Workshop Materials: The Church as a Learning Institution

At the 2017 National Gathering, Leslie King facilitated a workshop aimed at practical applications of Linda Mercadante’s book Belief Without Borders. A powerpoint was used during the workshop to frame the discussion. You can see that presentation (in PDF slide form) here:

Workshop description:

Following Linda Mercadante’s Monday night keynote, join us for a facilitated conversation making practical application of Mercadante’s work, Belief Without Borders. Together we will consider the real-life issues of membership, Christian education, and worship as it relates to organized religion’s interaction with folks who declare themselves to be spiritual but not religious. Bring your local ministry challenge and hopes to this discussion!

2017 National Gathering Keynote: Linda Mercadante

Rev. Dr. Linda Mercadante, Professor of Theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio, gives a keynote address about those who identify as spiritual but not religious at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering.

Linda Mercadante is Professor of Theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). You can read about this in her memoir, Bloomfield Avenue: A Jewish-Catholic Jersey Girl’s Spiritual Journey. A former journalist, she has won many awards for her research in such areas as the theology of culture, film and theology, addiction recovery spirituality, conversion narratives, and the SBNR movement. She has published five books, nearly 100 articles, and speaks internationally on a variety of topics.

Dr. Mercadante received her Ph.D. from Princeton and has been serving at The Methodist Theological School for more than 25 years. She is married to Joseph Mas, a native Cuban, an attorney, a leader in the Ohio Hispanic community and a political commentator on the TV show Columbus on the Record (WOSU). They have three children, Sarah, Emily and David.

Are the Spiritual but Not Religious Turning East?

This blog was originally posted on the Huffington Post blog. Linda Mercadante is our Monday evening keynote speaker at the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering.

by Linda Mercadante

Are we all Hindu now? That’s what a Newsweek magazine claimed in 2009 when it observed the burgeoning world of the “nones.” “Nones” are those not affiliated with any part of the American religious heritage. Surveys seem to indicate they prefer not to identify with any religion at all. But the Newsweek article suggested instead that we are not seeing so much a lack of religious affiliation as conversion to some other world of beliefs, in particular Eastern.

Are we seeing a “turn to the East” among those people unaffiliated with any particular organized religion, especially those who self-identify as “spiritual but not religious?” I don’t think so. Of course, the influence of America’s increasing religious diversity is evident in the burgeoning world of alternative spiritualities. And there is, in fact, a particular attraction to certain ideas borrowed from such Eastern religions as Buddhism and Hinduism, such as “monism.”

But after spending the last five years speaking with hundreds of SBNRs, attending their diverse gatherings and learning as much as I could about and from them, I don’t think we are truly seeing a conversion to Eastern religions or religious ideas. Instead, I contend that many SBNRs are creating a particularly American spiritual mix, borrowing, adapting and adjusting from many sources. The key ingredients of this mix, however, are distinctly American. Here are some of them.

First, it is individualistic. Americans have always valued freedom of religion, but until recently were still fairly committed “joiners.” Now, joining with like-minded religious others does not seem to be as compelling for many. While most religions promote some form of community to a greater or lesser degree, this new spirituality does not give this top priority.

Second, it is “detraditioning.” Given that most of our ancestors came here from somewhere else, America has always held tradition a bit more lightly than other places. And much of American Protestantism did stress “the priesthood of all believers.” But this new American spirituality takes that impulse further. Now, the source of spiritual authority” has shifted from “out there” to “in here.” In other words, many feel they must rely primarily on their own spiritual judgment rather than looking to an authoritative figure or tradition as many religions advocate.

Third, it is therapeutic. Many Americans are focused on becoming whole and healthy, not just physically, but emotionally and spiritually. Whereas many religions see greater goals beyond personal well-being, this new American spirituality often promotes this as primary.

And, fourth, this American mixture takes the freedom to pick and choose ideas, adapting them to the American context. There seems little felt obligation to take the whole religious package of any particular tradition. As a case in point, many of my interviewees believe in reincarnation. However, their version is often unlike an Eastern form, which allows that one might regress, rather than inevitably progress, in the next life. My interviewees Americanized this. Our belief in “second chances,” late-bloomers, and the rewards of perseverance, made them insist that endless lives of self-improvement were the trajectory of the afterlife.

There are many implications, both positive and negative, of this new American spirituality. But whether we applaud or lament it, it is impressive to see American resourcefulness at work. In the end, I don’t see a literal “turn to the East,” much less a rush to convert to Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism. In fact, among my hundreds of conversation partners, all SBNRs, I saw very few who actually “converted” to a different religion. Instead, they borrowed, adapted, and adjusted what they found attractive or compelling in the culturally and religiously diverse world increasingly around us. My interviewees often believe that, rather than joining any particular religious group, they must keep their options open on the journey of spiritual growth.

Linda Mercadante and the Spiritual but Not Religious

Linda Mercadante is one of our keynote speakers for the 2017 NEXT Church National Gathering. She is professor of theology at The Methodist Theological School in Ohio. She was once a “spiritual but not religious” person, but through an intensive spiritual journey has become a seminary professor, theologian, and ordained minister in the Presbyterian Church (USA). In 2015, Linda was featured on the TODAY Show. Here’s a sneak peek of what Linda will bring to the National Gathering:

More about Linda:

Linda received her Ph.D. from Princeton and has been serving at The Methodist Theological School for more than 25 years. She is married to Joseph Mas, a native Cuban, an attorney, a leader in the Ohio Hispanic community and a political commentator on the TV show Columbus on the Record (WOSU). They have three children, Sarah, Emily and David.

Register now to hear Linda’s keynote on Monday evening!

Spacious Christianity

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 Jenny Warner and Steven Koski

Most days, our mission statement feels like an impossible task: creating spaces of grace to cultivate hope, healing and purpose. We do that in Oregon, a part of the country that is decidedly post-Christian, non-Christian or uber-Christian, if you know what we mean. Is it possible to own the Christian story in a way that is authentic, not born out of reaction, that allows our arms, minds and souls to be open in love to the world while still embracing Jesus?

We call this way of faith Spacious Christianity.

We stumbled into Spacious Christianity because we longed for a place beyond the labels of progressive and conservative. We longed for a place that welcomes people on every place in their journey, for a place that doesn’t set parameters around who is in or out or what you can ask and what you can’t, for a place where we can unapologetically follow Jesus and most importantly, where we can be in a community that is serious about spiritual transformation. A place where there is room to grow, change and develop. A place where you can throw in your whole heart or sit around the edges while your wounds heal.

We’re in there. We’re planning services and sermons every week. We’re negotiating the needs and desires of a large diversity of parishioners and we’re doing the daily business of keeping a church up and running while trying to hold the big picture. Our church isn’t perfect but it’s real. And it’s connecting and growing. We aren’t pastoring perfectly, but we’re giving it our best. We are sharing our journey hoping it will connect with yours.

We believe we’re not alone. We think there are thousands who want to move into a more spacious place in their faith. We know there are church leaders – paid and unpaid – who long for their faith community to be a home for religious refugees. We are sharing our story and hoping you’ll find your journey reflected and taken.

In our workshop, “Spacious Christianity,” we will explore creating a culture of innovation and grace that makes space for bold experimentation. We will look at the journey a mission statement can take into theological and spiritual understanding. We hope our story will spur discussion about what others’ are discovering in their unique contexts.

Spacious Christianity: Church in the None and Done Zone of the Pacific Northwest” will be offered on Monday of the 2017 National Gathering during workshop block 1.

Jenny Warner is the Pastor for Justice, Spirituality and Community at First Presbyterian Church in Bend, Oregon. She provides organizational structure for a church adapting to new growth in the midst of cultural change and cultivated strategic justice partnerships.

Steven Koski is Lead Pastor at First Presbyterian in Bend, Oregon. In 10 years, the church has embarked on initiatives including opening a café, a partnership in Guatemala, forging ecumenical partnerships for youth and developing a Wellness Center.

Farm Church – Part 2

Each month, we post a series of blogs around a common topic. During September, Leanne Pearce Reed is curating a month of blog posts exploring stewardship of all creation. Join the conversation here, on Facebook, or Twitter!

By Ben Johnston-Krase

In July of last year I had a dream that I had received a call to serve a new church and that I had accepted that call sight unseen. When I arrived on my first day, I discovered that this church was, in fact, a farm. And I woke up.

As dreams go, this one was short on detail but strikingly vivid with its suggestion: a church on a farm… a farm as a church… farm church?

farm churchLying there I began to wonder what a farm church would look like. I imagined a congregation gathering to worship, maybe in a barn or outside in an orchard. And then after worship, I thought, for Sunday school kids could take care of chickens… and harvest eggs… and maybe their families could deliver those eggs to a food pantry on the way home…

Ideas started racing through my mind: farm-to-food-pantry ministries, bluegrass worship music, an actual choir loft… But what really caught my attention was a thought I had about a family that had joined First Presbyterian Church of Racine, where I had been serving for the previous six years. On the Sunday they joined, they shared with me that they had been laughing at themselves earlier that morning—laughing because they were actually joining a Christian church.

Church participation wasn’t on their to-do list that year. It wasn’t even on their radar. But one thing led to another and the Holy Spirit got involved somehow and there they were, finding themselves strangely at home in our congregation, looking for ways to get involved, and, in a move that would have utterly shocked their 6-month-ago selves, asking about joining.

I thought about the mom and dad in that family. They fit the profile of those I often refer to as “spiritually hungry but institutionally suspicious.” Spiritually engaged, mindful, prayerful… Open to conversations about God and religion, and eager to integrate those conversations into life practice. But suspicious of the Church, its traditions, worship forms, and generally, its institutional weight. But there they were, deeply investing themselves in our congregation, and laughing at themselves because of it.

Still just half awake from my dream, I thought of that family and bet that if we had a Farm Church they would have come a lot sooner. This was all at 3:17 in the morning, and by 4:00 I bought the domain name, www.FarmChurch.Org.

Fast forward a year and a month and a few days. The “For Sale” sign is in the yard and I’m sitting on my living room couch surrounded by a forest of stacked moving boxes. Next stop: Farm Church. Sort of. The next stop is actually an urban apartment in Durham, NC where we’ll live while we invest in the community and work to discern a location in the area. I say “we” not just because my family is coming with me (bless them) but because one of my dearest friends in the world, Allen (a bona fide farmer who I called the day after my dream) and his family are coming too (seriously, bless them).

I don’t know where much of anything is in this house because it’s all packed. For a good while I was careful about labeling boxes as I went, but honestly, opening some of these is going to be like Christmas morning because I have no idea what’s inside. (Ooooo! A bottle of chipotle sauce. Honey, you shouldn’t have. Seriously, this is a box of linens. You shouldn’t have.)

The scene in front of me is emblematic of our lives at the moment—clearly changing, upended, in disarray, but purposely moving. And I’m excited about the dream, the chickens, the soil, compost, and crops. But perhaps what excites me most is the challenge to be and become church with people who, for all sorts of reasons, might call themselves spiritually hungry but institutionally suspicious—folks who find themselves in this postmodern, post-denominational, post-Christian age still wondering about God, still eager to wade into deep matters of Spirit, still willing to dream about their lives and the world around them in light of Christ’s call.

Ben Johnston-Krase, co-Planter of Farm Church

Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism

By Ronald P. Byars

The morning newspaper reports that local “Christians” are rallying in opposition because a small, tourist-friendly town in Arkansas wants to pass an ordinance that forbids discrimination against gay people. This is but one more example of how the word “Christian” has, over recent decades, been co-opted by those religious people most likely to espouse traditionalist views with respect to gender equality, same-sex relationships, reproductive issues, and the privileging of their faith in schools and other shared public spaces. Mainstream Protestants—those who identify as heirs of the 16th century Reformations—find that they have become nearly invisible, marginalized in the very culture in which they had enjoyed special status since before the origins of the republic.

Puzzled and even horrified by the narrowed definition of “Christian,” mainstream Protestants recoil from the positions of those who have so successfully displaced them in the public eye. Under the circumstances, it is easy to see the world as one divided between two antithetical parties: the “fundamentalists,” on the one hand (whether Christian, Jewish, or Islamic), and those who are not fundamentalists, on the other. Awkwardly, we mainstream Protestants find ourselves lumped indiscriminately with the non-fundamentalists, allies of those who are skeptical or indifferent to any sort of religious faith—including our own.

When it feels imperative to distinguish ourselves from aggressively defensive forms of religious faith, the temptation is to declare open warfare. Open warfare may sometimes be necessary, but it tends to be ugly; and nuanced arguments don’t play well in the press or in meetings of the school board. There are no winners. The alternative is to keep our heads down in hopes that our allies, the skeptics (many of whom are in our pews), may not notice the things we have in common with our opponents, such as: creation, redemption, consummation; incarnation; Holy Trinity; ultimate justice. Keeping our heads down seems easy enough, and unobtrusive besides. It usually unfolds not as an intentional strategy, but an unconscious one, an almost unnoticeable shift of accent in our preaching and teaching, leaning toward those aspects of the faith that are not likely to alienate those of a skeptical mind.

Many of our own constituents find Christianity attractive insofar as it is understood as a moral project, a civic-minded enterprise, doing good in the community; or, perhaps, as a therapeutic movement to counter stress and enhance self-esteem; or even an engine helping to drive a positive political agenda. Americans are inclined to respond readily to calls to build a Habitat house, provide shelter for the homeless, support a soup kitchen or a food pantry, or join in an effort to lobby public officials. Such projects are natural moves for followers of Jesus Christ, while also appealing to well-meaning people for whom theology seems unwelcome, or obscure, incomprehensible, or irrelevant.

However, the poet Christian Wiman provides a useful warning when he observes that “churches that go months without mentioning the name of Jesus, much less the dying Christ, have no more spiritual purpose or significance than a local union hall.”(1 Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013, p. 138.) Wiman may be indulging in a bit of hyperbole, but his observation is a useful shot across the bow. It is easier than one might imagine to fall into a practice of avoiding or softening the hard claims of Christian faith, most especially those that have to do with the identity and authority of its central figure, Jesus Christ. After all, the Bible is full of wise counsel, exhortations about doing good, and observations about human nature that are not typically controversial. Sensitive to skepticism in the pews and among those we might recruit to fill the empty places, and worried about the church’s decline in numbers and influence, those with responsible positions in the church may not even notice the drift toward a version of Christianity that is individualistic, non-doctrinal, eclectic, non-institutional, and immune from objective critique (since it is entirely personal). To advocate for “spirituality” alongside good works is always safe and culturally acceptable, while not requiring any overt denial of the Church’s “official” theology.

Pastors these days tend to become uncomfortably familiar with a certain measure of desperation (something with which I am personally acquainted). But desperation easily leads to hasty decisions, including even decisions that were never really consciously decided. It has become inescapably obvious that the larger culture, though not necessarily antagonistic, has withdrawn its support for religious faith. Centuries during which we presumed that society’s support would undergird the church’s efforts to reproduce itself and its faith have given way to a quite different moment. The fact that the dominant plausibility structure has shifted in favor of the skeptics has left us badly prepared for a new era. The market is overflowing with “expert” advice about how the church might regain influence and make the numbers go up, and a lot of such counsel involves reshaping the church, its faith, and its worship so as to conform more nearly to the tastes and expectations of those already formed by the dominant culture. In short, the desperate are exhorted to get with the program of acknowledging what “everybody knows” to be true.

What “everybody knows” is that, if we want to know something, we need to approach it from a position of detachment, neutrality, distance. In other words, to presume that some version of the scientific method is the only way people can know anything with confidence. To affirm God, then, must require the same sort of evidence as testing the laws of thermodynamics does. And “everybody knows” that it is the individual’s duty to discover and affirm her/his personal authority, distrusting institutions and organized groups. “No one is going to tell me what to think.” (Although there is no evidence that persons learn to navigate the world entirely on their own, as though having had no experience of formative communities.)

But communities cannot be written off as simply oppressive and restrictive. It seems to me more persuasive to believe that communities are essential to our growth toward any kind of human fullness. Tarzan, raising himself in the jungle, may discover useful technologies for survival, but he will not invent a civilization on his own. Insofar as communities enrich our experience and help us to acquire ways of seeing and hearing that might otherwise escape us, they are not obstacles, but bridges. Everyone needs a mentor, whether formally or informally. One of the church’s roles is to serve as mentor for those who sense that there is something more, and could use help in learning a language and perspective that might illuminate what that might be.

To the Christian, Jesus speaks with an authority that is persuasive while entirely without coercion, and Jesus Christ is, in his person as well as in his words, authoritative. It is that person whose voice is meant to be heard, pondered, articulated and embodied by the community that has been called out to serve as a shelter, guide, and communal mentor.

Rather than engaging in open warfare with authoritarian religion, on the one hand; or, on the other, muting or hiding the deepest affirmations of the gospel, it would seem a better path for those churches that value catholicity in a reforming way to identify ourselves by what we are for rather than what we are against. The best antidote to fundamentalisms is the affirmation of a faith that has its roots planted in classical, ecumenical Christian tradition. This faith might be called, in shorthand, “orthodox,” even though that label is out of favor, for understandable reasons. Orthodox Christianity, rooted in worship in Word and Sacrament, Scripture, the ecumenical creeds, and responsible communal governance and oversight, identifies foundational landmarks with which catholic and reforming Christians have to do. Such orthodoxy is neither conservative, liberal, or “progressive,” and yet it may become any or all of those things depending on the context. Easy labels are misleading and irrelevant. The point of classic Christian thought and devotion is not to beat the drums for a God who’s the enforcer, out to stomp on those who are mistaken or on the wrong side in the culture wars, but to point with confidence to the triune God who is both ethically serious and extravagantly gracious: the God to whom Scripture and Church testify with the help of nuanced, often paradoxical language.

A generous orthodoxy is roomier and more spacious than any fundamentalism, whether a religious fundamentalism or an equally over-confident skeptical counterpart. At the same time, a generous orthodoxy takes the risk of linking arms with folks from many times and places who share a community of discourse and devotion, not starting from scratch every time a new question arises, but pursuing the conversation according to its inner logic and imperatives. It will always be necessary to find speech adequate to add to or amplify what has already been said, while honoring what has been said already.

As we feel our way into an era that is quite different from centuries of establishment status, the challenge is to learn how to navigate an environment that is not identical either to the Constantinian or pre-Constantinian eras, but is perhaps coming to resemble the latter more than the former. The New Testament was written to speak to a church that did not expect either to claim special privilege in society, or to conform to what “everybody” in a dominant culture “knows” to be true. The church does not have to be center-stage to listen and hear what God may be calling us to be and do now. There is nothing that we have lost that we have to try to get back, unless it might be a deeper confidence in the faithful God who shows up in a wilderness.

Ronald ByarsRonald Byars is Professor Emeritus in Union Presbyterian Seminary. This essay is drawn from themes in his recent book, Finding Our Balance: Repositioning Mainstream Protestantism (Cascade, 2015).

Dispatches from Pittsburgh: Brian McLaren Speaks to the PC(USA)

As the 220th General Assembly moves forward, we continue to seek folks who are willing to write short dispatches about what they are seeing at GA that will help inform the ongoing NEXT conversation. In the meantime, check out this great summary of Brian McLaren’s talk to commissioners on Monday. (Plus a news article here.)

Lots of food for thought as it relates to the the issues being raised in NEXT gatherings, both in Dallas last February and around the country in the months to come as regional gatherings take place.

A short excerpt:

In Christianity for the Rest of Us, Diana Butler Bass says the pendulum is swinging back from “spiritual but not religious,” and that these people are now hungry for spiritual andreligious. There are some indications that they’re not so much against “organized religion” itself as against religion organized for the wrong purposes.

People are looking for religion to organize for the right purpose: not so much for purposes of self-governance (the old model), as to conduct wholistic mission.

One of the wisest things church leadership consultant Lyle Schaller ever said: “You bring in a new day with new people.”

The new day will require welcoming in significant numbers of the erstwhile spiritual-but-not-religious.

The PC(USA)’s new “1,001 New Worshiping Congregations” project will not succeed unless we can make room for the innovations of the newcomers, and unless we can make sure they won’t be constantly criticized. We must create safe zones for innovation. Existing churches will need to actually see these innovative communities succeeding before they will begin to emulate their practices.

Thank you to the commissioner from New Jersey, whoever you are, for taking such careful and thoughtful notes. Read their entire post and check out their whole site here.