Thoughts on the Future of Mars Hill

My good friend Shane Hipps announced this past weekend that he will be leaving Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, MI. He explained the circumstances of his departure on his blog. First I’ll just say that Shane is a friend and so I don’t pretend to be an objective observer here. Secondly, I’d like to say that the sky is the limit for Shane. Wherever he ends up is irrelevant. He has a great deal to offer others and I’d bet the farm that will not change.

Third, what has gone on over the past year at Mars Hill illuminates an inherent tension that we all encounter- Change is difficult. Beginning with Rob Bell and continuing with the addition of Shane Hipps, Mars Hill has been a community led by a spirit of provocation, pushing boundaries, and asking questions that often lead to a profound disorientation of “what we know to be true.” The teaching ministry of Mars Hill has been the oil in the lamp of a global community of people who have rejected the status quo carried on by the rusty, inactive propositions of conventional Christian belief.

It’s no secret that while the teaching coming out of Mars Hill has had an immeasurable impact in the lives of many, the church’s organizational structure has not been smooth, to put it nicely. Staff turnover is a regular occurrence and there’s really no point in time where you could say they’ve found their institutional groove.

The reality is that provocation and evolution don’t play nicely with stability and organizational harmony. I encounter this very tension in the balance between art and business. While churches and rock bands are entirely difference fields, the tension is very much the same. The more you push boundaries, the more disgruntled folks you will encounter.

As a community led by a provocative spirit, Mars Hill has struggled organizationally and that’s shouldn’t be a big shock. It’s simply hasn’t been in it’s nature to be a consistent, well-oiled machine. But that’s forgivable in light of the impact the teaching has had for many. But maybe after the departure of Bell, this organization is looking to minimize the very spirit that birthed their community for the sake of efficiency and stability. How else do you explain the move by the church leadership to go from their previous structure of Rob Bell, along with Shane Hipps, leading the community and shaping the vision through their teaching to the placement of a full-time teaching pastor under the authority of an executive pastor? And what teaching pastor who delivers anywhere near the caliber of teaching that Mars Hill is used to will accept that role? I’m curios to see how it shakes out and I sincerely hope they stay true to the spirit of provocation that has blessed so many.

Virtual Church Debate Round-Up (and why I’m partially wrong on the matter)

There has been a fair amount of conversation floating around the web lately regarding the proposed validity of “virtual church.” Doug Estes, author of the book Sim Church, posted a defense of virtual church on the Out of Ur blog. Scot Mcknight chimed in on his blog. Nick from the Nick and Josh podcast asked me to take part in a little conversation about the matter. Bob Hyatt has provided the most thoughtful push back on this issue, raising questions that the most notable proponents of virtual church seem to just push aside, as to not even acknowledge Bob’s effective critique.

It’s been great to read all the varying opinions while processing this issue. It’s an issue that clearly exposes a fundamental shift in the way the usefulness web has altered the way we perceive and experience relationships. Through it all I’ve found a little bit of a change of heart in how I view the validity of virtual church.

I do believe that this push for the validation of virtual church truly comes from good intention and a longing to serve the needs of others. Doug Estes seems to be coming at this from a more evangelical strategy. For him it seems to be a matter of simple math. There are millions of people who spend 40 plus hours surfing the web each week and how can we convert them while not requiring them to actually join a local church community. As if encouraging folks to go to a join a local church community is a cruel “colonization” of a lost soul. It’s an argument that says that the conversion experience should be one of ease and convenience. This begs the question, is the Gospel message itself one of convenience?

But there is another aspect of this that I hadn’t really considered before until I began a back and forth with Kimberly, a pastor of the virtual church Koinonia found in the virtual, web based world of Second Life. You can read the back and forth here. The blog comments led to a video chat between myself and Kimberly that gave me a more full understanding of what this community is all about. Koinonia is a small community of folks where more than half of the congregation are GLBT. They have found something profound in their experience in Koinonia that they simply haven’t found in “first life” church communities. While many members of Koinonia do participate in first life church community, there is an aspect of this virtual church that serves the desperation of folks who’ve been deeply wounded by their previous church experience. In many ways, it serves as a spiritual triage for folks who’ve no where else to go. As a pastor, Kimberly comes along side these folks and enforces to them that they are accepted and loved by God and the community. As you might imagine, this very well may be the first time a congregant of Koinonia has ever experienced such a feeling. As a white, married, heterosexual male, I could never pretend to understand the obstacles that gays have experienced in the Church so I regret that my previous critique of virtual church never really took this into consideration. I can say with great confidence that the (C)hurch is much better off with the Koinonia community doing what it does. If Kimberly senses that one of the congregants is hoping for a first life community that resembles their experience at Koinonia, she does what she can to research and help them find a local community for them to try out.

The overall fear I still have is that while these kinds of options can be very helpful for folks, we are not paying attention to the way the web is altering the way we fundamentally view relationships. We can all agree that our most important, meaningful relationships are at their best when physical proximity is an essential value. We don’t talk about virtual parenting or virtual marriage as valid forms of relationships. I think the same should be said for the Church. The web burns into our conscience an ethic that if we don’t like something we can just delete, unfollow, or edit out of our lives. It sells us the notion that we deserve an experience that is 100% deferential to our preferences. While I don’t desire to argue over the semantics of what is and isn’t church, I still believe the push back on the unblinking acceptance of virtual church is very much needed.

Practice of the Better

“New structures that can make the emerging church possible cannot be in opposition to any existing church structures; they cannot be against anything but merely for Something. “The best criticism of the bad is the practice of the better” is one of our core principles at the Center for Action and Contemplation.

Don’t waste the next years of your life being against anybody, anything, any group, any supposed sin, or any institution. Just go ahead and do it better yourself. It’s so common sense when you hear it. As Mohandas Gandhi put it, “Be the change you hope to see in the world.” And in the church!”

— Richard Rohr, What is the Emerging Church

These words cut me down to an inch. My shadow is often luring me down the war path. I pray God opens my heart to those I so readily oppose. It’s so much easier to oppose than to enter into a “practice of the better.”

Gays in the Church Part 8: Inclusion or Exclusion

This will be the last post in this series and, in the end, I hope I was able to at least cast some doubt on the previously held assumptions that seem so prevalent in Christianity today. The arguments against homosexuality based on scripture are not as rock solid as many would like to believe and I hope I’ve at least shed some light in that regard. Ultimately, whether or not one believes homosexuality is inherently sinful is not the only aspect of this debate that is essential. The heart of this issue rests between exclusion and inclusion. Rick Warren is fat and overeats while many in this world starve. Yet millions of Christians look past this and hold Warren in very high regard. Mark Driscoll is an arrogant ego-maniac who uses foul language, yet thousands of Christians see past these faults in oder to embrace him as a prominent leader (and in the interest of full disclosure, I’m all of these things I accuse Warren and Driscoll of being so my intent here isn’t to cast stones. Fat, overeating, arrogant, potty-mouthed ego-maniacs UNITE!!). Even if one believes homosexuality is a sin, that should not keep them from accepting homosexuals into full participation into the Church. That is the beauty of the Church is that we accept who we are, who God has made us to be despite the sin we never quite rid ourselves of.

Ask yourselves if you would ever accept a former mass murderer as a lead pastor of your church. If your answer is no, then maybe your reliance on the Apostle Paul’s words in the New Testament is a bit hypocritical seeing that he saw it fit to systematically murder folks who didn’t have the same religious beliefs that he did. As we look back, even if we might find some faults, Paul’s writings are an amazing gift to the Christian tradition that should be cherished and relied upon. The lesson here is that if we categorically dismiss people because of what we perceive as evil-doing, then we may be robbing ourselves of extraordinarily rich contributions to our Christian communities.

Gays in the Church Part 7: The Pastor’s Quandary

Recently, Tony Jones made a plea for all Christian leaders who are affirming of same-sex relationships to publicly state their support and “come out of the closet” so to speak. I certainly understand Tony’s desire for others to show their hand and in the case of non-pastors, I completely agree with him. But when it comes to pastors, I don’t think it’s necessary and, in the end, could ultimately be hurtful. I have friends who are pastors that find themselves on both sides of this issue and I really do appreciate the way they all take the issue very seriously and continue to wrestle with how this issue impacts their communities.

For pastors, I don’t believe a heavy hand is helpful at all. This is an issue that has and will work itself out on the basis of the various consensuses that each church community or denomination builds on its own. And when a pastor does decide to step out and decide to publicly state his or her affirmation, one hopes they do so after listening closely to the heartbeat of their church. Yes, people will leave but the beauty of the power of consensus is that there are other churches out there with a consensus for all kinds of perspectives.

Selfishly, I really do understand Tony’s call for folks to damn the consequences and publicly state what they believe on this issue. For me this impulse is rooted in the desire to nudge progress along a bit faster than it’s current pace. But the good news for those on the affirming side of this issue is that the needle has been and continues to move in our direction. Recently, a poll was released in by the Des Moines Register showed that while folks in Iowa are pretty much split down the middle on the issue, 95% of those polled believe that since same-sex marriage has been legalized in Iowa, it has not impacted their lives negatively. Even at the recent Value Voters Summit, opposition to gay marriage has fallen dramatically as a key issue to only 7% of folks citing it as their most pressing concern (down from last year’s 20% result).

There seems to be a trend where the disconnect between Biblically literalism and direct human experience with homosexuals is growing further and further apart, much in the same way it is with the views of women’s roles in the Church. I’ve covered that ad nauseum so I’ll spare y’all the repetition. In short, as we continue to debate this issue, I do believe the cracks in the conservative dam are very real and widening ever more. Yeah, it would be great to take a wrecking ball to the dam and help progress along but I think it better to spend that energy convincing conservatives and moderates that the new river resulting from this faulty dam will ultimately be a very good thing. It might actually be enjoyable! That’s where the pastor should be be focusing their energy: promoting a new, gradually formed river. Not wrecking an already faulty dam. Leave the wrecking ball to evil, hedonist, secular, rock musicians who don’t give a shit about book deals with Christian publishers and conference organizers.

Gays in the Church Part 6: Divorce and Remarriage

As I noted in part one of this series, much of the genuine concern from conservatives on this issue is driven by the fear that the truth found in the Bible is being demoted in favor of the winds of cultural change. The perception of conservatives is that if they lose ground on this issue, then how can the Bible continue to act as a foundation or a standard for how we view the world and and how live our lives in a God-pleasing way. It’s easy to understand the anxiety and worry of conservatives given the stakes the issue raises. While I do believe it is imperative for those who are open and affirming on the issue to really understand the conservative anxiety, we must ask ourselves why this anxiety appears to be so pronounced with this issue and not others.

This issue, after all, is an issue of sexual impurity. If we are to take at face value what the Bible teaches about sexual immorality, homosexual activity is only one of the many facets to sexual sin. Sodomy (both heterosexual and homosexual varieties), intercourse during menstruation are a few examples but the one I want to get into in this post is divorce and remarriage.

If the conservative side of the argument relies on taking the six verses about homosexuality at face value, then they must also take what Jesus himself teaches about divorce and remarriage:

Matthew 5:31,32

“It has been said, `Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’ But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery.

There are other verses but the one above pretty much sums it up. The question this raises in my mind is that if conservatives are ultimately fearful that affirming same-sex relationships will somehow undermine biblical instruction and send us careening down a slippery slope of relativity and promiscuity, then why do they not have the same concern when it concerns heterosexual adultery. If you are a member of the church and concerned about this issue, ask yourself if you’ve been losing sleep at night because there is a couple in your church that has been remarried after a divorce not resulting from an adulterous affair? If the issue of remarried divorcees doesn’t cause you fear or concern, then why not? One would have to deduce that your fears of sexual immorality are not consistent with biblical instruction and must be influenced by something outside of what conservatives would call God’s ideal clearly laid out in the Bible.

What I hope conservatives can recognize is that is they themselves have already let the cat out of the bag. The can of worms is already ajar. The troubling thing for me is that the implications of the issue of homosexuality have already been reverberating around the Christian tradition long before the gay issue has caused its stir. The failure for conservatives to universally and resoundingly sound the alarm for what the Bible calls heterosexual impurity has left their current fear over homosexual sexual impurity in a rather hallow and withered state. They are launching their supposed biblical argument from a very shaky, rickety foundation that they’ve neglected long ago.

Gays in the Church Part 5: Paul’s Understanding of “Nature”

Romans 1:21-32 (NIV)

For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like mortal man and birds and animals and reptiles.

Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator—who is forever praised. Amen.

Because of this, God gave them over to shameful lusts. Even their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones. In the same way the men also abandoned natural relations with women and were inflamed with lust for one another. Men committed indecent acts with other men, and received in themselves the due penalty for their perversion.

Furthermore, since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind, to do what ought not to be done. They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless. Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.

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It’s essential to ask what the reason is for Paul’s condemnation of this clearly homosexual behavior. The reference is an analogy to the way in which Romans, having had the opportunity to follow the one true God, persist in polytheism. Paul uses the example of heterosexuals, who have the capacity to be engaged in authentic heterosexual conduct, who yet decide to spurt the “natural use” of their bodies in order to “burn in their lust” for members of the same gender. This is the end of the reference; once the analogy has been drawn, the main point can be engaged. But it’s still clear that Paul regards the perversion of heterosexuality to be a crime against the nature of the people involved.

But we should note that this is not a crime against “nature” as such; it’s a crime against the nature of individual heterosexuals. What Paul is describing here is heterosexuals engaging, against their own nature, in homosexual behavior. Just as the Romans after the revelation of Christ, these people can clearly do otherwise; they are resisting their own destiny.

Could this condemnation apply to people who are by their own nature homosexual? Unfortunately, Paul never explicitly addresses this point, since he seems to assume that every individual’s nature is heterosexual. But if we accept that some people are involuntarily homosexual, then the entire point become much more complicated. Indeed, to follow the logic completely, it is reversed. For by Paul’s argument, the key issue is that individuals act according to their own nature as it is revealed to them (as Christ was revealed to the Romans). By this logic, the person who is by his own nature homosexual would be acting against his nature by engaging in heterosexual acts. His destiny is homosexuality, just as the destiny of the Romans after Christ was monotheism.

Those who invoke Paul, then, have to make a further point to add to his. They have to assert that all people are by their own nature drawn to people of the opposite sex, and make a conscious and willful choice to rebel against it. Without invoking a general natural law, which was unknown to Paul, they have to say that each of us has his own heterosexual calling, and that our abandonment of it is deliberate and perverse.

This, of course, is the crux of the debate for prohibitionists have with others. They are confronted with a mass of data suggesting that the vast majority of people engaging in homosexual acts regard these acts as an extension of their deepest emotional and sexual desires, desires which they do not believe they have chosen and which they cannot believe are always and everywhere wrong. The psychiatric profession has concurred in this analysis. Historians record that in virtually all societies, there are records not only of homosexual acts but of distinct homosexual identities and communities and subcultures. Even the prohibitionists themselves have found it impossible to avoid the term “homosexual,” conceding by their very language that some people, by their own nature, appear predominantly or exclusively attracted to members of their own sex. If this is true, then Paul’s broad argument that people should not subvert their own nature actually becomes an argument against the prohibitionists and not in favor of them.

— Andrew Sullivan, Virtually Normal

Gays In The Church Part 3: The Slippery Slope

I have some more thoughts on this subject and will continue to post them, but I was checking out Tony Jones blog today and he has posted a video response to the “slippery slope” argument against accepting same-sex, monogamous relationships. His clip reminded me of an old post of mine on the same subject that I thought would be worth re-posting today. Here it is:

My friend Dan Kimball recently asked a question on his blog that I thought was pretty interesting:

“If someone is voting for and believes in defining marriage beyond one man and one woman, then why wouldn’t they also believe in the allowance of polygamous marriages provided those wanting to get married also love each other and are committed to each other?”

First let me say that I think the world of Dan and consider him an extremely wise voice in the greater Christian community. I’ve had to chance to hang out with on a few occasions and I have a great respect for the man. Additionally, I don’t want to assume Dan’s position on SSM as it relates to Prop 8 or civil rights. I’m just addressing this question and not Dan’s overall position, whatever that may be…..and I’ll leave that up to him to communicate.

So with that said, and before I try to answer Dan’s questions, I want to point out that I think the question leaves some pretty big stones unturned. First, our society as a whole (Christians included) has already accepted that marriage today is not the same as marriage was when the bible was written. For example, we’ve already discarded polygamy as a valid form of marriage, which was not prohibited, across the board, for all members of the church in the NT. Another example would be that divorce has become commonplace and increasingly accepted, even within the Christian community. So if one is to say that marriage is exclusively between one man and one woman, forever, they have come to that conclusion while relying largely on their own rationale derived from experience and cultural understanding, not from a strict adherence to what the scriptures say on these various matters. If this isn’t the case, then why aren’t proponents of this view doing all they can to legislate an end to the entire concept of divorce, along with banning same-sex marriage. If one shares the view of “one man, one woman” but doesn’t fight to eliminate any kind of marital practice that deviates from that formula, then “definitions” obviously don’t matter a whole lot…..at least when it comes to heterosexual, post-biblical marriage practices. And maybe that’s the problem. Maybe it’s as simple as gay sexual relations being perceived as inherently “naughtier” than heterosexuals who commits adultery by entering into multiple marriages (or the more snappier name, “polygamy in intervals”). If definitions were that important, that battle would have been fought a long time ago.

Another issue this question doesn’t consider is the way in which consensus forms our understandings of what constitutes valid marriage practices. Polygamy as an issue has been around a very long time. We’ve come to the place we are today because of a consensus that has been built over thousands of years. As the status of women in the world has risen, the practice of polygamy has plummeted. There has been a pretty overwhelming sense that polygamy is not a healthy marital practice and that consensus has maintained itself for hundreds of years, proving to be very sturdy. On the other hand, it seems that the consensus on same-sex marriage is in serious trouble, and I don’t think it’s shakiness is any kind of fluke. Even within the different generations of Christians today, we can find pretty significant differences on the various perspectives with the younger generations being more affirming than their elders.

So to answer Dan’s question, in my opinion, it’s very reasonable to deny the validity of polygamy while affirming the validity of SSM. Polygamy, as it stands in the mainstream culture of marriage, is already dead and buried and it’s not coming back. You can put together the most effective and convincing argument for polygamy and spend billions of dollars promoting your argument and it wouldn’t change a damn thing. It’s been rejected because whatever argument you come up with can’t breakthrough the negative, demeaning experiences of human beings that polygamy has left in its wake. On the other hand, SSM isn’t facing the same stiff opposition. Yeah, it confronts the dogma and certainty of many, but those certainties are sinking in the face of experience and empathy for our gay brothers and sisters who want to be accepted and have their relationships honored like everyone elses. The success of the opponents to SSM won’t hinge on whether they can convince you it’s inherently wrong. Their success will come from the ability to show that the overwhelming majority of experiences of those involved in or touched by SSM have proven to be hurtful and devaluing.

(Update: It seems that Dan’s post that I referenced has been taken down. Sorry for the dead link.)

Gays in the Church Part 2: What Conservatives Should Keep in Mind

In my last post, I talked a bit about the commonalities in this debate that both those on the affirming side and conservative side share. I also offered up some food for thought for liberals in the debate. This post I want to focus on what conservatives could try to keep in mind while engaging the issue.

While I tried to identify some common ground in the previous post, I think it might be helpful to talk about fundamental differences and why they are important to recognize and understand. For someone arguing from the conservative side of the debate, they making a case for how they believe God has ordered the world we live in, our sexual ethics and, as a result, how we allow Scripture to inform how we live today. As I pointed out in the previous post, these are all very significant and valid issues to wrestle with but they pale in comparison to wrestling with one’s very own identity and how that identity informs their deepest desires and longing to be accepted and loved. While conservatives are struggling to make sense of the world around them, homosexuals are struggling to make sense of a universe within themselves. This is a profound difference and I believe it’s one that conservatives should honor. The pain cause by such a struggle is very unlikely understood by heterosexuals who bypass being unjustly made to feel like human malfunctions who are sexually disordered. It isn’t until I’ve heard the stories of friends who’ve endured this do I begin to understand their experience. It is sad to admit that there is no other institution over the course human history that has more blood on it’s hands in this regard than The Church. It’s something as Christians we must face and understand. Until we do, I don’t believe whatever dialogue take place will matter a whole lot.

The current development with the ELCA brings to light this very problem. Many conservatives in the ELCA are feeling hurt and confused by the ELCA’s decision and are considering leaving the denomination altogether. These feelings are valid and understandable but one must also consider what faithful church-going homosexual Lutherans have absorbed their whole lives while remaining committed to their parishes. If you have a hard time empathizing, I’d encourage you to talk to someone you know who is gay and ask them their perspective. If you don’t know anyone who is gay, then maybe that sort of explains part of the problem. I’ll end this post with a profound quote from Andrew Sullivan explaining why, as a gay man, he remains a devout Catholic:

“I am a Catholic and people often ask me, how can you be openly gay and be a Catholic? And my response is always I’m openly gay, because I’m a Catholic, because God taught me not to bear false witness to who I am and my faith is something that I really have no choice over. I’ve tried. I’ve had a terrible struggle with my own faith, but God wouldn’t let me go and he keeps bringing me back and he keeps saying to me, in the Eucharist and in the church I love you and you belong here. And I want you to have a loving relationship and I feel that my own relationship is a gift from God. I cannot alone in my conscience before God believe otherwise. So I can do no other. I’m here because I have no choice.”

Amen