Decline & Renewal, 6: Sean Palmer Guest Column

Editor's note: As promised, I have the amazing fortune of being able to publish several guest columns about the decline of West Coast Churches of Christ. Over the coming weeks, you'll read thoughtful words from church leaders like Tim Spivey, Andy Wall, Lynn Anderson, Stan Granberg, Scott Lambert, Aaron Metcalf, John York, Rick Gibson and more. These are all respected church leaders who love God's church as a whole, and they show a deep respect for what God has done and still can do in Churches of Christ.

Our first guest column in from a gifted, young, hard-working Texas preacher who came to California with high hopes. After preaching in Redwood City for three years, Sean Palmer has returned to Texas to work with a church plant called The Vine Church. He is a prolific blogger who works as hard as any minister I know. I hope you'll find some valuable insights in his excellent article.

The View from Sean Palmer

I had the honor of preaching on the West Coast for just over three years. I’ll always be grateful to the Redwood Church—just 22 miles south of San Francisco—for giving me the opportunity to stand in their pulpit week after week as I stumbled through my first experiences of being a full-time "preacher."

My chief regret over my time in California was that our church didn’t grow. We desired growth and prayed for growth, we just didn’t experience any. Sadly we were not unlike most churches in the area. With two notable exceptions, no church of any denomination, experienced much growth. We all declined together.

The problem was not and is not merely a Church of Christ problem. My fellow preachers and pastors ruminated on and lamented our situation together. We prayed together for solutions we failed to find. When I think of the challenges facing West Coast churches, my thoughts cannot escape the voices of my friends in the pastorate in Northern California. This post represents a collection of thoughts and experiences I shared with Pentecostal, Baptist, Methodist, and Christian Church pastors I met in Northern California.

The Challenge

As Jason has astutely pointed out, the challenge the church faces is not a technical one, it’s adaptive. The issues are simple to identify but difficult and messy to manage. To do so, we must confront ourselves on a basic and disturbing level.

The root problem? Christians no longer know how to talk with non-Christians.

This inability to talk with non-believers is born from two powerful realities. The first is a practical reality; the second an attitudinal orientation.

The Practical Reality

The practical reality is that many Christians do not know any non-Christians—at least on friendly, non-business related terms.

Once, as we were launching our small group ministry, we asked each group to host a “Matthew Party.” Those of you familiar with Bill Hybels’ book, Just Walk Across the Room, are familiar with Matthew Parties. These parties offer Christians an opportunity to host gatherings wherein the guest list is one-half Christians and the other half non-Christians. The point is to leverage existing relationships to form spiritual friendships.

Our small groups promptly realized the majority of their friends—the people they felt comfortable inviting—were already Christians. In the face of this reality, some groups cut corners. They rounded up temporary residents, such as foreign college students, and invited them for a meal. This was great, but it was not at the heart of what we were trying to accomplish. There was little chance these relationships would stick.

We discovered we had no friends to invite. We had no conversations we could start.

It’s terribly difficult to have meaningful interaction with people we don’t know. And conversations regarding life’s most important issues ring hollow at best, and like an AMWAY meeting at worst, if no pre-existing relationship exists.

Like an atrophied muscle, meaningful dialogue shakes and resists after too long without use. The thoughts, questions, interests, and ideas of Christians are not the same as non-Christians. Over time, the distance created by differing perspectives and worldviews between Christians and non-believers had placed Christians in a field removed from thoughtful conversations with unbelievers.

Increasingly Christian people cannot talk to non-Christians, not out of unwillingness, but because we (Christians) no longer speak their language, share their concerns, or value their insights.

Martin Luther King Jr. said, "People fail to get along because they fear each other; they fear each other because they don't know each other; they don't know each other because they have not communicated with each other." This is the case between the church and her neighbors. We don’t know one another, therefore we cannot speak to one another.

The Attitudinal Orientation

This practical reality, however, is not an orphan. It is born from it’s mother—an attitudinal orientation. When I arrived in California, I was shocked by how ill-disposed the posture some Christians took in relation to the culture and non-believers.

For many conservative and fundamentalist Christians, California culture is hopelessly, perhaps irredeemably, liberal. Our first week on California soil, I heard a news report about the state’s sexual education program. While the hosts were celebrating California’s low teen pregnancy rate—which is lower than most Bible belt states—what shook me was news that sex-ed began in kindergarten. I had a daughter about to start kindergarten that fall.

We enrolled her in private school!

There are very real challenges conservative Christians face in a highly secular culture. Many feel the greater culture is corrupt at worst and antagonistic to their faith at best. Problems arise, however, when the antagonism is returned in kind. Antagonism toward non-Christians had become an attitudinal orientation for many Christians I knew.

A lifetime spent in theologically and politically conservative churches did not prepare me for the frequency and—frankly—venom, with which I heard comments about President Obama, Nancy Pelosi, depraved homosexuals and gay marriage, "Obamacare," and how the word "Liberal" was used as a slur.

This didn't only happen in private, small, or side conversations. At times it felt that church gatherings were an opportunity to rehash commentary from talk-radio and the latest round of e-mail forwards.

A Quick Story

Once a young, gay man—searching for answers about the meaning of life (as we all are)visited our congregation. This happened to be the same Sunday someone publicly said, “God created Adam and Eve not Adam and Steve!”


The young man left.

He and I spoke later that week. He told me how his home congregation, including his parents, had loved and honored him, even though they had arrived at different conclusions regarding his sexuality. He and his home congregation disagreed. They knew it but they agreed to love each other in and through it.

At my church, he said he was "mocked!" And he was.

Missional Imagination

Regardless of your theological, political, or cultural convictions, most Bible believing people would agree that this kind of speech-ethic violates both Peter’s principle to share our hope in Christ with "gentleness and respect," (1 Peter 3:15) and Paul’s encouragement to, "...not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen (Ephesians 4:29)."

Largely, California Christians are a minority population. The majority of people do believe differently from Christians. But the gospel demands more from Christians than winning arguments. I call for winning hearts. Reaching the majority population, even if it disagrees with you, is the only hope for the church. This is not just about church growth, it’s about fulfilling God’s mission. It is awfully difficult to grow a church through conversion, if churches stand opposed to the unconverted.


I want to be clear. The attitudinal orientation is not about politics or our convictions. It’s about whether the church will refuse its mission for the sake of other things. It’s about whether the church wants to make a difference or merely make a point.

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Bio:
Sean Palmer
is the Lead Minister of The Vine Church in Temple, TX. As Lead Minister, Sean oversees the teaching and preaching ministry and coordinates the vision and mission of The Vine. He is a contributing writer to The Voice Bible and author of "Scandalous: Lessons in Redemption From Unlikely Women.” Sean is also a sought-after speaker and teacher, presenting to all ages. Sean is married to his best friend, Rochelle Stripling Palmer, LMSW, a social worker and 7th grade science teacher. The couple lovingly parent two incredible daughters, aged 9 and 6.

Read more of Sean’s work at The Palmer Perspective (www.thepalmerperspective.com).

Comments

David Dominguez said…
Wonderful post, Sean. I grew up in Southern California, and I wish I had seen things at that time the way you describe them here. I remained in my comfortable shell, and didn't engage meaningfully with those different from myself. Now that our nation is more politically divided than ever, I believe it is Christians who have the unique opportunity to show that the love of Jesus alone can bridge all the spaces between groups we see all around us.
Jason Locke said…
Thanks for commenting, David! And thanks for being real. I hope you'll continue reading this series and help us with the dialogue. Blessings!
Sean Palmer said…
Yes. This is real struggle. I have a post on my blog coming up about it. I think it's time for the church to get serious and look at what we're asking people to be before they can be Christians.

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