The Conventional Wisdom Has Not Helped

I have been in ministry since 1998. The conventional wisdom, in short, has been that the church is:

— Too enmeshed in its ways.

— Is resistant to change

— Want visitors to comply with church norms and traditions

— Plays music out of sync with the culture

— Acts as a private club

— Does not want to adapt to change

— Is too something (liberal, conservative, political, etc.)

In the time since I have become a pastor, in general, I have seen:

— The decline of the mainline church

— The rise of the mega church

— Many mainline churches taking more progressive stands (and many members revolting against such stances)

— The rise of people who maintain no faith

And almost everything I read is about how mainline and neighborhood churches have been doing things “wrong” for a long time. There is much advice over what to correct but few models of where this new “correct behavior” turned things around.  When I arrived at Parkway in 2008, our local Presbytery had hired a church growth adviser who came in to speak with me.  He described much of the conventional wisdom above and what we needed to do to correct it.  I asked him where his advice had been successfully applied and the local church had turned around.  He responded, “You’re asking the wrong question.”  Really?

I do understand as a social phenomenon that what worked for the World War II generation, and many generations before it, is not working for many younger people today. They are “voting with their feet”, as it were, and in many churches the percentage of folks with gray hair is perpetually on the rise. But I wonder if current generations have really thought through the world they are building – a world with far fewer churches, particularly churches that have traditionally served the most educated in our society, and what that will mean for them and their current or even future families.

I certainly am not trying to maintain that mainline churches don’t have their issues.  We certainly do. But with the criticism leveled at us, I do not see a response going on which raises the bar higher. Staying home or working for a charitable cause is not the same as being active in a community of faith.  I am glad more and more people are helping their neighbors with their physical needs but I don’t expect that that will also always fulfill spiritual and emotional needs. And most mega-church sermons I stream online are “feel good” sermons and lessons.  I’m not saying they have no value but many certainly lack the depth I hear from my sisters and brothers in mainline churches. Likewise, I am totally aware traditional church hymns to organ music do not have the appeal of more modern Christian bands. As a church growth professional asked us in seminary, “Who listens to organ music on the radio?” But when I put the lyrics side by side, there are few that hold the weight of most hymns. The hymns teach us something each Sunday (as do the anthems).  Equally, Bible studies I find online by “big box” churches tend not to have the qualitative depth I feel most people with any education beyond high school would find deeply engaging. There are certainly exceptions to these generalizations but I feel the church landscape is containing fewer and fewer churches geared to appeal to those who usually end up having a greater influence over the course of our society at large.

The church can be entertaining, but that is not its purpose. The church is not a charity though I see many mainline churches making a huge difference for their size in the world around them.  What the church is, in the end, is a family that gathers to worship God together.  And just like many family units in our society, I see it frequently under stress and fracturing. What I see with churches getting smaller and graying is future neighborhoods where there will be more lonely people with much less of a support network.  This will particularly come true as fewer folks get married these days and fewer have children.

What is the answer?  I am always searching for it. But I become less and less convinced that the answer for the small neighborhood church is to try to copy our mega church neighbors with their music, visuals, and entertainment appeal.  I think we have to go back and keep underscoring what we do well – build relationships, friendships, and show how seeking and serving God together has helped us and those around us.

To use some of the phraseology of recent years, we may need a new beginning but I don’t think that means starting over.  I think more than ever it means getting to know those around us and being in communion with them as we seek God together.  Change?  Change will inevitably come.  People change.  And as people change they will change things together around them.  But whatever we change we should do it because that’s what we think God is calling us to do rather than doing what we think the society around us will like.

What do you think?

Until next time,


Asking Forgiveness is a Start

Oftentimes, I will see on social media posts from people of faith lamenting the ways of our nation.  They will say they want a government that honors God anew.  They feel we are off course and are not being the people we are supposed to be.  I want to see “God back in school” or “God back in the White House” or “God back in the public square” is a frequent declaration. This was on my mind as I opened my devotions where I am working to read through the Bible.

My readings today were from 2nd Chronicles 28, 1st Kings 16, and 1st Kings 17.  In these three chapters you read first about how evil one of Israel’s kings was (King Ahaz) and then how his son turned it all around when he got on the throne (King Hezekiah).  Ahaz worshiped Baal, setup altars to Baal all over the land, even sacrificed some of his own children to this god. He also stole material from the Temple and tried to use it to bribe the superpowers of the day, closed the Temple so no one could pray there or offer sacrifices to God, and angered God all day long.  By contrast, when Ahaz died and his son got on the throne, Hezekiah called the Levites back into town, re-opened and re-purified the Temple, and called the people back to God.  Hezekiah did not hesitate to call his father and those that followed him evil.  But he didn’t simply lay the blame there  and move on.  He knew the people were complicit in his father’s sins.  He called on them all to repent (and they did).

This is what I find so lacking in church dialogue internally and in common analysis on what is wrong with our society today.   There rarely is a mea culpa that is part of the complaint.  There is no confession.  We play the blame game.  Sin is portrayed as simply wrong personal moral decisions by one particular leader or group of leaders. Problems, whatever they are, are because we elected the wrong person or people.  Repentance can certainly start by identifying a person or people who led us off course but that is never the focus.  The focus is on how we all become complicit when our society is off course.

I believe if we do want to be a society more focused on God, we need to reflect more on what we have all done wrong and endorsed together than on pointing fingers at others.  I also do not believe one politician or one political party is either our salvation or damnation.  We have gotten co-opted far too often by politics in recent years and we should remember as God’s people, while we are to be concerned with the here and now, we are also focused on what is eternal.  We are far too focused on ourselves if we distill what God is doing among all creation down to the platforms of one political party or politician (or thinking our primary calling is to be in opposition to one political party or politician).

For a people who has tended to consume more of the earth’s resources than our neighbors, for a society that has gotten involved in more conflicts than any of our peers in our lifetimes, for a society that has consistently cut services to the poor ever since the 1980s, for a society that embraces violence through the entertainment we watch and the games we play, for a society not investing for the future for our children and grandchildren (schools, infrastructure, etc.), for a society that shows a remarkable lack of curiosity about the rest of the world, for a culture that has embraced building more and more prisons as a solution to the challenges we face, for a nation that truly lives by the credo “do as I say, not as I do” to all of our neighbors, and a society who seems unfocused responding to plants, animals and insects going extinct, or maintaining a very sporadic level of concern on the ways our lifestyles are effecting almost all other forms of life around us, we have plenty to confess. We are a nation that also often shows nothing but a cursory respect for those sacrificing for others and working for a pittance of an income (law enforcement, fire fighting, teaching, etc.) None of this can be blamed on a person or even one party. It’s all of us, and we are all complicit.

May Hezekiah inspire us to be a better people.  We don’t need to wait for a king (or president, governor, or local leader) to get us on a better course.  We can start it ourselves by confessing where we have been wrong.

What do you think?  What else should we confess?


The Reported Decline of Christians in Our Society

If you have your social media sites such as Facebook and Twitter locked and loaded from the major news sources you trust, then you likely saw a report today on the decline of the percentage of Christians in our country.  As a pastor, I note the following:

A)  It is hard not to feel there is some larger group with an agenda out there.  Almost all the reports today are based on a study by the Pew Charitable Trust which projected faith groups up to the year 2050 based on current trends.  The issue is that the Pew Report came out weeks ago.  Why, on this Monday, this popped up again as “news” is, I suspect, a drive by everyone for hits on their websites (versus some grand agenda against Christians). Someone must have reported to our media sites this weekend that the Pew Report has generated an unusual number of hits in the first stories of its findings went out on the web.  All these news sources want to show their relevance by the number of hits on their websites (which helps them generate advertising money).  So, here comes a few weeks old report – again – in the news.  I saw it today on PBS, CNN, BBC, Christian Science Monitor, Pew Charitable Trusts, both area newspapers, a radio station, and all of the local television station’s sites. But the plot isn’t against us but rather to generate hits.  I was also pleased a pastor I know in New York saw it coming and sent words of encouragement to many of his clergy friends.

B) Christians can also take solace in this – the reported decline is really focused on our society.  This decline is not a worldwide phenomenon.  As a matter of fact, Christianity continues to grow in the places where most people live on our planet.  Yes, there are projections that Islam with catch up with Christianity by 2050.  But such growth comes from births largely, not conversions.  Also, projections like these are problematic at best.  Consider what the projections of today would have been thirty five years ago.  Keep in mind as well that the center of Christianity has been on the move since the Church’s inception.  Today is no different.  Our brothers and sisters to the south are likely to have much more influence than they have had in the past.  That might not be a bad thing.  Consider, Pope Francis is among one of those ‘southern hemisphere’ Christians.  Ditto the influence of the Church in north Africa and Asia.

C)  The report should make the Church in North America and Europe take stock of itself.  What has gone wrong?  Why are so many young people tuning out of the church?  I think a huge issue is Christianity in our society has been associated with a very narrow band of theological and political beliefs which are not attractive to young people. Christians today need to find their voice anew and relate that not everything labeled as “Christian” today represents actual Christian beliefs both ancient and modern. We also need to pay attention to our brothers and sisters oversees and stop thinking of Christians of our nationality as who we primarily mean when we talk of Christians.

D)  Granted , there are passages in the Bible that assert that in the end times people will abandon belief.  Even so, I do not believe that the Pew Charitable Trust’s report is our harbinger of the End Times.  Jesus said he didn’t know when the end will be.  If Jesus didn’t know, I don’t think we should presume to know otherwise.  I also find it highly problematic to associate trends in North America with Biblical Prophecies which were written in a time most people speaking and writing them were unaware that North America existed.

E)  Do not get boxed into the paradigm that you either believe in science or are a person of faith.  Non-believers often like to draw up this straw man argument that either you accept science or you believe in superstitious mumbo jumbo. There are also strands of Christianity which are opposed to science.  But that is not what most Christians believe.  Faith and science are not opposed to each other.  God not only made us but gave us our minds and this incredible creation, which goes beyond anything we can measure.  God wants us to learn and grow and trust.

F) Gone are the days that churches can depend upon people just showing up at church because it is the expected thing to do.  It is the unexpected thing to do in our society to a large degree (unless it is some type of special occasion).  Treat everyone who comes through the doors with great respect.  They are there by faith and by calling.  They win no popularity points in our larger society by coming to church.  Love them.  That’s what Jesus said to do.

God has placed us here in this time and in this place with a reason and a purpose.  Let’s make good use of it.  Let’s share our faith.

Until next time,


Cartoons, Righteousness, and Grace

I don’t think many of us growing up in the 1960s or 70s would have dreamed the influence comics would have on our future.  Growing up, it seemed almost a quaint echo of our past rather than something of the future.  Nevertheless, comic book themed movies and television shows are now some of the highest grossing entertainment vehicles on the planet and certain cartoons are inspiring people to kill one another in the 21st century too.

The Avengers – the Age of Ultron is the latest comic book movie.  I went to go see it this weekend while on the road. The latest villain for the set of good guys (and gals) to vanquish is a malevolent artificial intelligence. And robots, or whatever the technologically correct term to use for them, are “turned off” by the score.  I have not seen such “robot carnage” since Will Smith’s ” Robot”(which I thought was better).  But I still think it focuses on the good people (and robots) having to roll up their sleeves sometimes, set aside the rules, and be as ruthless, or maybe more ruthless, than the bad guys, gals, and robots in order to bring peace and stability.

In the past couple of days ISIS, or at least ISIS wannabees, attacked an exhibit in Texas of cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.  One of the attackers tweeted that he hoped Allah would accept them as part of the Mujaheddin after they gave their lives in the attack.  Both attackers, along with a security guard, lost their lives in the attack.  I’m sure it will help the sales of arms and ammunition in our nation – the most heavily personally armed nation of citizens on the planet.  Our take away will likely largely be that just like the Avengers, we all need to be ready to roll up our sleeves and be as ruthless, or maybe more ruthless, than the people we see as the agents of chaos and destruction in our world.

For those of us who are Christians though, is that the answer?  Is that what we really need to do?  One of the most famous scenes in the Gospels is Jesus confronting a group of men about to stone an adulterous woman.  Jesus counsel is equal – “let you without sin throw the first stone” and, to the woman, “go and sin no more.”  It certainly was not to get his disciples to attack the stone throwers.  And neither was it to look the other way about the woman’s behavior.  But, I think that is our 21st century answer – particularly in America.  The attackers both in Texas, and not too long ago in France, were upset because of a person’s unrighteousness in their eyes.  In their minds, their intended (and sometimes actual) victims are people who deserve death because of what they have done.  Our answer today isn’t to confront such thinking (as Jesus did) as much as it is to try to eliminate it. And, under the guise of “freedom of expression” we want to look the other way to the fact that these cartoonists are drawing things that are highly offensive to part of the world’s population. I am not for censorship.  But I very much am for shaming people for being provocative just for its own sake or for thinking that freedom of expression’s purpose is to see how far you can go in offending other people. That maybe of value to civil libertarians but that is not a Christian virtue (and it shouldn’t be an American one either). We live in a nation that, by its nature  and history, is a convergence of cultures and beliefs.  Working on ways to bring people together, rather than drive them apart, is in all our best interests.

Obviously we need our police and our armed services to try to hold the line between the law and lawlessness.  We do not live in a perfect world and sometimes we need heroes and heroines to hold the order.  But the ultimate answer is not going to come to us through our strength or our firepower but through what is best in us.  Tolerance, grace, and humility might be a hard sell for a Hollywood blockbuster, or even a display of comic book type art, but it is vital for our future as our world become increasingly populated and cultures and beliefs continue to converge.

Let us be a people, both as Christians and as members of this society, be the ones who bring people together rather than ones who drive people apart or, worse, try to avenge the wrongs we see committed against us.

What do you think?

Until next time,


Easter – Love Wins

Easter season is the brightest and best of brightest days on the Christian calendar.  It shows us that despite the darkness in this world, we have hope.  Life trumps death.  Love is stronger than hate.  Health defeats sickness (mental and physical).

It is vital for us not to keep this message under a bushel but to put it on a lampstand.  That means, for we the people of God, to pay attention to stories that are sometimes difficult to read.  It means going to places that are difficult to go.  It means being in contact and helping people that the part of us that yearns for safety might rear back from.

Jesus told us to fear not.  I don’t think that message is for us hunkered down in our safest places.  I think it is for those who go to the place and are among the people who need to hear the Good News the most.

Easter means love wins.

Let’s be a part of the winning team.

Until next time,



     I woke up the second day of Holy Week to my usual routine of prayer, coffee, and scanning the news.  In this modern day of news reading, I have learned how to custom tailor which news to receive. This for me includes anything about New Orleans, Louisiana, international news, ​various sports teams, the Air Force, the Air National Guard, Christianity, and​, specifically, ​the PC(USA).  It was the last one that generated the following headline, “Is the PC(USA) Even Christian Anymore?”  I took a deep breath and dove in.

     It was a blog entry on Patheos (a website that generates all sorts of reflections on faith).  Not being familiar at all with the person who just “excommunicated” me, my parishioners, and hundreds of faithful Christians I love and know well, and some 1,760,200 of my fellow Presbyterians across the country, I looked him up. Dr. Reynolds is the ​Chief A​cademic Officer of Houston Baptist University.  This explains​,​ perhaps​,​ why Patheos would give him a forum,​ but his assertion is profoundly disturbing and shows the theological myopia that is not, unfortunately, ​uncommon in Christ’s Church. Why is this brother willing to show us the door of the Church and declare that if Christians are talking to us,​ it is not an ecumenical dialogue but an interfaith one? It is,​ of course,​ because of the recent ruling by the Presbyterian Churches (USA) that in states where it is legal, where a same sex couple wants to get married, ​where they ​come to a Presbyterian Church expressing that desire, and where ​that particular ​church board and pastor agree that said congregation can marry said couple, it is now possible to do so​. The number of congregations in which this can and will occur in the PC(USA) is remarkably limited.  ​The Baptist denomination is not normally a connectional church. They are not well known for their interdenominational dialog. The PC(USA) is a far more connectional denomination, almost by definition, and very involved in interdenominational ties and discussions. We are not, though, very interested in excommunication and calling each other anathema (any more). ​But this ​leader of a Baptist University is willing the excommunicate the lot of us over this solitary issue and declare us members of some other religion.

     I refuse and refute this idea.​ The crux of his argument rests upon the fact that ​we now celebrate ​something that ​he feels the Church traditionally has called sin.  But I would contend to my brother in Christ that churches around our country politely ignore or even celebrate scores of activities that are listed as sins in the Bible. I will just list a few. When is the last time churches called people in their communities to task for usury (the immoral practice of lending money at high rates of interest)? I would suggest that John walk out from h​is university, or his church wherever it is, for just a few blocks and see if he sees any places which charges​ high rates of interest (usually to the poor), and then reflect how often this is raised from the pulpit in his church. I would suggest that he consider how many adults, even adults in Baptist churches, are cohabiting prior to marriage. I am sure Dr. Reynolds may object and say his university and his church would call that sin. But I don’t read about Baptist churches rescinding membership of Christians who live together prior to marriage – something the church traditionally has called sin – and declaring that they are now practicing some other religion. They may hear talk about these being sins, they may even be kicked out of worship in some traditions, but they are not called non-Christians or members of some other religion.​ I would even raise up simply that most Christians, in every branch of the ​Church in our society, live a lifestyle much more akin to the Romans in ​biblical times than that of Jesus and his followers. Jesus remarked that he often did not have a place to lay his head. He also had little to no material possessions. He and his followers spent most of their time with the poor and the reprobate in his society. I do not think that describes many of us today: Baptist, Presbyterian, or other Christians​. It would be easy to go on.

     But the core of our disagreement concerns what it means to be Christian. A Christian is someone who professes faith in Jesus Christ and who lives out that belief in actions that reflect that Jesus is our Lord​. A Christian is someone who believes that God has saved us through the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. A Christian is one who believes he or she is saved by grace through faith. A Christian is one who believes that we have been treated with tremendous grace and that ​our God is a just God and,​therefore,​we, as followers of Christ, should treat everyone with the same grace, We should then structure our lives with justice,​ as it has been offered to us. Being a Christian,​ therefore,​ is not dependent upon which particular denomination we join or which particular social practices congregations decide to uphold​ in order to show justice and grace to all.​

     Dr. Reynolds may be trying to show us the door,​ but we aren’t going anywhere. No matter his thoughts on the matter, we still are very much followers of Jesus​,​ who depend upon him to guide us​. Scripture tells us that through Christ God is calling all people to himself.  “All people” is a pretty inclusive term. The ​One who chose to make us Christians is God.  ​W​e share the pews with people who can and will differ with us. All of us are flawed. We accept that we can be wrong sometimes,​ along with everyone else. But blessedly being right or wrong is not what makes any of us Christian.

     God has brought us together. We are called to go out and bless the world. He may not think my sisters and brothers Presbyterians and I are Christian,​but I share no illusion that he is not one. It is on that basis that I call Dr. Reynolds to task and hold him accountable​. His essay did not build up the Body of Christ. His essay just ​foments conflict within the body.

     Dr. Reynolds essay does nothing to proclaim the coming Kingdom and shows little grace. I hope that the day will come when Christians stop trying to decide who is in and who is out. This seems to be what got the religious leaders in trouble in Jesus’ time, yet here we are again. ​It simply isn’t our call,​ and who is in Christ’s Church might just be more than we imagine.

In Christ,

Tom Paine, Pastor

Parkway Presbyterian Church

Consider the Cultural Context

Way back in the 1990s I was taught sermon writing 101.  It included translating the passage from the original languages; examining the textual criticisms of the text; reviewing the passage in the context of its times (both the time period portrayed and when the text was actually written), reviewing where it is in the book, in the Bible, and the book’s origin; reflecting on it in light of other passages on similar topics in the Bible; reviewing it in light of the other readings for the day; reviewing how the text has been received historically in the church; reviewing what the Reformers had to say about the passage; reviewing how it has been received by current preachers and theologians; and reviewing it in light of the cultural context of the day.  It was the perfect prescription of taking sixteen to thirty six hours of sermon preparation – something no church ever affords a minister (or really expects).  Nevertheless, I was grateful, I learned much going through all those steps more than a few times.

While I could write about all of the above steps to some degree going into Palm Sunday as I have now been through eighteen Palm Sundays since ordination ~ I find the last step to be one that is most difficult to hone in on.  Currently:

~ My denomination (the Presbyterian Church (USA)) has voted to allow congregations that exist in states where same sex marriage is legal, where a gay couple would like to get married, where the church session (church board) is in favor, and the minister is in favor to allow them to do so.  The number of congregations that would meet all those criteria is remarkably limited. Nevertheless, this has led to widespread lauding by the largely secular community and younger adults (most of whom do not attend church) and widespread derision by the larger church (most of whom never go to the Presbyterian Church either).  We are in the spotlight nevertheless.

~  We are at a point of greater ecological change on this planet than at anytime in my lifetime.  This is quantifiable by some of the best minds in the world.  Nevertheless, there seems to be no significant plan to address the issue or even passion to do so among many.

~ Our nation is gearing up for another major political campaign already (the 2016 elections) which is likely to increase divisiveness, not unity. This is at a time when I feel our nation is more divided than ever before.

~ The Iraq War, no matter the original intent, seems to have been a domino that began a series of events that is causing significant change throughout the Near East, the Middle East, and Africa.  The change probably would have occurred without it but there is no question that our invasion and toppling of Sadaam Hussein began a series of events that is still ongoing.  Whatever the long-term outcome, the world we knew is shifting significantly.  Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Israel are all major regional players and what we can or even should do now is not clear.

~ The religious sensibilities of Americans seems to be very much in flux.  Commitments are not what they were in days gone by.  Financial giving to religious institutions and religious causes is not what it was.  Churches do not want budgets to define their missions.  Nevertheless, bills have to get paid.  Convincing people that giving to the local church is important has never been easy but it is growing even more challenging.  Also, young people who go  to church today twice a month are considered to be very active church people.  This is a big contrast with the previous generations, who even up to today, will go to church multiple times in a week (and still give significantly to the church).

~ The Church universal is under mortal threat in many parts of the world today.  Yet this gets little coverage or seems to generate much passion in the larger Church (but our denomination’s votes on what stock our pension program holds and who can get married does).

~ Many church members face significant financial or health care or family care issues.  They are simply trying to find their own way.  They are not looking to go out and convert anyone or try to make the world more Christlike. They are looking on what they need to do to make tomorrow work at home or work or school for them or their loved ones.  Many church leaders are worried how to make their local congregations viable.  Issues of the larger world are hard to focus on when more immediate issues close to home seem to be pressing. Reassurance of God’s love and active presence are needed now as much as in any time.

I therefore am finding the cultural context to be challenging as I sit down to write Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, and Easter sermons and homilies and consider what God’s Word says in our context.  Yet, I know this is true for each and every pastor that is out there this week. I also know God’s Holy Spirit surrounds us and Christ himself is with us in the midst of it all.

Pray for Christ’s Church this coming Holy Week and Easter.  It is an important time for all of us.

Until next time,



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