“Do not be children in your thinking.” - 1 Corinthians 14:20
Put away childish thinking. That’s the message I planned to deliver for my very first sermon as the pastor of a little village church in Southwest Michigan.
Built in 1882, the Congregational Church of Douglas (now Douglas Congregational United Church of Christ) had always been a small, neighborhood church with seating for less than 100 people. When I was called as the pastor there in 2014, there were only 29 people in attendance for worship on the first Sunday in which I preached.
The congregation could not afford a full-time pastor, so I was hired part-time. I had just turned 50 and had never pastored a church before, but I was determined to help my congregation grow, if not in numbers, at least in spiritual understanding.
I hadn’t gone the traditional seminary route many Christian pastors do. I had been a monk in the Catholic Church, a student of the Christian mystics, and an avid reader of contemporary Christian writers like Richard Rohr and Joan Chittister.
I later attended an interfaith seminary in New York City, where I studied the wisdom of other faith traditions. I then began to study Progressive Christian theologians like John Shelby Spong and Marcus Borg, and I later received ordination in the United Church of Christ, a denomination of 5,000 churches with over a million members.
When I was called to pastor the Douglas UCC, I made it known to the congregation that I was going to teach the Way of Jesus through the lens of the Christian mystics and even through the eyes of mystics of other faith traditions, and that I was going to preach a Progressive Christian message each and every Sunday. They seemed excited and enthused.
That enthusiasm afforded me tremendous freedom to speak Truth. Unlike some more seasoned pastors, I wasn’t worried about upsetting “big-ticket” donors (there weren’t any here), nor would being fired from my position make or break my identity or my bank account, for that matter. So, truly, I didn’t have much to lose.
On my first Sunday as pastor, I read the passage from 1 Corinthians 13:11, “When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, and I understood as a child. When I became a man, I put away childish thinking.”
I, then, went right into my sermon and began by listing some of the “childish thinking” it was time for us to put away. I told them that there was no talking snake or Noah’s Ark, that Heaven wasn’t a place up in the clouds, and that God wasn’t an old man in the sky.
I concluded with these words of Bishop John Shelby Spong, one of leading Progressive Christian theologians: “The Church doesn’t like people to grow up, because you can’t control grown-ups. People don’t need to be ‘born again.’ They need to grow up.”
Surprisingly, no one stormed out of the church. In fact, just the opposite happened. After my sermon, they applauded.
And, in the coming weeks, as I shared with them the wisdom of the ancient mystics and the teachings of contemporary progressive theologians, something extraordinary happened. The church began to grow and grow and grow.
The new people coming to the church were “in the second half of life.” Most had grown up in the Christian Church, but had left it decades ago due to its exclusivity and narrow-mindedness. For many, church was the place that most wounded them. Church was the place where they most experienced hurt and judgement.
For others, church had become simply repressive and meaningless. Their spirits were not being fed there, so they walked away from church, even though they loved the teachings of Jesus.
Many of the Christian churches they grew up in told them that divorced people couldn’t receive communion, that women couldn’t be ordained, that gay people were “disordered,” and that people of other faith traditions would not be saved. Those teachings (none of which are in the Bible, by the way) led many to leave the Church, because they simply couldn’t reconcile those teachings with the teachings of Jesus and with their own life experiences, which had taught them otherwise.
But, now, here they were in their fifties, sixties, and seventies returning to church again, much to their surprise.
They started telling me, “Pastor, I have been hearing these Bible stories my whole life, and they’re finally beginning to make sense.” And, they started telling their friends and neighbors about our church, too. There was no marketing or advertising campaign. It was all just good ole word-of-mouth.
Today, Douglas UCC – in just five years’ time – has more than 250 members, more than twice the seating capacity of our little church.
With many first-time visitors, the tears just flow during Sunday service, because things are finally beginning to make sense and the old wounds inflicted by the Church are being healed.
And, people are not only coming on Sundays. Throughout the week, they join together in contemplative prayer and community outreach, healing people’s lives and making miracles happen.
Many in the congregation have encouraged me to compile some of my sermon teachings into a book, a Progressive Christian primer, if you will. And, so, here it is.
I was inspired by Mother Teresa’s words to Henri Nouwen, one of my favorite spiritual writers of the twentieth century. She encouraged him to “write simply,” so that complex spiritual teachings could be easily understood and digested by those without a Masters of Divinity degree.
So, this book isn’t a wordy, academic textbook for Biblical scholars and theologians. Rather, it takes the esoteric teachings of the Christian mystics and Progressive Christian theologians and seeks to express them in “simple” and easily-accessible ways. After each chapter, there are prayers for quiet contemplation, suggested practices and activities, and also questions for personal reflection, journal writing, or small book group discussion.
For some readers, this book will be an affirmation of what they already believe and know to be true. For others, this book will challenge many long-held and established religious doctrines which have been inherited but never really questioned or fully understood.
If you’re in the latter category, my intention is not to upset you or to be condescending, but, rather, to help you grow in your spiritual understanding, so that you can feel God’s Presence more fully in your life. Either way, it is my belief that this book has found its way to you for a profound and meaningful reason, and I hope that it will strengthen your faith and allow you to see things with new eyes.
-Rev. Salvatore Sapienza