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“Certainly there were many needy widows in Israel in Elijah’s time, when the heavens were closed for three and a half years, and a severe famine devastated the land. Yet Elijah was not sent to any of them. He was sent instead to a foreigner—a widow of Zarephath in the land of Sidon. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, but the only one healed was Naaman, a Syrian.” – Luke 4:25-27

Why would Jesus conclude a perfectly good sermon by pointing out the racism of his own people? It is common knowledge that at minimum, duplicity and hypocrisy has accompanied the dominant White cultures’ past mission practices, especially as it has been applied to Indigenous peoples. We have experienced a kind of double-mindedness that says “Jesus loves you just as you are — as long as you are just like us.” Although there were individual missionaries who attempted to do mission in humane ways, they, being a part of the dominant society and its White Western cultural influence, primarily did mission from a place of power over and presumed superiority. Despite good intentions, without regarding the cultural other as equally human, there can be no mission — not Christ’s mission anyway.

Mission, by its nature, demands a sense of equality of all. Jesus came to all humanity, emptying himself of his superiority over us, while becoming the least among us. Influence, wielded from the dominant Euro-American society, prescribes mission from a place of presumed Western values. “Our assumption of superiority does not come to us by accident. We have been trained in it. It is soaked into the fabric of Western religion, economic systems and technology. They reek of their greater virtues and capabilities” (Mander 1991, 209).

Contemporary missionaries may be tempted to view themselves as immune from the sense of entitlement and superiority that their historical counterparts exhibited. People tend to look at the past as moving from less progressive to more progressive, especially if they are the people writing the “new progressive” history. This is simply a part of the Western myth of progressive civilization that houses a misguided Christian utopian vision. The fact remains that in the midst of continued centuries of harmful mission policy, Indigenous people are still fighting for our survival today. This is true physically, concerning health, welfare and our land-rights, but it is also true in the realm of public perception that continues to plague mission. Racism, stereotypes, mascots, and hate crimes are just a few of the attitudinal pressures today that Indigene and the cultural other continue to face. In other words, White supremacy, White normalcy, and White privilege.

Racists and foolish missional policies and practices among Indigenous peoples continue to show little regard for Indigenous values. But, despite the long history of mission among Indigenous Americans from the place of Western colonial values, our Indigenous cultures still reflect much of our core Native North American values that await empowerment.

No one can deny that our cultures have been eroded and our languages lost, that most of our communities exist in a state of abject economic dependency, that our governments are weak, and that white encroachment on our lands continues. We can, of course, choose to ignore these realities and simply accede to the dissolution of our cultures and nations. Or we can commit ourselves to a different path, one that honours the memory of those who have sacrificed, fought and died to preserve the integrity of our nations. This path, the opposite of the one we are on now, leads to a renewed political life and social life based on our traditional values. (Alfred 1999, xii)

Colonialism and colonial missions have introduced and reinforced systemic changes among colonized Indigenous peoples that have attempted to replace our traditional values. This supplanting has occurred at the most basic levels of society but we, as Indigenous people, cannot simply blame the White man. We must become the agents of our own change. But caution is warranted for any proposal of mission renewal. Even when the current paternalistic missional systems are replaced with Indigenous forms, they can remain laden with the values of the dominant society, merely prolonging colonial missionary oppression.

In spite of our bereaved history, ill health, poor education, inadequate housing and social marginalization, our Indigenous peoples retain a residual set of values that are a repository of true wealth. These values, if utilized properly, may have the potential to co-create untapped missional models resulting in true well-being for Indigene and the settler-colonial alike. Both our healing it seems, as much as we may not want to admit it, is entwined together. For such a model to find footing among Indigenous people, a major missional paradigm shift must occur.

READ: Missions: Is It Love or Colonization?

An old Indian joke describes the paradigm shift needed: One day Coyote (the Trickster) was asked to visit the president. The president and Coyote strolled along the Rose Garden together and finally the President asked Coyote if he could give him any advice on “the Indian problem.” “Sure,” Coyote said, “What’s the problem?”

The reality of the joke suggests that Indigenous people are primarily viewed as a problem to be solved by the government, and I add, by the Western church. We are rarely considered to be an asset by either agency. This prevailing attitude in America has a long history and is tied into the legacy of colonialism. According to Maori author Linda Tuhiwai Smith, “Problematizing the Indigenous is a Western obsession” (1999, 91). Says Smith,

Concern about “the indigenous problem” began as an explicitly militaristic or policing concern.…Once indigenous peoples had been rounded up and put on reserves the “indigenous problem” became a policy discourse which reached out across all aspects of a government’s attempt to control the Natives.… Both “friends of the Natives” and those hostile to indigenous peoples conceptualized the issues of colonization and European encroachment on indigenous territories in terms of a problem of the Natives. The Natives were, according to this view, to blame for not accepting the terms of their colonization.…The belief in the ‘indigenous problem’ is still present in the western psyche. (1999, 91-92)

In summary, while today’s mission models clearly are a more humane approach than in the past, they do not make enough room for the possibility that Indigenous North Americans are people who are gifted by God and have much to teach the dominant society. The church continues this discussion on both a spiritual and pragmatic level. After more than 400 years of active mission efforts, including untold millions of dollars invested and untold human hours sacrificed, very few Native Americans claim to be a part of the Christian church; and given the history and state of the church, why should they? Even more discouraging is the overall spiritual health of these few existing Indigenous churches. Many Native Americans continue to practice a faith nurtured in colonial patterns that resulted in self-hatred and misguided loyalty to their colonial handlers; truly becoming a poor imitation of a bad model.

One measure of a successful Indigenous church, credited to Anderson and Venn, is the idea of healthy churches as self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating. Later, renowned missiologist David Bosch suggested that self-theologizing be added to the three-self paradigm. Even when using the Western four-self model as a measurement of Native American church success, we find a gloomy incongruous reality most often characterized in their respective denominations as being small in numbers, poor in giving, divisive, mixed in denominational loyalty, non-ministering, non-reproducing and embarrassingly dependent upon the denomination’s funding, leadership, and approval. Self-theologizing is still almost completely unknown.

Perhaps the current ill state of Indigenous churches could correct itself if denominations and other mission sending agencies were to strategize mission efforts among Native American Indigene in mutual partnership with the Native communities and by using Native American core values. New attitudes, robust with true humility and an appreciation for Indigenous cultures, are desperately needed. New appreciations of the gifts and necessity of the marginalized other is mandated. And, the seemingly powerful White mission agencies must make themselves small, as junior partners, in a land they do not know, and only with the expressed permission of Indigenous communities.

Past sacrificial models of White missionaries speaking up for Indigene are deeply appreciated but they only went so far. Today, the dominant sending agencies are being called to give up their theological and missiological strangleholds on Indigenous people, along with the decision-making power they possess, and then they must turn over the “keys to the kingdom,” (along with the keys to the land and buildings) to the people they are trying to reach. The conversion of the denominations and the mission sending agencies is the first conversion that must take place in mission — and this is exactly what Jesus is addressing in Luke 4:25-27. Then came verse 28: “And the crowd became furious…”

The cultural hubris of the Western missionary enterprise is a symptom of a greater problem of the Western worldview. This presumed superiority is ever-present in North America, affecting everything from the way we do mission and how we structure our churches; to the wars we enter; to domestic and foreign policymaking concerns in areas such as economic trade, politics, civil rights, etc.

It leaves me begging the question: What is Jesus saying to us as people of faith exercising so much entitlement — entitlement that only God has a right to? And yet, God took the form of a servant, learning from and becoming one of the most marginalized in society. And here is Jesus, rebuking those in his own faith system that were so far-removed from its founder.

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I’m sitting here at my neighborhood coffee shop, thousands of miles away from all the ostensibly dangerous Central American migrants and their families threatening to cross the southern border, bringing drugs and contagious diseases and teddy bears and diapers … miles even from the more murderous neighborhoods of my own city, where street gangs shoot each other and sometimes innocent bystanders over turf wars and drug feuds … miles even from the encampment in my own city of people who don’t have a safe place to stay, many of them American Indian and battling demons of mental illness and drug addiction — some of them again women and children, there by circumstance and certainly not by choice.

I’m sitting here in this bougie, slightly hipster, slightly WASPy coffee shop, wearing an ironic black stocking cap slouched back on my head, sipping on a drink with more syrup than coffee, and I’m wondering what it really means to be safe.

We sacrificed a lot to live here, paying less than we would have in our old home of Southern California but more than we would have in almost any other neighborhood in Minneapolis, because we wanted to walk to restaurants and shops and lakes and parks, and we wanted our children to attend an exemplary public school, and we wanted to be able to take public transportation downtown to work.

A few months after we moved here, in May 2017, a woman was shot and killed in her own alley by the police. Justine, a spiritual healer originally from Australia, was well-known here. She was calling 911 to report an alleged sexual assault she’d heard outside. Instead, she ended up dead.

We kept walking the lakes and biking to the park anyway, pushing my youngest son in a stroller and playing baseball in the backyard; letting the boys ride their scooters up to the nearby shops and restaurants, and marveling at our fortune to live here, where kids still felt comfortable waving goodbye to mom and dad and riding bikes to the park and wading pool alone, conveying a sense of urban neighborhood rare in America in 2018.

My mom came over to walk with me to the lake often, and each time we remarked that we were so glad I lived here, and we loved so much the unique homes and their gardens, and even the overflowing, over-landscaped, urban wildflower arrangements, that took over their owner’s lawns with reckless abandon and suggested a certain laissez-faire approach that befitted the self-consciously well-off liberal neighborhood.

People put Black Lives Matter signs in their front yards, and signs with lots of words talking about how all are welcome here, and even I love my Muslim neighbor. It was progressive urban well-intention at its best, in one of America’s whitest metro areas, where racism was often a whisper rather than a shout.

We — and when I say we, I mean all of us but especially my fellow well-intentioned and hyper-well-meaning millennial young professionals and particularly parents — we do so much, as much as we can, to make sure that we are safe. We research child care and elementary schools and bottles and organic onesies and neighborhoods and T-ball leagues. We use BPA-free everything and label anything and buy reusable Bento boxes for school lunches. We sign up for baby music classes and spend all our free time pumping and sacrifice ourselves for the betterment and safety of our homes and our loved ones and our possessions and most importantly, our children.

A couple of weeks ago, my son’s Kindergarten class in this same neighborhood, a school ranked 10/10 on all the websites I consulted, had a little Readers Theater performance. Almost all the kids in the class already knew how to read, and so they put on a play of a few well-known children’s books and songs.

When we got there, my 3-year-old and my husband and me, I was shocked to see that nearly every other parent in the class was attending as well. A crowd of white-collar professionals and stay-at-home parents: doctors and lawyers and engineers and pastors and managers and salespeople — almost everyone had come, some of them bringing a nanny. It was a remarkable cross-section, somewhat racially and ethnically diverse, some people speaking languages other than English, a credible representation of the lengths that we would all go to support our children, and the ways so many of us worked in fields that would support that desire and allow so many of us to leave work in the middle of the afternoon on an average Thursday.

This parental support made a clear difference in the functioning of the class. The teacher could count on parental involvement, both in teaching kids at home and helping out in the classroom. It was a marked difference from experiences had by my mom and brother, both of whom spent careers working in high-poverty schools. By this I mean not that the parents at my son’s school were more supportive, but rather I mean that by virtue of our careers and supportive work environments, and of course because of relative financial comfort, we were able to be supportive in a way that people who had less flexibility and relative support at work and at home would be able to do, like leaving work in the middle of the afternoon during the week.

I was aware of this privilege and its rarity, and I was grateful for it, even as I embarrassingly watched my son give the thumbs-down sign during his performance, because he didn’t get the role he wanted.

Yesterday another event happened at my son’s school, an event significantly less comforting and significantly more scary. After the after-school Spanish and language classes finished for the day, a group of kids were playing hide and go seek outside in front of the school. A few parents stood around and watched, chatting together. It was again an environment of privilege and of parental dedication, the best of the American desire for education and to achieve the American dream borne of hard work and diligent effort.

At one point, in the mid-December darkness of about 5:30 p.m. as the kids played hide and go seek, a strange white man in a newspaper cap with a long, thin black beard, leaped out of the shadows and grabbed an 8-year-old girl, attempting to abduct her. She screamed and twisted violently away, running back into the school for safety.

A TV news reporter happened to be in the group of parents standing nearby, and the story made the front page of the Minneapolis paper the next morning. I first heard about it before bed that evening, through a phone call from the school district. The next morning I talked to my kindergarten son about safety, about not going anywhere with strangers, and I tried and failed again to get him to memorize my cell phone number.

As of now, they still haven’t caught the perpetrator, and my son’s kindergarten teacher sent home an excellent email the following morning about the way they’d addressed the incident in class. The brave girl had escaped by her own merit, and all the safety valves we’d put in place had succeeded: the school was open, the other kids were OK, and teachers were using this incident to teach the kids about safety again. A well-positioned community had been mobilized to protect its youngest members, and the response seemed certainly adequate, especially as the story took precedence in the paper over an actual shooting in another neighborhood that same evening.

Today, as I envision my son in school — in that same school that we scrimped and saved and fought to make sure he attended — I do not feel scared or unsafe but I do feel that slight stomach-churning sense of unease. I sensed it again as I read this morning about a shooting in a Christmas market on the French-German border.

Perhaps in our Ring doorbell videos and school ratings and helicopter parent tendencies, we’ve forgotten the very real truth that in this world there is no such thing as absolute safety. On a random Tuesday there can be an attempted abduction at your child’s highly regarded public school, or on a random Thursday you can get a call that your latest mammogram detected something different, or your spouse doesn’t love you anymore, or your mother doesn’t remember you anymore, or your investments just went down the tubes and you got laid off from your job.

It is so tempting, ever so tempting, to put our faith in manufactured things, like money or houses or 401Ks. In a matter of days, though, it is Christmas. A child is born, God is made unsafe, vulnerable, a crying baby in a manger with unmarried and unwealthy parents.

Christmas reminds us that our safety rests not in ourselves but in each other, and in the God who became one of us, despite the inherent safety risks of being human.

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Editor’s Note: A reflection for the second Sunday of Advent, according to the lectionary

How often does it happen that we are afraid to get out of a bad system or situation because we don’t know what’s on the other side? Have you ever stayed in a job that was crushing you or demanding unhealthy amounts of your time? Work isn’t always fun — that’s why they have to pay us to do it! But it also shouldn’t be injurious to ourselves or others. But sometimes we are just too scared to leave or witness against a toxic entity.

The lectionary passages work together seamlessly to point out that we need not fear, be afraid, or worry in any situation because God is among us. Zephaniah proclaims:

“The LORD has taken away the judgments against you, he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst; you shall fear disaster no more…The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a warrior who gives victory; he will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love; he will exult over you with loud singing.” (Zeph 3:15, 17)

Because the LORD is in the midst of the people, the enemies have been turned away and the people are to stop fearing disaster. Isaiah goes further to assert: “Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation” (Isaiah 12:2). Because God is salvation, the prophet will not fear. Finally, Philippians simply says: “Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God” (Phil 4:6). The passages all work together to point out that with God among us, we need not be afraid.

It is this awareness that we don’t need to be afraid that I want to bring back to this second week of considering John the Baptizer’s ministry. I always think of the people who came out to be baptized by John as a brood of vipers. And that’s probably correct on some level, but still they chose to come to be baptized for repentance. I think they are no worse and no better than any of us who need to repent of the ways that we’ve injured each other and defamed God through our actions and inactions. We were all a brood of vipers who needed to be — and only could be — saved by God’s intervention and coming into our midst.

I want to recognize the courage of the people who came out of Herod’s Jerusalem and the surrounding areas to go to the wilderness to hear what a guy who ate bugs and wore hair suits was saying about repenting. In particular, the Jewish soldiers (Luke 3:14), many of whom would have had to undergo ritual immersion regularly if they worked in or around the Jewish temple in Jerusalem, were making a strange choice to the casual observer. They went to undergo baptism not in the beautiful pools around the temple, but in a not-that-impressive river (2 Kings 5:10-12). The tax collectors (Luke 3:12) who ultimately worked for Herod, who in turn worked for the Romans, were risking a great deal by coming out to hear a man who criticized their boss, tell them that they should not use their governmental power to hurt people — even when it was their right to do so.

READ: ICE’s War on Christmas

These two groups of people were complicit in the occupation of the Holy Land. The tax collectors extracted wealth from a conquered people to give it to their Roman occupiers. The soldiers’ main job was to protect Rome’s Idumean [non-Jewish] puppet ruler, Herod; the Roman-appointed-and-deposed High Priest, Annas; and his Roman-appointed son-in-law, Caiaphas. It is difficult to convey how serious the danger the soldiers and tax collectors faced when they came out to the Jordan river valley to hear John, be baptized by him, and then ask what they should do.

It is important to remember that John was not the only one out in the desert side of the Judean highlands. The Essenes were a community of Jews who advocated leaving Jerusalem and the temple cult because it was hopelessly corrupted by collaborationists with empire. They saw themselves as sons of light who resisted and would one day fight against the sons of darkness (i.e., the soldiers, tax collectors, priests, and rulers who supported the Roman occupation). They lived all around the areas where John preached. The soldiers and tax collectors came out to the territory of people who thought that they should be killed, not knowing at all what John would say to them, only knowing that they felt convicted that something was wrong, and they wanted it to be right. They showed an amazing lack of fear in walking away from their relatively cushy jobs and lives to hear a voice in the wilderness.

John did not say to them, stay here, join my movement and give up on the collaborationist project, however. He sent them back to their jobs to do them justly in a way that did not harm their fellow Jews. This would have been a powerful witness to their fellow soldiers and tax collectors and an indictment from within of the abusive system. Following John’s instructions would have made the tax collectors and soldiers immediately poorer, and then if they continued, would have endangered their lives. After all, Herod wasted no time arresting John right after this (Luke 3:19-20).

As I reflect on how people of faith witnessed against the evil treatment of asylum seekers in San Diego this week and the arrest of church folk a couple weeks ago at CityWell in North Carolina, I see this week’s lectionary readings speaking specifically about folks who work for abusive government agencies and how they can learn to turn away from manufactured fear and to stop being injurious to their siblings.

This also reminds me of the first few lines from one of my favorite poems by Wendell Berry, Mad Farmer in the City:

As my first blow against it, I would not stay.
As my second, I learned to live without it.
As my third, I went back one day and saw
that my departure had left a little hole
where some of its strength was flowing out…

The soldiers and tax collectors walked out of the city and their abusive power roles. John taught them how to live without abusing other people. Then John sent them back. Their presence must have ripped some kind of hole in empire where its strength started to leak out.

This Advent, as we prepare ourselves for the celebration of Jesus’ birth, let us look to John the Baptizer again for his fearless incitement to repentance of evil and abusive behavior. But let us also look to those who questioned their roles in an abusive system and bravely risked their lives to seek and find a better way to be faithful to the God who calls us all to live without fear.

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We humans are incredibly vulnerable.

We are all susceptible to tragedy and loss and the grief that follows. The holidays can be a time of intensified grief for many of us. This is because the holidays highlight our loss. Thanksgiving and Christmas are about connection and celebration, two things that loss can seriously dampen our capacity to participate in. Thanksgiving is a time to celebrate abundance, but we may be also feeling a distinct absence. Christmas is a time when we celebrate a special birth, but we may also be grieving a special death.

When it comes to grief, words just simply are not adequate. Because grief is sacred. Grief is holy. And sometimes, when in the presence of sacredness and holiness, silence — not words — is the only appropriate response. A bond that is sacred to us has been lost. And that depth of love and loss demands that it be honored.

Grief is not just a process; it is also a path of transformation. We never “return to normal.” We arrive at a new normal. We never “get over it.” We get through it. We never “move on.” We move forward. Grief changes us.

Sometimes acceptance and depression are two sides of the same coin. Acceptance can be talked about in ways that sound like a warm, fuzzy future destination: the “end” of the grief cycle. But this just simply isn’t true. Yes, wounds heal. But acceptance means that we are accepting a reality less than the one we had. We want who and what was taken from us to be returned. Acceptance can be very depressing.

If you are currently grieving, I encourage you to not isolate over the next few weeks. Connection is not just important, it is non-negotiable.

See, the grief process is not just a process of healing, it is a process of recovery. A major part of this work is the recovery of parts of ourselves that are lost when we lose someone central to us. Grief is a natural response to a comprehensive wound.

Grief is an emotional, mental, and spiritual wound — and this is precisely because it is a relational wound. The point of contact, and therefore the point of loss, is the role we played: parent, child, spouse, friend. Living in the light of death can bring about a loss of meaning and purpose, and we can carry the relational phantom pains for a long time. As much as it may hurt, it is important to create new points of relational contact and to utilize the existing relationships available to us.

READ: Getting Through A Christmas of Grief

And it’s okay to ask for what you need. Sometimes we just need someone to sit with us without filling the space with too many words, advice, small talk, or pep talks. Maybe just having someone sit with us is enough. Maybe “I see you, I’m with you, and I love you” is all we need to hear. Ask to be loved in ways that feel like love to you.

When clients are feeling stuck in grief, I often encourage them to move toward the life they want in hopes that their feelings will eventually catch up with them. Because if we wait until we feel like it, we may not move. It is common to go numb. This can be a gift as long as it doesn’t become a lifestyle. Anger is also a gift as long as it doesn’t become the new normal. Whatever you may be feeling, please know that it is valid.

Grief is important.
Grief is appropriate.
Grief is holy.
Grief is sacred.

When our loved ones pass, they become our ancestors. “I carry you in my heart” becomes our mantra. The fact that we have the capacity to suffer so greatly is all the evidence I need to prove that we are spiritual beings. I truly believe that we are never closer to the heart of God than when we are suffering.

Although grief may be an unwelcome guest, may we show her great hospitality. Hosting our grief is a form of self-care that is so incredibly important. For ultimately, it is our grief — a central part of who we are — that we are hosting. And she deserves the best of care. Make space for her at your table as a guest of honor.

If you are visited by grief in the coming weeks, I wish you radical self-care, connection with others that are worthy of the privilege of being with you in your pain, a peace that surpasses heartache, and a hope that sustains you when such peace is not an option.

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STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Let me begin by saying that nothing you’re going to read in this piece is terribly radical. However, it will feel radical for almost all of us reading articles in an online Christian publication because the most radical thing most of us have done over the holidays has been to shop for waffle irons at nontraditional times as a way of kicking off our celebration of the birth of Jesus. However, if for some reason you’re reading this and you’ve most recently found yourself traveling hundreds of miles on foot (with your children in tow) through harsh terrain and despotically controlled territories to flee violence and unrest in your originating zip code, only to be greeted with a red, white, and blue tear gas welcome party — then the things I’m going to say and suggest will likely come across as a bit tone deaf, especially considering I’m a person who spends most weekends professing tepid allegiance to a man who (following his miraculous birth) fled violence and unrest in his home country for religious reasons.

So, with that out of the way, your ethnically homogenous middle class church (and its budget, building, and membership) is probably shrinking not because your local megachurch just opened a third location in the old CVS across the street from you, but thanks almost entirely to the fact that the Middle Class in America is shrinking. Your church’s formational activities, its “mission” work, its schedule, its business meetings, its worship style (or lack thereof), and even the delineations in pay it makes between clergy and support staffs (or even between “senior” clergy and associate clergy), all work in concert to form your congregation into what it means to be a member of the social class that dominates the demographics of your faith community, and not in what it means to be a participant in a countercultural revolution bringing heaven to earth.

For instance, many young working class Americans don’t have Sundays off. I’m going to say it louder for those of you whose sanctuary sound systems are ailing: A LARGE NUMBER OF YOUNG AMERICANS DON’T HAVE SUNDAYS OFF BECAUSE THEY WORK RETAIL. Also, many young working class Americans don’t have evenings off, and if they do, they don’t have childcare because their partners are also working.

Most “young families” (the veritable catnip for aging congregations nervous about making it) don’t have enough disposable income (or vacation time) to take an eight-day international mission excursion for the low, low price of $4000 a head, let alone volunteer to cover the hot dog expenses for your annual post-VBS cookout.

In the midst of your church wide “revisioning,” “relauching,” “rebranding,” and “reimagining” projects you are likely undertaking due to falling budget and attendance numbers, I might suggest an alternative to the tried and true model of shaming older millennials (those in their early-to-mid-thirties) and the generations ambling along behind them for their “selfishness,” “lack of priorities,” or for “constantly staring at their phones and forcing their kids to play travel soccer.

Instead, a more helpful approach might involve looking at the larger data sets reminding us that most young Americans enter the workforce better educated and more indebted than any generation in history, and thanks to wage stagnation, a lack of occupational stability, and a constantly inflating standard of living, an indebtedness that keeps them as the first generation since the Great Depression to do worse financially than their parents and grandparents.

The reason many young people are delaying marriage and having fewer children isn’t just because they’re playing Fortnite in the basement, it’s because they still have roommates, lack trustworthy health insurance, and work two jobs in the “gig-economy.”

So, where am I going with all of this?

What if instead of competing with area churches for the few remaining members of a greatly diminished social class who can truly “appreciate” and “support” what your church has “to offer” (think how utterly ridiculous it is to conceive of Christianity as some sort of self-help subscription service), your faith community decided to create worship opportunities at nontraditional times for people who work nontraditional hours?

What if your congregation pooled its resources not to re-roof the Christian Education annex, but to get community members out of crippling student loan and credit card debt?

What if your congregation worked to foster organizational opportunities for people of differing social classes and generations to build actual relationships and understanding rather than siloing them in different worship styles, “Sunday school” classrooms, and once-a-year backpack distribution lines?

What if your congregation started encouraging its participants to upend and delegitimize the rules of our consumeristic market economy by simply paying its support staff a living wage, working to decrease widespread income inequality between senior and associate level staff members, and modeling for a weary and broken American moral compass what it looks like to believe that a budget is an unshaking moral pronouncement of one’s values rather than the determiner of what values one can afford to hold from year to year?

What if your church actually practiced the teachings of Jesus together, even if those teachings came in direct contrast to the teachings of what it means to be happy, healthy, and wealthy in a version of America that no longer exists?

At the least, what if your church stopped believing that the meaning of Christmas is best communicated by giving people (both here and abroad) boatloads of consumer products they neither need nor still appreciate by the middle of January?

What would the world, or our country, or our cities, or our neighborhoods look like if, when people of meager means saw your building they didn’t see a poverty-shaming handout delivery system, an impenetrable stained glass fortress, or a place where rich white people pass the time thanking the divine for not making them poor, or a Republican, or a Democrat, or closed minded, or progressive, or Presbyterian, or Methodist, or Baptist, or Evangelical, or a grocery store clerk with only Tuesdays off?

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector. The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’ But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’ I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” — Jesus of Nazareth

See what I mean about being radical? Honestly, it’s like trying to convert to a different religion, which I suppose was kind of his point.

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For years, Nancy Beach had no idea there were women with stories similar to hers.

Beach, the first woman to serve as a teaching pastor at Willow Creek Community Church, said her boss acted sexually inappropriately toward her in the late 1990s.

Instead of speaking out, she said she went silent, like so many other women, wanting to protect the church and families involved and thinking her situation was an isolated case.

When she learned other women said they had similar encounters with Willow Creek founder Bill Hybels, she decided to speak out earlier this year. Eventually, Hybels, who has denied the allegations against him, retired early after about 10 women accused him of misconduct.

Like others who have shared their stories of sexual harassment and abuse this year, Beach hopes other women won’t have to wait so long to speak out. It’s time, she said, for evangelical churches to have an honest conversation about sexual misconduct.

She plans to tell her story at Reflections: A GC2 Summit on Responding to Sexual Harassment, Abuse and Violence, a one-day evangelical gathering around the topic on Thursday (Dec. 13) hosted by the Billy Graham Center at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school in the Chicago suburbs.

There’s never been a more important time to address the topic of sexual misconduct in the church, according to Beach.

“I think this is just an opportunity to, instead of avoiding the conversation, open it up and to hear from many different voices coming from different areas of expertise,” she said.

The summit comes just over a year after artists Emily Joy, who does not use her last name professionally, and Hannah Paasch first appended the hashtag #ChurchToo to their tweets, giving survivors of sexual violence, abuse and harassment within the church a place to share their stories. They had been inspired by the #MeToo movement started by activist Tarana Burke, which brought to light accusations against a number of powerful men, particularly in media and entertainment.

READ: Where is the Church on #MeToo?

Since then, several high-profile leaders in the evangelical world have been accused of sexual misconduct.

Andy Savage, a teaching pastor at Highpoint Church in Memphis, resigned in March after Jules Woodson accused him of sexually abusing her when she was a teenager and he was a youth pastor in Texas. Her story was one of the first to bring national attention to the #ChurchToo movement.

In April, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune revealed decades of alleged misconduct by Hybels. That investigation rocked not just Willow Creek but also the thousands of churches that had modeled themselves after the suburban Chicago megachurch.

Then this summer, the Southern Baptist Convention grappled with how to address the issue after Paige Patterson was ousted from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary amid reports he mishandled rape allegations by students.

Laurie Nichols, director of communications for the Billy Graham Center and one of the organizers of the event, said Reflections aims to give churches the tools they need to respond to victims of sexual harassment and abuse.

“We really want to equip churches in this area,” Nichols said. “A lot of pastors just don’t feel equipped to deal with this issue, and church leaders don’t feel equipped and a lot of women in the church don’t feel like they know how to share their stories.”

This is the center’s third GC2 summit, which is a reference to Christianity’s Great Commission — “Go and make disciples of all nations” — and Great Commandment, Jesus’ command to love God and love one’s neighbor. Previous summits have focused on the refugee crisis and mass incarceration.

Organizers also want survivors to have a voice and to know the church cares about them, Nichols said.

The schedule of the summit includes time for lament and prayer, as well as panel discussions and keynote addresses with titles like “Dear Church Leaders, Here’s How You Ought to Respond to Survivors in Your Church,” “When Jesus Heals” and “Seeking Accountability and Integrity.”

Licensed and trained team members will be on site to offer attendees support and referrals to further counseling, in partnership with the school’s counseling center and school of psychology. Proceeds from ticket and livestream sales will go to New Name, a local faith-based outreach to women in the adult industry.

Among the speakers are Beth Moore and Christine Caine, two popular authors and speakers who have spoken out about their experiences of sexual abuse and support for the #MeToo movement.

Other speakers from Wheaton bring backgrounds in psychology and counseling: Nancy Nealious, a trauma recovery specialist and licensed clinical psychologist in the college’s counseling center; Tammy Schultz, a trauma and sexual abuse counselor and professor of counseling; Jenny Hwang, managing director of the college’s Humanitarian Disaster Institute; and Wheaton College Provost Margaret Diddams, a psychologist who is part of an advisory group currently investigating allegations against Hybels.

Nichols said speakers come from diverse backgrounds, but all hold evangelical beliefs.

READ: Mary Knew the Risks of #MeToo

But critics say it’s important for evangelicals to hear from voices outside the church. Those voices are missing from the conference, said Emily Joy, who left evangelicalism and now attends an Episcopal church.

She said evangelical teachings about sex — including the belief sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage — form a “bedrock of sexually dysfunctional culture in conservative evangelicalism, and these speakers are not interested in dismantling it.”

investigating allegations against Hybels.

Nichols said speakers come from diverse backgrounds, but all hold evangelical beliefs.

But critics say it’s important for evangelicals to hear from voices outside the church. Those voices are missing from the conference, said Emily Joy, who left evangelicalism and now attends an Episcopal church.

She said evangelical teachings about sex — including the belief sex should be reserved for a man and woman within the context of marriage — form a “bedrock of sexually dysfunctional culture in conservative evangelicalism, and these speakers are not interested in dismantling it.”

She, Paasch and a few others plan to host their own teachings on social media offering “alternative information” during Wheaton’s summit, she said.

“My idea is not to just critique this — which it deserves critique — but also to offer something constructive and proactive as well,” she said.

Emily Joy also is concerned the summit doesn’t have enough survivors or experts in dealing with issues of sexual abuse in its speaker lineup.

At least four of the 17 speakers listed on the summit website are survivors of sexual harassment or abuse, according to Nichols, who also identifies as a survivor. However, only one of the speakers, Jeanette Salguero, chief operating officer of Calvario City Church in Florida, is identified as a survivor in her summit bio.

And Woodson, who identifies as Christian, is concerned about its inclusion of Caine, who has ties to Hillsong, an Australian megachurch whose founder, Brian Houston, is under fire for his handling of allegations his father had sexually abused several children.

She said evangelicals need to recognize sexual abuse is a problem within the church, and it is not just a sin but also a crime. They also need to listen to survivors, advocates and organizations like GRACE (Godly Response to Abuse in the Christian Environment) that were working to bring the issue to light before it was trending.

“We need to be having this conversation. Absolutely, we need to be equipping people and educating them about this topic. All of that is so important,” Woodson said. “But this (summit) just seems to me really lacking depth.”

Still, Emily Joy said the fact such an event is being held at an evangelical institution this year is “proof that we’re making progress insofar as we’re forcing them to confront these things.”

Hwang agreed evangelicals need to have a healthy conversation about sexuality. Many treat sex as a taboo topic, related to guilt and shame, according to the head of the Humanitarian Disaster Institute. That is unhealthy, she said, and can make it even harder to discuss sexual abuse.

READ: End the Billy Graham Rule

Beach, the leadership coach once on staff at Willow Creek, worries that churches will react to the sexual abuse crisis by creating more rules that restrict women from leadership roles — in order to reduce the risk of misconduct. She believes God created men and women to work shoulder to shoulder together in ministry, she said. She’s experienced it, too — and that’s the story she wants to tell now at Reflections.

She said the summit is “only the beginning.”

“It’s just one day. It’s not going to solve everything,” Beach said. “But I think it’s a step in the right direction. That’s my hope.”

This article originally appeared at RNS.

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After a tense standoff with officials at the U.S.-Mexico border on Monday (Dec. 10), at least 30 American clergy were taken into custody over the objections of demonstrators, who had come to protest the treatment of Central American asylum-seekers and to decry the extension of a border wall and the militarization of the border.

Priests, pastors, imams and rabbis knelt at the border south of San Diego in front of a row of U.S. Border Patrol agents clad in riot gear. Organizers said 30 faith leaders were arrested, but a U.S. Customs and Border Protection official put the number at 32.

CBP said most were charged with failing to comply with directions from federal officials and then released, but one was charged with assaulting or resisting an agent — a charge the protesters already dispute.

The “Love Knows No Borders” demonstration was organized by the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker group that assembled religious leaders from across the faith spectrum for the event. Participants said it was meant to express frustration about several border-related issues at once.

“It was about the militarization of the border, about the border wall itself and about calling for the rights of the migrant — particularly the migrant caravan,” said Lucy Duncan, an organizer and outreach director for the AFSC who was at the protest and was among those arrested.

“There were people there from all across the country from all faith traditions risking arrest and making a statement, saying this is not what our country stands for, this is not what our sacred traditions teach,” said the Rev. Liz Theoharis, co-chair of the progressive, faith-rooted activist group the Poor People’s Campaign. Theoharis participated in the demonstration but was not detained.

Duncan said AFSC had the idea for the protest after learning that authorities planned to close Friendship Park, a well-guarded stretch of the border where friends and family members on both sides commonly gather to talk through the fence and where religious groups often hold joint worship services.

In addition to Theoharis and Duncan, participants included United Methodist Bishop Minerva G. Carcaño; the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, head of the Unitarian Universalist Association; the Rev. Traci Blackmon, a pastor in Ferguson, Mo., and head of the United Church of Christ’s Justice and Local Church Ministries; the Rev. Bruce Reyes-Chow, former moderator of the Presbyterian Church (USA); Omar Suleiman, an imam and adjunct professor at Southern Methodist University in Dallas; and Rabbi Brant Rosen, who serves on the rabbinical council of Jewish Voice for Peace. It could not be determined immediately whether they were among those arrested.

After an immigration-themed interfaith service on Sunday evening, the demonstrators gathered Monday about a mile from the border for a news conference before marching toward the protest site — a beach near Friendship Park.

The Rev. Julie Peeples, pastor of Congregational United Church of Christ in Greensboro, N.C., said the demonstration was split into two groups: roughly 100 who were willing to risk arrest, and roughly 200 who provided support behind them.

“I was there in the role that several of us played: as peacekeeper, to try to keep people moving, to try to keep things focused on why we were there,” she said.

Theoharis said the group stopped at one point to perform a ritual, where leaders “read the names of those who have died at the hands of Border Patrol or died trying to cross the border into the United States.” They then anointed several demonstrators before those risking arrest moved in groups of four into a restricted area.

A line of border patrol agents was waiting for them. The clergy eventually stopped and began to sing hymns and protest anthems. As some knelt in the sand, they sang, “Rise up my people, my condors, my eagles! No human being will ever be illegal!”

Theoharis said they squared off with agents for nearly two hours, with officials sometimes shoving them back as they advanced while singing and praying. But organizers said that as the group turned to leave — partly due to the presence of what were described as “alt-right” counterprotesters — agents began conducting “waves of arrests.”

Video of the incident shows Border Patrol agents pulling faith leaders through their ranks before throwing several to the ground and restraining their hands with zip ties.

Many of the clergy who assembled have been vocal in their support for immigrants in the past, and some are figures in the New Sanctuary Movement, which shelters undocumented migrants at risk of deportation in houses of worship in defiance of federal authorities.

“I follow Jesus Christ, who welcomed everyone,” said Peeples, whose church has offered sanctuary to at least two undocumented people. “That’s very basic, but it’s the truth. God throughout Scripture had a huge heart and concern for migrants.”

Duncan said she hopes their demonstration can capture the attention of lawmakers and that they respond with legislation.

“We want to defund ICE, defund Border Patrol, and defund hate,” she said.

This article originally appeared at RNS.

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Editor’s Note: A reflection for the second Sunday of Advent, according to the lectionary

John the Baptizer would have been a stumbling block for me. Initially, I feel attracted to his message of baptism for the forgiveness of sins. But being called a brood of vipers would have gotten old pretty quickly. Still, there is something necessary, and maybe even good about the work of the voice crying out in the wilderness to prepare the way of the Lord.

The Malachi passage from this week’s lectionary helps shape our expectations. The messenger comes as a harbinger of the Lord, whom the people desire (Malachi 3:1). But the day of his coming will not be all celebration and light. Rather he comes as a refiner’s fire which melts away impurities in the scorching furnace. He comes as a launderer, ready to use burning lye soap to scrub away uncleanliness (Malachi 3:2). The coming of God’s Holy One is desirable, for sure, but also his advent heralds a potentially painful process of removing sin and inequity from our lives.

John hears and proclaims Malachi’s message loud and clear. John preached a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Luke 3:3). But instead of kind, inviting language that I would expect and appreciate, John’s preaching sounded like this:

“You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The ax is already at the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.”

These harsh words cut to the heart of many of the people who came out to hear him and be baptized, and they wanted to take the next steps:

“What should we do then?” the crowd asked.

John answered, “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.”

Even tax collectors came to be baptized. “Teacher,” they asked, “what should we do?”

“Don’t collect any more than you are required to,” he told them.

Then some soldiers asked him, “And what should we do?”

He replied, “Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely — be content with your pay.” (Luke 3:7b-14)

John’s message is essentially this: We cannot count on our upbringing or being respectable people. Only production of good fruit and cessation of evil will prevent us from being chopped down and thrown away.

This doesn’t sound like the gospel that I remember being preached in churches when I was young!

The passage goes on:

“‘I baptize you with water. But one who is more powerful than I will come… He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.” (Luke 3:16b-18)

There is something about Jesus winnowing the wheat from the chaff — protecting the former and burning the latter — that is good news.

As the literal darkness (in the northern hemisphere) and social-political darkness continues to increase perceptibly in the world, Jesus taking a firm stand against wickedness IS good news. Passive tolerance of evil that injures people is not good news. John and Jesus being absolutely clear that the kingdom of God isn’t just an everything-goes festival, but a place where righteousness matters IS GOOD NEWS.

This isn’t just some general call to morality, though. There are specific activities that Malachi and John stand against. Listen to the things that need purifying:

  • Religious abuse and malpractice (Malachi 3:3-4)
  • Ethnic pride that leads to feelings of superiority (Luke 3:8)
  • Religion based on identity that doesn’t produce good fruit (Luke 3:8-9)
  • Hoarding and not sharing (Luke 3:11)
  • Governmental defrauding and abuse of civilians (Luke 3:12-13)
  • Police (the “soldiers” here are Jewish police, and not Roman soldiers) falsely accusing and extorting civilians (Luke 3:14)

The burning of these things and the weeding out of them from the kingdom of heaven is profoundly good news.

This Advent, let’s not settle for a sentimental Christmas season, but actively work to open ourselves up to Jesus’ refiner’s fire and launderer’s soap to burn and to scrub abuse and mistreatment from our lives and our societies.

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Most people might think that atheism is the opposite of Christianity. It isn’t.

Atheism is the opposite of theism — the belief in a divine being, or many of them, or even the very idea of a god who exists — let alone might care about individual human beings and their affairs.

In other words, the common assumption is that the opposite of a Christian is someone who is not “religious.” But that is not the issue. In fact, it is not even relevant. Even our opinion, or personal preference over which religion is right or wrong or better is not relevant.

The opposite of a Christian is what Jesus — or the compilers of the New Testament say it is: those who plainly do what Jesus says not to do and refuse to do what he clearly says to do.

When Jesus says “don’t be like those people” we should believe him. When Jesus clearly says to do a certain thing, we should do it.

Be like the one who builds a house on a solid foundation, not on sand: “everyone who listens to these words of mine but does not act on them will be like a fool who built his house on sand” (Matthew 7:26).

Don’t turn away from the poor and needy. Don’t loan money to those who can pay you back. Don’t invite people for a meal who can afford to invite you in return (Luke 14:12-13).

Do cast your bread on the waters — never to see it again. Don’t pray in public and make a spectacle of your faith (Matthew 23).

The opposite of a Christian is not someone of another faith or no faith. It is someone who empties out the power, compassion, urgency, and generosity of a living faith and lives out a life of rules, abstractions, and accusations.

Jesus said “judge not and you will not be judged” (Matthew 7:1). But the opposite of a Christian —  one who loves to judge — will be judged.

The real Christian will welcome, embrace, and restore the lost, the wounded, and the broken.

The point of departure between the New Testament and the Old Testament is the principle, the idea, indeed the declaration that the Word had become flesh. A living faith was no longer an adherence to certain laws, rules, and theological abstractions, but a faith of encounters, of direct interactions with laws, rules, and people in crisis — the Word made flesh.

Christianity of the early 21st century is the opposite of historic Christianity, as a keyhole is opposite of a key. Point by point, our theology dilutes, evades, or directly contradicts what Jesus lived out and proclaimed.

What is the purpose of faith? Most would say personal salvation. Paul tells us that he would be willing — even eager — to give up his salvation to restore his people. Is that foolish or the ultimate expression of faith?

Jesus tells us to give (gladly) to those who do not deserve it and can never pay us back. Is this an idealistic delusion or an act (literally an action) of faith?

We are told that our faith can move mountains. Do we believe it?

We are told that our faith can heal, that our prayers matter. Do we believe it?

We are told that Christians are the benchmarks of wisdom, compassion, and discernment. Is that what the world sees?

Can we blame unbelievers if they see complacency, cowardice, and conformity under the banner of Christianity?

Our call, as it has always been, is to see the broken in front of us, not to blame or condemn, but to lift up, restore, be bearers of the impossible light of ultimate peace, promise, and restoration.

We are told plainly, on almost every page of the Bible to be doers — not just listeners — of the Word (James 1:22 and many others).

Our faith is not what we say, or even what we believe. It is what we do, who we are in the world.

The story of the two brothers (Matthew 21:28-31) says it all; one promises to work and then doesn’t. The other rebukes his father and then changes his mind and gets to work.

Indeed, our faith is expressed more by our hands than by our doctrine.

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In the midst of all the discouraging news that come our way from print and online media, I have some good news to report. In the words of the early 20th-century journalist, Jack London, “I have seen the future and it works!”

I recently saw the future of the church manifested while visiting Frankfurt, Germany. There, a young woman has been a leader in a movement that has now established 46 new churches. What is unusual is that most of these churches are meeting in bars and pubs. The genius of this is that it’s a “win-win situation” for everybody concerned. Those who run the bars on Sunday morning are thrilled to have their places filled with enthusiastic young people, singing and listening to the teachings of scripture and, yes, drinking beer. The many young leaders who are in charge of these Sunday morning gatherings at these “bar churches” are pleased because they have a place to meet, and they do not have to spend any money for overhead such as heat, light, and rent. Sunday mornings had been a real “downtime” for local bars, but not anymore.

The important emphasis at these church gatherings is that the meetings are dialogical. All during the presentations of the gospel, young people are encouraged to ask questions. Interruptions are welcomed and, among the young people who are gathered, there is freedom to raise questions — even if they are not directly related to the subject that is being presented by the leaders. This give-and-take style is a significant departure from the usual monologues that church people regularly experience during traditional Sunday morning church services.

An invitation is made to get as many of these young people to commit themselves to going on mission trips to the Third World and to serve such places as Ethiopia, Somalia, and the Congo. These mission groups drill or dig wells in order to make healthy water available for the indigenous people living in arid areas. Since diseased water is a major cause of sickness and death in the Global South, you can understand how important this is. During these weeklong excursions, the leaders of these “bar churches” have the opportunity to carry on in-depth discussions about the message of Christ and extend the call to commitment to Christ and His work in the world. This is a whole new movement, and it is a church-style that might be replicated in other places around the world.

During my time in Vienna, Austria, I was privileged to observe the second manifestation of the church breaking out of old molds. This proved to be another movement led by a dynamic young woman who, in this case, had been theologically trained. Her congregation calls itself “The Burning Church.” I asked members of the congregation why this gathering had this name, and I received a variety of answers. Among them were these: “We deal with the burning issues of the day from a biblical perspective,” and “We are burning a new path for the church of the future.”

The congregation was holding a conference that was titled “Dangerous Ideas.” Whereas most churches try to avoid what is controversial, this congregation meets the hot issues of the day head on. They could have easily used the chapter titles of one of my earlier books, 20 Hot Potatoes Christians Are Afraid To Touch, as the themes for their gatherings. The excitement and energy that radiated through this group of young people had me on an emotional high.

This particular congregation in Vienna had just purchased a rather large building, which once had been a ballroom and nightclub. The building is located in a neighborhood where there are many poor people, and they were building into this new facility places where local people could come for medical care, counseling, dental care, and a number of yet-to-be determined ministries.

This was a “listening congregation,” in that it was not simply imposing any a priori agenda on the local people, but rather was gleaning from those in the neighborhood what needs the church could meet.

The great deal of the work needed to refurbish this new facility was being done by the church members themselves. This congregation is extremely lacking in funds, but this does not deter them from dreaming, planning, and moving ahead with great excitement.

There is little doubt that I returned to the United States starry eyed over what I had witnessed as I observed these innovative Christian movements that just may be part of the avant-garde of what the church will be like as the 21st century unfolds.

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