The Apologetic for Apologetics? What should the American church be talking about?
July 30, 2008 7:16 PM   Subscribe

What should a Christian church that attracts non-Christians -- and that is interested in being relevant to the world -- be talking about today?

I'm helping a group of people to plan out a year of teaching for a Christian church that focuses on alternative approaches to speaking into the lives of post-modern Americans. What should they be teaching?

Specifically, if you went to a Christian church ONLY ONCE, [or for a short period of time] what topic would you want them to be discussing? What would be relevant to YOU, in your life and reality?

For the sake of this exercise/argument, let's assume that you're not going to convince me [or this group of Christians] not to be Christians, nor should you expect that we'll be talking about changing the basic tenets of the faith [i.e., Jesus/Sin/Redemption/etc.]. This question is not intended to be an open forum on whether Christianity is right or wrong, has been or is evil, or the political leanings of some Christians.

HOWEVER, we are VERY open to gnashing teeth [in the forthcoming teaching] about why we believe what we do, whether what we believe makes sense, or whether it has any bearing on America [and the world] in 2008.

We're willing to wrestle with the realities of these basic concepts of the faith, as well as tackle the stickiest of subjects, and we strive to have open -- and sometimes painful -- conversations about God and our world today. We are not a "shiny-happy-people" kind of place, so the more real and gritty the topic, the better. On an average Sunday, nearly 50% of the people that will hear these messages will be non-Christians, new to faith, or people who have previously been hurt by other Christians.

In short: What should a church -- whether Christian or otherwise -- that is interested in being relevant to the world, be talking about today?

[By the way, if you ARE a Christian, I'm really only interested in your response if there's a non-Christian sitting next to you saying, "Hey, ask this question..."]
posted by rubberfish to Religion & Philosophy (45 answers total) 13 users marked this as a favorite
Define "Christian" -- do you actually mean "evangelical" and, in general, fundamentalist non-Catholic?
posted by matteo at 7:22 PM on July 30, 2008

Social justice issues. The only Christians that speak to me in any real way are the people who talk about issues of inequality and poverty and how it's not enough to just love people in your hearts, you have to actually go be proactive to solve some of the problems facing people, both those who can't help themselves and those who have been discriminated against by those in power.
posted by jessamyn at 7:24 PM on July 30, 2008 [7 favorites]

(or, you know, by "non Christian" you mean Jews, Muslims, Hindus, atheists etc?)
posted by matteo at 7:25 PM on July 30, 2008

I'm confused...are you trying to attract non-Christians who are non-Christian because they are some other religion, or are you trying to attract non-Christians who are non-Christian because they aren't religious?
posted by phunniemee at 7:26 PM on July 30, 2008

Certainly social justice discussion has a lot to do with it. But I think you really cannot say enough about how iconography can really pull people who don't go to church into a worship space. If you were imaginative with the space and invited people in to take a look "at the writing on the wall" rather than a preacher, maybe they could make a more reasoned, less-forced choice about whether to accept another faith. Only a suggestion.
posted by parmanparman at 7:30 PM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: @matteo: good clarifying question. I'd guess that "Non-Catholic" is really the relevant answer. "Non-christian" covers about 70% of the world, whether titled [Jewish/Muslim/Baha'i/Shinto/Athiest] or not.
posted by rubberfish at 7:31 PM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: @phunniemee: i don't know anything about you, but i want to know what YOU think an interesting/relevant conversation for a church to have would be. [regardless of groupings or current beliefs of others]

@parmanparman: love the thoughts on space/environment/ethos, but I'm focusing on teaching content that might be outside the norm for a Christian community, no matter what the setting is...
posted by rubberfish at 7:36 PM on July 30, 2008

Frankly, since stem cells, the economy, abortion, Darwin, etc can, with all due respect, be discussed with people who have an actual relevant background -- doctors, economists, geologists, etc -- I think that it's cool to discuss Scripture in Church, not earthly matters -- what Scripture means, how relevant can it be even for people who don't think it's a history book or a contract. I don't thinbk you'd generally go to a hospital or to a geology class to discuss the Book of Job, you know what I mean? Church is church, in my view.

I mean, one doesn't need to believe it really happened to appreciate the depth of the thinking and the poetry of it all. Hope that answers your question.
posted by matteo at 7:38 PM on July 30, 2008

Actions speak louder than words. Do something relevant and the people will come to find out what you have that impresses them so. Let your light shine, but leave the horn-blowing to Gabriel.

What is relevant? Look for needs in your community and do what you can to help meet them. If you can do this without being too obnoxious about what you believe, people will ask you what you believe, and they will really listen.

*speaking as a secular humanist/recovering Nazarene*
posted by mds35 at 7:38 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

I'd want to hear discussion about war- can it ever be the right thing to do? If so, is there anything that is never right, regardless of circumstances? (I'm thinking torture, but there are many other possibilities). The apparent lack of conflict between 'support our troops' and 'thou shalt not kill' is intriguing to me.

Also, I'd be interested in issues that are specifically due to (or interact with) the church, such as AIDS in Africa and the continued support of abstinence-only education. What is the Christian stance on this? How does the hardline position fit in with Jesus' teachings of compassion and neighbour loving?

In general, I'd aim for topics that have lots of publicity due to fundamentalist Christian groups, and offer an alternative viewpoint (I'm assuming your church is not an ultra-conservative one).
posted by twirlypen at 7:40 PM on July 30, 2008

teaching by example rather than preaching, getting your house in order before "helping" others, social responsibility besides just social justice since social justice has been known to come at the expense of others, the philosophy of putting others first rather than the worship of the human reflection of god, you know, the message and not just the messenger. Good practical rubber meets the road stuff
posted by Redhush at 7:42 PM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: @mds35: I LOVE the sentiment in your answer. [check out Prov. 11:10, and you'll see what I mean]. But in reality, I'm not asking about this as an independent outreach to the heathen, without other involvement in the community. The church group in question is actually involved in some incredibly non-church-like endeavors to transform the neighborhood they exist in. What I'm looking for is the questions they should be wrestling with in the midst of being DEEPLY involved in community transformation. [think HIV action, impoverished neighborhood development, culture cultivation].

We already have a tremendous influx of non-Christians talking with us and attending out church - I'm really interesting in pushing the boundaries of what we should be discussing with them.

Wow, I dig the brains in here. Keep it coming!
posted by rubberfish at 7:46 PM on July 30, 2008

How to spread compassion to others.

By "compassion" I mean the kind of other-focused thinking and action that lets people trust each other enough to build communities and make life better for everyone. A generous and empathetic morality that chooses to trust, and forgives.

By "how to spread" I mean without using fairy-tale carrots ("You'll go to heaven and it will be wonderful") or sticks ("You'll go to hell, or be punished like this other guy was"). I'm talking about things like living by example, or telling stories like Jesus did. Whatever y'all got up your sleeve; I sure as heck don't have the answers. But I'm sure you and your congregation can come up with lots of ways that don't work, including legislation and conquest. It would be great to focus on _other_ methods that actually work over the long term (like, say, 2000 years).

By "others" I mean the good old Christian definition of "neighbors" that includes everyone - whomever you touch, and even people you touch indirectly.

The internal conflicts that people feel often come down to a lack of clear purpose. Here's a purpose.
posted by amtho at 7:49 PM on July 30, 2008

To clarify: it sounds like you're talking about church members who want to help, and who mostly are able to love others. Sharing that spirit, without necessarily having to spread belief in a higher power, would multiply your efforts.
posted by amtho at 7:52 PM on July 30, 2008

What is "culture cultivation?"

And what are the non-church-like endeavors you speak of? I'm curious, only because I think churches stop way too short of doing the things they should do if they purport to live as Christ called them to. I also think they talk too much about what they believe or how the Bible is relevant. I really do think the answer to your question is to do more to help your community and to say less about your good news until specifically asked.
posted by mds35 at 7:54 PM on July 30, 2008

Distance yourself and your church from the idiotic flat-earth scientific claims made by fundamentalists ("the earth is 6000 years old", "evolution is impossible", "pi = 3.00"), and focus on altruism and social justice.
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 7:56 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

How to resist being co-opted by politicians and how to resist the influence of religious people who desire political power. Too many churches take sides in issues that have nothing to do with the church, as much as some churchgoers have interests outside the church. Ironically this would involve institutionalizing the Establishment clause of the Constitution, but history tells us that it's there for your protection.
posted by rhizome at 8:04 PM on July 30, 2008

Response by poster: @mds35: sorry if i've offended with "culture cultivation", but we are a community with an artistic bent, and believe that economics are not the only measure of community development, so therefore seek to support and cultivate the distinctive culture of our neighbors.
I really don't want to get off on a tangent, but the the non-church-like endeavors I mentioned are exactly that: pretty much what you wouldn't expect from a typical christian church: HIV/AIDS testing clinics that provide no judgement, just free testing and [non-religiously-affiliated] medical support, economic development projects [instead of thanksgiving-day-soup-kitchen ministry], etc.
Really, what I'm asking is, regardless of what you think of the church, and what it SHOULD be doing, what should it be TALKING ABOUT with people -- so that the things it DOES make sense and are relevant, and impactful in a world with infinite need.
posted by rubberfish at 8:09 PM on July 30, 2008

HIV/AIDS testing clinics that provide no judgement, just free testing and [non-religiously-affiliated] medical support, economic development projects [instead of thanksgiving-day-soup-kitchen ministry], etc.

Hats off to you guys for doing these things.
posted by mds35 at 8:13 PM on July 30, 2008

Really, what I'm asking is, regardless of what you think of the church, and what it SHOULD be doing, what should it be TALKING ABOUT with people -- so that the things it DOES make sense and are relevant, and impactful in a world with infinite need.

You seem like an earnest and well-meaning person and I like you for even asking this question. I don't pretend to know THE answer to your question, but I offer mine. My answer is "nothing." The church should be talking about nothing until/unless it realizes why it is relevant and how to meet needs with words and not deeds.
posted by mds35 at 8:23 PM on July 30, 2008 [2 favorites]

Having re-read your question I feel like a jerk. Obviously you're not going to spend a year in silence: I'm helping a group of people to plan out a year of teaching for a Christian church that focuses on alternative approaches to speaking into the lives of post-modern Americans. What should they be teaching?

So my final answer is the Sermon on the Mount. Some good stuff in there that makes sense to non-believers as well.
posted by mds35 at 8:36 PM on July 30, 2008

One thing that interests me intellectually [as an ex quasi-Christian1] is the degree that the modern body of Christ can move beyond the dictates followed by the bronze age tribes of Israel (which have negative relevance to me now] and the various recorded teachings of Paul to the nascent Church.

Is the surviving epistels of Paul the last word of what Christianity can be? The fundies seem to believe so.

1 I went to Church as directed mainly out of general familial obedience, plus all the hot chicks didn't hurt
posted by yort at 8:43 PM on July 30, 2008

Shortly after 9/11 I had the privilege of spending a day with Father Roy Bourgeois. The day was originally planned as workshop to educate and prepare people who were planning on going to the annual protest at the School of the Americas, and that is how we spent the first half of it. But after lunch, we all got in a circle and had a group discussion about everything that was going on in those days—the fear, the tensions running high, the drums of war—and how we might possibly tackle all these issues in a way that was loving and compassionate and productive.

I was quite the stereotypical college middle class radical in those days. I had my positions, I'd preach them with anyone who'd talk to me about them, and I argued to win. I'd recently pissed off several family members and a couple of dorm members because, well, I was a little shit. I don't think my ideas were wrong, per se, but I was full of anger and frustration about what I was seeing and I was expressing it in ways that were hurtful. The talk we had that afternoon helped me take a step back from all that, and was my first nudge towards a better course.

To this day I think of Father Bourgeois as a shining example of how the Church can drive people to do incredible acts of good for the world. A lot of that is inspired by his work in South America, and then on SOA Watch. But it's also equally inspired by my memories of that afternoon. His ideas and his manner of reaching out to people reflect both his strong commitment to social justice, and the devotion to Christ and Christ's love which nurtures that commitment. As someone who grew up around the Catholic Church but not in it, I found his teaching very insightful and moving.
posted by brett at 9:04 PM on July 30, 2008

I wholeheartedly disagree with Matteo about the idea that "church is church." Absolutely not; church and being a Christian (or fill in whatever faith you like here) are entwined. How can one not inform and influence the other? How do I know how to live as a Christian if I'm not taking church into the world? How could I leave my life and my "self" behind when I walk into a church?

Matteo's example of discussions of bioethics is exactly the sort of thing I'd love to hear more about. Not necessarily in a sermon, but I don't think that's what you're asking for. A church could invite speakers from different realms and perspectives to speak about a particular aspect of bioethics, and the pastor could weigh in as well.
posted by runningwithscissors at 9:09 PM on July 30, 2008

As a former Christian turned agnostic, what I'm most interested in is action. How does your congregation live the teachings of Christ? How are those teachings and the Bible in general relevant to modern life?

One reason my family is so comfortable with the UU fellowship is that they really strive to live tenets of faith that have an impact on the community around them. But were I to have leaned ever so slightly toward the theistic, we'd be going to the Presbyterian church down the road that does pretty much just as good a job at walking the talk.
posted by padraigin at 9:22 PM on July 30, 2008

Get this book recently released by the Barna Group. It speaks a lot to what you're looking for, and even has a few sections on churches that implemented your idea.
posted by niles at 9:55 PM on July 30, 2008

In my mind, if Jesus stressed anything, it was loving your neighbor as yourself. Today, that neighbor-love is sorely lacking, though people still love themselves. In this vein, Jesus strikes me as someone who rejected, violently, the world around him - a world which said why love a prostitute? who cares about a stupid leper? - and tried to create a community of followers who would perpetuate the message that all the trappings of life, including the prejudices, were preventing people from realizing their full potential as creative, awesome beings capable of doing amazing things.

So if I was in your place, I'd talk about a sense of community - what it means to undergo challenges together, what it means to be united against common foes like injustice, inequality, and poverty, why active communities are greater than the sum of the individuals that make it - and why your "open - and sometimes painful - conversations about God and our world today" make that community stronger by creating trust among all these diverse members, breaking down the barriers put up by society that separate you from each other.

God/Jesus/FSM/Deity, then, is a vessel: its paradoxes make you argue and converse, which makes you come to trust each other, which makes you come closer together, which makes you do powerful work to make your corner of the world a better place.
posted by mdonley at 12:43 AM on July 31, 2008

I'm an atheist zen buddhist who was raised Catholic & attends services at a Unitarian Universalist church.

Relevant social issues in your community are obviously a good focus ("they will know we are Christians by our love") and it sounds like you've got that going on. But I suggest adding a contemplative element to your course as well. Faith is an internal journey as much if not more so than it is external works, and Christianity has a rich history of monastic teachings to draw from. Most other faiths have a contemplative tradition as well, so it's something that can be as ecumenical as you want. Meditation can deepen your faith if you are already on a spiritual path, and if you are not, it can still help you focus and relax and connect with the world around you. It takes a while to get used to so it's great that you're looking at a whole year.

One thing I would suggest being aware of and trying to avoid is saying things like "pretty much what you wouldn't expect from a typical christian church" ---- first of all, there are many, many christian churches that roll up their sleeves and work hard in their communities without judging the beneficiaries of their programs. I'm not even Christian and I wince when I hear that kind of comparison. By all means say "we won't judge you" but don't say "we won't judge you like those other churches do." at the UU church I attend, there is a lot of community involvement and I appreciate their open doors --- but you can't have a conversation or service without at least one comment about how enlightened the UUs are because our doors are open unlike those other churches that look down on you if you don't believe what they believe. Which really makes me cringe. Much more in keeping with the ideas of tolerance and compassion would be trying to understand the fire-and-brimstone church down the street that you're comparing unfavorably (judging?) to your church. Or inviting guest speakers from other churches to speak about their faith/acts.
posted by headnsouth at 2:03 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Man's duty of love and compassion towards others both as an individual duty and as a group duty.
posted by caddis at 4:49 AM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: @niles: i've read unChristian. decent book, and it presents some interesting questions.

@headnsouth: i'm not trying to compare our community to other churches in a negative tone, i was just responding to mds35's questions that seemed to present a homogeneous picture of the "church" and how it operates in the world. we're not who we are b/c we're not like something else -- we're who we are because of what we believe and the actions we take. it makes me cringe, too, when people's only definition of who they ARE is by saying how proud they are of what they're NOT. :)

it seems like social justice and action are the predominant themes... what SPECIFIC topics within that broad land? this is beautifully juicy, and is right up our alley... but i want to make sure we're not talking about what WE want to hear.
[thanks for the intentional thought so far.]
posted by rubberfish at 5:07 AM on July 31, 2008

HIV/AIDS testing clinics that provide no judgement, just free testing and [non-religiously-affiliated] medical support

This is great, so talk about the issues that come with it. Why do you believe this is what Jesus would do? Talk about the choice to offer services without moralizing, because a lot of churches DON'T make that choice. Let the clinic workers come in and tell you what their clients' lives are like. Talk about sex workers and why they're in that line of work, and why your church sees them as people to help, not people to judge. Same with drug users, rape victims, etc. Talk about why "just don't have sex" doesn't cut it, and why safe sex can be a difficult thing. Talk about how it's normal to be gay. Talk about the context that these people live in. I would be interested in what role you see Jesus and your church playing in that context, and why you have different conclusions than other churches.

One of the things that got me sick of church was that it was very prescriptive about How The World Should Be, and it refused to recognise how the world really was. If you can talk about people's actual lives, their messy and confusing lives, and fit Jesus in THERE, not in some idyllic sterile environment, then that would be interesting. For example, I always liked Brennan Manning's writings about being alcoholic and also being Christian, but I didn't see much uptake of his Ragamuffin Gospel in my churches.

Other topics:
- (Why) is it important to take care of the earth?
- How do you deal with capitalistic globalism and knowing that your $5 shirt from Wal*Mart wouldn't be possible without terrible conditions for workers in China?
- If all the loudmouth Christians on the political scene are assholes, what is your responsibility to counteract that?
- Domestic violence/rape/violence against women, both now and in the Bible, why it happens and why it's not okay.
- Talk about racism! Listen to Obama's racism speech and hash it out! Are your church members predominantly one race? Is there a mix? What are the difficulties? How do you help your community to heal? How does that relate to social class and income level? Are you a lower-class church? Middle-class? How does that blind you to the social realities of other groups?
posted by heatherann at 6:09 AM on July 31, 2008 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: @heatherann: beautiful. thanks. love the globalism idea, specifically. there's a lot of ground/questions to tackle in the production chain of that wal*mart shirt.
posted by rubberfish at 6:15 AM on July 31, 2008

I'm not really christian---although I'm sure some folks like damn dirty ape probably think I am after some recent posts. I just wanted to share a story with you.

I work with families and children, or at least I did for a long time. It's where my heart truly lies. I've turned away jobs that paid well to stay making little, and I fully believe that I am at my best when I am giving of myself and my time. I have a faith, but it's weird and mostly unintelligible to others. Regardless, my faith has nothing to do with why I do what I do.

Now, as most people here finally know, I work for a ecumenical Christian organization, but it requires no faith, no service, no belief to be part of it---you'll even see that nationwide many many employees of this organization have no recognizable faith, although many do.

For the last couple years I worked with a girl who was "born again" at 20 years old. She was 24/25 when she was with us. This isn't a "what a freako" story, she was compassionate and caring. However, she did EVERYTHING she did because she felt directed to do so by God. She recently left us to go do mission work in Africa. As she was blubbering on about education and irrigation, I almost felt jealous of her until she added "and of course we'll be witnessing to them that only the true love of Jesus Christ could bring us to them, and give them the strength and power to take care of themselves..." blah blah blah. She then proceeded to look right at me in a room full of people and say "some people do this work without knowing Jesus, and I don't know how they can do that. A giving and charitable soul that doesn't know and love Jesus just blows my mind, I could never be like that if Jesus hadn't told me to be." I kind of wanted to throw up. Not from embarrassment but because it was so much BS. So it reminded me of an essay I had to write in college with this topic:

"Does altruism really exist?"

And that's what I want to hear now from every minister and pastor, preacher and priest I meet. Correlate for me God, Love, Altruism, and Faith, and why any one is required for any other. I think the real, REAL challenge here is doing this based on reason and personal experience rather than by pulling out a bible. I've read it, it's a good book. Christians and non-christians have one major stumbling point with the Bible---you believe it to be the word of God, I believe it to be a wicked good set of parables. Can you use the parables without insisting they're the literal word of God?
posted by TomMelee at 6:59 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]


Alot of what has been mentioned above non-christians can find else where with no religious slant.

Some of the above topics conflict largly with what the Bible teaches.
Real quick, I am sure you have heard of a "pastor" by the name of Joel Osten, he says at his church he will not talk about - Blood, Cross or Hell. Does anything about that sound wrong to you (as a believer)?

As a church, one that is focused on unbiblical concepts, you might have a very tough time showing that you truly practice what the Bible "preaches". I would never sacrifice basic truths, like the Blood, The Cross or a real place called Hell just for the sake of "gaining business"

Despite what so many want to believe, there are scientists, mathmeticians, heck my church has a physicist and a biologist that attend, that believe in the base concepts of the Gospel. There are Blacks, Whites, Asians, Mexicans, Italians, Jews, a large assortment of peoples that come to our church, but never do we sacrifice the truth on account for someone or some ethnic group.

I would lean heavily towards teaching Textural Criticism (that is, get an Interlinear bible - Greek/Chaldee/Hebrew - and then a few other "versions" KJ, NIV, NASB...etc) and through this you can pull out some of the most amazing truths within the Word. You can show evidence in the Word by doing this and at the same time, never sacrifice your beliefs while awakining many who were always put off by some abstract portions of the bible.
I have had really good success with this as it approaches the bible accidemically, using reasoning and history. People nowadays want information vice inspiration...and Textural Criticism get's in there with that info that is worthwhile. You can even do this and kinda leave it open ended, let the person decide if this is something worthwhile and true.

God Bless brother, there are hundreds of ways to skin a cat, its just doing it without damaging your own hand is best for you...

Take Care
posted by TeachTheDead at 7:02 AM on July 31, 2008

Gossip. When it can be beneficial to a community and when it is hurtful.

Trust. How much would you trust a stranger? What if they were a homeless stranger, a racial minority stranger, or a crowd of loud teenage strangers? To what extent is it sensible to protect yourself against likely risks, and to what extent is that prejudging people unfairly and unproductively?

Offering help to those who don't want it. Is it ever appropriate? How do you go about it?

Inclusiveness. What local minorities are not represented at your church? Do they not feel welcome there? Why?

All kinds of issues around sexual ethics that most people are too embarrassed to discuss.

How to productively resolve disagreements and talk about highly charged issues. Skills that we can apply in our daily lives to help get on with people.

Actual moral conundrums faced by specific church members in their daily lives. Applied ethics, if you will.

Marriage and family and what that means to people.

People's personal experience of the divine, or lack of it. "What God means to me personally".
posted by emilyw at 7:31 AM on July 31, 2008

I have to sort of agree with TeachTheDead (although I come from a tradition in which most of the sermons were about how we treat one another rather than some sort of personal responsibility.)

Many of the suggestions in the thread are more about politics than about the teachings of the Bible. People come to a church for many reasons but community and a connection to God are usually paramount. You can have a successful organization that skips God, such as the Ethical Culture Society, and you can only have a little God such as the Unitarians. If you really want to deemphasize the religion per se and focus on values than these are institutions to study. It is a difficult balance though. One Unitarian minister once told me that every week half of the congregation was mad because there was not enough focus on God in the sermon and the other half was mad because their was too much. If you really want to focus on values as enlightened by the Bible then I would suggest you stay away from the overtly political. When someone is coming to enhance their soul being preached to about politics rather than values (despite the values inherent in the politics) can be quite a turn-off. That being said, charity is one of the major tenets of many religions and a great way of building community in your church is to perform some communal acts of charity such as building a house for Habitat for Humanity.
posted by caddis at 7:32 AM on July 31, 2008

As a non-Christian who happens to live next door to a family of Catholic chaplains who have a lot of priests as their friends, I find I am far more drawn into a conversation with them when they talk about how to 'fix the world' WITHOUT necessarily referring to religious texts and dogma.

In other words, it's the intent and the practicality of how to do something that'd get people in, not relying on rehearsed scripture etc. The scripture is the motivation, the practical reality of *how* to do something is the interesting bit :)
posted by electriccynic at 7:43 AM on July 31, 2008 [1 favorite]

Ask the attendees to volunteer topics that they are personally interested in and to lead the next discussion. Let them plan it as they go along.

Even better than opinions from non-Christians on Metafilter: opinions from non-Christians in your congregation.
posted by emilyw at 7:58 AM on July 31, 2008

In short: What should a church -- whether Christian or otherwise -- that is interested in being relevant to the world, be talking about today?

With all due respect, I'd humbly submit that you might be asking the wrong question - or perhaps better put, you're not asking the whole question. I the other important question is "How should the church should be talking?

Disclaimer 1: I am a Christian. Disclaimer 2: I normally attend a large urban church who's main goal is to do what you're looking to do with this question.

The thing that stuck with me most after the first sermon I heard at my church ~6 years ago was that it wasn't a sermon aimed at Christians. It was a sermon aimed at skeptics. People who didn't understand how a Christian lifestyle could be applied to the issues of our age. I don't remember what the topic was, I just remember being struck by the fact that it wasn't directed at me. It took a relevant issue to anyone's life (not just a Christians) and talked about how the gospel message applied to that. Almost every sermon ever since the first one was the same way - taking something like racial strife, relationship breakdown, global crises like the economy, or war, or tsunamis, or snipers outside Washington DC - you name it. Stuff that you would find in the last week's copy of the Times - I can't count how often sermons very often quoted recent news and opinion, in order to present the issue, and then respond to it from a Christian perspective.

I think there are 2 primary ways in which my church does this effectively:

1) Professionally. Its a simple, straight-forward talk. There's no big flashy power-point, there's no touchy-feely warmness to it. Its an intellectual discussion about the issue at hand. How can a loving God exist in a world with so much suffering? Let's talk about it. It doesn't pull punches or try to make easy excuses. It talks to the listeners as if they are intelligent and skeptical, and it expects them to be that way. It doesn't talk down to them. It addresses the issues head on.

2) Respectfully. My church realizes that there are a lot of other people with other beliefs, and that's fine. They hold theirs firmly, and want to share it with other people, but they are a) aware of what the other options are and b) they're not afraid to talk about that. We discuss guys like Dawkins or religions like Islam not do dissect them and somehow prove them wrong, but instead to simply present a clear case of what and why we believe differently. In the same way it respects the intelligence of the listener, it respects their free will and wants to give them a clear picture of Christianity, and leave the ball in their court.

I honestly don't see discovering the key issues as much of a hurdle. You have many of them above, and you need to little more than flip on a TV, pick up a newspaper, or spend 10 minutes on the front page of MeFi to figure out what they are - gay marriage, election coverage, the war, the shotgunning psycho at the Universalist church. People talk about what they're interested, the church just needs to talk back at them about the same things.

the church does that is a much more difficult one to tackle.
posted by allkindsoftime at 8:04 AM on July 31, 2008

To expand on my point: Traditionally, Christianity has been very teaching-focused, by which I mean that even the UU service I went to in my city had a vicar standing at the front on a raised dais and lecturing the congregation, who sat in rows.

I don't see this as a productive way of handling the complexity of modern religion/ethics; it's all very well to privilege the ideas of the person who's been to God School and studied a lot, but he/she's not the only person with interesting things to say, and forcing everything into a lecture format seems extremely limiting.

How about sticking with the spirit of the Bible and asking a prostitute in or two to see what they might have to teach. Then stretch it a bit further and get a taxman in :-)
posted by emilyw at 8:15 AM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: @teachthedead: we're not really a Joel-Osteen-kind-of-place. we're not ashamed of what we believe [not saying he is...] and we are pretty up front with it. we just want to make sure we're constantly wrestling with topics that are as relevant outside our walls as inside them.

@emilyw: great list of topics. rest assured, we don't do our teaching in a vacuum -- i.e., it's not all we do. we believe fully that the complex realities of the world can only really be addressed with a daily investment in it, but specific teaching about these topics [aside from, and in addition to action on them] has its place. [and by the way, we already have our share of prostitutes, tax men, addicts, etc., in our midst... we're quite an eclectic crew.]

@gregNog: interesting idea to contrast the actually teachings of jesus versus the writings/teachings of his followers, whether direct contemporaries or those that have come long after him. interesting...
posted by rubberfish at 9:22 AM on July 31, 2008

@rubberfish: I don't mean to say that teaching is an inappropriate substitute for action. I mean to say that it's missing something to overly privilege the teachings and opinions of the theologically educated, and so perhaps you could involve the other members of the congregation in teaching or discussion. A discussion, after all, is a democratic way of allowing everyone to teach everyone else a little about their view of the world.

You have prostitutes in your congregation, do you know what they think about the relationship between their job and their faith? Are the vicar's teachings automatically more valid than those of the prostitute? If not, can you get the prostitute to share what they have learnt through their vocation? - (well, maybe not all of it).
posted by emilyw at 9:35 AM on July 31, 2008

Response by poster: @emilyw: we may have prostitutes, but no vicars. gosh, we have to draw the line somewhere. :)
i like the interaction of the job with the faith - regardless of the profession. we're located in a banking-centered [ridiculously monied] city, so there's a ton of jobs here that seem to be prostitution -- whether there's sex involved, or just the soul.
posted by rubberfish at 9:46 AM on July 31, 2008

I'd just like to add that while many of the suggestions so far focus on big social/political/philosophical issues (globalism, gay marriage, the environment, etc.), I actually think some of the grittiest, most challenging, and most engaging parts of Christian doctrine have to do with our conduct on a small scale-- how we shape our relationships, how we control our impulses, how we see other people and ourselves.

I think a truly relevant Christianity would have to offer its congregants helpful tools to deal with things they're struggling with-- and honestly, is anyone really struggling with the question of whether we should protect the environment? Or whether social justice is important? These are issues on which most people already hold well-defined opinions, and if there's any struggle going on, it's against others who disagree, not within ourselves.

By contrast, most of the people I know, myself included, do struggle daily with smaller, practical issues-- figuring out how to be patient with others, to behave honestly, to balance what we owe to others with what we owe to ourselves, to forgive ourselves for failures but still strive for perfection, to have the strength to keep hopeful and happy in hard times. Christianity actually has quite a bit of practical advice to give on all these questions, and I think that for me personally, a down-to-earth sermon or two on curbing one's food addictions or refraining from gossip would engage me more than all the political bloviating in the world.
posted by Bardolph at 10:20 AM on July 31, 2008

Highly agree with most of Bardolph! Excellent summary...

its the daily struggle that trips average joe-Christian up.

Perhaps talking about daily accountability, or daily repentance as a way to salvation (Take up your cross daily and die to self....)

How many people do you know that have sob stories about relationships gone wrong or bad relationships with mom, dad, brother, sister...etc etc

Following Christ is not a religion, at least not to us who truly believe, its the best relationship you'll ever have, where faithfulness will never be lacking, honesty is never for want...99% of every person on the face of this earth just wants a perfect, loving and lasting relationship...trusting in God is not a religion, its a dont just "get saved" once, its something that requires endurance and long suffering...

posted by TeachTheDead at 1:44 PM on July 31, 2008

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