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Attack of the Spin

A few weeks ago, I attended the Donohoe Ecumenical Forum in Phoenix. This is a gathering held every year that is meant to get at some of the more controversial issues in Christianity, that aren’t normally addressed in ecumenical circles. (Normally, we have a great time talking about Mary with the Romans, and freedom and grace with the Lutherans, and never really get into the sticky stuff, for we do so love to place nice.) So a noble goal, from the Donohoe Forum.

This year’s speaker was David Kinnamon, from the Barna Institute, whom I had heard of before! (I thus awarded myself 10 points. I won another 25 on Megan’s Scale of Relevancy when I got there and realized I was one of 3 people there under the age of 55. This will become important.)

The Barna Institute has been engaged in polling young adults (judged here as 18-35 year olds) to determine how they see modern Christianity. The results of this, and Kinnamon’s analysis, are published in his book, entitled (spoiler alert) You Lost Me.

Essentially, it boils down to this– young adults (and from hearing him speak, he largely means evangelical Protestants here) have left the church, not because they have become atheists. They are leaving because they have questions that the churches they encounter either don’t answer, or answer without any satisfying nuance.

Dinosaurs! Gender equality! Same sex marriage! Dealing with divorce! The torrent of consumerism, marketing and advertising! Growing awareness of pluralism! A realistic ethical framework for sexuality when this generation isn’t getting married at age 19!

The old pat answers don’t work any more, and churches aren’t set up to allow the room for questioning or they don’t mirror the same complexity that exists in the rest of the world. So while young adults really (by huge percentages) like the teachings of Jesus, they find the church to be majorly out of step with its founder.

Basically, according to the research, young people do not find the church to be very Christ-like.

What was fascinating, and odd, to me, however, was listening to the conversation around these surveys.
Kinnamon comes out of an evangelical culture, which became evident the more he talked. (As a side note: I am not as AngloCatholic as some people, but I never feel quite so catholic when I am listening to evangelical Protestants speak. I suddenly want to whip out a rosary and ring the Angelus. It’s a problem.)
Anyway, Kinnamon used the analogy of Babylon, where the faithful were being purified by being set in the midst of a chaotic society that was not conducive to Godly faith, but the Jews persevered, and God made them stronger, and used them to convert the Babylonians.** He pointed out that the numbers reflect a deep divide in those who had left the church, especially around social issues like science:(global warming, evolution,) gay rights, and gender equality, and pluralism. Generally, the numbers showed, across the board, that those who left found the church way too closed on evolution, gay rights, and gender equality. Kinnamon gave the example of his friend (a pastor in a mega church) talking to his pre-teen daughter, who disclosed to him that she thought she might be called to the ministry, but if that were the case, then they’d have to switch churches, because women aren’t allowed to teach in theirs. Kinnamon laughed and said, “We have to do a better job of explaining our message so it’s more palatable.”

There is a fundamental difference between messaging, and truth. (Advertising has, yes, muddied the waters on this, but it does not change the fact.)

You can message all you want, but if you don’t allow women to teach men, eventually the word will get out. You can spin all you want, but if you are consistently anti-science, and squash reasoned debate and questioning, eventually the wheels will come off that wagon, too. You can come up with the nicest, sweetest advertising campaign in history, but if you preach against gay marriage than eventually that will come out. (Ha.)

The problem that the church at large is currently encountering is that, for a while now, we’ve allowed ourselves to act unChristlike at times. We got entranced with being powerful and popular, the stamp of approval for what was permitted in good society. It was fun! (I understand there was sherry.) But much of it wasn’t very Jesus-y.

But now, here comes a generation who has access to unfettered information, who has done its research, and has decided that they aren’t buying anything other than the real Thing. They would like to see Jesus, please, and they don’t care what Good People do, or what is Cool. (There is literally a whole lifestyle devoted to ignoring what is Cool.) They want Christ.

So our problem (and it’s been a while since we’ve had this particular one) is to be seen as more Christlike.

And no amount of spin, or better advertising, or messaging, or fancier churches will fix this. We can’t lead with any of that.

If we want to be seen as more JesusLike, then we actually have to act more JesusLike. We actually need to do it. We actually need to care and advocate for the sick and the poor. We actually need to take the Sermon on the Mount seriously. We actually need to act like every person and creature on earth is worth God’s saving and redeeming love in equal measure.

We can do this. We have the resources, the inner guidance, the attentiveness to the Spirit. Every so often, and without a lot of run-up, the greater Episcopal Church takes great, jerking steps in this direction, and it tends to throw the unaware pew-sitter into a panic.

But this problem won’t be solved by the larger church structures. It will be tackled only by the smaller groups– parishes, small groups, ministries, start-ups.

How can you, in your local context, become more Christlike?

**I am still on the fence about this analogy. Comparing our situation to being in the Babylonian captivity feels like introducing an element of serious oppression where none currently exists. The Jews didn’t slowly get absorbed into Babylonian society; they were invaded, conquered and pillaged. Jerusalem was sacked. A Lamentations acrostic was written, for God’s sake! None of that has happened to us. We are fine. (See also: Christmas, Fictitious War on)
I like better the analogy of Acts, and reclaiming the idea of being in the mission field again. And here’s my Anglo-Catholic showing, I have an ingrown aversion to adopting this evangelical dualism with regards to culture vs. Christendom. The incarnation abolished this dualism. God won, let’s move on, shall we?

Yorktown, 2012: or On Women Bishops

Yorktown, 2012: or On Women Bishops

Because I am a political junkie, and can’t leave well enough alone, I listened to the audio feed of the debate in the Church of England’s General Synod today as they debated (again) whether to introduce the appointment of female bishops at this time. I did this in July when they met as well.

And each time they go through it the same way– well meaning, good hearted, faithful Christians stand up and say, “We can’t do this yet, it will split the church, it will drive out people who can’t, in good conscience, accept the ministry of women.” Some stand and argue that women aren’t called to Christian leadership. Many others stand and argue for equality, that Jesus calls us all, that in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, etc, but, in my lifetime, in the Church of England, as of today, women cannot be appointed to the episcopate. The measure failed again today in the lay order by 4 votes.

Now, in my church, in my lifetime, women have always been priests, and women have always been bishops, thanks be to God. This hasn’t always been accepted everywhere in the church, but in the annals of The Episcopal Church, this has been what we told ourselves we were doing, since 1979. In every parish I attended growing up, there was a female priest somewhere, and so, I was blessed to always believe that this avenue was open to me. Why in the world wouldn’t it be?

So, naively, I think, some part of me was surprised when the measure failed today. Are we really so far apart as Anglicans that we’re still talking about this? Should binders full of women be distributed to the Church of England to facilitate the episcopal search process? Can’t we just assume that everyone believes in gender equality, and call it good, because we should have gotten at least that far in, say, 1982? Didn’t you people elect Margaret Thatcher?!?!?****

But perhaps I am approaching this debate the wrong way. Maybe we all have. I’ve been assuming that the humanist principle of equality is the way to argue this. Clearly, it hasn’t gotten us the result of gender equality in the church. So behold: let us try a new thing.

Please– Please show me the place in the gospel where Jesus and the disciples are staying with Mary and Martha, and Jesus sends Mary away, because he only wants men to learn from him, and this woman is being really inappropriate with all the sitting and listening and disciple-like behavior. Guide me towards the spot where Jesus firmly declines the money from the women who supported him and his ministry, because that’s man’s work! Kindly point to the verse where Jesus, from the cross, tells the women waiting and suffering with him, to hit the road, because, after all, he never had any female disciples and he was worried about their emotional nature. Point to the place in each of the four gospels where Mary Magdalene is told by the angel that Christ is risen, and to go tell the disciples, but hey, you better take a man with you, because they may not receive your testimony, and we can’t make them uncomfortable.

Most of all, kindly point me to the caveat or asterisk in my baptism that dares place a limit on what wonderful, mysterious, exciting dream God has for me.

Up until you can do any of that, then you do not get to tell me that gender is any sort of disqualifier.

****I now have my NT professor voice in my head reminding me that Margaret Thatcher’s election was about as much progress for feminism as was Sarah Palin’s VP nomination. So let’s take that last one with a grain of salt.

Jesus would have used a Mac

Here is a thing I have noticed:

When I run into a problem with my computer, (download a file that won’t open, an application stops working, etc) I do the following: Google the problem, see if someone else has a similar problem, see if there’s a easy/free fix, and try things until something works.  Sometimes this leads to me taking apart the DVD player to follow a YouTube instructional video on fixing the thing, but most of the time, it leads to me feeling all manner of triumphant over a box of circuits and wires.  “You shall not master me, technology!”  I shout inwardly. (Occasionally outwardly. I take great pride in my victories.)
Here is what my parents do when they notice a problem:
They call me.  (They also read this blog.  Hi Mom, Dad!  Love ya’ll!)
They call me, concerned that the beeping, or the flashing, or the current unable-to-open file situation they are encountering will DESTROY EVERYTHING THEY HOLD DEAR. Every new message from the computer system signals an emergency, or approaching apocalypse.  Technology cannot be trusted.  When I went home for Christmas last year, I discovered that my parents hadn’t run a Windows system update or a antivirus update on their computer in over 5 years.  “I don’t trust those pop-up messages,” said my mother.  “They worry me and I don’t know what they mean, so I just ignore them so nothing goes wrong.” As a result, of course, their computer was now barely functioning.  (I point out here that around the holidays, sites like Gawker and The Awl run articles about how to surreptitiously update your parents’ browser, etc, without throwing them into a panic, or overloading them with information.  This is not a situation unique to my house.)
I raise this issue, not because one reaction is better than another, but because it points towards something else I’ve noticed–as used as we’ve gotten to calling the advances in technology “tools”, that we can put down and pick up, they are, just as much, an entire culture.  And as a culture, this new world of technology has affected everything: our expectations, our world views, how we interact with each other, and each part, really, of how we live.  I hasten to add that this has happened before–Walter Ong wrote a fabulous (and short!) book called Orality and Literacy examining how the advent of written language profoundly changed the way humans think and process the world around us.  As people had access to more and more information, and as the access to that information became more permanent than someone’s memory, the way they thought, and the way they saw the world, changed.
Again, the changes, as Ong points out, were neither all good nor bad.  They just were.  As more information became accessible, thought patterns shifted from the concrete to the abstract.  The repetition that was necessary to aid in memory gave way to complex language construction.  It’s the difference between the Gospel of Mark’s limited vocabulary and the sweeping of the Gospel of John. One’s oral, one’s not.  Both are beautiful and profound, but they were written for different audiences to do different things.
I have witnessed a lot of fear recently about the rise of technology, and the effect it is having on our Church.  On the one hand, I’ve observed anxiety about whether emerging technologies will be ‘good for us or bad for us’.  On the other hand, I’ve heard the concern that as the upcoming generations bring new technologies into the church, people will be excluded, and the Church will become a more exclusive place.
Look, the ship has sailed, mes amis.  Emerging technology is already here.  And this culture, like every culture before it, is both good and bad.  American culture has always been both good and bad.  First century Palestinian culture was both good and bad.  It is our job as faithful, committed Jesus-following people to sort out the good from the bad.  What parts of this culture serve God’s purposes?  What parts of this culture are life-giving to us and our fellow creatures?  What parts seek to destroy the creation of God?  These are questions we have to ask again and again, in this and every generation.  We can go back and forth as we wish about the answers.  But it is criminally unfaithful to give up on the questions because we are afraid to do the work.
God does not give us a vote as to which culture we are immersed in.  But God, by virtue of the Incarnation, shows up in all cultures, all contexts, in one way or another.  Even this one, with its many gadgets.  Our job, as faithful people, is to figure out the culture enough to find the divine fingerprints in it.

I’m still here, am not a dryer sock

The Episcopal Cafe linked to this article two days ago  with the following headline”Where have all the Young People Gone?”

 The article itself is fine.  The headline is troubling.
It’s a popular question to ask, nowadays, by very well-meaning people, who have very well-founded concerns that the current incarnation of the church lacks a certain diversity of ages.  This is true.  The current incarnation is a bit lopsided when it comes to life-experience.  The average Episcopalian is somewhere around the age of 58.  Everyone, by now, has seen the statistics about our drop in membership, and the rise in spirituality over religious affiliation.  So the idea that ‘kids these days’ are,  statistically speaking, more likely to be drinking coffee than acolyting, on Sunday morning is not far-fetched.
But saying, “Where have all the Young People Gone?” does not help the situation.
Because that questions assumes that All Young People Have, in fact, Gone.
Not just most Young People, but ALL the Young People.  ALL OF THEM.  EVERYWHERE.
Like socks in the dryer, or some vast conspiracy of youth to abandon the Fair Church Episcopal.
This is, I realize, a hyperbolic assumption, but it’s also damaging.  Because, as a certified Young Person, how can I begin to speak to my beloved Church about the ways in which we can make the church more welcoming to my fellow Young People, if it seems to have trouble recognizing that I’m still here?  Or that my perspective might be important on this issue?
Dear Church, there are a few Young People here, you know.  We attend your services, we sit in the back, occasionally in the front if we’re bold.  Sometimes, we sit there quietly, and give up after a few Sundays, and sometimes, we get feisty and get ourselves elected to positions of leadership.  Sometimes, we even get ourselves ordained.
So, look.  This is a conversation we desperately need to have, because this is an issue that is real.  But the only way this will work out is if we have it with each other, not around each other.  You’re concerned about the young people? Talk to the Actual Young People.  Ask us what we need.  Ask us what would help make the church more welcoming.
This is a trick we’ve all had to learn time and again, each time we wanted to open the doors a little wider, learn how to be a little more welcoming.  How do we talk to someone, and not just about them-as-a-population?  We’re going to have to learn that trick again.
So, please.  Ask us about being young people in this church.  We will tell you.  Then we can work on it together.
Because God’s Kingdom has no dryer socks.

New Structure, New Church, Same Jesus

Last week, before I left on retreat (Beautiful Authority Conference, which was amazing) I received in the mail a book from the President of the House of Deputies.

Now, I love to read, and I love books, and so I am disinclined to question when free books start appearing in my mailbox.  But this book was an actual, physical BOOK #1, and #2, it was explaining to me the glorious history of the governance structures of The Episcopal Church, and how it makes us who we are.
And, it does.  But the problem is, who we currently are, in all its vast complexity, is not all we ought to be.
Like I said last time (or the time before the Trinity Break), currently, we’re doing an excellent job pretending to be some odd corporation.  Occasionally, on smaller scales, we like also to be a country club.  And, at points in our history, we have also tried to be a full-on kingdom.
We aren’t good at any of those things, nor are we called to be any of those things.
We’re called to be a church. The embodiment of Christ at this time and place on the earth.  We are called to be turned outward, and serving the world in Christ’s name, like chaplains to the world.
In almost no way are we currently set up to do that.  We’re set up to form committees, and to issue recommendations, or build stuff, or argue.  (We are fantastically good at arguing.)
But as far as dealing with a world that is not predominantly Christian, and not so inclined to listen to our recommendations, learn our language, or venture into our amazing buildings, we are not set up for that.
We need to build a servant structure: and not just servant in terms of “serving the mission of the church”, but servant in terms of serving the world.
And (brace yourselves) but the first thing we need to do is combine the House of Deputies and the House of Bishops.
Each diocese gets their active bishops, two clergy, and two lay votes.  I didn’t come up with this brilliant plan; Tom Ferguson+ and others explain it quite well. (We can keep the Presiding Bishop to play with the other primates, for however long we get to stay in the Anglican Communion, and to organize annual Bishops’ Gatherings.  Otherwise, the presiding officer of the new Joint House should be elected from any order of ministry, for the term of the General Convention, banging the gavel and whatnot.)
There are several practical advantages to this plan: it decreases the cost of General Convention dramatically, it lessens the financial pressure on individual dioceses, it decreases the silo effect between House of Bishops and House of Deputies.
Also, it forces us to put our money where our mouth is with regards to ministry of all the baptized.  Since the 1979 BCP came out, we’ve worked hard to establish that you do not receive special powers when you are ordained.  However, neither do you lose your baptismal powers and obligations when you are ordained.  I am bound to respect the dignity of my fellow human beings just as much now as I was prior to donning the plastic collar, if not more so.  When we say everyone is equal before God, then everyone really does need to be equal in the eyes of the church’s structure, and that should include being in the same room to hash out how we’re going to be church together.  And if you’re too intimidated by your bishop to vote a different way, then may haps you, and your bishop, need another lesson in baptismal theology.
So now that everyone’s in one room together, we really no longer need doubles of the committees.  Hooray!
And, we’re going to impose two new rules to guide the work of said committees:
1. Don’t Say it, Do it.
2. Everyone is 3 years old.
Rule #1: Don’t Say it, Do it. 
The first rule is stolen gleefully from Scott Gunn+.  In essence, we need to get out of the mindset that we still run the world, in the manner of Coca-Cola, or Constantine, and that, via efficacious speech, the world will bend to our righteous will.
The Korean Peninsula will not reunify just because we pass a resolution saying we are in favor of that.  The Cuba embargo will not be lifted either.  Nor will a two state solution be reached in Israel/Palestine through the power of our paperwork, EVEN IF we send a copy to the president.
What we should do instead is ACTUALLY DO THINGS.  Want a two-state solution?  Disinvest in Caterpillar, Motorola, and companies that do business in the Occupied Territories.  (This worked to end South African apartheid.)  Want to help heal the planet?  Ask churches to convert to those swirly lightbulbs, and give them incentives to do so.  Ask them to investigate solar panels, and give them incentives.
We can’t just state what we think about things any more and assume people care.  We need to do things, and then explain why we are doing them.  Any committee that can’t fulfill its mandate in actionable steps needs to reconsider its mission.
Speaking of that:  Rule #2!  Everyone is 3 years old.
 We need to explain why.  All the time. Why do we care about global poverty, and universal healthcare?  Why do we care if everyone is included in the church?  Why do we care about transparency in the budget?  Why?  Why? Why?
We need to pretend that the entire world is populated by extremely cute and lovable toddlers who keep asking us, “Why?”
We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and taking care of the poor.  We cannot assume that people understand the connection between Jesus and loving your neighbor.  We cannot assume that people understand who in the world Jesus Christ, as portrayed in the gospels and as we know him, actually is.  We need to remember that for many, many years now, there has been a concerted effort to use the name of Jesus to bash people who are different, and to justify all manner of hateful actions.  To begin to undo that is perhaps one of the most powerful acts of mission we can engage in.
Last night on the Colbert Report, Stephen Colbert had on his show both Sr. Simone Campbell, who heads NETWORK*, and Martin Sheen.  Both are devout Roman Catholics, and both have been noted for their activism on behalf of peace and poverty issues.  (It was an awesome Roman Catholic grand slam.)  What struck me is the audience response.  When Stephen Colbert (who teaches Sunday School at his church, mind you) asked Sr. Simone why nuns were such ‘radical feminists’, and spent so much time serving the poor and sick, she came right back at him.  “That’s the gospel. That’s what Jesus taught us to do.” The crowd burst into sustained applause.
Ditto when Martin Sheen came out.  “Why are you such a liberal commie-type?” queried Colbert, “Well, it pretty much is about that gospel that the sister was talking about.  I’m following Jesus and this is what Jesus taught me.”  Again, the crowd went nuts.
In a period of less than ten minutes, an actor and a nun evangelized a non-churchy audience much better than most Episcopal churches ever do.  Why are we doing this?
Because of Jesus.
Ultimately, the structure we need is answered in that.  Make a structure that serves the world, and invites the question, so that everything we say, do, and are is answered by, “Because of Jesus.”
*NETWORK is an progressive Catholic group which “educates, lobbies and organizes for economic and social transformation.”