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Seminarian
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Hi,

 

I'm a UCC seminary student entering my third and final year. I was reading people like Spong and Borg and Carter Heyward before I went to seminary and was excited by the idea of being part of the progressive Christianity movement. The seminary has certainly been a supportive environment for exploring these ideas, but I'm worried about ordination and employment now. It seems that even in the supposedly "progressive" UCC, a lot of old-fashioned theological/christological ideas are still the norm. I for one can't subscribe to any of the traditional creedal beliefs, but I draw from some of the basic wisdom of the Christian tradition.

 

I worry that I will have to compromise my true views in order to maintain employment. I am afraid that it is hard to get a position at the most progressive congregations within the denomination. My pastor is a TCPC type and has been very encouraging. (She was at the Re-imagining Conference.) She thinks I should start a church from scratch, which to me doesn't seem like a realistic idea at all.

 

I've thought about making a break for the UUA. (I used to belong to a UU church.) But this isn't my preference.

 

Thoughts? Ideas? Encouragement? I'm especially interested to hear mentor-ly advice from clergy people.

 

Grace and Peace.

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It seems that even in the supposedly "progressive" UCC, a lot of old-fashioned theological/christological ideas are still the norm. I for one can't subscribe to any of the traditional creedal beliefs, but I draw from some of the basic wisdom of the Christian tradition.

I don't think you can realistically expect any denomination to completely shed all vestiges of a traditional theological perspective, without losing its Christian identity altogether. The UUA has pretty much done this, and I presume that's a lot of the reason you're hesitant to go back that way.

 

I worry that I will have to compromise my true views in order to maintain employment. I am afraid that it is hard to get a position at the most progressive congregations within the denomination.

Definitely not an enviable position to be in. The UCC throws its arms very wide open, and does so intentionally; it has no intention of casting off its conservative constituency anytime in the near or far future. It's an important part of its theological tapestry, and will always have an important role to play I think. I know this is a hard question, but do you genuinely believe you can represent the typical mainline Christian congregation if you can't subscribe to any of the traditional creedal beliefs of Christianity? Do you even genuinely desire to represent a typical mainline congregation? Leading a fringe church is a cool fantasy -- I confess to harboring it myself! -- but representing a real, democratic melting pot of theological perspectives is hard work. I encourage you to search your heart for your motivations and see what you find!

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Right. I guess I feel connect to a denomination with a bit more of a "center" in terms of myth and ritual than the UUA, but without any requirement that I subscribe to creedal beliefs. So I don't feel entirely at home on either side of this denominational divide.

 

I'm not necessarily expecting the UCC to throw off its conservative constituency altogether, but I just know that that is not the constituency I would be best suited to do ministry with. No, I don't believe I can represent a TYPICAL mainline denomination with real integrity. But I still harbor the hope that there might be a place for me to do ministry somewhere a little closer to the margins. Maybe it is just a "cool fantasy," in which case I need to come up with a plan B, but I do know that such churches are out there. If John Spong could become a bishop, who is to say that we heretics can't find a place?

 

Thanks for the reply.

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I belong to a denomination (United Church of Canada) which is a "large tent" denomination. We have members that range from very traditional to very progressive. I think that as long as you are respectful of other's beliefs you shouldn't have a problem. In our denomination the clergy is often more progressive than many of the congregation.

 

Marcus Borg may be a better model than Bishop Spong. IMHO Borg can look at traditional Christianity and see the symbolism behind the traditional beliefs. I really like his concept of "postcritical naivity.

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I'm a UCC member. It's a pretty diverse group as are the pastors. In fact, in a given city you might find a couple conservative ones and some very progressive ones. The congregation is going to be pretty split. There are usually conservative members (generally older, but I wouldn't bet on that at all!), one of the most conservative people that I ever talked to in UCC was gay! I also think some churches are more "high church" than others, and some are quite willing to experiment with liturgy and some not so much. Our pastor is actually more conservative than the church is generally. (He used to be a Lutheran.)

 

If you state who you are, what you want to do, etc. well enough, you aren't going to get a mismatched call (say from a more conservative congregation).

 

No, I don't think forming your own church is viable option. You might do a websearch for "Emergent church" (or is it "emerging").

 

 

(United Church of Canada is a related church to UCC).

 

--des

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Yeah, I think your denomination is roughly a Canadian parallel to our UCC. Even the same initials. And similarly, I think our clergy are often more progressive than the laity. I can be respectful of other people's beliefs. I just want to be in an environment where I can be pretty honest about my own. I don't want to get into any sort of game of pretending to be more traditional than I am in order to make other people happy.

 

I was pointing to Spong as a model because he is actually a clergy person. As far as I know, Borg is not.

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Oh and Des, you're exactly right about the unbelievable variety of UCC churches. I live in Chicago and it's a perfect example of what you're talking about. The churches here are a wild range of worship styles and theological perspectives and ethnicities. Keeps it interesting.

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I live in Chicago [...]

Cool! I live in the far NW suburbs (about another 1/2 hr. further NW from Woodfield). My wife and I have been attending a UCC church in Crystal Lake, who currently has an interim pastor, and will probably be in the selection process for another year at least. We really like the interim pastor, but I'm interested to chat with him and get a sense of where he is coming from theologically, and how he percieves where the congregation is coming from. In general, I'm happy with UCC's democratic "ecclesiology," and overall committment both to new theological directions and to social justice.

 

Where are you in school?

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Cynthia, thanks for the Borg link. I'm a fan too.

 

Yes, I live in Chicago in Hyde Park, which is also where I go to school at Chicago Theological Seminary. I don't know anything about the church in Crystal Lake. My partner and I are actually still church shopping in Chicago and have visited a number of different UCC churches, mostly in the city.

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Hey you Chicagoans (I used to live there), and was a member of Wellington Ave. UCC. Very activist church (also pretty well known outside Chicago, at least in UCC circles), and I'd give it two thumbs up. :-) St. Paul's is reputedly fairly conservative.

 

 

(My best friend lived in Crystal Lake. This is quite a conservative area-- actually that county is the state seat for the KKK.)

 

 

--des

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I worry that I will have to compromise my true views in order to maintain employment. I am afraid that it is hard to get a position at the most progressive congregations within the denomination. My pastor is a TCPC type and has been very encouraging. (She was at the Re-imagining Conference.) She thinks I should start a church from scratch, which to me doesn't seem like a realistic idea at all.

 

Although I don't know exactly what your "true views" are, I suspect that you would find that you are not as unusual as you think you are. Anxiety over being able to fit in at a church is probably pretty normal after coming out of seminary. Often, people go through some serious shifts in thier faith because of the experience. As a result, they compare where they were before entering with where they are upon exit, with the prior being equated with "the church." I bet even evangelicals who slide slightly to the left even go through this.

 

I'm also willing to bet that when people hear CTS they will assume you are "liberal" or "progressive." So to a certain extent, they are expecting some challenging views to come from you because of your education.

 

Remember that Borg and Spong both identify with Christianity. Both of them have a great amount of respect for the tradition. While they disagree with how the tradition has played out recently, they are not working to destroy it but rather to reclaim it for our day and age.

 

I see traditional language as poetry meant to point to something of cosmic depth and beauty. I use it because I believe it is "true," if not "literal." But I also use it in a way that draws us into the greater "truth" that cannot be captured by the "literal." This approach reinvests it with its original purpose: to help us to connect with God.

 

And don't knock new church development. It takes 10 times as much energy and resources to move an existing church from point "A" to point "D" than it does to start a new church at point "D". Yes, NCD is a lot of work, and it takes a special calling. But I also believe that it is the area that is needed most if we are to seek to establish a "relevant Christianity" in North America. I would suggest looking into that, and then letting us know what you find out.

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(My best friend lived in Crystal Lake. This is quite a conservative area-- actually that county is the state seat for the KKK.)

Hmm, hadn't heard that! Obviously things get more conservative in general the further you venture away from the city. I know this pastor is pretty progressive in his political views... Theologically, he hasn't said anything too far afield either way; but then, he's also an interim pastor who's only been here since Feb., so my guess is he's trying to get a sense of where the congregation is coming from, and then let them drive. I also know that arbitration is part of his pastoral training, so I think one of his biggest strengths is his ability to create bridges between different ideas and perspectives, rather than necessarily leading a congregation who is more homogenous theologically. Both callings are very much needed I think. Anyway, I still need to get together with him and pick his brain. :)

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I worry that I will have to compromise my true views in order to maintain employment. I am afraid that it is hard to get a position at the most progressive congregations within the denomination. My pastor is a TCPC type and has been very encouraging. (She was at the Re-imagining Conference.) She thinks I should start a church from scratch, which to me doesn't seem like a realistic idea at all.

 

Although I don't know exactly what your "true views" are, I suspect that you would find that you are not as unusual as you think you are. Anxiety over being able to fit in at a church is probably pretty normal after coming out of seminary. Often, people go through some serious shifts in thier faith because of the experience. As a result, they compare where they were before entering with where they are upon exit, with the prior being equated with "the church." I bet even evangelicals who slide slightly to the left even go through this.

 

These were my thoughts too really. I'd even go so far as to say that this is an archetypal situation, because at some point a persons vision inevitably collides with material or concrete reality. In fairy tales, material reality=the dragon the hero must fight. Both material reality and the dragon symbolize inertia, both our own inertia and the inertia of whatever "system" we attempt to revitilize with our vision. Compromise, in both cases, must be made; hopefully without forsaking the lifeblood of the original vision. In short, I think this is a very important struggle you are engaging that will ultimately reveal your true motivations and test the integrity of your vision and both will make you a better pastor and church leader in the long run. Godspeed.

 

lily

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Remember that Borg and Spong both identify with Christianity. Both of them have a great amount of respect for the tradition. While they disagree with how the tradition has played out recently, they are not working to destroy it but rather to reclaim it for our day and age.

I disagree about Spong "having a great amount of respect for the tradition" -- I think he barely tolerates most of it, and would gleefully welcome its destruction in large part. Don't get me wrong, I deeply respect his courage to stand up and fight for an inclusive church, but I find his theological carelessness and smugness very offputting. Borg, on the other hand, does write out of a deep respect for tradition, it seems to me; and even where we disagree, I find a true spiritual brother in him.

 

I see traditional language as poetry meant to point to something of cosmic depth and beauty.  I use it because I believe it is "true," if not "literal."  But I also use it in a way that draws us into the greater "truth" that cannot be captured by the "literal."  This approach reinvests it with its original purpose: to help us to connect with God. 

This is the key, I think. At least for me, I need to hear a spiritual leader voice true respect for the wineskins that have carried the gospel these many years -- and even a willingness to admit that, at times, those tattered old wineskins do a better job of carrying it than some of the shiny modern ones. It's about the humility of letting the truth grab hold and captivate us wherever it speaks from, rather than us telling it where it can be found, and where it cannot. Traditional language -- especially when liberated from the need to be read merely historically or scientifically -- communicates spiritual reality in a powerful way, and we would be impoverished without it. It took me many years to begin to find that way of reading it though. With many others here, I think I had to be pulled away by the likes of Spong, Crossan, Borg, Funk, and others, in order to clear a space for reading the tradition anew. And in that sense, I remain grateful to every one of them.

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Hey, thanks to everyone for this great discussion. I really appreciate everyone's comments and insights. I feel really supported by you all.

 

Des, I've visited both Wellington and St. Pauls. I think they're both great churches in different ways. Wellington is much more progressive on social/political issues, yes, but I wouldn't go so far as to call St. Pauls "conservative."

 

Anarchist, I think you've probably got a good point about the reputation of CTS. People probably will expect that they're getting someone on the liberal to progressive to radical end of things as soon as they see where I've gone to school. I wouldn't say my views have done any super radical shift since I've started studying, but I have started to struggle more as I've progressed with figuring out how to communicate with people who are much more literal than I am. As far as my "true views," they're pretty well represented by the 8 points of TCPC as a starting point. And just in general, I do not take much of anything in the Bible "literally." Thanks for the encouragement on NCD. I could see doing it at some point, but not immediately after graduating from school and getting ordained. That just feels a little too overwhelming to me.

 

Fred, I hope you have some wonderful conversations with your new pastor. As to your Spong v. Borg thing, I really like them both a lot. Clearly Spong is the more radical of the two. Change movements need to have a range of views.

 

Lily, I think you're right about the archetypal aspects of my situation. Even though I've been focusing on myself, I also know that many of my classmates are also on the theologically progressive end of things and will struggle with the same issues. I do think the situation gets compounded by being gay, though. Despite all the advances on gay issues in the UCC, I don't know very many glbt pastors serving churches, at least here in Chicago. So I worry that for many churches, I have three strikes as a gay man, as a political/social progressive and as a theological progressive.

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Hmm, well maybe I am thinking of a different church than St. Paul's then? I have in mind a church in Ravenswood, I think?

 

>advances on gay issues in the UCC, I don't know very many glbt pastors serving churches, at least here in Chicago. So I worry that for many churches, I have three strikes as a gay man, as a political/social progressive and as a theological progressive.

 

We have a gay pastor, and this is in NM, which is not exactly the height of liberal thought (a red state, at least last year anyway.) I don't know about Chicago. We also have quite a high no. of women in this area for some reason or other.

 

But yes, I think it prob. is a strike against you. A no. of years ago there were people on the search committee of the church I am now a member of, who would not vote for any *women*. So I'm sure that there are conservative members on search committees. Still MOST people are very happy with Lee, think he the best thing to happen to First Congregational. I am unaware of anyone quitting over it or anything like that.

 

 

 

--des

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Seminarian,

 

Best wishes as you near graduation. I think the UCC is likely the closest you will get if you do not want the UU situation. UCC is certainly one of the most liberal denominations (pardon the expression if it offends anyone).

 

You can indeed start your own church but another option is to involve yourself in some other form of ministry. For example, hospital or Prison Chaplaincy. Even military chaplaincy. The military is a fairly broad umbrella.

 

Another denomination that would seem to meet your needs is the ICCI. They are a recognized endorser for the VA and military and are members of the NCC & WCC through ICCC. They embrace tradition but are inclusive and and have a very broad Christian belief system. They would fit in with your progressive beliefs. http://www.independentcatholics.org

 

Good luck in your journey!

 

PS You might enjoy reading Donald Spoto. Very interesting. Liberal theologian. In his foot notes he indicates that he is not too impressed though by Crossan's scholarship. Appears he may also not be impressed by the jesus Seminar either.

 

North

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Des, the St. Pauls UCC I know of in Chicago is in Lincoln Park. I think the parallel to women is right on target. I think gay ordination is about at the same place that women's ordination was a generation ago.

 

I do think the options open up the more willing one is to relocate. My partner has just started a new job a few months ago that is working out really well, so he is not feeling too eager to relocate. So I will be trying to find something to do nearby... and this leads me to North's point. I may be looking at chaplaincy or maybe pastoral counseling. Although not military chaplaincy. The ban on gay folks extends to their chaplains as well.

 

I checked out the Independent Catholics link. It looked very interesting and I'm always interested to learn more about groups working on the more progressive end of the spectrum, but I'll probably stick with the UCC. Oh, and thanks for the reading tip, too.

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Des, the St. Pauls UCC I know of in Chicago is in Lincoln Park. I think the parallel to women is right on target. I think gay ordination is about at the same place that women's ordination was a generation ago.

 

I do think the options open up the more willing one is to relocate. My partner has just started a new job a few months ago that is working out really well, so he is not feeling too eager to relocate. So I will be trying to find something to do nearby... and this leads me to North's point. I may be looking at chaplaincy or maybe pastoral counseling. Although not military chaplaincy. The ban on gay folks extends to their chaplains as well.

 

I checked out the Independent Catholics link. It looked very interesting and I'm always interested to learn more about groups working on the more progressive end of the spectrum, but I'll probably stick with the UCC. Oh, and thanks for the reading tip, too.

 

Well.....good luck. Always tough making that first leap into the career. I understand your trepidation about starting your own church. It is a litle akin to being a business person. Some start small and end up big & others small and stay small. From few people in your living room to mega church (New Life in Colorado Springs & TD Jakes operation). Those are evangelical churches. I know of some large progessive churches. There is one (Cathedral of Hope??) in Dallas. As I understand, started by a pastor who left the Metropolitan Church after they dug into the church's financial issues. I have seen the church on TV before. Looks large and has an Episcopal flavor. It is inclusive and looks sucessful. Not in your face about inclusive issues...just are inclusive.

 

 

At any rate....best wishes to you with your ministy and future. Do you have CPE credits or experience. Hopsital Chaplaincy or Prison Chaplaincy may be the way to go. I know of a Roman Catholic Priest in your situation (long term relationship) and chaplaincy seems to work well for him. Prison position may be easier to come by than hospital and offers many benefits (pension, health, stability).

 

North

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  • 5 weeks later...

I don't think you have to start a church from scratch but the church you serve in will probably require renewal, renewal, renewal!!! I believe many mainline churches can grow rapidly if people go door to door and proclaim the Good News of God's love. The first question is not: Do you want to spend eternity in the fires of Hell? Instead: Do you want to be part of a fellowship where people try to love each other unconditionally as God does?

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I don't think you have to start a church from scratch but the church you serve in will probably require renewal, renewal, renewal!!!  I believe many mainline churches can grow rapidly if people go door to door and proclaim the Good News of God's love.  The first question is not:  Do you want to spend eternity in the fires of Hell?  Instead:  Do you want to be part of a fellowship where people try to love each other unconditionally as God does?

 

I heartily and respectfully disagree.

 

Everyone knows that we're here. They've heard the message. Down here we even have billboards with pithy sayings signed by "God".

 

I don't understand the urge to evangelize at this point in the church's life; I don't understand the emphasis on growth of population. It seems that energies are needed elsewhere now. Maybe I am in possession of a highly subjective slant here, but from where I sit there are way too many already "saved", already faithful to whatever degree or way to the Christian tradition, who are not in church; who are disenfranchised, disillusioned, and despairing, bereft of community and struggling to maintain their connection to God in Christ, while trying to make sense of the contradictions, assimilate the truths of other traditions not there own, and on top of that, trying to reconcile the "unconditional love of God" that our tradition proclaims with the atrocities and absurdities commited in the name of Jesus everyday.

 

I hear most of you being very reasonable by stating that it is totally unrealistic to "start a new church". I just wish someone would lose their mind long enough to risk it...or at the very least, draw some of that evangelizing energy in and use it to strengthen the foundations before adding a new floor to the tower.

 

But then I don't believe that people are going to go to hell and suffer eternal damnation if they don't come to one of our churches. So I don't "get" the urgency to grow in population. I also don't believe that more Christians automatically guarantee a better world. So? What gives? Why evangelize? Why not instead build a church that is a genuine crucible of transformation? Why not teach the really good news? that Life begins after you die TO THIS LIFE and enter into eternal life with Christ, as a Christ One yourself? that ALL of us are called to be mediators of Gods Good Pleasure here and now?

 

Oops, I'm preaching...my apologies.

 

Why not focus on building a stronger church?

 

 

If we could only do that, then believe me, they'd come...

 

...my own little "field of dreams" I guess.

 

 

lily

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I don't think you have to start a church from scratch but the church you serve in will probably require renewal, renewal, renewal!!!  I believe many mainline churches can grow rapidly if people go door to door and proclaim the Good News of God's love.  The first question is not:  Do you want to spend eternity in the fires of Hell?  Instead:  Do you want to be part of a fellowship where people try to love each other unconditionally as God does?

 

I heartily and respectfully disagree.

 

Everyone knows that we're here. They've heard the message. Down here we even have billboards with pithy sayings signed by "God".

 

I don't understand the urge to evangelize at this point in the church's life; I don't understand the emphasis on growth of population. It seems that energies are needed elsewhere now. Maybe I am in possession of a highly subjective slant here, but from where I sit there are way too many already "saved", already faithful to whatever degree or way to the Christian tradition, who are not in church; who are disenfranchised, disillusioned, and despairing, bereft of community and struggling to maintain their connection to God in Christ, while trying to make sense of the contradictions, assimilate the truths of other traditions not there own, and on top of that, trying to reconcile the "unconditional love of God" that our tradition proclaims with the atrocities and absurdities commited in the name of Jesus everyday.

 

I hear most of you being very reasonable by stating that it is totally unrealistic to "start a new church". I just wish someone would lose their mind long enough to risk it...or at the very least, draw some of that evangelizing energy in and use it to strengthen the foundations before adding a new floor to the tower.

 

But then I don't believe that people are going to go to hell and suffer eternal damnation if they don't come to one of our churches. So I don't "get" the urgency to grow in population. I also don't believe that more Christians automatically guarantee a better world. So? What gives? Why evangelize? Why not instead build a church that is a genuine crucible of transformation? Why not teach the really good news? that Life begins after you die TO THIS LIFE and enter into eternal life with Christ, as a Christ One yourself? that ALL of us are called to be mediators of Gods Good Pleasure here and now?

 

Oops, I'm preaching...my apologies.

 

Why not focus on building a stronger church?

 

 

If we could only do that, then believe me, they'd come...

 

...my own little "field of dreams" I guess.

 

 

lily

 

I don't know exactly how to respond because I believe we are in far more agreement than disagreement. Thanks for your thoughts. Reaching out to people in love is something people of faith are called to do. I think progressive Christians often hide our talents under a bushel and don't get out there and let people know how much we love them. I definitely believe any reaching out we do to invite people to our fellowship needs to be coupled closely with our efforts on behalf of peace and justice.

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So I don't "get" the urgency to grow in population. I also don't believe that more Christians automatically guarantee a better world. So? What gives? Why evangelize? Why not instead build a church that is a genuine crucible of transformation? Why not teach the really good news? that Life begins after you die TO THIS LIFE and enter into eternal life with Christ, as a Christ One yourself? that ALL of us are called to be mediators of Gods Good Pleasure here and now?

 

Oops, I'm preaching...my apologies.

 

Why not focus on building a stronger church?

 

I have a personal interest in new church development (NCD) for a variety of reasons.

 

First, according to a friend of mine, he had read a study that said that the transformation of an existing congregation takes ten times more energy and resources than it takes for a new church start. From a stewardship perspective, that's significant. Anyone who has been part of a redevelopment process knows how hard it is to help congregations that are caught in the downward spiral of irrelevance to reconnect to their communities in a meaningful way. There are a whole slew of barriers that keep people out of churches or downright drive them away.

 

Second, I want to bring strategic change into the denominational systems. One of the best ways to do this is to create pockets of new life that can be protected from the "we've never done it that way before" kind of interference. This allows new generations to create their own spiritual communities that gives expression to thier own sense of spiritual connection.

 

Third, I don't want to devalue those who have put all those years into creating space for their own spirituality. Those of prior generations can easily be sacrificed on the altar of change for change's sake. To change their worship style from the traditional old rugged cross approach to Christian hip-hop for the sake of reconnecting with younger generations is inappropriate.

 

In short, I think that Christians have something significant to say about God, and starting new churches seems to be the most stewardly, effective, and respectful way of going about it. It enables us to honor our past and embrace the future at the same time. So it's not a matter of whether we have something to say; it's a matter of how we go about saying it.

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