Thursday, February 03, 2011

Church Campaign Has Unintended Consequences

The United Methodist Church’s “Rethink Church” campaign has apparently been too successful for its own good. Thousands of longtime church members have taken the campaign’s idea that “spirituality—and church—doesn’t have to be confined to a building, or to a Sunday, to be real” far more seriously than the designers had intended. These formerly good United Methodists have resigned from committees, stopped attending worship and even asked to be dropped from the membership rolls.

Edna Scott spoke for the estimated 12,000 who have dropped out of church after rethinking it. “I’d been attending church regularly for 25 years,” she said. “Then I read the web site where it says ‘look around and see what you think.’ I did, and I was appalled. I can’t believe I wasted so many good years of my life sitting in that dusty old sanctuary with all those people I can’t stand.” Edna got out within a week. She severed all ties with her former congregation. Now she says she has time to do more things that really matter, like walking her dog and taking a leisurely coffee on Sunday morning.

Stan Farkleson, one of the many who left the church after exploring “Rethink Church,” described the experience as liberating. “I loved the part about learning to ‘navigate life’ and ‘care deeply about others and their life stories,’ and it suddenly hit me that I don’t need a weak and declining church in order to do that.” Farkleson left his church and joined a book club.

Denominational officials were scrambling for solutions when a commissioned study revealed that while the campaign was driving out thousands, only 6 people nationwide had visited a United Methodist worship service due to the “Rethink Church” advertising and web site. Some employees of United Methodist Communications suggested revising the concept to “Rethink Church, but Don’t Quit” or a similar idea. Unfortunately, because the denomination’s General Conference does not meet until 2012, no significant changes can be made unless the Conference votes to approve them at that time. A member of the Council of Bishops who wished to remain anonymous admitted that the church could hemorrhage another 30,000 members before the campaign could be “retooled with a new paradigm and a new vision.”

The effectiveness study demonstrated that a full 61% of current members who viewed “Rethink Church” literature were subsequently “seriously disturbed” at the state of the church, while 17% checked the category “this confirms we’re lame.” Only 8% were either “moderately pleased” or “tickled pink,” while an additional 11% marked “we’re screwed.” The final 3% of those surveyed could not read.

These results are particularly deflating when compared with those of the target audience, unchurched adults in the age range of 25-45 who have money and/or children. Only one adult of the 2,492 surveyed indicated a positive experience with the materials, adding in the comments section, “I guess I could try being Mormon.” Approximately 59% of respondents either checked “what the heck is this?” or “I think this turned me into an atheist.” Nearly 36% observed the United Methodist logo and wondered why the church believed in the practice of burning crosses. About 5% of the responses were illegible or obscene.

Retired Bishop Francine McWatters said that though the problems with “Rethink Church” are serious, the church has faced—and overcome—such challenges before. “This isn’t the worst of our marketing mistakes,” she said in a telephone interview. “I remember our “Bring a Leper to Church” campaign of the early 80s. We really should have thought that one through more carefully.”

McWatters’ optimism shined through in her concluding comment: “We’re not buried yet. Our obituary may have been written, and our grave might have been dug, but we’re only half in the grave.” Half in the grave indeed.

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Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Churches Respond to Swine Flu with Faith and Formalin

The initial furor over the Swine Flu outbreak has diminished in recent weeks, but not everyone is pleased. “We can use a little panic now and again to keep us on our toes,” says John Svenson, pastor of Jamestown Lutheran Church in Hillsboro, Oregon. “We need to remain vigilant. ‘Keep awake!’ as Jesus said. Who knows when the next pandemic will hit?”

Even as the flood of news reports coming out of Mexico was still a trickle, Svenson and his flock were planning their strategy. The church’s Committee on Health and Wellness began monitoring CNN 24-hours a day and studying the spread of the virus via the Internet. The group soon had a few simple guidelines to help parishioners protect themselves.

Pastor John Svenson serves Holy Communion
to parishioners at Jamestown Lutheran.

The list included the usual suggestions such as “wash your hands frequently” and “cover your mouth and nose when you sneeze,” but also more intensive steps such as “purchase a hazmat suit” and “build an airtight underground shelter in your back yard.” The committee added some new procedures for all church gatherings, including worship.

Committee chairperson Jean Hawkins sent out a mass e-mail and church wide mailing explaining the new rules. “People didn’t respond too well at first,” said Hawkins, “but after they understood the magnitude of the Swine Flu, they committed themselves to cooperating. Plus, Pastor John threatened to excommunicate anyone who didn’t comply. That was very helpful.”

Some members, however, never did get with the program. “There was no way I was going to let them dunk my kids in a formalin bath before they could go in to Sunday School,” said a visibly upset Carl Hightower. “It was one thing to go through the decontamination chamber, but the bath was overkill.”

Another rule considered onerous by some was the requirement that all worship leaders—including members of the Altar Guild—purchase personal hazmat suits to be worn at all times within the sanctuary. A $200 Disease Control assessment was also sent to members and constituents on the church’s roster. Those who have not yet paid are excluded from Holy Communion.

Other congregations, such as Trinity United Methodist Church in Hiller, Nebraska, established voluntary measures to prevent the spread of the H1N1 virus. “Our folks were very happy to pitch in,” said pastor Mary Lou Stetson. “We see this plague for what it truly is—one of the signs of the end times. Satan has many weapons, and if he wants to attack us with a bundle of RNA within a lipid envelope, we’ll proudly put on our hazmat suits of faith.”

Two congregants participate in the Passing of the Peace at Trinity
United Methodist in Hiller, Nebraska.

Stetson agrees that the new policies—she no longer makes hospital visits, and the congregation uses “pretend” bread and juice for communion, for example—make ministry a little more difficult, but she is willing to sacrifice for the sake of the kingdom of God. “Even if I never touch another human being again,” she said, a tear rolling down her cheek behind the faceplate of her contamination suit, “it will all be worth it, to know that I have played a role in God’s great plan of salvation.”

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Thursday, May 15, 2008

Israel, Palestine Will Give Peace a Chance

AP--Israelis and Palestinians have achieved a momentous breakthrough in their decades-long struggle for peace. After years of conflict, yesterday’s signing of a peace treaty came as a shock. The biggest surprise, however, was that both parties give credit to the National Council of Churches of Christ (NCC) for providing the impetus for the historic events.

Earlier this spring, the NCC passed the resolution “A Call for Peace in Palestine.” The statement declared that “since both Israelis and Palestinians are human beings of sacred worth in the eyes of their Creator, both parties should immediately cease all violence and other acts that demean or injure God’s children in the region.”

The resolution also asked for an immediate meeting between the Israeli government, and representatives of Hamas, Fatah and the Palestinian Authority in order to hammer out an agreement that would allow Palestinian civilians free passage into and out of Israeli-occupied territories. It would also immediately restore services such as electricity and water to those areas. Israeli troops would agree to withdraw fully from Gaza and the West Bank within 6 weeks. In return, the Palestinian organizations would cease all attacks against Israel and would recognize Israel’s right to exist.

Since every other effort at peace thus far has ended in miserable failure, no one had any expectations that the NCC’s call for peace would succeed. Yet, against all odds, that is exactly what happened.

Khaled Haniyeh, a Hamas negotiator, said the NCC resolution provided a moment of stunning clarity for the leadership of Hamas. “We had all been sitting around waiting eagerly for the latest NCC resolution to hit the web site. When it did, and we read the phrase that said people on both sides are of sacred worth, well, it was like a lamp had suddenly been lit in a dark room revealing a truth that had been there all along.”

Benjamin Harel, a senior member of the Cabinet of Israel, says the Israelis had a similar reaction. “The National Council of Churches hit the nail on the head,” said Harel. “It was so clear. Why were we still fighting one another when God just wanted us all to live in peace?”

Within hours, both sides had agreed to meet, and a short time later, the framework for a new treaty was in place. Israelis and Palestinians will from now on “respect one another’s full personhood,” will share an open border, and will keep radio volume to a “tolerable” level after 10:00pm.

NCC General Secretary Michael Kinnamon has only been on the job since last November, and he is humble about this historic accomplishment. “I can see the Spirit of God involved in this process,” he said in a telephone interview. “All we did was write the resolution, debate it, and then vote. God did the rest.”

Even the most skeptical Middle East experts think this peace has a chance to last for a very long time. “There’s something different about the process this time,” said Francis Moody, a director at the Middle East Peace Initiative. “Personally, I think it’s the resolution from the NCC. Everybody knows that resolutions from church councils are extremely effective. I don’t know why we didn’t try this sooner.”

The NCC hopes its next effort will be just as successful. At the next General Assembly, the Council will tackle an even tougher challenge. It hopes to alleviate tensions between Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees fans with a resolution entitled “If You Can’t Cheer, Don’t Say Anything at All.”

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Thursday, May 01, 2008

Man Asks for Fish, Gets Snake Instead

Gerald Calvin, Staff Writer

Jeremy Lamont went fishing and nearly lost his faith in God. It was not that the Big One got away. In fact, he never even got his line into the water. Instead, Lamont ended up in the emergency room at a local hospital, his right arm looking like a giant sausage.

On a warm Saturday afternoon, Lamont decided to take a break from preparing his adult Bible study lesson by going fishing. The text for the lesson had been Luke 11:9, “Ask, and it will be given you.”

“I figured,” said Lamont, “that I would put the scripture into practice.”

He had seen a fat trout beneath an overhang along the river, and for weeks had been trying to catch it. “I tried everything: worms, grasshoppers, lures, even flies. Nothing worked. Then, as I was approaching the river, I remembered a few more verses, particularly, ‘Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for a fish, will give a snake instead of a fish?’

“It seemed like the perfect situation,” continued Lamont. “The Bible spoke about asking for a fish, and here I was, fishing. I prayed, over and over, ‘God, let me catch that fish.’”

At that very moment, Lamont stumbled. As he fell, he tried to protect his valuable fishing rod from damage, and stuck out a hand to catch his balance against a rock. His hand instead slipped between two rocks, where a rattlesnake, hiding in the crevasse, bit Lamont.

“Fortunately, I wasn’t that far from the car, but it hurt like Hades all the way to the hospital. It felt like my hand was in a lake of fire,” he said.

Despite suffering intense pain and severe swelling in his hand and arm, Lamont’s doctors expect him to recover fully. In the meantime, Lamont has given over his Sunday School duties to his assistant for the next several weeks, and he is not sure whether he will ever return.

“My faith has been shaken somewhat. I asked for a fish and got bit by a rattler. Either God has a sense or humor, or He doesn’t exist.”

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Friday, April 25, 2008

Churches Share Help with Al Qaeda

Samantha Tillich, Staff Writer

The War on Terror is a new kind of war. In order to fight this new war, the CIA has been using novel, untested techniques. The latest strategy is to enlist mainline Christian churches for the battle.

The CIA has been recruiting special agents from churches and denominational offices across the country. These agents will then infiltrate Al Qaeda cells in order to teach the terrorist groups one of the staples of modern church life: paperwork. The concept is that the more Al Qaeda is mired in bureaucracy, the less it is able to engage in effective terrorism.

A high-level CIA employee who spoke only on condition of anonymity (though his name rhymes with “Pomas Tarker”) was involved in the first wave of recruiting church members. He said the idea developed from a report that suggested that Al Qaeda is already suffering from organizational malaise. “We hope that by introducing church bureaucrats into Al Qaeda, we can speed the process, and that will lead to a rapid, widespread collapse [of the terrorist organization],” he said.

The September report was released by the Combating Terrorism Center at the United States Military Academy at West Point. The report includes memos from Al Qaeda supervisors who complain about questionable use of funds and sick leave, and failing to submit proper vouchers to Al Qaeda accountants.

The Los Angeles Times, in a story on April 16 (Sebastian Rotella, “Al Qaeda crosses the Ts in ‘terrorist’”), said, “[Captured documents] depict an organization obsessed with paperwork and penny-pinching and afflicted with a damaging propensity for feuds.”

The story also quoted a British official who said that the “blindingly obdurate nature” of the bureaucracy can be deduced from “the retirement packages they offered, the lists of members in Iraq, the insecure attitude about their membership, [and] the rifts among leaders and factions.”

This is precisely why using church members as undercover agents makes such good sense, insists the CIA employee whose name rhymes with Pomas Tarker.

“Churches already know how to do this stuff well,” he said. “Every mainline denomination in the land is up to its ears in paperwork, regulation and institutional doublespeak. They are worried about membership and paying the bills. As churches become more effective at maintaining their institutions, they are becoming less effective at fulfilling their primary mission.

“If we can infect Al Qaeda with that disease,” he continued, “then perhaps they’ll lose members as fast as our churches. Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

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Friday, April 18, 2008

Dial "1" and the Number of the Beast

Bartholomew Dawkins, Staff Writer

Even in the best of situations, telephone area code splits carry the potential of public protest. Businesses must cover the expense of changing stationery. Reprogramming numbers in cell phones and databases is time consuming, and certain area codes--like some zip codes--carry a status that current customers do not want to lose.

The proposed area code split in Florida is not the best of situations, far from it. In March, BellSouth Telecommunications announced it would spawn a new code from the 904 area of Florida’s Atlantic coast. Residents of St. Augustine and nearby communities were immediately up in arms over their new area code, and their outrage was expressed more strongly than usual.

The reason? BellSouth proposed 666 as the new code.

“It’s the mark of the beast,” growled Pastor Tim Robbinsky of Holy Ghost Dove of Peace Apostolic Temple. “BellSouth wants to give the devil a foothold in our nation. If you give that forked-tongued, hoof-footed creature an inch, he’ll take a mile every time. This cannot be allowed to stand.”

“Is this a joke?” St. Augustine Chamber of Commerce President Leonora Poe wondered. “They can’t be serious about this. It would be mean death for our business community.”

BellSouth representatives would not comment on the record, but one employee promised that the 666 area code was not a joke and that the company “has a good reason for this.” It should also be noted that BellSouth’s hold music at the corporate office is a selection of muzac versions of AC/DC, Black Sabbath and Miley Cyrus songs.

Telecommunications expert and theologian Marcus Borg said that BellSouth might not have much of a choice. “There are only so many three-digit numbers available, and it is widely known that AT&T already has all the good ones.”

Most people in St. Augustine do not care why BellSouth chose 666. They are demanding a new number. “I don’t care if we get triple zero. Just give us anything but 666,” said Hillary McCain, president of the hastily formed “St. Augustinians Against Satan,” a collection of citizens who want BellSouth to reconsider.

Not everyone, however, is upset at the potential change. Carl Clements, owner of Satan’s Kittens, a strip club in Old Town, is thrilled. “How perfect is this? We’ll be getting a ton of free publicity out of our new 666 code.

“By the way, Tuesdays are Ladies’ Nights,” noted Clements.

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Wednesday, January 09, 2008

An Ancient Mystery: Could Jesus Baptize Himself?

This is the first in a series of articles on the pressing theological issues of our era.

James Choate-Munitz, Staff Writer

This Sunday, many churches will be remembering one of the key moments in Jesus’ life: his baptism. In the Gospel according to Matthew, John the Baptist protests, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” (Matthew 3:14, NRSV) Jesus, however, is undeterred, and tells John that the act is necessary to fulfill “righteousness.”

Some scholars have maintained that this incident was embarrassing to the early Christian Church, but that the faithful saw it as a necessary part of Jesus’ story. The question that has caused the most bitter disputes throughout the centuries, however, is whether it was absolutely necessary that John baptize the Messiah, or whether Jesus might have been able to baptize himself. This issue opened up a bitter feud in the first generation of Christians, and has only become more acrid in the years since.

The earliest evidence of the rift between those who claimed that Jesus really baptized himself and those who say the scriptures are correct comes from the Gnostic Gospel of Marcus Hissyfit. In that text, disciples Peter and Bartholomew got into a slap fight over the issue. Bartholomew said he would only admit John baptized Jesus “‘over my dead body.’ Peter said, ‘Fine by me,’ and the slapping did commence.” (Gospel of Marcus Hissyfit 21:17, Phillips translation)

A mosaic found in a late 1st Century Roman bath at a private home illustrates how popular the idea of Jesus’ self-baptism had become. The colorful tile renders an image of Jesus pouring water over his own head while a dove hovers above. A figure in the distance, presumably John the Baptist, looks on in amazement. In the lower right corner are the words, in Latin, that read, “Paul said it; I believe it; that settles it.”

Most historians acknowledge that this question directly led to the split between the Roman and Orthodox branches of the faith. The Roman Church argued that Jesus was not ordained and thus not able to baptize anyone. John was a baptizer only by special dispensation from God. The Orthodox theologians countered with the assertion that the Holy Spirit himself ordained Jesus in a quiet ceremony in Galilee before Jesus sought out the waters of the Jordan River. Eventually, the argument sparked violence in the streets and historic division in the Church.

For many centuries, Jesus’ baptism took a back seat to questions about whether or not priests should be allowed to play cards or if it were acceptable for lay people to say the word “Nebuchadnezzar.” Then, a priest named Martin Luther came along to shake the very foundations of his Church.

In 1517, Luther hammered his “One Great Truth Along with 95 Theses” onto a Laundromat door in Wittenburg, Germany. He wrote that “Jesus the Christ, Our Savior, did baptize himself, forever breaking the Devil’s hold on mankind.” The remaining theses, Luther told his mailman, were “really rather unimportant compared to that One Great Truth.” The Protestant Reformation had begun.

Today, most scholars believe that John baptized Jesus, though Jesus could have baptized himself if he wanted to. A few, however, still hold firmly to the idea that Jesus did perform self-baptism. The most notable in the latter group are theologians of the Church of Jesus Christ of Self-baptized Saints. Their argument is that close textual analysis shows that the hidden message in the Gospels is that Jesus baptized himself in the Jordan River.

Not surprisingly, members of the SBS, as the church is frequently known, are persecuted for their faith. It is illegal in 16 states for SBS members to marry one another, and in 9 states, church members cannot purchase root beer.

From the earliest days of the Christian faith, Jesus’ baptism has sparked debate. Could Jesus really have had the authority to baptize himself, as some suggest? Or did John the Baptist do the deed, as the Roman Catholic Church and the Gospels attest? Whatever your opinion, remember one thing: self-baptism is punishable by death in the electric chair in the state of Texas.

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