Monday, June 14, 2010

Choosing Unity Over Steeplejacking

Steeplejacking has become a major problem in the Mainline Church. It's just another part of the broader culture war in USAmerica. Steeplejacking happens when ideological Christians use fear-mongering, polemic rhetoric, and emotional manipulation in order to talk congregations into leaving their respective denominations. They even have exit plans. These folks act like the Glenn Beck of religion. They use many of the same styles of promotion and manipulation. And they are well organized.

The Institute on Religion and Democracy is a right-wing thinktank that facilitates the growth and development of the "renewal" groups that engage in steeplejacking. These "renewal" groups are, in reality, conservative activists who promote ideological perspectives on controversial wedge issues. They try to represent themselves as having the only Biblical (i.e. "true"/"right") perspective on these issues. And if you don't agree with them, then they try to argue that you are un-Biblical, un-faithful, and ultimately un-Christian. John Dorhauer, author of Steeplejacking, describes these groups well:
"These are not renewal groups: they are trained activists intent on the demise, the destabilization, and the destruction of Mainline Protestant Christianity. They use cleverly chosen wedge issues to divide otherwise united congregations and denominations. They produce, print, and circulate periodicals, pamphlets, and diatribes filled with innuendo and misinformation intended to inflame the passions of otherwise content congregants."
These "renewal" groups are committed to simplistic slander - not nuanced conversation. They don't believe in engaging in dialogue because they argue that they are the only people who have the "right" answer. Dialogue requires that a diversity of perspectives are honored and given equal time. So, renewal groups reject dialogue in favor of heavy-handed dispensations of their ideology. This makes them salesmen - savvy, manipulative salesmen.

Renewal groups not only use manipulation and slander, but they also use lies about other ministries in order to sell and promote their ideology - and scare people away from their respective denominations. For example, on the website of Zion Lutheran Church, pastor Dean Hess wrote:
"Soon homosexual behavior will be recommended to our youth at National Youth Gatherings, and other events. At Bible camps homosexual behavior will be advocated to our young people. Eventually church publishing houses will be producing confirmation materials that encourage homosexual behavior."
This is untrue. It breaks the 9th commandment, plain and simple. Not to mention the fact that it doesn't make rational sense. But it's brilliant for what it is. It's simply meant to create fear and anxiety in otherwise content people. So in that way, it's a brilliant piece of polemic, emotion-driven rhetoric. It may have nothing to do with truth or reality, but it's a great sales pitch. Then, to close the sale, pastor Hess continued:
"In the end every Christ follower and every congregation must decide if that is what they want and expect from their church. They must decide whether this is the teaching they want presented to their children and grandchildren."
After constructing a fear-promoting scene, the pastor then "asks" each Christian to choose between a false dichotomy: forcing children to be gay or being good Christians. Again, Hess' argument is untrue and irrational, but it's a brilliant piece of rhetoric. It leaves no room to reject the sales pitch that he is promoting. Unless, of course, you're paying attention to the facts and details, which immediately deconstruct his entire argument. But many of the pastors involved in these "renewal" groups are more interested in promoting their sales pitch than promoting the truth. And when this happens, it's important to know who these folks are - and to hold them accountable.

These "renewal" groups include: the Biblical Witness Fellowship in the UCC, Presbyterians for Renewal in the PCUSA, Good News in the UMC, Lutheran CORE in the ELCA, etc. In fact, Lutheran CORE is working hard to force many congregations out of the ELCA this summer. One example of their work is Emanual Lutheran Church in Strawberry Point, Iowa.

Emanual Lutheran Church will vote to leave the ELCA due to their pastor's leadership. They had a special meeting of the congregation on June 6th, whereby they passed a measure to vote on leaving the ELCA. Their final vote to leave the ELCA will take place 90 days after the first vote. Jason Cooper, Emanual's pastor during the discussions before the first vote, is CORE to the core. In fact, he has signed the Lutheran CORE's statement on Scripture. This statement goes far beyond a being a document about interpreting Scripture. It's a document in which collaborators sign up to join the political movement to destabilize and destroy the Mainline Church through promoting wedge issues and fear-mongering. And the current wedge issue of choice for the Lutheran CORE group is the ELCA's statement on gay rights and ordination. Instead of engaging in respectful dialogue like the rest of the denomination, the Lutheran COREs are dedicated to the my-way-or-the-highway approach. Forget the fact that each congregation is allowed to disagree with the ELCA's statement - and can freely choose not follow it. Forget about working through our differences in respectful conversation. Forget about honoring other people's perspectives. Forget about the ninth commandment. Forget about Christ's call to a ministry of reconciliation. Forget it all. Apparently the "renewal" groups are more committed to a continual renewal of discord, division, and destabilization. I don't know how Jesus responded to situations like this in his time. But I think John 11:35 may sum it up well: "Jesus wept."

As you can tell in this post, I am concerned and passionate about this problem. But my ultimate hope is not to call renewal groups to account. My hope is that the whole Church is called to account for our sins of division. Let's join and re-join together in our common ministry of sharing the Good News of God's love. We are, after all, one body with many members (1 Corinthians 12:12). We don't all have to be the same - or think the same. But we do have to reflect the ministry of unity (John 17:21) and reconciliation (2 Corinthians 5:18) to which we have been called. Let's be the Church. Together.


  1. Could not have said that any better myself. Thanks for telling the story.

  2. Well said indeed. I interviewed for a youth director job at Zion Clear Lake many years ago; I remember liking Pastor Hess a lot. Apparently he's not only a charismatic job but an accomplished demagogue, too. Interesting. Is that message still on their website? I couldn't find it, poking around a bit.

    Also, let's not understate what Cooper did. He ripped the church in half and then when he got pushback he walked away instead of staying to help lead.

    Fascinating to me that in Point 8 of the Lutheran Core statement they quote the house divided passage. This is so frustrating. I'd be fascinated to sit down sometime and talk more with you about it, if you've time. I'll even buy the first round.

  3. I am a member of Emmanuel and we did vote to stay in the ECLA but it was because the vote to leave felt short by one vote. My daughters lol The core group left and it has fractured our small town right in half neighbors don't even greet each other ....