It is time for congregations to develop protocols for responding to hate initiatives on their doorsteps.
As the intolerant lose any self-discipline in lashing out at others, we can expect a fresh round of cross-burnings, gay-bashing graffiti, and online vitriol. At an Episcopal church in Delaware last weekend, for example, worshipers returned to their cars to find leaflets attacking them for being an inclusive church.
Such incidents are happening throughout our deeply divided nation, as well as in European states dealing with ethnic diversity and neo-Nazism. If your church, or its denomination, is identified as being gay-affirming, performing same-sex weddings, welcoming women into leadership, collaborating with Jews and Muslims, or honoring racial diversity, including mixed-race couples, you can expect to be noticed and, increasingly, targeted.
Will that mean 100 hate initiatives, or a thousand, or a million? There's no way to know. But being prepared seems sadly necessary.
Here are some suggested protocols for handling hate initiatives affecting your congregation:
This past weekend I was in Arizona visiting family. I live in New York City; most of my Arizona family live in small mining towns in the southeast part of the state, so I don’t see them often. It’s very hot there, but it’s also beautiful. The highways cut through hills covered in cacti and scrub brush. There are low mountains on the horizon and lots of bright blue sky.
Much of my family on my dad’s side has lived their entire lives in Arizona. Many of them work for the nearby copper mine. They also love to talk and tell stories, so I when I’m there I spend a lot of time listening.
It’s easy in New York or in the Episcopal Church to spend most of my time with people just like me. Most of my Facebook friends are liberal college graduates and so are most of the people I regularly interact with at work. Leaving New York and listening to my family’s stories exposes me to a different life and a slightly different way of seeing the world. Many of their lives have had a very different trajectory than mine. Around kitchen tables my aunt talked about her faith and my grandmother recounted memories of her life in a small town. She turned 80 this past weekend, and so she has many stories to tell, some happy and some not.
Not surprisingly, a tangential remark led to a rich conversation at one of the many meetings we’ve been having among the Episcopal churches in southern Maryland. “The fact is that the numbers get you to understand the need for institutional collaboration very quickly,” said the treasurer of one of the congregations represented. “In our congregation,” he added, “the pledging and giving trends are skewed toward complete unsustainability: older, more established members are giving at levels so much higher than younger, newer members.”
This is an undeniable trend, he was saying, and this numerical fact, alone, should speak to and spur on our work with real haste and creativity. At this rate, The Episcopal Church in southern Maryland will look radically and fundamentally different when my daughter (now almost 7 years old) will enter high school. We’re not talking about another generation or two; we’re talking about a few more years. As any casual church leader might suspect, statements like this can kick off passionate conversation.
It also kicked off an investigation and further research. Joey Rick, canon for congregational vitality in our Episcopal Diocese of Washington, has been sitting with us at these meetings in southern Maryland, helping facilitate and give guidance to our discernment. Later that week, Joey sent this very question out to clergy and leaders in our wider diocesan community: If you were to analyze giving and pledging trends in your congregation, what trends and patterns would you realize?
The numbers and trends are not comforting. To be fair, Joey only got 16 responses; it was early June when she sent out that email. Nor did all of them quote numbers; some gave rough percentages. She called it a “Compilation of Responses,” not an analysis, per se, but here’s what she found:
There’s tradition, Episcopal style, and then there’s rock royalty. A congregation in the heart of Kentucky decided to marry the two for a good cause.
When the local food pantry needed help, the folks at St. John’s, Versailles, got creative. They held a Beatles-themed Eucharist, with the offering earmarked for the pantry. Instead of hymns, the congregation sang Beatles songs, some of which were tweaked slightly to be more faith-focused.
Before we move too far, let me offer an important caveat: I’m not a fan of gimmicky worship. Our tradition is rich and broad, and I don’t think we need to “spruce it up” with the latest and greatest. But for me, there are some important exceptions. I still get goose bumps when I think of my first U2charist. The merging of my tradition with some of U2’s soul-stirring songs moved me deeply. When Michael Curry, then a priest and now presiding-bishop elect of The Episcopal Church, took to the pulpit, my heart was laid open, primed by music that had fed a searching teen.
I wouldn’t want a U2charist every Sunday but on the rare occasion, I’ve found the service to be a wonderful companion in my faith journey. I suspect the same would be true of a Beatles Eucharist.
I've always been a little uncomfortable with approaches to church that draw directly from the so-called corporate world. The idea that gospel witness offers an easy parallel with marketing is downright creepy, frankly. And I'm increasingly suspicious of the conventional wisdom that we won't accomplish anything if we don't have "measurable goals" to work towards.
In this time of tremendous cultural change for the church, expecting that we are going to shape the future by our ability to envision "outcomes" seems the height of arrogance, and also a sadly impoverished approach to our call to be faithful. A part of the legacy of mid-twentieth century church success (as measured by market share) is limited imagination. The scope of what most of us can imagine church to be is simply too small for the era we inhabit.
In our ministry here in Los Angeles, we are experimenting with other ways to envision our part in shaping the future. We refer to our approach as "ten steps."
We have identified several areas of our church and community life where the Spirit seems to be on the move. In each of those areas, we have worked out ten steps that we will take to strengthen relationships, train leaders, reach out the community, offer space, plan creative liturgies, offer opportunities for spiritual growth and Christian formation, and so on.