Baltimore Sun sing-along: We are one in the spirit (with a lower-case 's')

Anyone who has had any contact -- post-Jesus Music era -- with American evangelicalism will know the lyrics of the classic campfire song, "We are One in the Spirit." Some people may know this song under a different title, "They'll Know We are Christians by Our Love."

One thing is for sure, no doubt about it. The word "Spirit" in this song definitely has an upper-case "S," representing -- even under Associated Press style rules -- a reference to the Holy Spirit, one Person in the traditional Christian Trinity. The first verse of this famous song goes like this: 

We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. 
We are One in The Spirit, We are One in The Lord. 
And we pray that all unity may one day be restored.
And they'll know we are Christians by our love, by our love, 
Yes they'll know we are Christians by our love.

Now, I bring this up because of a very interesting musical reference at the end of the latest in a long list of Baltimore Sun stories written as tributes to brave progressive Christian congregations -- defined as those with doctrines acceptable to editors at the newspaper that lands in my front yard -- that are fighting to remain alive here in Charm City. In this case, we are dealing with a story about three congregations that are sharing a building in West Baltimore, in an attempt to make ends meet.

At the end, the members of two of the congregations are quoted as singing, together:

We are one in the spirit.
We are one.
We are one in the spirit.
We are one.

That's rather interesting on several levels. Was there a lower-case "s" in the church bulletin? Were the references to the Lord really cut out of this song? Was this version drawn from some kind of Unitarian Universalist renewal-music songbook?

I'm joking around, kind of. I guess I am asking if this song quote is a symbolic window into the beliefs of these congregations or of the Sun team that worked on the story.

Now, the key to the feature story is the state of spiritual life and economics in what sounds like a rather typical liberal oldline Protestant congregation, in this case Second English Evangelical Lutheran Church. With a click of a mouse, as opposed to reading the news story, one can find out that this church is part of the progressive Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and that it has been struggling to survive at its current urban location since the mid-to-late 1990s (note the reference to entering into a partnership with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), which almost certainly was a pragmatic decision based on finances as well as polity).

The Sun report is actually rather blunt about the state of things at Second English:

At Second English, membership has fallen sharply in recent decades. As demographics shifted, few Lutherans remained in these communities on the city's western edge. And the longtime members are aging.
About 25 came to worship this past Sunday. Most appeared to be in their 60s or 70s; women far outnumbered men. Before the service, the congregation sat so silent that locusts could be heard buzzing outside. The organ sounded promptly at 9:30. ...
Momentous transformations lie ahead for Second English. The congregation is too small to pay the bills for such a large property, Coe said in an interview. The congregation is planning to sell the church building, perhaps to The Open Church, which has been leasing space for the past 18 months.
After the church is sold, the Second English congregation will likely dissolve or merge with another.

Now that reference to The Open Church is the second key element of the story, because this congregation is presented as a growing, thriving congregation that may take over this prime piece of ecclesiastical real estate. Readers, however, are told very little about this church or its history -- let alone its doctrinal heritage.

Instead, there is this:

The Open Church was founded three years ago by the Rev. Brad Braxton as a place for "people from varied ethnicities and capabilities, genders and sexual identities, and social and economic groups."
"We want to keep the great aspects of the black church and be more than that," said Michael Scott, 45, one of the founding members.
The congregation, which is predominantly African-American and includes many young adults, has grown rapidly.
"We know we're planting a church," said Michelle Howard, 56, a Randallstown teacher.
Braxton was recuperating from an operation, so the Rev. Michael Hunt led the service. He began by asking the congregation of about 80 to share hugs. Women exchanged kisses on the cheek, taking care not to knock off their hats.

Once again, with a few mouse clicks, it is easy to see that Braxton is a progressive Baptist with an educational and professional background that is solidly mainline Protestant. Do a basic search for "Rev. Brad Braxton" and "gay marriage" and it's clear that he is at the cutting edge of efforts to help the African-American church modernize and come to terms with the doctrinal implications of the Sexual Revolution.

That could have been a very interesting part of this story. What does his church believe and teach, when it comes to the basics of the Christian faith? To be blunt: How well does his flock mesh with the city's other historic black churches? Does it have any denominational ties, or is it totally independent?

I would note one other thing. In most mainline-church budgets, it takes about 85 people -- strong givers -- for a church to provide a full-package of salary and benefits to a minister. After three years, The Open Church is said to be growing rapidly, yet it has just now approached that minimum survival level.

In other words, The Open Church may represent the future. The question that is not explored in the story is whether -- right now, in the present -- this young progressive congregation has the resources to keep the doors open at this historic, yet now struggling, location.

So, in the end, what is this story actually about? Why is this mission effort worthy of so much Sun ink, in comparison with so many other church projects in the area that are, well, thriving?

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