The daily Bible study teacher expounded on Acts 27, Paul’s perilous sea voyage and shipwreck. Echoing the language of warfare used by Brian Blount the evening before in the opening worship service, she told the conferees that the storm buffeting the Roman vessel took on a hostile personality: “The wind was against us.”
Alluding to the present church’s situation, Yoder brought words both of assurance and of warning, “God does intend to save everyone on the ship. But God does not intend to save the ship on which they sail.”
She also reminded that the ship was impacted by forces without and within. The force of the attacking storm was strengthened by the despair felt on board, by the self-serving actions of sailors, the limited vision of onboard soldiers and, overall, the gripping power of fear.
But they survived. How?
Unlikely alliances: The Roman captain followed the advice of his prisoner Paul. Relinquishment: “In order for everyone to survive, everyone gives up the very things on which their lives depend.” Solidarity: A mix of folks as diverse as the whole Roman Empire united to fight the storm. Paul’s restraint: He kept referring to “the God to whom I belong, whom I worship,” giving witness without conversion coercion.
She turned those survival techniques into questions to the conferees: What alliances must we make? What must we toss overboard? What vision of God’s mission in the world motivates us?
Shane Claiborne had a few things to say about all that. The keynote speaker followed Yoder with a provocative challenge. When John the Baptist’s disciples asked Jesus if he was the messiah, he responded, “Tell them what you have seen and heard.” Claiborne asked this crowd, “If people were to ask us ‘Are you Christians?’ could we say, ‘What do you see and hear?’”
Claiborne, a founding member of the new monastic community called The Simple Way in Philadelphia, Penn., (and author of The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical and Jesus for President: Politics for Ordinary Radicals), reminded Church Unbound conferees that the top three impressions of Christians in our country are that they are anti-gay, judgmental, and hypocritical. “We have a little bit of an identity crisis,” he added.
“One thing I’ve learned from liberals and conservatives,” he reflected. “We can have all the right answers and still be mean.”
Claiborne elevated Mother Theresa as an example of one who rose above that mentality. “She had such a passion for unborn babies [that she showed it] not by wearing a tee-shirt about ‘abortion is murder’ but by coming alongside women in need and saying, ‘If you’ll have your baby, I’ll help raise it.’”
Reflecting on the vision for the church unbound, Rick Ufford-Chase opined, “It’s not just a younger generation but a next generation of folks of all ages that are desperate for a new kinds of church.” Ufford-Chase, the former General Assembly Moderator and present executive director of the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship and of the Stony Point Conference Center in N.Y., invited comments from two dynamic smaller church pastors.
Bill Golderer, organizing pastor of the Broad Street Ministry in Philadelphia ministers to a congregation that has grown rapidly to 200-300 in attendance, of whom 60% are persons of color and 20% are homeless. “When you start these endeavors, we Presbyterians think we’re doing due diligence and we’re not. We do demographics studies — it’s an acquisitional mentality. That (is) no way to begin.”
The post-recruitment, post-acquisitional approach to church development is far more risky because it assumes that the church should break out of a single demographic target audience. “Getting people of all kinds of cultures together in worship is not fun. It is frightening.” He added, “If you do church in a new way — church unbound — don’t expect an award or a book deal.” He added, alluding to Brian Blount’s address the evening before, “The dragon is us.”
Maggie Lauterer, pastor of the small but rapidly growing First Church of Burnsville, in rural western North Carolina (worship attendance has grown from about 12 to nearly 200 over the past few years), reflected on the many radical changes made in her congregation that have turned it around — done in large part to make the church more welcoming for the unchurched. Among them, “The coats and ties have disappeared from our church, so the people who come in feel normal.”
In the afternoon plenary, Mark Lomax kept pressing difficult questions. The founding pastor of First Afrikan Church in Lithonia, Ga., assistant professor of homiletics and, presently, acting dean at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta, asked, “Where are we when the church is such a friend of empire that the church is never attacked by empire?”
He spoke hopefully about a new wave of transformation moving through the church, returning it to its fundamental role of being the salt of the earth. But we must not lose our savor, he warned. “Where I live church people act like everybody else until they come to church. Then they get pious.”
The day concluded with a sermon from Jim Singleton, pastor of First Church in Colorado Springs, which urged the conferees to unbind a passion for the harvest. “What would it look like to do this good news sharing — to enter into this harvest — that allows people to come into relationship with Jesus Christ?” he asked. We have to face up to the dragon, the impediment of our own collective introversion: the average Presbyterian shares his or her faith about once in every 15 years.
Reflecting on the history of evangelism in the old PCUS (the topic of his Ph.D. dissertation), he reminded that the annual reports filed by churches a century ago always asked, “How are you establishing your church beyond its bounds?” The denomination of old, indeed, expected to be a church unbound.
Having reflected on the different forms of chains that bind it, those attending this conference completed their day in worship and in anticipation of becoming unbound. Where might this go?