by Gene Hollenberg
“In the age of the new atheists we have to figure out how to talk about why religion matters without sounding like jerks. Between burning in hell, and anything goes, there is a lot we can talk about,” said Lillian Daniel, presenter for the Minister’s Association pre-Conference continuing education event.
Daniel is author of the book “Tired of Apologizing for a Church I Don’t Belong To.” In three sessions, she shared research about the four types of people who no longer identify with any religion. Through her metaphors, anecdotes, and experiences she encouraged churches to begin telling their stories of faith.
She shared her belief that many of the people who check “None,” when asked about religion, are truly hungry for real testimony about the value of Christianity. “‘Nones’ are looking for a community of faith, not doctrines that divide,” asserted Daniel.
Participants were encouraged to discuss this point and share their thoughts with the group. Ken Gibble told of a neighbor who demonstrated interest in welcoming diverse people, but when Gibble shared that his church is of the same mind, the neighbor brushed it off.
Daniel responded that it may take some work to overcome the negative perception of Christianity, which may be perpetuated by the media and often seems to get most of the air time.
Another participant, Mary Cline Detrick, stated that we must be careful about the language we use, but we have to call out those who have distorted the message of the church.
There is a false dichotomy that has been created by two extreme factions of Christianity, Daniel said. On one side, there is a rigid and prescribed belief system that must be followed for people to live in God’s grace. On the other side, there is a willingness to accept all beliefs as equally important and valid. Neither of these is reasonable, nor reality, according to Daniel.
“We need to have powerful and difficult conversations,” she said. She asserted that Jesus did not prescribe a list of rules, but rather talked about actions and attitudes. At the same time, she said, “Whatever people believe is not always ok. It may not be what Jesus taught.”
The officers of the Minister’s Association used the story of the woman at the well from John 4 to lay a foundation of worship. Daniel used the exchange between the woman and Jesus to illustrate how churches need to reasonably, rigorously, and really relate to those who are searching for meaningful faith. She noted that Jesus answered the woman’s questions, met her where she was, listened to her, and then made a valuable offer to her: a complete and fulfilled life.
In conversation with participants, many said they were anxious to read Daniel’s book, and some indicated that they were particularly energized by the discussion of political and theological polarization because it reflects the reality of their churches. One minister shared that she appreciated a metaphor Daniel used, that the church needs to be the sandpaper in our culture--the image of creating some friction and yet refining and challenging people, like a master carpenter finishing a creation with a gentle touch. Another minister felt that the discussions added depth to the belief that the church needs to reach out to all.
The officers of the Minister’s Association ended the pre-Conference program with a service of communion, a tangible testimony in the spirit of the sessions’ challenge.
For more onsite coverage of Annual Conference go to www.brethren.org/ac/2017/coverage .
The news coverage of Annual Conference 2017 is made possible through the work of the volunteer news team: Frank Ramirez, Conference Journal editor; photographers Glenn Riegel, Regina Holmes, Keith Hollenberg, Donna Parcell, Laura Brown, Allie Dulabaum; writers Frances Townsend, Karen Garrett, Gene Hollenberg; with web staff Jan Fischer Bachman and Russ Otto, and Cheryl Brumbaugh-Cayford, director of News Services. Wendy McFadden, publisher. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.