Author Archives: Alvin Sanders

About Alvin Sanders

An academic nerd who loves the Lord, my family, my peeps, and my hood.

Halloween Reconciliation Style

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How Did We Get Here?

“Here is a question that you need to wrestle with.  How much time do you spend with sin sick people?  I’m not talking about some evangelism program.  I’m talking about intentionally building relationships with people you know need the Great Physician.   To quote Jesus I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance.”   This is clearly the method of His mission.  So maybe when those undocumented workers from Mexico show up on your job instead of parroting that Mormon Glen Beck or acting like Romans 13 is the only chapter in the Bible you follow the teaching of Philemon, welcome the stranger, and turn it into an opportunity for the gospel to be spread.” –  An excerpt from one of my sermons  

Was that offensive to you?   A few months ago I had an experience that was a first in my 20 years of preaching.   After this  sermon on social justice a man came up to talk to me about this point.   He started off cordial but no more than 30 seconds in I realized his niceness was a set up.   He kept inching closer and closer, literally getting in my face and angrily chewing me out over my comments.   I literally had to walk away in fear of the guy hitting me and trust me, I don’t scare easily.  It was a very tense moment.

But that wasn’t the end of it.   He stormed off and chewed out the host pastor for inviting me.  Other people chewed out one of the staff pastors.  Furthermore some people tracked down my home phone number and called, demanding a meeting about the sermon.   I thought I was in the Twilight Zone.  I don’t know maybe it’s me but I didn’t think what I said was so offensive.   But obviously it was.

Last week at my Alma mater (Trinity Evangelical Divinity School) Al Mohler and Jim Wallis debated the question “Is social justice an essential part of the mission of the church?”  I didn’t watch the debate because for me I read Micah 6:8, Matthew 25:31-46, and a host of other Scriptures and that’s a wrap.   Personally I’m not even sure how  this a question that can be debated.   So how did we get here in the first place, where we are questioning whether the church and justice should be paired together?   And people want to deck a 6″5, 275lbs guy at their own peril (I may be a minister but I ain’t but one generation from the street!)

So let’s have our own debate.   How did we get to the place in the American church where its Gospel v. Social Justice?


Bamboozled

I had never heard of Pastor Shaun King before, but now that I have through this provocative blog post about his resignation I have the utmost respect for him.  An excerpt:

The vision of my heart was for a committed community of people that first and foremost served God in radical ways in inner city Atlanta and in broken places all around the world.  Sunday morning would simply be the time when those people came together to celebrate and honor God and invite others into our Monday-Saturday adventure. Instead, I started a super cool Sunday worship service centered church with 700 people and spent the next 3 years begging thousands of people to help me be the hands and feet of God by fighting child trafficking and caring for widows and orphans……I sold my soul for church attendance in our first week and could never quite get it back.

I’m feeling him.  Here is the dirty little secret about the majority of pastors within American Christianity.   All most of us care about are the 3B’s:   butts, budgets, and buildings.  We say we care about other things, but at the end of the day whatever the other things are we really don’t use them to judge our ministry success.  All you have to do is go to any church conference of your choosing.  Most if not all the plenary speakers are people who have mastered the art of the 3B’s.  I could make a list of about 20 people and guarantee that you will see at least one of them at whatever conference you chose to go to.   They are the masters of the 3B Universe.

These 3B masters have been anointed with “sage on the stage” status and the not so subtle message is if you do things like they do you too can become a 3B master.  We drink the the Kool-Aid!   We work tirelessly to put a lot of butts in pews.  We have highly orchestrated financial campaigns to erect beautiful buildings to meet in every Sunday.   And we work those  budgets and make pennies holla.   We’ve been bamboozled.

The pursuit of the 3B’s creates a huge tension for the American pastor because they are not the standard Jesus uses.  Our Lord measures ministry success by judging how effective we are in engaging the brokenness of the people within our spheres of influence.  Really,  Jesus uses reconciliation-type stuff to grade us (Matt. 22:37-40.)

Our goal as pastors to be the best church in the community (chasing the 3B’s) oftentimes clashes with Christ’s charge to be the best church for the community.    In other words, there are things that you could do as a pastor that would be great for the community but terrible for you achieving the 3B’s.  A prime example is implementing a multiethnic vision for the congregation.   I have yet to meet a pastor who took this challenge on who did not at some point want to resign over the conflict it created.   The balancing act is to lead those butts and use the tools of budget and building to minister to those on the margins of society.  Pastor Shaun felt the burden of this tension:

In March of this year, I announced I was preaching my last sermon series of all-time.  For the next 8 weeks, I preached the most radical, game-changing sermon series ever entitled “Disciple.”  Our average attendance was its highest ever.  Our average offering was the highest ever.  Excitement was its highest ever.  Man, I was pumped!! Then, almost literally the day we jumped into change, all types of stuff started falling apart.  People left in droves.  Scores of people started falling through on leadership commitments they made.  Systems starting failing.  Attendance was down.  Offering was down.  Excitement was down. I had no idea that zero correlation exists between how much people love hearing about change and their actual willingness to make it.

I’m feeling him here, too.   Again, I don’t know the man but from the outside looking in it seems to me that he is suffering a bit from idealism.  As pastors it always has and always will be hard to lead people down the right path.  I remember realizing something obvious while reading in the New Testament one day.  A good portion of it was instruction on how to deal with the very real problems of shepherding people.  In other words, as pastors we should expect people to struggle mightily as we lead them towards the teachings of Jesus.  Unfortunately this reality has lead to what I think is a faulty conclusion by Pastor Shaun:

Considering all of this, I think I have given up on church as I knew it.  Big buildings.  Huge crowds.  Few disciples.  I’m not with it.  It’s inefficient and just doesn’t feel right with my soul.  This is not a rejection of big buildings or huge crowds but an indictment on how few disciples are being made in the process of it all.  A better way has to exist.

If you look at the comments section after his blog post  it’s easy to see he is not alone in his thoughts.   Actually I’ve been in the exact same space he is in.   I started a church in inner city Cincinnati with an ideal in mind.  By year 3 that ideal was shattered.  Just last week I had a conversation with a colleague who is on his way out of the pastorate because of the tension of chasing the 3B’s v. Shepherding people towards Christ.

If what Pastor Shaun says on his blog are truly the reasons he resigned its unfortunate.  He can find a different way and it may be slightly better, but because shepherding people will be involved it will be the exchanging of one set of problems for another.  You can change the form of how we do church in America but you can’t change the reality of the problems of pastoral leadership.  What Pastor Shaun, my colleague, and many others who want Matt. 22:37-40 churches need is to develop the lost art of lament.

About lament.  You remember the boring book of Lamentations, don’t you (is it ok to call a book of the Bible boring?) Nobody, and I do mean nobody, preaches from Lamentations.  But I think we need to heed its lessons.  The essence of the book can be found in Lamentations 1:16 which says “No one is here to comfort me; any who might encourage me are far away.”   You see lament throughout the Gospels, the Psalms, all throughout Scripture.   It is a picture of the tension of faith vs. doubt.    To lament is to accept your limitations of being human – you don’t have all the answers, you’re in a season of frustration with God, and you need to vent about it.    It is the art of disappointment.  Disappointment is not lethal to pastoral ministry but part of the process.

What is lethal is to move from disappointment to despair.   Despair is when you conclude that further pursuit of the goal is pointless.  Unfortunately I have seen many pastors take this road.   Literally they just drop out, some from the faith altogether but many retreat to what I sarcastically call “The Church of the Living Room.”   They start a house church or something similar and meet with the same 10 people for 20 years.   Not exactly the best way to fulfill the Great Commission.

I’m glad to see you are disappointed Pastor Shaun.  I’m sorry to see you have resigned with the conclusion that the grass has to be greener on the other side.    I say the grass is green where you water it.


Occupy Protests, Part Deux

Ok, now I must rant.   I might get in trouble with some peeps who follow this blog, but you’ve been wrong before (ha!)   As I stated earlier this month about the occupy protests I do not think they are a bunch of kooks and their concerns have merit.  I do not dismiss them outright, but I do not put much hope in them changing the world as we know it either.  There is no organic moral fabric to hold them together like the Civil Rights or Arab Spring movements.

Now comes maybe one of the most over the top statements about it to date, emanating from within Christian circles.  You should know that I like Sojourners and the material they produce.  Jim Wallis is a fellow Trinity International University graduate, and a good buddy of mine is very connected to them.  I’m not a hater.  In short I love what they do.  But this recent blog entry has me scratchin’ my head.

All ways in which human governments handle wealth are inadequate.   Socialism, Capitalism, Communism – all of them are fallen in nature.   Jesus was not for any of them.  He had his own system, as money is one of the things he talked about most in Scripture.  All of the ‘isms are brutal to the human condition in some shape, form, or fashion.  The Occupy Protests are a welcome response to try to speak into some blind spots of Capitalism.

However Anne Marie Roderick goes a bit too far when she compares the protests to a “Holy Spirit moment” and calls this a “spiritual movement.”  Is it an important moment?  Is it a movement the church should pay attention to?  Should the church speak into the present inequitable income distribution?  Yes, yes, and yes.  But is it a Holy Spirit, spiritual movement?  Au contraire, my sister.

If by “spiritual movement” Roderick was echoing Paul Tillich’s “ultimate concerns,” i.e. the concern to overcome death with life, the concern to overcome emptiness and meaningless with meaning, and the concern to overcome guilt and condemnation with forgiveness and reconciliation, maybe.   What is striking about Tillich’s notion is that all of us — whether black or white or brown or yellow, whether male or female, whether straight of gay, and regardless of nationality — all of us share these same ultimate concerns simply because they are so deeply rooted in what it means to be human.

I’m not sure it is even spiritual in that limited human sense.  But this isn’t a question of semantics.  I am going to take the author at her word.  She seems to be comparing these protests to an actual move of the Holy Spirit akin to what we see in the Scriptures.

F0r starters, is there any suffering for Christ?  Is anybody repenting of sins?  Is Christ being preached?   By the author’s own admission the movement isn’t even church centric.   A Holy Spirit moment?  A spiritual movement?   As they say on ESPN Monday Night Live “C’mon, man!”  Let’s refrain from lowering our ecclesiology to inspirational historical moments.


On the MLK Dedication

This past weekend we stopped to remember the legacy of MLK.   Or to be more accurate I should say some stopped.  I was surprised by the lack of coverage.  Really it was considered another “ho-hum” historical moment in the news cycle.  For instance compare the MLK dedication coverage to the rabid coverage of the death of Steve Jobs.   Or the Conrad Murray trial for God’s sake.

I thought about reasons for this.  On one hand maybe it’s because he has been covered so much already?  Maybe there is nothing much left to cover, as around his birthday in January and Black History Month in February he receives his just due.

On the other hand I thought that MLK is becoming just another postscript in history.  But make no mistake about it he was far more than a postscript.  If you think about it, really it’s kind of crazy that he is accepted by both liberal and conservative circles alike nowadays.

Obviously I wasn’t around when he was operating but even a cursory look at his life reveals the man was a polarizing firebrand.  One clear example can be found in his famous essay Letter from Birmingham City Jail.  Dr. King wrote his essay while serving out a sentence for participating in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham.

It was a response to the public appeal made by some Alabama clergymen to let unjust local politics decide the denied rights of African American people.  King issued an indictment that their faith was too attached to American civic concerns to see the plight of his people through a biblical lens.  His response was to make a biblical appeal to the righteousness of civil disobedience.  An excerpt:

Of course, there is nothing new about this kind of civil disobedience.  It was seen sublimely in the refusal of Shadrach, Meshach and Abendengo to obey the laws of Nebuchadnezzar because a higher moral law was involved.  It was practiced superbly by the early Christians who were willing to face hungry lions and the excruciating pain of chopping blocks, before submitting to certain unjust laws of the Roman Empire.

King wrote that the contemporary church is often a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound.  It is so often the arch-supporter of the status quo.  Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent and often vocal sanction of things as they (unjustly) are.  This is not your average Sunday sermon, but rather prophetic and polarizing.

But King is viewed as very mainstream now.   Have we lost our prophetic understanding of King?  I wonder.


I Am CCDA

We are live at CCDA!   We hope you stop by our EFCA Samaritan Way booth to sign up for a chance to win a free ipad2.   We also hope that you subscribe to this blog and allow us to help you reverse societal division, multiplying Kingdom growth.

Our blog is relatively new (just started this year).   Please take some time to look at some of our posts.   You can also follow us on Twitter and on Facebook.   Enjoy the following excerpt below, which is the introduction of my book Reconciliation 101:  A Handbook for Ministry Leaders.

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This guide is for ministry communities who care enough about reconciliation that they are ready to do something about it. It is especially focused toward those who are called to lead these communities. 

If you picked up this book, you have probably determined that God wants you to do something in the area of reconciliation. My guess is that, at the very least, you have already started on a personal level and desire to lead your ministry in that direction, too. There are three reasons I believe I can help you on your journey.

The first stems back to April 2001, when Timothy Thomas, a 19-year-old African-American with a history of non-violent misdemeanors, was shot and killed by a Cincinnati police officer. His death caused outrage in the neighborhood of my then-church plant (River of Life), resulting in millions of dollars of damage.

It was in this environment that we held our first public worship service, in the very neighborhood that had been at the center of the rioting. River of Life became a tangible demonstration of what God can do when people from all walks of life live in unity for the advancement of the kingdom.

For seven years as the founding pastor, I was surrounded by the effects of racial, ethnic, gender, generational, and economic conflict. In leading that wonderful ministry I learned that reconciliation is a verb and is much bigger than merely achieving racial harmony between blacks and whites. I have come to believe that it is the key to fulfilling the Great Commission.

While I was at River of Life, 70 percent of those who joined had not previously had a church home. Most told me that one of the big reasons they came was the fact that everybody was accepted there, regardless of their cultural background.

Those years I spent shepherding a church in the midst of a conflicted community have made me the Christ-follower I am today. That experience has also given me a passion to spread the primary lesson I learned: that reconciliation is the mission of God in our fallen world.

The second reason I believe I can help you on your journey of reconciliation is that I have applied the principles from this handbook not only in a local church setting, but also during my stint as director of ethnic ministry at Cincinnati Christian University. While working there, I was simultaneously earning my Ph.D. I would literally write out a theory for one of my papers and then test-drive it on campus. So I am grateful to the university leadership for being my “guinea pigs.” We had great success in laying the foundation for reconciliation. The faculty became integrated for the first time, and last year they experienced their biggest enrollment of ethnic students in their history.

The last reason I believe I can help you in your journey of reconciliation is because I presently serve as director of reconciliation for the Evangelical Free Church of America. Samaritan Way (the name of my ministry) was at ground zero in 2008. Now, we have successfully built a network of ministry leaders who are leading with reconciliation in mind.

I share these reasons to assure you that what you are about to read has been born in ministry practice. I have done some theoretical work to back up my practical suggestions, but I don’t think you need much of it. You can find that elsewhere.

There are very good books on reconciliation sitting on my bookshelf. Great reads, but I will probably not revisit them. The reason is not because the books don’t have relevant material. The problem lies in the fact that, typically, the books don’t offer much practical help in guiding the reader to “go and do likewise,” as we are told in Luke 10:37.

I would always tell my staff at River of Life, “Don’t bring me a problem without offering a possible solution.” That is why I have written this handbook. I have applied these principles in a church, university, and denominational setting and achieved success.

Author Henri Nouwen stated in Reflections on Theological Education that “writing is like giving away the loaves and fishes one has, trusting that they will multiply in the giving.” My prayer is that this book will help you reverse division, multiplying kingdom growth.

Let me offer a few tips on how to best utilize the handbook. First, as with a car owner manual, I assume you are actively driving a car. In our case, the assumption is that you are beginning your journey down the road of reconciliation. As you drive, use the principles presented to manage the dynamics of difference.

Second, I believe in the power of the ministry community and will use that phrase a lot. By ministry community, I’m referring to people who form their lives together within the context of ministry. This could be a Christian university board, church small group, or denominational staff.

These communities operate as a space where people can reflect on their experiences. As they reflect, others are allowed to offer varying viewpoints, allowing people to unearth common understanding as well as differences. Knowledge construction in the midst of relationship is what binds us together as followers of Christ. Therefore, you would be doing yourself a great disservice to read this guide alone.

You will also come across new ideas that need processing with others. So, for instance, if you are a senior pastor, read the guide with your elders as a group. Then set aside times to discuss the concepts presented.

Third, I recommend you read the chapters in order. They are based on my presentations, where I take the big picture and narrow it down to the specific. Each concept builds on the other. You could skip around, but you would probably find yourself confused if you do so.

Fourth, don’t expect to find all the answers concerning reconciliation in this thin little handbook. I’m just passing along the lessons the Lord has taught me, with hope that they will move you and your ministry further down the road.

So I’ll end the introduction with my bottom line, a conclusion reached from 17 years of practical ministry and academic study concerning reconciliation, and we’ll build from there: The present concept of reconciliation needs to be renewed.

Read more to find out why and how to renew it.

Click here to buy Reconciliation 101:  A Handbook for Ministry Leaders. 


What I Think About the Occupy Protests

Let’s just say that it’s not Bull Conner and Birmingham.   And it’s definitely not the recent “Arab Spring.”   Pundits and protestors alike need to stop comparing this to those historic social movements because its an insult.  There is no absolute, hopeless desperation connected to this.  Yes we are in hard economic times but most of us still eat and our lives are not at stake.  Most in America will go on living and not even give this a second thought.  On the other hand it’s not exactly something to be flippantly blown off like this photo:

Funny, truthful, and perhaps ironic.  But the photo misses the point.   It attempts to write off  this phenomena as just a bunch of people with too much time on their hands.  Maybe, but I’ll chose to take them at their word.  From my scan of the landscape here is the gist of  it.    The country’s richest 1% control 25% of the wealth.   This is up from the 1970’s, where the ratio was 1% to 9%.  Folks are upset with this ratio and finger the Wall Street/Washington relationship as the cause of it.

Here’s the primary problem as I see it.   It doesn’t matter whether the politician is Democratic or Republican, if they reach office they will be loyal to the interests of the 1% because the 1% is what provides their financial support.  In fact many in Congress are the the 1%.   Both Repubs and Dems carry their water.  Why would they fight against their own personal interests?   Only when it is politically expedient to do so.

Therefore that is the possible significance of these protests, and when I say possible I mean slight chance.   It may move from nice political theater to full populist outrage.   If it reaches that level politicians will pay attention and respond in some fashion.  It won’t be a revolutionary change because everybody loves change as long as it is happening to someone else.  So the 1%, if it becomes politically expedient to do so, will give in a little if it means more votes.  We’ve seen that movie before during the Great Depression, where about 4 years in people took to the streets.   It will be interesting to watch what develops, if anything.


NWordhead

This morning I watched the morning talking heads analyze and debate The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen report Sunday that Rick Perry brought friends and supporters to a West Texas hunting camp his family leased that was called “Niggerhead.”   I’m not interested in the political ramifications as that should be obvious.  What I was observing was how people were making meaning of the situation from a racial perspective.

There were those who said that it obviously meant that Perry was racist.  Of course the Perry camp said they rectified the situation in an expedient manner, offering up Perry’s record on race to dispel the developing “Perry is a racist” narrative.  Others gave the “those were just the times” narrative and place the whole incident in the accident bin of history, not reflective of the present.   One racial incident with many perspectives.

This and other types of similar situations offer us great insight into how race operates in the post-civil rights era.  Dialogue around such incidents illuminate how in this era discussion concerning race and racism center around what is going on in people’s hearts, not necessarily the incident itself.   In the post-civil rights era racial motivations are murky, sending people on an expedition to find the hidden racial meaning of commonplace incidents.

It is a significant paradigm shift to comprehend.  For instance in my dad’s era if a black man was lynched for whistling at a white woman the focus was on the injustice of the action itself and there was nothing murky about the racial intentions.   In today’s world most of the time the incident itself is sort of a bystander to the broader debate.   Consider some relatively recent incidents (Prof. Henry Gates/Cambridge Police, Don Imus/Rutgers Women’s team, etc.).  To some these are serious transgressions.  To others they are trivial.  The only people who would have such a debate over a lynching would be maybe Neo-Nazi’s.

The framework of the broader debate centers around the question “does the incident at hand reveal racial authenticity within a person’s heart?”  That is what the talking heads were debating, not the incident itself.  Nobody disputes that it took place or that it was wrong.   I welcome these moments because in my opinion it furthers the conversation about race in America today.


Are We There Yet?

Robert Putnam’s American Grace:  How Religion Divides and Unites Us is a must read for the serious minded Christian.  In relation to race in chapter 9 (entitled “Diversity, Ethnicity, & Religion) he makes a few interesting observations.

After decades of being the least racially tolerant group, evangelicals are now virtually indistinguishable from the rest of the population when it comes to racial attitudes.  Putnam argues that evangelicals have simply followed the national trends:  never leading, always following, and now have finally caught up.  He also states that evangelical megachurches (along with catholic parishes) are the only noticeably racially diverse religious communities in America.

His observations connect with one of my previous observations that things are looking better when you look at the overall Christian landscape concerning race and faith.   If the reconciliation journey was a map of the US with the beginning point New York City and the ending point LA, perhaps we are in Pittsburgh?  Maybe even St. Louis?  We definitely aren’t in Kansas, Dorothy, but we have made some significant progress.


On Troy Davis

Sitting here watching CNN report on the anguish of Troy Davis.   I had not really payed attention to this case until tonight.  Doing some internet research quite honestly I have no idea as to whether the man is guilty or not.  I’m not a lawyer either but  it seems to me common sense dictates that if 7 of the 9 witnesses recant their testimony there should be a stay of execution.  What flashed in my mind was a story that I read many years ago in the book A Theology as Big as the City by Ray Bakke:

A Clergy colleague of mine spent a day in Chicago’s housing court watching as the judge threw out case after case of renters in slum buildings.  He always sided with the slumlords, those absentee real estate speculators, against the poor people.  Finally my friend could stand it no longer.  He spoke up:  “Your honor, if it pleases the court, may I ask, Where is the justice in this court?  I’ve been here all day long and I’ve seen no justice whatsoever.”  The judge quickly replied “Reverend this is no court of justice.  This is a court of law.  If you want justice change the law!”

This is yet another reminder that we do not have courts of justice in America but courts of law.  I can’t help but feel that the law has failed in this case.  With all the doubt surrounding this at the very least the Governor could have given Davis clemency, stopping the execution but keeping him in jail for life.  That may not have been just either but it would have at least kept a man who may have been innocent alive.