Monday, August 29, 2005

Circle of Fear

After spending most of the day on the road, I collapsed on the sofa. As usual, TV had little to offer. Then I ran across “The Eagles Farewell 1 Tour – Live from Melbourne.” (Yes, I know that tour was last year, but that is how far behind I am) Some music was just what I needed.

While the lyrics and tunes were very familiar, the sound was richer and the harmonies more complex. I remember when rock and roll bands were quartets: lead guitar, rhythm guitar, bass guitar, and trap drum. This stage was sixty feet across. There were five guitars, two percussionists, a piano, an electronic keyboard, and a four-man brass section.

Even within that grouping the complexity (the diversity) was incredible. I deliberately called two of them “percussionists” because the music involved more than the trap drum. There were tom-toms, marimbas, and things I can’t even name. The “brass section” included saxophones, trumpets, and even occasionally stepped outside the category to play violin.

The musicians seemed to move effortlessly from one instrument to another, adapting to the style of the music. I am certain that I saw Joe Walsh hitting licks on five different guitars.

But in the end, it all came down to the music. This was complex harmony and rhythm, not merely noise (despite what my parents may have said). Each musician was attuned to the same musical score, which was bigger than any one of them.

The TV broadcast was from the DVD, so the music was interspersed with interviews of the musicians.

Don Henley was obviously happy with the way the sound of the band had evolved from the early Seventies. While the lyrics and root tunes remained constant, he credited the continual adaptation and tweaking of the harmonies and supporting sound tracks for the richness of the music. He gave a lot of credit to Glenn Frey for the evolving arrangements.

Glenn had a somewhat different take on why the band sounded so much better. The tight harmonies and full sound don’t just happen. He said “Now we listen to one another on the stage. We didn’t do much of that in the Seventies.” (My recollection; the quotes aren’t exact.)

I grew up doing music, but I was stunned. Here are 13 musicians, playing and singing (and acting) on an open-air stage with twenty- or thirty-thousand screaming fans, and they are listening to one another!?

Glenn went on to explain that the full band did a sound check each and every day on the performance stage. Equipment was checked and re-checked. Then the eight vocalists went to a small room for the “Circle of Fear.” Now he really had my attention.

The “Circle of Fear” consists of eight chairs arranged in a circle, so the vocalists can see and hear one another. Then, with a single acoustic guitar, they sing, with full harmony, each song of the concert.

There is no possibility of hiding or making excuses. Your voice is right “out there.” Either it is the correct song, or not. Either it is on pitch, or not. Either it is on rhythm, or off beat. Either it blends or it clashes. Everyone knows what everyone else is doing. The purpose of this exercise is not to celebrate one another’s musical gifts (that is a given at this point). The purpose is to “tune” the individual vocalists into a single, cohesive band.

Because they go through this harrowing exercise again and again they are able to hear one another during the concert. Because they have listened carefully to one another, and adjusted their own pitch and rhythm in private, they are able to produce a full, rich sound on a public stage. Because the listening has given them confidence that each band member knows the tune and rhythm, and is “dead on” with pitch, they are free to improvise during the show.

Friday, August 19, 2005


Dwight’s paper is full of discussion topics. When I worked at Valley Forge (I left there five years ago) there was much talk about and work toward re-organization. The problem from my perspective was that the proposals led to a stronger hierarchical structure. I kept trying to point out – and I don’t think I did it well – that our current structure seemed more suited to Baptists -- the mission societies, the regions, a small organizing center (Office of the General Secretary).

The drive to reorganize failed, probably because it was packed with dozens of different “agendas,” and it was proposed at a time of extremely low trust. My mistake was that I was too pre-1970s in my thinking. The ABC had already become too centralized and the train was moving.

We need to talk much more about the ideas in Dwight’s paper but today I want to focus on the conclusion of that paper and Dwight’s challenge regarding living together. I have become increasingly troubled by the extent fear plays in our denominational and church life these days (not to mention the impact on each of us, personally).

Fear inhibits careful deliberation. Fear blocks, distracts, numbs, as well as inflames. It is hard to have a thoughtful discussion with folks who are truly scared of some imagined (or real) consequence.

I understand the fear that people will leave our churches, or churches will leave our regions, or regions will leave our denomination. But even justified fears cannot be allowed to distract us from the larger mission. The best way to deal with fear is to take it apart and examine it. Get it in perspective. Sort through reasonable alternatives.

I have met with several local church groups recently who seem overcome with fear. What will people think of our denomination? [They were referring to the chance that someone would read a particular Statement of Concern on the internet.] What if I’m seen associating with people with whom I disagree?

I don’t understand the fear that says, “what if somebody finds out that there is an American Baptist church that is crazy.” There have always been dissenting ABC churches and, very probably, there have always been just plain crazy ABC churches. I agree that there are always boundaries and our current debate is specific to how to set and maintain boundaries. But the challenge is to deal with the problems step by step. Yes, even if it takes years. What doesn’t help is to dramatize the threat to gigantic proportions, demonize the opposition, and then discover you have no time or energy left to do all the good that you are capable of doing.

Perfect love casts out fear. Evidently there’s not much perfect love around because if you just type in the word “fear” on Google, you’ll get 62,800,000 entries. We should apologize to Jesus.

Monday, August 15, 2005

A Minimalist Denomination

This is a way too long response/reflection on Susan's request for a history lesson. It is a paper I wrote (primarily for myself) about 4 years ago when I was engaged in some of the (failed) reorganization work of ABCUSA.


What does it mean for ABC/USA and its constituent regions to constitute a “minimalist denomination?”

It does not mean irrelevant or ineffective; it does not necessarily mean small. It does mean recognizing the limits of denominationalism. Some of those limits are rooted in our Baptist heritage and distinctives.

The earliest history of Baptist associations in England reveals an uncomfortable relationship to military organization during the Civil War (1642-1649). I have seen no evidence for such a connection in the United States. Here we developed a more theological basis for association, which reveals a concern for some sort of cooperation around the issues of (1) fellowship in the larger Body of Christ, (2) doctrinal faithfulness and public witness, and (3) clergy selection and ordination. It was only during the 1800’s that “missions” became a rallying point for unity and fundraising.

The present denominational organization of American Baptists is fundamentally a product of concepts from the 50’s and 60’s, with strong roots going back into the 19th Century. This is proving to be a liability for both national and regional organizations as we move into the 21st Century.

The very idea of denominations is suspect in some quarters. It is argued that the days of denominations are limited, and that they will be replaced an explosion of “independent” churches reflecting all kinds of traditions and creating new ones. Some of the reasons for this include:

· Widespread weariness of the very idea of denominations
· The inability of denominations to deal with divisive issues
· Growing “generic” forms of Christianity (fundamental, evangelical, liberal, neo-evangelical, post-modern, etc.) which challenge existing denominations and forge new kinds of ecumenism
· Suspicions about raising money and “giving it to some board somewhere else” to do mission and ministry which does not seem linked to a local congregation’s ministry and competes for limited resources
· A sense that denominations are somehow controlling and inhibiting faithful response to the Gospel, especially by individuals, by rigidly packaging and presenting Christianity

While the symptoms described are real, denominations are not fading from the scene. In fact, if we use a functional definition of “denomination,” there are more denominations today than there were 30 years ago. It seems to be part of our religious nature to create community networks that function as denominations—regardless of the name we give them. However, the critique does show how the historic denominational structures are out-of-sync with current attitudes toward and expectations of larger organizations. And it is clear that denominations are changing—those that refuse to change will fade into the ecclesiastical woodwork.

Many of the necessary changes are “Baptist-friendly.” They are already in our genes. Some have gone dormant, and they need to be reactivated. Some are no longer serving us well, and need to be shut down. Others need to adapt, mutate into something new.

Baptists started out with minimal denominational structures, because we had minimal expectations of our denomination. In fact, because of our emphasis on congregationalism, we might be best described as an “ecumenical federation.”

Most importantly, the denomination was never seen as synonymous with “the Church” for Baptists. In a very real sense, denominational organizations and institutions are para-church. “Para” meaning that they stand alongside of and depend on churches. The denomination was never supra-church. Even in the case of missions, the early debates among Baptists often exposed a fear that mission organizations were usurping the rights and responsibilities of churches.

Certainly the description of American Baptist denominational structures and institutions as “parachurch” will raise some hackles. There are at least two reasons for this. First, there is a knee-jerk reaction against those organizations that have been popularly understood as parachurch organization. Second, it reveals the widespread presumption that denomination is church. Therefore, organizations and institutions within the denominational umbrella cannot, by definition, be parachurch. We would be more correct to describe such institutions not as parachurch, but intradenominational.

We followed the lead of most American denominations in the 50’s and 60’s, becoming an activist, “full-service” denomination. This denominational structure was expected not only to meet every conceivable need of every one of its churches (i.e. “full-service”), but also to lead the way into exciting new ministries. To meet this need, and consistent with Post-WW II organizational philosophy, denominational structure became large, complex, bureaucratic, and totalizing.

Expansionist denominationalism requires finances and commands uniform vision/values. The greater the expansionism, the more finances are required, and the greater conformity to vision/values is required. It does not matter if the vision/values are predominately fundamental, liberal, Calvinist, orthodox, evangelical, Pentecostal, neo-evangelical, charismatic, neo-orthodox, or post-modern. An expansionist, totalitarian denomination can be rooted in any one of these.

My premise is simple: Our 19th Century Baptist forebears had it right with modest expectations from their denomination. If we are to affirm the fundamental place of the local congregation in the scheme of things (and maximize the freedom of those congregations), then there must be limits to denominationalism (and, in Baptist ecclesiology, denominational organization must be accountable to the churches). Those limits must be reflected in our expectations from the denomination.


This is not only Baptist, it is consistent with the growing attitude of localism and regionalism in America. We expect more from those closest to us. We are more deeply invested in those closest to us. We trust most, those who are closest to us.

The dark side of localism/regionalism is isolationism and arrogant individualism. One of the most important roles of a 21st Century denomination will be to counter these with a sound theological base and practice of Christ-centered community. Isolationism and individualism (under the sacred guise of “autonomy”) is a glaring weakness in Baptist thought.

While advocating the reactivation of 19th Century Baptist denominational philosophy, this does not imply a return to 19th Century organizations. A number of organizational arrangements are capable of incarnating a minimalist denomination. We cannot return to the 19th Century structures because the 19th Century no longer exists. Transportation is different, communication is different, work styles are different, information technology is different, and the world is different. Any organization form is transient. Some are more timely than others.


While finances have made the full-service denomination (a denomination that attempts to do everything) a thing of the past, we must not forget that the demand for full-service tends toward expansionist totalitarianism and is contrary to Baptist ecclesiology. In addition to limited finances, several other things conspire against full-service denominations. One of the most important is the explosion of alternative resources available.

Churches are no longer at the mercy of their denomination for otherwise unavailable curriculum resources, training conferences, or mission opportunities. It is especially true that American Baptists have never enjoyed the kind of denominational “brand loyalty” that characterizes certain other denominations (even though we coveted it and aspired to it). But it is even less so today. If the sole (or most important) reason for the existence of a denomination is the production of a full-range of resources and opportunities with the denominational label on them, the ABC probably has no reason for being.

Granted, denominations are all different. A small handful of denominations still strive to provide full-service to their congregations. They have the resources to do it (it takes a large denomination to provide a full range of services and resources, just like it takes a large congregation to provide a full range of services), or they have an ecclesiology that demands it, or they are homogeneous enough to make it work. In all cases, these denominations are swimming upstream.

Full-service denominationalism also has the unfortunate effect of creating an environment of hierarchical parentalism. Churches can come to expect the denomination to “take care of” all their problems. They can become passive and disempowered. The relationship between church and denomination becomes dysfunctional.

If the denomination of the future will not be full-service, what are the implications for us? (I claim no originality in any of these.)

We are well into the Information Age. I believe that the primary role of denominations will be service to churches, not to produce programs or manufacture “stuff.” Service is rooted in relationship. Denominations must cultivate relationships in order to better understand and service churches and their leaders—not in order to tap into finances. Denominational service in the 21st Century will include:

· Mending nets – We must assemble and care for the network of churches, pastors, leaders, and missionaries that comprise the frontline of Christian ministry and mission. This may be our most important work, and may be the hardest to “sell.”
· Discerning resources – Churches today are overwhelmed with resources (curriculum choices, training conferences, video productions, etc.) and opportunities. Churches and their leaders need help in identifying, evaluating, and applying them. That service can only be provided by denominational staff persons who bother to learn the church, its leaders, its context, and what is appropriate in that place and time. Churches will not welcome denominational workers perceived as “sales agents” or exclusive advocates for denominational opportunities.
· Shedding weight – The duplication of curriculum resources and training conferences is arrogant, wasteful, and unnecessary. Why not direct a church to a good curriculum (regardless of who produces it) rather than insisting that we must produce something with our brand on it? Why not help a Pastor go to a good conference rather than insist on designing one of our own? If there is not something both valuable and distinctive about an opportunity, why offer it? Limited finances make it impossible for us to do everything—even every good thing. Shedding weight will mean eliminating some cherished things and even some good things. It must be done with discernment. But it must be done.
· Tailoring products – Even with the cornucopia of resources and opportunities available, some things that distinctively address the needs of American Baptists will not be developed by others. These materials must be produced in forms and distributed in ways that are consistent with the 21st Century, not the 19th Century. Some of these resources will be easily identifiable: American Baptist history and polity, or ethnic diversity, for example. But others may be more subtle. The bulk of ABC churches are modestly-sized Pastoral or Program churches. The resource needs of these churches are very different from both Mega-churches and Multi-Program churches. These churches are contrary to a culture that values the niche marketing of the tiny specialty shop, and the comprehensive marketing of a Super Wal-Mart, but seems to have no place for anything in-between. (I note that some church gurus have vocally given up on these churches). Market production seems geared toward larger churches, or those wishing to become larger. We must spend more time and energy custom-tailoring high impact resources for modest Pastoral and Program churches.

Another important way to move away from denominational totalitarianism is to recognize that ABCUSA is a many-layered cake. Must everything really be determined on the layer of the General Board? Our history and our structure answers clearly, NO! No region board can prescribe action for the General Board. And there are legal, covenantal, and ecclesiological limits to what the General Board can prescribe for regional boards. Both are subject to the churches which elect their representatives.


American emphasis on the Enlightenment ideal of individual freedom has proven to be inimical to community. Both society and church have been affected. Baptist distinctives of soul competency, priesthood of the believer, and religious freedom (which are not the same thing), have become distorted in this environment.

The loss of community is evidenced in the “pew rage” which is present in so many of our churches and in our denominational meetings. We are not civil to one another; churches abuse pastors; and pastors, in turn, abuse churches; etc, etc.

Denominations are not only a utilitarian way of getting things done together. Denominations are also a way of being. In particular, they are a way of being together in Christ. Denominations need to be less about what we do, and more about who we are (and are becoming) in Christ.

Who we are (self-definition) requires healthy boundaries. We need to get over the juvenile suspicion that the mere presence of limits is proof of sinister totalitarian oppression. Boundaries are a sign of maturity—psychologically, socially, and theologically. The real questions are: “What are the boundaries? Who sets them? And How?” In particular, we need to be clear about the boundaries between congregation and denomination.

Denominational minimalism becomes a strategy here. The more we demand of our denomination, the more comprehensive and homogeneous the “rules” of community become. We can live together with less comprehensive “rules,” and with more diversity if we “bracket out” some areas and say to our denomination: “Don’t go there!” That will result in a denomination that refrains from saying and doing some things that are valued by one contingent or another.

Trust is also an essential ingredient for community. Unfortunately, it is not something that can be demanded or legislated. Trust takes root in shared values, and is cultivated by doing what we say we will do, and doing it in a way that is acceptable. While trust can only be built over time, I do believe we can put our default setting on “trust” in most cases.

Structure and processes built on the American political idea of “balance of power” presume that others cannot be trusted. That same attitude is reflected in most congregational organizations. I also wonder if it is implicit in our denominational culture that demands that every one, be at every table, every time. Is this motivated by the desire to include, an obsession to appear fashionably inclusive, or a fear rooted in lack of trust?

Clear denominational responsibilities (and limits), using spiritually-based discernment processes for decision-making can build healthy community.

The denomination models and fosters community. That will not be easy for us. Life together does not attract the passion of Baptists like soul competency. But it is an urgent task before us. It is urgent because life together is a recurrent, high-priority theological theme in Scripture. It is urgent because our unrivaled ethnic diversity will collapse if we do not learn how to live together. It is urgent because neither our culture nor our churches have taught us how to live together with differences. It is urgent because our preoccupation with rights and political means is a greater offense to Christ than the division represented by denominationalism itself.

Thursday, August 11, 2005

I Need A History Lesson

Isn’t a classic position of conservative American Baptists one of more freedom locally, less power at the national level? When I accepted the call to National Ministries, my North Dakota church commissioned me as a missionary to Valley Forge. They wanted me to “keep an eye on it.” When I worked at Valley Forge I heard the cries from local churches and regions that they didn’t want Valley Forge calling the shots. They didn’t want Valley Forge types to mistakenly think they were in charge. We were reminded over and over that in our style of governance, national couldn’t tell local what to do. The clear message was, “Don’t even think about it!”

Now it seems the desire of conservatives is to put Valley Forge in control. The staff of ABC-USA is bound by the policies of the General Board. So, operating under GB rules, Valley Forge should determine which churches can be ABC and which can’t -- which persons can be ordained and which can’t. Let’s make the General Board the legislative branch and then let’s set up a judicial branch to rule on issues (be the interpreter of scripture for us all). And then let’s enforce those judgments. (Be clear, the enforcers would have to be Valley Forge types.) Is that really what you want? I would encourage my conservative friends to be very cautious about what you are willing to give up.

I’d also like to make an observation about civility. We are in an extremely difficult time in our denominational family. We need to speak the truth as we understand it in a way that reflects our love for each other. Dwight pointed out that not everyone who disagrees with you is out to destroy the denomination. On all sides of the current debate are good people who are seriously trying to find a way through this. We need to respect each other. We owe each other, as members of the family, courtesy. Now, it’s also true that there are opportunists and folks just up-to-no-good caught up in all this. But it’s wrong to assume that all of the opposition is that way. We have behaved (on all sides) in ways that make it impossible for us to sing, “They’ll know we are Christians by our love, by our love,” with any integrity.

I particularly dislike condescension -- an aloof attitude of “I am obviously more enlightened and you obviously aren’t.” In my observation, it has been used more by the liberal side of the denomination. In recent months it has become more and more a characteristic of conservatives. It isn’t pretty either way. [The conservative tradition was more “My reading of the Bible is the right one.” But they weren’t as likely to condescend. Now they’re getting into it.]

I know these ways of communicating are indicators of anger, frustration, even depression. They sometimes are used to protect us from the battle. But they are not indicative of persons who respect each other as children of our loving God.

Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Addiction Plus

I am grateful that Susan seems to be one of the persons who can understand me—even if we don’t always agree. Thank you for your clarifying follow-up on “Tables.”

I would like to return to Susan’s entry on July 20 “ABC in Reactive Mode.”

Susan is absolutely right that, as an organization, ABCUSA has many of the “symptoms” of an addict. She is also right that her description is “generally exaggerated.” It is not universal and it is not the root cause of our problems—I do not believe that any of us set out to be “addicts.” The addictive condition is an end product.

There are “true believers” (and not just two groups) among us who not only have radically different positions; they hold positions that, if acted upon, cannot coexist at the same time in the same place. The key in that sentence is not the reality of differing ideas; it is the phrase “if acted upon.” A community can tolerate a large range of differing ideas, but not all behaviors (or actions) can be allowed. One of the good things that came out of the Enlightenment was that behaviors can (and should) be controlled, but mind police are an ineffective waste of time.

From a sociological perspective, boundaries are essential for the health and viability of a community. “Commonality which is found in a community need not be a uniformity. It does not clone behaviour or ideas. It is a commonality of forms (ways of behaving) whose content (meanings) may vary considerably among its members.” (Anthony Cohen The Symbolic Construction of Community Routledge, 2003). There are several kinds of boundaries, the least effective of which is the statutory boundary. The unwritten covenant of community is violated long before the written law is broken.

Baptist communities have a difficult time establishing and maintaining behavior boundaries. And the larger the amalgam of Baptists, the more difficult it is. That is one reason for our propensity for schism. But Baptists, even American Baptists, have found it possible to call some behaviors out-of-bounds.

These “true believers” (and the incompatibility of the practices they demand) cannot be easily dismissed, ridiculed, distracted, or ignored.

Not everyone who has doubts about the morality of homosexual intimacy is mean-spirited, ignorant, homophobic, or, God-forbid, a Fundamentalist out to destroy the denomination.

Not everyone who wonders about a compassionate, Christian response to homosexual persons is unprincipled, elitist, perverted, or, God-forbid, a Liberal out to destroy the denomination.
At the same time there are issues of power. For some, power is always bad and is to be avoided, but in reality it is notoriously slippery. I confess I am trying to claim and exert power. I am trying to claim and exert power on behalf of the large community of the middle. Of course, I may be self-deceived. But others seem to be jockeying for power for more selfish and/or more narrow purposes.

It is a complex symptomatology. Our responses are equally complex.

Some grotesquely oversimply the conflict, and blame it all on the Fundamentalists, or the Liberals, or the homophobes, or the perverts, or the power-hungry, or the hate-mongers, or the fear-mongers, or this Region, or that Region, or former SBCers, or ….
Simplistic analysis leads to simplistic answers/responses which will not work.

Others cannot cope with the complexity or the implication of the conflict, and so they deny the conflict. The capacity of this denomination to live in denial is legendary. Even as the Board of Educational Ministries was disintegrating leaders (who should have known better) were reassuring the denomination of the health and viability of BEM. While there is a fine line between describing the truth of a situation and apocalyptic obsession, denial will always prevent effective responses.

Still others want to bypass or avoid the conflict. They believe that if we get busy with something else we will be distracted enough that the conflict will die a natural death. Closer to home is the danger that unending diagnosis can also be a form of avoidance.

They arrived on the other side of the sea in the country of the Gerasenes. As Jesus got out of the boat, a madman from the cemetery came up to him. He lived there among the tombs and graves. No one could restrain him—he couldn’t be chained, couldn’t be tied down. … Night and day he roamed through the graves and the hills, screaming out and slashing himself with sharp stones. … Jesus asked him, “Tell me your name.” He replied, “My name is Mob. I’m a rioting mob.” … The demons begged him, “Send us to the pigs so we can live in them.” … Everyone wanted to see what had happened. They came up to Jesus, and saw the madman sitting there wearing decent clothes and making sense, no longer a walking madhouse of a man. … As Jesus was getting into the boat, the demon-delivered man begged to go along, but he wouldn’t let him. Jesus said, “Go home to your own people. Tell them your story.”

Monday, August 08, 2005

More Table Talk

Dwight’s suggestion that the ABC is more of a federation than a denomination is interesting. He describes the kinds of tables and I, also, resonate with the table of fellowship. A group of tables in the same house may be the only way Baptists can work together. However, I doubt that building a separate house is the solution.

Dwight’s description of a meal at his grandmother’s sounds like a family to me. They were all engaged in the same meal. There were certainly some variations but they came together. They had the same food at approximately the same time. There was probably one blessing. Folks that can’t have a meal without one table, a tablecloth, china and sterling silver may not have wanted to be a part of Dwight’s family. But the collection of people that made up his family found a way to be together. Can American Baptists?

Henri Nouwen said that peace starts every time we move out of the house of fear toward the house of love. I wish we would try setting up our tables in the house of love for a change.

Sometimes I wonder if I am a good Baptist because I’m an American or am I a good American because I’m a Baptist?

Where did I get the independent streak?
Did my upbringing as an American teach me that I should think for myself . . . that I shouldn’t accept everything at face value . . . that I should apply critical thinking to things I observe? Isn’t the independent spirit a fundamental part of being an American? The Bill of Rights. Individual rights. [Some would say States’ Rights – or region rights?]
Or maybe it’s because I’m from west of the Mississippi . . . the independent spirit that comes from being the descendent of pioneers. Or did my upbringing as a Baptist teach me independence -- that I must learn things for myself . . . that I must pray in my own words . . . that I had to be of a thinking age to make my own decision to follow Jesus.

Wherever it came from, I’ve got it. And I think it helps make me a good Baptist and a good American. And good or bad it makes me not want to sign statements of belief. At one time I was on the faculty of a Christian college. Years later the school invited me to consider returning to the faculty but in the intervening years they had instituted a requirement that faculty had to sign a faith statement. Nope. I stayed with the job I had. I agreed 100 per cent with the statement but I wouldn’t sign it. [I realize there is a possibility I am just a curmudgeon.]

That’s why I can’t go to the upcoming meeting in Illinois. You are welcome if you sign. Your word is not enough. You have to sign. Is it a meeting to do an exciting new thing as it’s billed? Or is it the next step in the intentional fracturing of the ABC? I suppose it depends on your perspective. There have been good revolutions and bad ones. Are the drivers (or key factors pushing the issue) our differences on Biblical authority and interpretation, or the coveting of power (or perceived power) and of access to mission endowments? Lord, have mercy.

If being at the table is bothering you, I’d suggest you just use a TV tray for a while. Let’s continue to renew the ABC House of Love.
Let not your heart be troubled. Let’s keep talking.

Friday, August 05, 2005

How Many Tables?

Susan has more than ably carried the freight on this blog in my absence. While I have a lot (perhaps too much) to say, I would like to respond to her plea to remain at the table.

Let me begin by saying that I have expressed the opinion that ABCUSA is more like an “ecumenical federation” than a “denomination” in any normal sense of the word. Most people look at me strangely when I say that—but that is another story. For the present discussion, one of the openings this perspective gives us is to pay attention to what we can learn from the efforts of ecumenism.

“Organic union” has proven elusive because the differences discovered once you get past the superficial niceties become insurmountable. Ecumenists have learned that there is a pretty narrow range of activities that can be shared. Despite the flowery rhetoric of top theologians waxing eloquently on deep theological subjects, persons in the pew seem unmoved. Even worship together, beyond the occasional “special” service seems forced and difficult. Too often ecumenical worship is an undiscerning amalgam of ritual and speech that satisfies no one.

About 15 years ago I worked with the old Indiana Council of Churches in a major reorganization and redirection of that organization. I remember two significant events in the midst of that reorganization. As we drew near the end of the work on a common statement of faith (apparently that is essential for any ecumenical work), the facilitator proudly announced that “the Baptists have agreed.” While she intended to move on to the next action, my hand shot up like a rocket. “Wait a minute!” I said, “ ‘The Baptists’ did not agree to anything. The one, lone Baptist in this room said this statement of faith seemed acceptable.” And I tried one more time to explain the unexplainable—Baptist theology and polity to a group of conciliar ecumenists.

During that same work, we struggled long and hard with images which could be used to talk about what we hoped to achieve. For almost all of us “the table” worked. But it didn’t for the Orthodox. Apparently the image was too loaded with communion, and that carried with it a whole lot of other baggage. Rather than unload that wagon train, we abandoned “the table” for other language.

There are many kinds of tables. There are work tables, study tables, game tables, display tables, and dinner tables, just to mention a few. Sometimes I wonder if we are all talking about the same kind of table. I confess that, when it comes to church issues, I find the dinner table—the table of fellowship—much more essential than the others. If our church table is merely a work table—a utilitarian table—I will not have much passion about it.

But even if we agree that it is a dinner table, it still is not simple. Who chooses the menu? Who sits where? How will the table be set? Etc, etc.

One of my childhood memories is going to my grandparents on special occasions. That was always an excuse for a meal. And there were usually a lot of us. (And a lot of food, also). The food would be spread across the stove and the countertop so we could “help” our own plate. Everyone was not expected to eat everything, although a greedy serving of one thing was sure to draw the response “Save some for everyone else,” and the obvious avoidance of another offering would receive the encouragement “Why don’t you try just a little….”

After we had “fixed our plates” we would sit down to eat. The kitchen table proper was reserved for the “old folks.” The next social strata included those who enjoyed TV trays. The kids may be forced to sit at a downsize or makeshift table. Some chose simply to eat on the floor. Some actively engaged in conversation; some shared a football game on TV; others focused all their attention on the plate in front of them.

Were we all eating at the same table?