place you don’t want to go. I get it. I’m not sure I really want to go that place, either.  

How can you tell if it really is that Someone?  These are the kind of questions he asks, in order to get us to that uncomfortable place:

“Who do you say that I am?” (Mark 8:29)

“Why do you call me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ and not do what I tell you?” (Luke 6:46)

“Do you want to go away, as well?” (John 6:67)

“Shall I not drink the cup the Father has given me?” (John 18:11)

“Do you love me?” (John 21:17)

Answer these questions in as specific a way as possible, day by day, in your thoughts, words, and deeds, and you will start to look “freaky” to the people you know and love.  

But if you’re like me, you’re kind of ready for that. You are beginning to hope that, despite overwhelming efforts to drive us apart on the basis of who we are, there are followers of Jesus who want to move from decent and in order, to freaky and specific. Decent and in order is good as far as it goes, but it may have gone as far as it can.

This is the hope that grounds me when principalities and powers do their utmost to drive us apart: There are disciples who know that whatever comes next for God’s people, it must look so different that Jesus will say, “That’s it!” and fellowship with us. If that happens, then we may truly fellowship with one another, and God can do great things through us.  

 We’ve tried the old questions, and we’ve been working from old answers that are part of the world that is passing away. I want new questions, the ones that, if I answer them with other disciples, mean I can be part of the new world – the only one that really matters.  There’s only one place – one Person – I go to for those questions.


James F. Cubie is Associate Pastor for Christian Formation at Leesburg Presbyterian Church (Leesburg, Virginia). You can follow him on Twitter: @JamesFCubie. He blogs at: FoundationAndFire.wordpress.com.

 

Beyond Our Comfortable Sameness

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Glen Bell

(D) > fP

Embracing our diversity is greater than the force of our privilege.

Genuine openness blows apart our assumptions.  

As a straight, white, male, upper middle-class Presbyterian, I am privileged beyond measure. I am grateful for the patience of others. So many have taught me about their lives, the world and the power of the gospel, far beyond my predictable domain.

  • On a pilgrimage to Israel and Palestine with two dozen other pastors, I was surprised by a wretched realization. I listened to the female participants. One painful story after another testified of the discrimination and abuse of women in ministry.
  • On staff of an urban ministries center, I was encountered by the bedrock truth of homelessness. Street life demands and challenges and twists. It is expensive, body and soul. The disrespect and sense of invisibility burn deep.
  • Candor leads in unexpected directions. After the General Assembly voted to divest from three American firms engaged with the Israeli military, I welcomed the opportunity to sit with several local Jewish leaders. One was angry, and shared his perspective with clarity, calm and grace. Another completely agreed with the decision.  

What have I learned from these few instances and so many more? There is always more to discover from our diverse neighbors. Every part of the journey promises the opportunity for new learning. Listening from the heart (and offering an open space and safe place) is critically important – and requires continuing recommitment on my part.

This ongoing commitment is a challenge given to each Presbyterian seminary graduate who is seeking a call from a congregation. As leaders in the PCUSA, we learn one of the important values in our denomination is cultural proficiency. Such proficiency involves understanding “the norms and common behaviors of various peoples, including direct experience working in multiple cultural and cross-cultural settings.”

Some of my friends do not enjoy the privilege I often take for granted. Shiraz Hassan, the president of the local mosque in Sarasota, was born in South Africa and came to United States over twenty-five years ago. Today he urges other participants in the mosque to reach out into the community. “We all live here,” he says. “Whatever you get, you need to give back.” When asked about the all-too-common association of Muslims with terrorists, he responds, “The major thing is that every [Muslim] person living in Sarasota is American. Everything else is secondary. We are not the other.”

Perhaps we cannot discover the gospel today unless we live and love across cultures, renouncing the ease with which we call our neighbors “others,” entreating the wind of the Spirit to fill our sails toward new horizons, building relationships with people and communities beyond our comfortable sameness.  

In response to this growing need, almost a decade ago Louisville Seminary created Doors to Dialogue as a central part of its curriculum. Students are introduced to distinctly different faith communities. They – and we – learn through the crucible of diversity, because we all are immersed in communities with a variety of cultures and beliefs.

Such diversity invites us to grow and develop as disciples of Christ. It calls us to express our faith in ways that demonstrate genuine acceptance and care, even through our own uncertainty and questions.

In his book How Your Congregation Learns, Tim Shapiro points out the church “is often in a situation where it is expected to think and behave in ways it has not yet learned with knowledge it does not yet hold.” This learning cannot happen when we assume that all Presbyterians look, act and see the world like us. They do not.

If our churches are to mature, we must engage different perspectives. Shapiro concludes that in addition to creativity, “the central and most important behavior for congregational development is the congregation’s ability to learn from an outside resource.”

Are we open to the outside to shape us and teach us?

Shiraz Hassan is such a resource for me and First Presbyterian Church. Wally Johnson is becoming that kind of resource as well. He is the new pastor at Northminster Presbyterian Church, five miles north of downtown Sarasota. Northminster and Wally are distinct from me and the congregation I serve; he and I think significantly differently on issues important to each of us.

But along with our diversity is one bedrock theological truth that drives us into rich conversation.  We are brothers in Christ. We are Presbyterians together.  

With kindness and conviction, Wally invited me a few weeks ago to preach at his installation service as pastor at Northminster. Through his welcome and hospitality, Wally is graciously teaching me.  

Embracing diversity is a blessing.  

Crossing boundaries transforms us.


Glen Bell is head pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Sarasota, Florida, and serves on the NEXT Church strategy team.

The Lion and the Lamb

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Whitney Fauntleroy

I hope that our knees get battered and our heads ache from being bowed down in prayer, hoping that we might be the people who bring the Kingdom of God closer to earth. I believe the Kingdom of God values diversity. Those images of welcome feasts and animals lying together are significant enough for me to believe that the toil of diversity is worth it – for the sake of the church, the sake of the world, and the sake of the kingdom. This kingdom imagery surrounds us every time we miss the mark, mess up, and don’t get it. All that mess around the message of the kingdom and the message of diversity in the Scriptures says that we have to toil and work toward a world where earth and heaven get closer to mirroring each other.

The work is indeed messy. The work is awkward. The work is painful. I have been deeply angered and hurt by a denomination that writes so beautifully about diversity yet often clings to its privilege. Listening to people speak about the call process, I have heard of married women who were asked if they would be committed to the ministry while men who were married were not. Friends who identify as LGBT* wrestling with whether they should self-disclose when those who identify as heterosexual don’t have to. People of color being asked how they feel working in a white church. So many of these questions surround our comfort. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable as we strive towards a more diverse church.

Many seek out churches because of comfort. We choose styles of worship because they is familiar to us. We choose to join and be a part of communities where we feel comfortable. I am often one of the faces that makes a church appear diverse (at least optically). I struggle to navigate through human nature to be comfortable. I have not spoken up when I heard micro-aggressive statements or prejudices toward minority or marginalized communities. Why? I don’t want my difference to be the only focus. I don’t want it to be dismissed either, nor do I want to be viewed as an exceptional representative of a community. I’ve been labeled “not really black” and an “Oreo.” For years those comments made me feel uncomfortable. Only recently did I start to understand why. Those comments are attempts to normalize one way of being (typically cisgender, white, heterosexual, educated, and male). The church has to push against a narrative that seeks assimilation and calls it diversity. Marginalized voices are standing up against this idea that we have arrived or achieved when we shed our uniqueness for the sake of uniformity. Normalizing and uniformity is comfortable. It is easy; it doesn’t ask for sacrifice, risk, or toil.

We have to stop sliding into patterns that make us comfortable and allow ourselves to be agitated, to be informed, to do our own personal inventories of prejudices. It will be messy, and there will be mistakes, but we have to trudge through it for the sake of the church, the kingdom, and the world.

I imagine that when the lion and lamb lay together, they did not become a hybrid. Perhaps sometimes the lion had to check herself and not roar or become a predator again. Sometimes the lamb had to go against his tendency to be a part of a flock. Each day, they had to be committed to the work of lying together, of getting to know each other without trying to become one another. Likewise, it is hard work to build a table long enough for everyone to be able to sit and access the banquet feast. Diversity is the work of the kingdom. It requires us to toil, to be uncomfortable, and to persist. We have been called to this work in the scripture, and as our world and nation change rapidly, the urgency of diversity seems to have risen to our consciousness. Thank God! The time is now to do the messy work of proclaiming the kingdom message, a message of diversity to a world that always needs to hear it.


Whitney Fauntleroy is associate pastor for youth and young adults at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Alexandria, Virginia. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.

Unity Found at the Lord’s Table

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Douglas Brouwer

I’m no longer sure what got into me, but at the ripe old age of 59, after serving mostly white and mostly suburban congregations over the course of more than 30 years of ministry, I accepted the call to become pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich (Switzerland).

On my first Sunday at my new church, I looked out at one of the most racially and ethnically diverse congregations in the world. On any given Sunday, more than two dozen nationalities are present in worship at my church, every skin tone God ever imagined. There are also more language groups than I have dared to count.

Gladly – at least for me – we have agreed to worship and do all of our church business in English.

I have had four years now to reflect on my experience, and I can report this much: If the church in North America is ever going to become more racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse, it has a great deal of work to do.

Studies show that there are shockingly few multicultural congregations in the U.S. and that most church members are fine with that. In fact, most Christians in the U.S. will say when surveyed that they are “doing enough” to become more diverse. And the more evangelical the church, it seems, the less interest there is in becoming diverse.

Frankly, I sense very little urgency about any of this, even though Jesus’ message seems clear that we are to “make disciples of all nations,” not just the people who look and act (and vote?) like us.

I knew on my first Sunday at the International Protestant Church that I had a story to tell, and my story was published in July with the title How to Become a Multicultural Church (Eerdmans). Among other things, I decided that North American Christians will have to rethink leadership, language learning, attitudes toward worship style, and a great deal more.

Because space is limited here, let me mention two further issues – one discouraging, the other full of hope.

By far the largest obstacle to getting along here in Zürich is our theological diversity. When I served Presbyterian churches in the U.S. there was diversity too, of course, but at least we had a Book of Confessions and a theological tradition to fall back on.

Even though the church I serve today stands in the shadow of the Grossmünster, where the 16th century Reformer Ulrich Zwingli once preached, there is no Reformed tradition to guide us. Our people come from all over the globe, and they bring with them a staggering diversity of theological positions and opinions. And when people are scared, maybe you’ve noticed, they tend to hold on even more tightly to those positions and opinions.

So, every day is a challenge, and to be honest I occasionally despair that we will ever find more common ground than “Jesus is Lord” and “the Bible is God’s Word to us,” though maybe in the end that’s enough.

Growing up where I did, however, I always assumed that the highest and best form of unity would be theological unity. During my first months here I thought we should write a statement of faith, and that would be enough to bring us together.

I now have a different perspective. Our unity, I have discovered, is not in a statement of faith, but it is found at the table, the Lord’s Table. In old age, much to my surprise, I have become much more sacramental. It is at the Table where we look our best, where we find common ground, and where real unity seems to lie.

The sacrament – I think this is the key – is not something we do, but something God’s offers to us. In the meal we respond to an invitation and find ourselves changed in Christ’s presence. I haven’t worked all of this out yet, but my sense is that the table is where all “tribes, nations, and tongues” will finally become one. May God hasten that day.


Douglas J. Brouwer is pastor of the International Protestant Church of Zürich who previously served churches in Illinois, Michigan, and Florida. Doug received his undergraduate training from Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and has graduate degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary in Princeton, New Jersey.

Neuroplasticity: Life in the Church in 2017

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. This month, Jessica Tate is curating a series that will reflect experiences of living in diverse community. Over the course of the month, we’ll notice practices that enable diverse communities to thrive and we’ll reflect on the promise of Christ in whom there is no Jew nor Greek, no male nor female, no slave nor free and what that promise means for our lives today. We invite you to share your own thoughts on Facebook and Twitter

by Anna Pinckney Straight

How do you know things? I don’t have an answer for that, but I’ve always known that my call was to serve churches in the middle. Not in the middle of all of the action, but in the theological and political middle. Churches with members both liberal and conservative, progressive and traditional. 

My first two calls fit this description. In those first ten years of ministry, I made lots of mistakes, but I also began developing patterns and practices for navigating and closing those gaps between people. It sounds incredibly obvious, but the Bible had to be at the center. In preaching and in teaching I stayed as faithful as I could to those texts and waited until the text called me to speak a word that might be considered divisive, and if people were upset we could talk about the text.

It didn’t always work. I was inexperienced. I had lessons to learn that could only be learned over time. I took way too much way too personally. Sometimes, people who were upset would leave. I tried my best to give them permission and a blessing to do what they felt called to do. But… there were also many who stayed, and many who arrived. They were important partners in the ongoing discernment of God’s will for our theologies, prayers, and actions.

I never preached something I didn’t need to hear and I loved the people the best way I knew how.

Then, after spending the last 10 years in a more progressive congregation, I knew it was time for me to return to the middle, to a diverse church. Called to a solo pastorate in West Virginia, I moved. Two months before the 2016 election. 

Be careful what you ask for. 

It’s different, now. The landscape has changed. The politics are different. The lines are sharper. I see it in my own family — we’ve always been different, but we used to be able to talk about it. Now, those conversations are fewer and, in some relationships, non-existent. Some of it is me. I am dug in. Lives are on the line. Love is on the line. The “middle” seems to have evaporated. And, the old ways of crossing the divide in a middle congregation aren’t working anymore. The patterns and practices that used to bring about engagement and depth have evaporated. Dissipated. Disappeared. 

Some of this is because I’m still new in this congregation. I don’t have the trust that will come across the years. They don’t know my heart, yet — how diligently I pray for Jesus to take my agenda and replace it with his own. 

I don’t know their hearts yet either. You can’t replace the time it takes to get to know a people’s stories. And this is West Virginia — a region with its own, very particular ethos (if you like Hilbilly Elegy it’s a good sign that you aren’t from here).

Neuroplasticity is what I am clinging to. Like the brain creating new pathways after a stroke to do what needs to be done. Surely the church can be neuroplastic, too. Surely Jesus can help us to find new ways to enter into the conversations we need to be having, the actions we need to be taking.

Some of this work isn’t radical. I resist talking about politicians – those I like and those I don’t. I splurge on talking about issues. Health care. Strangers. Sharing. Caring.

I’m bolder in preaching. There is less tolerance than ever before for sermons that don’t connect. People are feeling the urgency of these days, so simplistic truisms aren’t going to cut it. (Maybe they never did?) These bold strokes are messier and the aim is not nearly as precise, so I depend on grace more than ever before.

I won’t deny being discouraged. It feels like our congregations have been kicked back to the beginning of the chutes and ladders board. But when I’m at my lowest I see members of the church teach me as they care for one another. The “blue” member delivering cookies to the “red” member.  The “red” member reaching out her hand to the “blue” member grieving a recent loss. Not because they are indifferent or ignorant of their differences, but because they are leaning on the bonds of baptism. And they keep showing up. Relentlessly. Hopefully. They need this place of faith. And that means finding a way forward, a way that is, for me, right now, more obscured than a valley holding the dense fog of the morning.

These people have welcomed me — someone who has “come from away” to a place where almost nothing is as important AS place. They’ve welcomed me with love and care, hope and faith. And I’m loving them as best I know how.  Will it be enough? I don’t know. I’m praying harder than ever for the Holy Spirit to prop me up in all of my leaning places.   


Anna Pinckney Straight is pastor of Old Stone Presbyterian Church in Lewisburg, WV. She also serves on the NEXT Church advisory team.