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Speakers examine culture of church today

Christena Cleveland said that the idea of love crosses cultural differences.  She spoke at the opening of the Pacific Northwest Conference of the UCC Annual Meeting at University Congregational UCC in Seattle.

christena cleveland

Christena Cleveland

“We are to be the family of God, living in interdependent love.  If we understand that, churches and communities will be affirmed and charged,” she said.  “The Holy Spirit constantly pursues and empowers us as it first did on Pentecost, empowering the Galileans to speak different languages and see the world that is diverse.”

In her book, Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart, she says identity makes people part of a group with similarities.

We are comfortable to be with people like us,” she said. 

“Paul said if we are in company with the Spirit, we will come together in one spirit, mind and purpose, and not let selfish pride take over,” Christena said. “The Philippians church was diverse in race gender and class.  If we love, we are of one mind, purpose and spirit, but that does not mean we will agree,” she said.

“When churches are alike, people think God loves people like us,” she said, “and judge those who are not like them.”

Christena said Christians need “to share brain space” with people not like them, so they can be the healing community God calls Christians to be, as people who secure their neighbor’s interests first.

“We live in a society where some parts of God’s family are seen positively and some are seen negatively.  We connect when we want and step away when we do not want,” she said. “If we denigrate people in a different group to boost our self esteem, it’s a form of dehumanization, implying others are less human or less value.”

Christena talks about self affirmation, meaning to deal with people “based on self esteem overflowing and affirming our identity with God and other people.  When we embrace true humility we secure our neighbors’ interest first.  Power plays a role in how we see and interact with others.  We need to operate out of an overflow of love, not a deficit.”


Lillian Daniel moved 14 years ago from a liberal college town, New Haven, Conn., to be senior pastor of the Glen Ellyn, Ill., UCC church in a Republican, affluent suburb of Chicago where megachurch evangelism is the presumed expression of Christianity.

lillian daniel

Lillian Daniel

Her recent book, When Spiritual But Not Religious Is Not Enough: Seeing God in Surprising Places, Even the Church, focuses on the hesitancy of UCC people to talk about their “experience of a living God.”

“We’re more likely to tell people how to vote than where to go to church, to talk about social justice rather than how we experience God,” she said at the PNC Annual Meeting.

“In our desire to be welcoming and inclusive, we have lost our ability to talk about faith,” she said.  “We will talk about a resolution on health care, gay marriage or the Middle East, but not about faith because it might offend someone.”

“How do we talk about faith in a multi-faith world?  Whatever floats your boat is not enough.  We say it does not matter, but it does matter,” Lillian commented.

“We end up in silos in cultural narcissism on the internet, only getting information and news from people we agree with,” she said.

Two decades ago, people shopped for a church for business and economic reasons, or looking for a self-help program. 

What makes church compelling?  What does the church do that others do not do?

“Faiths wrestle with the hard issues of life, yet cultural narcissism trivializes religious life,” Lillian said. 

“The religious world and Christianity are complex and diverse.  Organized religion is rigorous and real,” she pointed out.

People who go to church are often abused and broken by the world.  Gifts to churches go for practical aid around the world.  Church people love and care about people, she said.

The Bible has inconsistencies, and Christians live with mysteries of differences in stories.  Every faith community is changed by those who find it, she pointed out, acknowldeging, too, that some people are hurt by churches and faith communities.

Preaching Sunday about people’s fear that doors will not open when they knock, Lillian called for Christians to see Jesus “in every person we see.”

Many invested in their homes to have security, but lost their homes in the last decade, Lillian said.  Many also lost jobs, despite their efforts to build skills so they would always be needed.

“Maybe we can’t build security.  Maybe we have to rely on God,” Lillian said.

“If we look on God from the prosperity Gospel, we call on to God to give us what we want,” she said.

On the road to Emmaus and at the empty tomb, Jesus says the same thing, to Mary, who thinks he is the gardener and the disciples who don’t realize they are talking with him: “Recognize me.”

“We need to see Jesus in every person we see,” she said.


Copyright Pacific Northwest Conference United Church News © Summer 2014


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