Book Review: “Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-So-Young) Ministers” by Anthony B. Robinson

Book Review: “Useful Wisdom: Letters to Young (and Not-so-Young) Ministers” by Anthony B. Robinson, Cascade Books, 2020. (Link to the book at Wipf and Stock here.)

By Richard L. Floyd

This little book is well-titled, for it is both useful and wise. In the interest of transparency, let me say that I have known Tony Robinson as a friend and interlocutor for decades. During that time, I have admired his many writings, which are clearly and concisely written, and grow out of his pastoral experience and long years as a church consultant. Continue reading

“The Giver of Life” A Devotion for Pentecost

“I will pour out my Spirit upon all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams.”— Acts 2:17

The church marks the Day of Pentecost as the birthday of the church. Some congregations mark the day with a birthday cake, something the children take to readily.

Still, if the presence and power of the Holy Spirit at that first Pentecost marks the beginning of the church, the Spirit’s work was not finished on that day, since it is the Spirit who creates the church in every new generation. Continue reading

Can the Church Survive the Decline in Worship?

KazMy Massachusetts colleague Kazimierz Bem, Pastor and Teacher of the First Church in Marlboro, doesn’t think so.

He had a wise and thoughtful post yesterday on faith called Christianity Cannot Survive the Decline in Worship.

Here’s an excerpt:

The church is not made holy by the work it does — Protestants should understand that better than anyone. Rather, it is Jesus Christ and his cross that make us holy. Our service can never replace it, copy it, or perfect it. Our service can only be our response in gratitude for what God has done for us. As the great Congregational theologian Peter T. Forsyth once wrote: “The greatest product of the Church is not brotherly love but divine worship. And we shall never worship right nor serve right till we are more engrossed with our God than even with our worship, with His reality than our piety, with his Cross than with our service.”

For the whole article go here. I heartily recommend it. Kaz even quotes P.T. Forsyth. Well done!

Confused? Interpreting Your Congregation’s Numbers

One of the besetting sins of today’s American mainline church is a morbid preoccupation with the numbers; number of members (AKA “pledging units”) and number of dollars.

Such a preoccupation is understandable given the decline of these numbers over the past decades, but the result is the continuing demoralization of leaders and members, and a misreading of the real strengths and weaknesses of the congregation and its leaders.

I would not suggest that we do away with the bookkeeping, but I do suggest that we bring better interpretive tools to bear on the numbers.  Numbers without interpretation can be just as dangerous for the church’s well-being as scripture texts without interpretation.

Here in New England we have many historic (often downtown) churches that hit their numerical high water mark in both members and dollars somewhere between the late 1950’s and mid 1960’s.

Those numbers without interpretation might lead one to believe that those times of plenty were a golden age of the church, and in the minds of many older members they were.  But to use them as the template for what is normative makes everything that has followed appear to be failure.

A deeper look tells a more complicated story.  There was a boom in church life in the years after World War Two.  I call it a boom and not a revival, because it lacked many of the features of earlier religious awakenings, and that is part of the story of the subsequent decline.

It was a heady time of great optimism. America and its allies had won the war at great cost of people and treasure. There was an atmosphere of thanksgiving that the war was over.  The returning troops settled down, got married and created the great “Baby Boom” of the late forties into the fifties.

But it was not all optimism. The new Cold War with the Soviet Union and the specter of a nuclear exchange put fear into the mix.  And because the religiosity of America stood in stark contrast to the official atheism of the Soviets church-going seemed patriotic.

Many returning troops went to college on the GI bill and made their way into a rising middle class that fueled a housing boom.

These demographic and cultural factors grew churches.  Many new churches were built, new additions were added, and Sunday Schools were bursting at the seams with the young boomers.

Although there was some robust theology in the academy (the Niebuhrs, Karl Barth, and Paul Tillich come to mind) that theology hadn’t made its way to the congregations.  The life of the church was largely a pretty generic Culture Protestantism which identified itself with the American way of life.  There were Catholic and Jewish versions of this identity as Will Herberg described in his important book of the time Protestant, Catholic, Jew.

This (necessarily) simplistic sketch sets the stage for what happened in the 1960’s.  The Boomers grew up and out of the church.  Their mostly inadequate Christian education had not prepared them for the profound cultural changes that took place during this time.  The Civil Rights movement, the war in Vietnam, and the rise of the Boomer counter-culture all called into question the moral legitimacy of established authority, including the church.

The rise of neo-fundamentalism gave those looking for a more robust Christian experience an alternative place to go.

The mainline churches retained an important place in American life (and still do) but their numerical glory days were past and the decline continued as the older generation died off and the younger generation (numerically smaller than the Boomers) didn’t take their place.  That accounts for the loss of members and partly for the loss of dollars.

When new members did come in they often had less money than the generation they were replacing and lacked the habits of good stewardship and commitment to institutions that their elders had had.

Regional demographics come into play as well.  Areas losing population, the “Rust Belt” states, saw more rapid declines than growing states in the South and West.

Changes in the economy, in employment and investment markets, also come into play.

All this is to say that there are macroeconomic factors at work over which church leaders have little or no control that impact the numbers that appear in their annual reports.  If they see declining pledge income during a recession with high unemployment (such as the one we are presently in) it doesn’t mean their leaders are incompetent (although they might be.)

Lay leaders faced with rising costs and diminishing income often panic, slashing vital programs, and blaming their ordained leadership for the bad numbers.

The preoccupation with the numbers often means other important features of congregational life are overlooked.  A pastor may preach excellent sermons, foster a vital congregational group life, encourage faithful mission, oversee life-changing Christian education and still find herself under the gun for the continuing bad numbers.  Good evangelism and church growth strategies are important for congregations, but the fact is that in many locations the demographic realities limit the number of prospective new members.

There can be no doubt that continued changes are in store.  Some congregations will have to abandon historic buildings to be more efficient in their mission.  Other congregations will join together in new configurations.  Some will have to find graceful ways to live out their mission before dying.  But most congregations will not be doing these things and will move along from year to year as best they can.

They will have to discover imaginative and creative approaches to their changing realities.  But this is nothing new.  The church has always had to adapt to the world in which it finds itself.  And the myth of the prosperous church of 1958 needs de-mythologizing if we are to deal faithfully with our own time.  Let us stop longing for the good old days that never were.

Because we don’t live in the past, we live now, and in the midst of all these challenges and obstacles it is easy to overlook how much faithful and energetic ministry still goes on every day in our congregations.

By all means keep an eye on the numbers.  But be aware that a preoccupation with the numbers may obscure what God is up to in our life together.  And that is hardly worthy of a faith that believes in resurrection.

Confessing Christ

The other place I blog is the Web Site of Confessing Christ. Here is A Brief history of Confessing Christ by Pastor Frederick R. Trost: “In August of 1993,a Convening Committee for Confessing Christ was on the phone, composed of pastors and teachers of the Church and a graduate student in American Church history.Might there be a way of gathering others in the United Church of Christ who love the Church and are devoted to its ministry, to talk about our “life together” for the sake of our mission as Christians and our commitment to social justice, liturgy, and pastoral care? From the beginning there was agreement on the necessity for solid, joyous, theological work in the Church, for Biblical study and conversation with our varied, rich, and living theological heritage in the United Church of Christ. We took as our theme the words of the First Article of the Barmen Declaration:

“Jesus Christ, as he is witnessed to us in Holy Scripture, is the one Word of God which we must hear and which we ought to trust and obey in life and in death.”
From the beginning [that] summer and in our many conversations since, our purpose has been neither to “weep bitterly” over the Church (which would be theologically irresponsible) nor to pound upon others (which would be uncharitable), but to take our place alongside the publican to the temple, to acknowledge with those who have “confessed Christ” in every generation that we live, as the Reformers insisted, by grace alone, through faith, and that the prayer “Be merciful unto me, O Lord.” is meant to be found on the lips of the whole church. In the struggle for theological re-formation, as in all else, “there is none that is righteous, no, not one!” (Romans 3:10)
We’ve said the most important thing is to recommit ourselves to theological work that takes Scripture, ecumenical creeds, the confession and covenants upon which the United Church of Christ was founded (see the Preamble to the UCC Constitution),
  • with joyful seriousness,
  • not as a kind of hobby,
  • not with any desire to settle down in the sixteenth century

but to honor our baptism, to see how dialogue with one another and with those who believed before we were born, can reform the life of the Church for the sake of its vocation in the world.

There are times when we have to face the fragile state of our life together. We believe this is one of those times. There are moments when the question “What is truth?” won’t go away. This is one of those moments. There are hours when the ancient query “What think ye of Christ?” cannot be avoided. We believe this is one of those hours.