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Tag Archives: postmodern ministry

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?

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.

Kids these days.

Last Sunday, I supplied for a little church in Clarksdale, AZ. (Picture a desert small town out of the 1950s. Tada! Clarksdale.)
Before he left on a well-deserved vacation, the rector called me, and asked if I would be willing to preach on “young adults and the church.” Like the rest of AZ, Clarksdale is largely retiree-centric, and these aren’t issues that are on the parish’s radar.

Believe it or not, I had never been asked this before. It had been talked about around me, or implied at, or whispered about, but me, the 20-something college chaplain, had not been asked directly to comment on the state of young adults in the church.

I was ecstatic. And somewhat nervous. Here’s what I said.

May 13, 2012
Easter 6, Year B
Acts 10, John 15

Ever since I was first ordained, people have approached me as if I hold the secret to all life. In quiet tones, they pull me aside, they whisper to me, “You, you are a young person! Tell us of the young people we have heard so much about!”. This comes out in the tone of voice normally reserved for Loch Ness monster sightings. Tell us of the wondrous and strange creature lurking in the deep!

This has accelerated since I became a college chaplain, someone working in the mission field of the 21st century. Because it is a mission field. Adults between the ages of 18-25 arent in our ballpark. The Episcopal Church, as a whole, is..more experienced at life than the population as a whole. The average age of Episcopalians is around 60. And according to most sources, the generation gap between “kids these days” and their parents and grandparents is the largest it has ever been– spurred on by rapidly development of technology, a tumultuous economy, and a constant, and never ending stream of information that we’ve never had to deal with before.

So let this be my report from the field, as it were. In Acts today, Peter returns to the council at Jerusalem full of what he’s heard and seen in unexpected places where the Spirit wasn’t expected to show herself, and it changes the church forever. so here is what I have seen of the Spirit’s movement in this new world.

First some context: the people we are talking about are young adults. They are between 18-34 years old. According to a recent survey, 94% of them have cell phones, 70% of them have laptops. They average 319 friends via social network sites like Facebook. They text, and instant message far more than they email.
They have little memory of the world before cell phones, and almost no memory of a world without computers. There has always been television, and it has always been targeted to them, no matter what age.
Information, in other words, comes constantly, and instantaneously. And from many, many disparate sources.
There has never been, for this generation, one, single, trusted voice telling you what to believe. There has never been Walter Cronkite. There has always been many, discordant, shrieking voices trying to get you to do something, buy something, believe something. All different.

Which leads me to:
In a survey taken recently by the independent Barna group, according to young adults, the most common word used to describe Christianity was: anti homosexual. 91% of those surveyed, churchgoers and non churchgoers, thought that this was the major word that described our religion. Judgmental came in second, and hypocritical was third. All over 80%.
Nothing about helping the less fortunate. Nothing about community. Nothing about Jesus, or God, or loving your neighbor as yourself. Nothing about what we are for, just a lot about what we are against. Or what a vocal portion of us are against, rather.

The take away the vast majority of young adults have gotten about Christianity right now is that we really hate a whole bunch of people. And they don’t really want anything to do with that.

And this isn’t about what you should think regarding same-sex marriage– that’s another sermon. No matter where you are on that issue, hatred shouldn’t be what Christianity is known for. Hypocrisy, Judgmentalism, shouldn’t be what we’re known for.

There are a lot of reasons why we ended up here– but the important thing is: if we want to get out? If we want to get the young people back, if we want to be church in the new milliennium, and all that stuff?

We have to actually love our neighbor.

We can’t just talk about it, we can’t just plan for it, we can’t just come up with distracting rules, to try to cheat our way around it.

We have to actually love people.

This was always our calling– Jesus’ command to us to love one another as he loved us has never changed. But it has never been more urgent, or more clear.
We can’t assume that people know that this is what we are about, we can’t take for granted that people know that we do this, that we intend to do this, and only occasionally fall short. They don’t. We don’t have the benefit of the doubt anymore– there’s too much ready information for anyone to get the benefit of a trusting public.

We actually have to start from the ground up again. In this new world, We have to live the way Jesus calls us to live, we have to walk the walk, and not just do the talking.

We have to abide in Christ’s love. We have to love our neighbor, no matter who they are. We have to do it actively, concretely, and without fear or judgment.

And the good news is, that sort of all inclusive gospel of love, that transforms the world and makes us better, more caring people– That way of life that we preach and try to live– that is what the world is hungry for. That is precisely what so many people are so desperate for, that they roam from church to church, seeking it. They want an authentic gospel of Jesus. They want an authentic gospel of love. They want us to give it to them, and they won’t rest until we do.

That story from Acts– that story of Cornelius, the Roman gentile, who wanted to become a Christian, despite the protests, and confusion of Peter and the rest of the Jewish Christian community. The Holy Spirit got to him before anyone else had. And it was through his faith, and the Spirit’s power that the whole church eventually caught up, and entered a new world.

The Spirit won’t rest until someone does the job. The Spirit of God won’t stop moving over the waters of chaos until someone preaches the gospel. The Spirit won’t give up until someone pays attention, so It might well be us.


The Light of Christ…Run Away!!!

This past Saturday, like last year, my Canterbury group inflicted our liturgical whims upon our Lutheran compatriots and joined together for an Easter Vigil.
Being college ministries, we got to hold our vigil at a respectably late hour of darkness: 10pm.

(and look: While I realize that it is TECHNICALLY appropriate to hold a vigil at any time after sundown, really, if you can’t see stars and there are still birds singing, then it doesn’t count as nighttime. Y’all are worse than toddlers in your fear of darkness.)

It looked to be a good Vigil. We had twice as many show up as last year, and no one panicked over the incense smoke. I ran to our local Episcopal church right as their service ended, and stole borrowed their thurible. I even showed a novice Lutheran the esoteric workings of church incense. (Grind it up. Never burn anything other than pure resin incense & charcoal. Don’t hit passers-by in the face with hot thurible, etc.). Our new Easter fire lit in the nearby Weber grill with ease, and there was no wind.

Everything was going smoothly.

So we started the service. Outside, in the parking lot, I lit the mini- Paschal candle from the new fire, declared it the light of Christ and led everyone inside. I was nearly done with exulting in th Exsultet, when there was banging on the front door.

I ignored it. Because I was rejoicing, and singing to the marvelous and holy flame standing near me.

Then there was more banging, this time on all the doors of the building at once. And I noticed that there were flashing lighting coming in the windows.


I kept on singing. Because I was going to FINISH singing the praise of this great light if it damn near killed me, and since this is the night when wickedness is put to flight and sin is washed away, the surely it could work on annoying people who INTERRUPTED MY CHANTING ?!?!?

Meanwhile, Fritz walked on back to figure out what the banging was all about, while I attempted to restore harmony and balance to the cosmos through the power of an-increasingly-intensely-chanted-Exsultet. Finally, I was done, and finally, the banging stopped, and the flashing lights went away.

As I moved to sit down, Fritz leaned over and explained.

It seems that someone passing from the road (a good 100 yards away) had seen us light our new fire, and called the cops. The cops, not being hip to liturgics, had come in force: the campus police, the city police, and two fire engines.

They were not dissuaded by the fact that our New Fire was contained in a grill (off the ground), had been snuffed out at this point, and was sitting in a massive parking lot in which there were no cars. They made a student walk out and dump water on it while they watched, and told him if he ever lit a fire like that again, we’d all be fined.

(It’s been pointed out to me that this could have happened because there had been a red flag warning of fire danger two days before, and that we might have required a permit to light a fire (in a grill?) all of which might be true. For all I’ve been talking about the snowpack being low and fire season starting early this year, I am a Eastern Elitist at heart, and I do not know from the mountainous high desert, really, at all.)

But practicalities aside, how telling is it that a small band of believers gathers in the middle of the night, lights the Light of Christ.,..and the authorities immediately come and tell them to douse it? Douse it! It’s too dangerous!

I don’t know how many Easter celebrations I’ve been to that pose a such a threat to the status quo– where people truly, deeply invested in the Way Things Are would be uncomfortable. But resurrection itself is uncomfortable. It inspires fear, terror, the sort of thing that makes you run away in a panic and not say anything to anyone. It doesn’t let you remain as you are. And that’s uncomfortable, generally.

The language of the Exsultet itself is language of action and change. We are reconciled to God. Pride and hatred are cast out, wickedness driven out,, peace and concord are restored. Joy is given to those who mourn. Death and hell are vanquished, Earth and heaven are joined. God saves God’s people, because that’s what God does. All sorts of tumult.

This isn’t “stay as you are” language. This isnt “warm Fuzzy” language. This isn’t language even about God giving us lots of stuff one day when we die, so hooray, something to look forward to! This is God restoring us on this night, God working to right what is going wrong in this moment, through the redemptive power of Christ in the world.

This sort of language, to live this out, this would get you in trouble with some people. There is quite a lot invested in keeping pride and hatred around these days, (We do have a presidential election to think about, after all.) That one alone might get you stuck in some catacombs, to say nothing of the investment we have in our suffering, and all our varied versions of hell. Pretty tumultuous, scary stuff, to give all that up, even for God. Even for those of us who have been at this Christian thing for a while.

I’ve decided I liked the cops showing up to the Vigil. I have a hunch that this is what post-Christendom church may look like: communities so on fire with the Spirit that the world becomes suspicious, and people that embody the resurrection life and transform the world around them, provoking confusion and panic.

May we all have the courage to live a complete resurrection: complete with tumult, earthquakes, and light in unexpected places.