Times Square ads invite young adults to “rethink church” (Methodist style)

If you’re in Times Square this summer, you may see ads for the United Methodist Church‘s “Rethink Church” campaign on the CBS “Super Screen.”

That’s the 26-by-20-foot screen on 42nd Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues.

Two 15-second ads per hour will appear 18 hours a day through Sept. 30.

The Rethink Church campaign is designed to appeal to 18- to 34-year-olds who seek “spiritual fulfillment” but have their doubts about church as they’ve known it.

This month, the spots ask “What if church was a literacy program for homeless children? Would you come?” and “What if church considered ecology part of theology?”

The spots refer people to the UMC’s new website, 10thousanddoors.org.

The Rev. Larry Hollon, head of United Methodist Communications, says about Times Square: “Times Square is an ideal fit for our Rethink Church campaign. You’ll find people of all ages, backgrounds, and ethnicities in Times Square, and we want to tell each of them, ‘There’s a place for you in The United Methodist Church.’”

For a better life?

While I was off, I saw a couple of TV commercials for something called Forabetterlife.org.

The ads had a vaguely spiritual tone, so I thought I would check it out.

The homepage includes some general subjects like “Change your life” and “Spiritual meditation,” which then link to the websites of all sorts of private entities, from meditation classes to software companies.

Clicking on “positive affirmations” even took me to the website for…Trident gum, which promises “a little piece of happy.”

The meaning of spirituality continues to get broader and broader…

Catching up with the news

Back from a week with the kids. A good time was had by all (you know, most of the time).

There’s a lot of news to catch up with. A papal encyclical is coming tomorrow on how Catholic ideas about social justice apply to the economy.

I see my colleague Randi Weiner is reporting that the East Ramapo Board of Education wants to reschedule next year’s budget/school board elections because it would conflict with the first night of Shavuot. Observant Jews would not be able to vote after sundown.

Apparently, all school districts in NYS hold their votes on the third Tuesday of May but can seek a change if there is a conflict with a religious holiday.

East Ramapo is a unique place because many residents of the district are Hasidic or otherwise Orthodox Jews, none of whom send their children to the public schools.

Nathan Rothschild, president of the school board, told Weiner that some 10,000 voters in last year’s elections were Orthodox Jews, including Hasidim.

Is ‘witness’ different than ‘proselytism?’

I posted something recently about the U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference issuing a statement to clarify the Catholic Church’s relationship to the Jewish people — primarily to note the ongoing Catholic responsibility to witness to the truth of the faith.

The bishops issued the statement because of concerns that a paper issued by Catholic and Jewish leaders in 2002 had left the impression that the Catholic Church, by recognizing the ongoing Jewish covenant with God, had resigned its role to witness to the Jewish people.

Yesterday, the Bishops Conference released a fascinating statement about a June 25 meeting in NYC between Catholic and Orthodox Jewish leaders, part of an ongoing dialogue.

The statement, a press release actually, was very blunt about Orthodox Jewish unhappiness with the bishops’ clarifying statement.

Granted, this stuff may be too “inside baseball” for many. But some (including me) are fascinated by interreligious dialogue and the very nuanced challenges that often arise.

Here is a key hunk of the Bishops Conference statement:


At the June 25 meeting, David Berger, Ph.D., head of the Jewish Studies Department at Yeshiva College, New York City, cited “grave” concerns of some in the Jewish community about the Note, which was prepared by the USCCB’s Committee on Doctrine and Committee on Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs.

Orthodox Jews can tolerate any Christian view on the necessity of faith in Jesus Christ as savior of all, but they cannot agree to participate in an interfaith dialogue that is a cover for proselytism, Berger said.

The Note affirmed that interreligious dialogue involves “a mutually enriching sharing of gifts,” but also asserted that giving witness to the following of Christ is implicit in every faithful encounter with persons of other religious convictions.

Berger and the other Jewish participants asked if the “implicit witnessing to Christ” means, in effect, a subtle attempt to convert Jews to Christianity, which would render interreligious dialogue with Catholics illegitimate and “dangerous” from an Orthodox Jewish standpoint. “We take apostasy very seriously,” he said, referring to the abandonment of Judaism for another religion.

Father James Massa, Executive Director for the Secretariat of Ecumenical and Interreligious Affairs at the USCCB, assured participants that interreligious dialogue for the Catholic bishops is never about proselytism or any coercive methods that would lead a person to abandon his or her religious convictions.

“The important term in this discussion is ‘witness,’” Father Massa said. “As Catholics involved in a dialogue of truth, we cannot help but give witness to Christ, who, for us, is synonymous with truth. Without acknowledging our indebtedness to God’s revelation in Christ, we cannot sit at the table and speak as Christians about how we arrive at notions of justice, compassion and building up the common good—the very values our interreligious dialogues seek to foster.”


I haven’t seen any statements from either of the two Orthodox Jewish groups that participated.

This could be a good time to read John Allen’s recent column, “Hard Truths About Jews and Catholics,” which raises a lot of interesting issues about the state of Catholic-Jewish relations (and how to move on from here).

Have a great 4th (whether that means today, tomorrow or both).

Riverside Church shows pastoral perils

It was pretty clear when the Rev. Brad Braxton took over last year as chief minister at NYC’s Riverside Church — interdenominational, interracial, historic, all that — that it was going to be a tough job.

He was replacing James Forbes, the classic tough-act-to-follow.

And he was taking over a big congregation that was divided in its mission. Are we a “social activist” church first or a “church-church” first?

So now Braxton has announced his resignation, releasing a letter to the congregation that bubbles with frustration: “The consistent discord has made it virtually impossible to establish a fruitful covenant between the congregation and me that facilitates the flourishing of the congregation, the broader community, and my family.”

And the Church Council chair has responded by acknowledging that there is a problem: “Dr. Braxton’s decision to step down has illuminated the need for our Church community to gain clarity on our shared mission, and the Church Council is looking forward to engaging with the congregation in the deep soul-searching and conversations that will allow us to move forward as a stronger, more unified congregation.”

The Rev. Randall Balmer, a leading scholar on American religion and an Episcopal priest who recently led a parish for year, has an illuminating, short essay on ReligionDispatches about how a divided congregation can chop down its pastor piece-by-piece.

He is what we call brutally frank:


Although the vast majority of churchgoers, in my experience, are decent and kind, parishioners less charitably disposed can find ingenious ways to make a minister’s life miserable: criticism of everything from comportment and grooming to sermons, salary and administrative style. If you’re decisive, you’re an autocrat; if you seek to build consensus, you’re a weak leader. Late in my father’s very successful ministerial career, the board of elders in a large and affluent congregation demanded that he personally reimburse the church for the photocopies he made for church business.

Some congregants, intent on disruption, can be more devious, striking by indirection. In my case (and, as I understand it, at Riverside), dissident members leveled criticisms at the minister’s wife and family. I’m inclined to follow the injunction of Jesus to “turn the other cheek” when criticisms are directed at me, especially when I’m confident that I’ve acted honorably. It’s a different matter, however, when the people I love come under attack.

Eventually, such sniping exacts a toll. I threw myself, heart and soul, into my parish, despite the fact that mine was carefully stipulated as a part-time appointment. No matter. The vestry (the governing body of the congregation) insisted on still more. Worse, by the actions of some in the congregation, I was asked, in effect, to choose between the parish and my marriage.

The meditative life on film (sort of)

The Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville is offering a film series this month called “The Meditative Life.”

But it’s not strictly about or concerning meditation.

Based on descriptions of the five films, I might have gone with “The Spiritual Path.” Or “Your Path or Mine.” Or something like that.

All five films sound pretty darn interesting.

Here are the descriptions (go the website for dates, times and the like)…

Unmistaken Child: “It’s a wonder that this real-life journey of aching beauty and drama was captured on film. A rare look into the world of Tibetan Buddhism, it’s the story of a disciple who is instructed to seek out the reincarnation of his beloved teacher, the renowned Master Lama Konchog. And so the modest, shy man embarks on a four-year journey through breathtaking landscapes and traditional villages, looking for children with special traits and trying to divine their inner souls. A film of quiet power, mystery, and surprise.”

The Monastery: Mr. Vig and the Nun: “This unusual documentary is about two extraordinary people: a reclusive Danish octogenarian who wants to will his crumbling castle to the Russian Orthodox Church (though he’s not even Russian Orthodox) and Sister Amvrosija, who’s been sent to whip the place into shape. As Mr. Vig’s cranky eccentricity collides with the nun’s whirlwind efficiency, what plays out is offbeat, funny, and strangely moving.”

Enlighten Up!: “Determined to prove that yoga can transform anyone—even a skeptical New York journalist—filmmaker Kate Churchill enlists Nick Rosen for a six-month worldwide immersion in the ancient art. He’s dubious but game as they go from class to class, encountering celebrity yogis, true believers, glorified aerobics teachers, and benevolent sages of legendary stature in a dizzying tour of the array of practices that call themselves yoga. A documentary for anyone who’s ever taken a yoga class—and an essential guide for the confused… and the enthused.”

Silent Light: “Winner of the Jury Prize at Cannes, this understated drama is set in the exotic atmosphere of an isolated Mennonite community in Mexico. The story of a pious man struggling with his love for a woman who is not his wife, Silent Light immerses viewers in his world through its deeply felt performances—almost all by Mennonites with no acting background—and perfectly composed scenes, as rich as oil paintings. Mexico’s official entry for the Best Foreign Film Oscar, even though it’s almost entirely in Low German, not Spanish.”

Free Spirits: “The meditative life goes awry in this fascinating portrait of the promise and perils of communal living. In the late 1960s young spiritual seekers gathered in rural Massachusetts to join the Brotherhood of the Spirit/Renaissance Community, built on a foundation of Eastern religion, New Age mysticism, and hard work. For some, their years in what became one of the largest, most controversial communes were the best of their lives—but others look back, especially at their flamboyant leader, Michael Metelica Rapunzel, with mixed emotions. Capturing the sights and sounds of the time, this documentary paints a compelling portrait of the rise and fall of a powerful movement and the inspirational leader who started it.”