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A congregational history set in a helpful and wider context

As the United States ages, so do faith communities located here.

A-city-churchMy own Presbyterian congregation, for instance, passed the 150-year mark six years ago, making it one of the oldest continuously worshiping congregations in the Kansas City area.

Such anniversaries are a time to look back as well as forward, which is what we did in 2015. But it's also a chance to place an individual congregation within the context of U.S. and world history.

And that is exactly what a new book about Country Club Christian Church of Kansas City (6101 Ward Parkway) does -- and does really well. It's A City Church: The First Century of Service, by Linna Place, a social and American historian from the University of Missouri-Kansas City and director of International Academic Programs there. She's also a long-time member of the church.

What this book is not is a sweet toast to a congregation that has never had internal battles. Oh, Place has many good things to say about Country Club Christian -- and deservedly so -- but she also doesn't just skip by various times of trouble and disputes. I know of no congregation from any faith tradition that has never experienced those kinds of battles. To ignore them is to paint an unrealistic picture of congregational life.

The author doesn't dwell on them to distraction, but she tries to show how the congregation and its leaders handled them and what they learned from, among others, struggles over the place of women in leadership, over how to handle such cultural issues as race and economic troubles, over the role of youth, over issues of church governance, over music, over interfaith relations and more.

She even quotes some of the comments by one of the pastors on staff at an internally challenging time: "(O)ur membership has been involved in differences which might have been the sign of healthy concern. The time has come, however, when these differences have led to the kind of controversy in which motives and integrity have been questioned. . .We have opened doors looking for skeletons and if there were none there, we created them."

So in addition to noting the many great leaders the church has had and the many terrific acts of ministry its members have accomplished over the last century, readers get a realistic picture of congregational life, which, in the end, is a reflection of life itself.

It's impossible to tell the story of a Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) congregation without getting into some of its roots in the Stone-Campbell Movement and those in that movement who shaped this denomination's and this congregation's theology and growth. It's all here in the book, along with good footnotes and other references for people who want to dig deeper.

As Country Club Christian grew (and, yes, there's almost always been some debate about the church's paradoxical -- almost oxymoronic -- name), it was led by a series of talented pastors, each of whom brought different gifts to the job and each of whom helped to move the congregation in new directions -- even as the Disciples denomination itself was finding its own footing and place within Mainline Protestantism. I've been privileged to know several of Country Club Christian's pastors in my 50-plus years in Kansas City and have admired their skills and commitment to core Christian values.

This new book devotes a fair amount of space to the place of women in churches generally and in this particular congregation. It's a sign of the slow but progressive road the congregation has taken to move away from patriarchal systems that it took until 1971 for the church to elect its first women elders and until 1988 for it to hire its first female on its pastoral staff and that that person, the Rev. Carla Aday, became the senior minister in 2017, a post she continues to hold.

Over the years, the congregation has been the spiritual home of many area leaders, including the late Mayor Ilus W. Davis and the late Kanas City Police Chief (and FBI director), Clarence M. Kelley.

Today nearly all Christian denominations are facing a widely reported decline in religious participation, and Country Club, now a leading congregation in its denomination, has not been immune to that struggle. But it has remained a strong, vibrant voice in the community and this new book explains how and why that has happened even as it sets a single congregation's story within a much wider story of American and Kansas City history.

I wish all church centennial books were this useful and readable.

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TIME TO RE-LOOK AT AFGHANISTAN

I recently read Jonathan L. Lee's extensive history of Afghanistan that covers the years 1260 until today (or, well, until 2018). It's excellent, though, of course, it doesn't cover the period after U.S. troops withdrew from the country late this summer. But this piece from The Conversation looks at the ethnic and religious divisions that are causing internal strife and violence in Afghanistan today. Of particular concern is the reality, as the article notes, that "the Islamic State group is conducting massive terrorist attacks on Shiite mosques, a tactic that originated with the Iraqi branch of the organization." All the blood and treasure the U.S. spent in Afghanistan seems to have changed things there only a little. A further commitment there would likely have resulted simply in more death -- of both Americans and Afghans.

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P.S.: If you missed my latest Flatland column, which posted this past Sunday morning, it's here. And it's about a Jesuit priest who soon will be honored by a Jewish institution. And if you missed my column on the cover of ReadTheSpirit.com magazine about land acknowledgements and their use, if any, in relation to Indigenous tribes in the U.S., you'll find it here.

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