Thursday, March 29, 2012

Answers To My Bishop Question

Last weekend I was a part of a set of interviews in which our Jurisdictional Conference delegation was asking questions of the candidates for bishop. When I asked my question, the responses fell into 3 categories.

The question was something like, “Considering the new and always emerging ways that people connect these days - new communication tools, social networking, online relationships, etc. - is the way that people think about ‘church’ being transformed? And will the metrics we use to assess congregational vitality be transformed as a result?”

Category 1 was basically:
Yes. I get it. The world is changing, relationships are changing, the definition of community is changing, and the church needs to recognize and be a part of that change. In fact, here are a few ways that I myself have transformed my own communication …

Category 2 was basically:
Yes. I hear that it is, but I don’t really get it. My kids do it, but I haven’t really gotten into it. I think the church should do some stuff too, but I really don’t know what that might be.

And category 3 was basically:
Yes. And isn’t it a shame. It’s a good thing the church can still be there to offer people a “real” relationship,” considering all the pretend ones they have on their computers and such.

You realize that I am paraphrasing, of course. None of the candidates is quoted, except the phrase “real relationship.” But my paraphrases represent a summary of what I heard in the interviews, and clearly include my bias. You probably also realize that the people who answered in a “category 1” kind of answer are the ones that I would tend to support.

I think some may dismiss the question as just a technology question. It is not. The development of technology vs. the transformation of community is kind of a “chicken and egg” kind of question. Technology changes as community is transformed; community is transformed as technology changes.

And as more and more people redefine community through a whole host of new technologies, the question is not whether the church should change, too. The question is how.

Monday, March 26, 2012

The Annual Conference as "Google"

In our episcopal interviews, one of our scripted “first three” questions was about Annual Conference structure. The core of the question was: What is the ideal Annual Conference structure?

For me the answer is simple - Google.

Google is a noun. It is the name of a website through which people can access a seemingly unlimited amount of information on just about anything they want to know about.

But google has become a verb. It means “what you do in order to access that information.” If you don’t know something and you want to know it, you just google it.

Whereas “google” is a noun that has been verbified, it feels like the word “conference” is a United Methodist verb that has been nounified.

Conference is actually a verb, in the Methodist lingo. In one sense, it means “google,” what we do in order to access information, resources, equipment for ministry.

But it seems “conference” has become only a noun, it means the group of people itself, or even the meeting of this group of people. I’d like for it to be verbified again.

The United Methodist Church is uniquely structured to resonate with the way people connect with each other. We even call ourselves a “connection,” or a “connexion,” if you prefer the British version. In order to realized the potential of that connection, we need to verbify the conference.

Not sure what resource to use for VBS this year? Conference it.

Need an idea for a new worship song on the theme of hospitality? You could conference it.

Need an architectural concept to make your building more hospitable? Hey, why not conference it.

And as other needs emerge, they could be conferenced in order to crowdsource potential solutions.

The sole mission of the conference staff would be gathering and updating and providing access to ideas, resources, and guidance. Conferencing would connect congregations in ways that multiply their impact on communities. Conferencing would equip congregations to change people’s lives in ways they would not necessarily be able to do alone.

And we are already basically structured to operate this way, which is pretty cool. We are not a congregationally based system (and I hope we never are). We are a connectional system, but the problem is that we have nounified it, and in doing so our structure has become burdensome.

I envision a denomination that is a robust yet flexible network of congregations that transcends the regional thinking by which we are still geographically imprisoned. The Conference App on your smart phone would be the portal through which every Methodist around the world could access the connection with all of its resources for mission and ministry.

Just Conference it.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Structure But No Life (A Long, Churchy Post)

God breathed the breath of life into Adam’s nostrils.

Ezekiel prophesied to the breath to bring life to the dry bones.

Jesus breathed on his disciples and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit.”

In each of the three scriptural moments above, there is structure but no life. In Genesis 2, a man has been formed out of the dust of the earth, but has yet to live. In Ezekiel 37, the bones have been knit together with tissue and flesh, but they were not yet alive. In John 20, the group of disciples was together, but was not empowered to go and share the Gospel.

Structure but no life.

That kind of sounds like John Wesley’s motivation for what he did, doesn’t it? In his beloved church, he saw structure but no life. His desire was to breathe life into the Church of England, not to separate from it. By creating Methodist societies within the Church, Wesley hoped to revitalize the faith of the people while remaining a part of the structure that he so respected.

Working within that structure, he nevertheless pushed right up to the edge of it. In many minds, he transgressed the boundary. Eventually those who comprised the structure would not allow him to continue within it. The momentum of the Methodist movement carried it out of the Church of England and it flourished on its own.

Come to think of it, “structure but no life” is how many would describe the United Methodist Church of 2012, also. And in many ways, the “Call to Action” and the “Plan B” recommendations that will be considered by this year’s United Methodist General Conference are an attempt to breathe life into an old, top-heavy structure.

But the present recommendations differ from Wesley’s movement in two significant ways. First, Wesley worked from the ground up, and these recommendations are being made from the top down (a General Conference decision being the “top” and implementation in local churches the “down”). Secondly (and significantly), Wesley was responding to a powerful new spiritual movement taking place, and the present proposals are responding to a declining denomination.

Wesley created technical changes (societies, bands, classes) that resonated with the immense adaptive change that was taking place all around him (the “First Great Awakening”). Starting small, the movement expanded up and out, and ultimately “outgrew” the Church of England.

Wesley was brilliant. He discerned the historical moment and realized the church structure of his day was insufficient to contain it, and in his wisdom and immense capacity for detail, caught the leading edge of the wave, dramatically transforming the way people of his day did church.

I am not opposed to the Call to Action recommendations. Not at all. Let’s do it; make the changes and see how they fly.

What bugs me, though, is that we are making all these technical changes that are motivated by the decline of our denomination, and we are pretending that they are actually adaptive changes that are going to transform the culture in our congregations. They aren’t adaptive changes, in my opinion. They may be changes that are intended to bring about adaptive change, but the proposals as listed and discussed are technical changes.

The reason that this bugs me is that I think we are missing the actual adaptive changes that are already happening all around us. There is a significant spiritual movement taking place in the world, and we are already too late to catch the leading edge of it, as Wesley did so long ago. The best we can hope for at this point is to jump into it in the middle somewhere.

The technical changes the denomination needs to address are related to the tools we use to assess congregational vitality. For example, we are still trying to get our heads around the impact that new means of communication, social media, and other online interaction is having on the way people connect faith and life.

A person can watch their congregation’s worship service live online from just about any place in the world. Instant, hand-held access to more information than a person could ever hope to process has forever transformed how we learn, including how we learn about God. Facebook alone has fundamentally altered the way people feel about how well we know one another. Awareness of injustice is instantaneously Tweeted to millions whose resources can be mobilized to respond in just days, if not hours.

How do we assess congregational fruitfulness in a world that looks so different than it did 20 years ago? (Even 10, even 5 …)

This is the pressing technical question for our denomination, as I see it. But I believe the United Methodist Church needs to undergo some deep adaptive changes, as well.

The adaptive changes that need to be made in the United Methodist Church, in my opinion, are theological. Stated simply (and borrowing a term), we must immediately purge the “moralistic therapeutic deism” that pervades the church and allow the mystery of the triune God to empower us to realize the reign of God on earth by fully patterning our lives after the life of Christ, however that may look. I could go on and on about this, but that is going to have to be content for another post.

This is a long one. If you are still reading by this point, an extra gold star for you! I want to make clear that I am not opposed to change, I do not fear change, this is not an anti-change thing. I say let’s give the “Call to Action” recommendations a go, and see what happens.

All I’m saying is I want answers to questions like, “Our congregation’s Facebook group has 211 ‘likes’ and last week it had 209. Is that fruitful?”

Thursday, March 15, 2012

A United Methodist "Buffet Effect"?

So what would it be like if “the Buffet effect” swept through the church?

Wouldn’t the clergy equivalent of Betty White be a hoot in the pulpit every week?

Who is the Paul McCartney of pastors, still innovating as he approaches age 70?

The United Methodist Church, like so much of culture, has become youth-obsessed. In our panic to save the denomination, we have objectified young people as a “target demographic” that, if sufficiently engaged, will swoop into our churches and save us from oblivion.

I understand all the stats - our congregations are decades older than the communities around them; we’re just a couple generations away from extinction; the structures, styles, and systems we utilize are archaic - I understand the reasons for the panic. I respect the work that Lovett Weems and others have done about the age trends in our denomination.

But we have overcompensated, I think. We have negated much of what is good about being Methodist, while doing very little that actually means anything to younger people. In fact, the church’s sudden discovery of young people and subsequent obsession with them is kind of freaking people out.

Kenda Creasy Dean says it better than anyone: “To treat adolescents as a separate species instead of as less experienced members of our own was one of the twentieth century’s largest category errors. Teenagers, obviously, are people too, and youth ministry is as much about being the church as it is about working with adolescents.” (Almost Christian : What the Faith of Our Teenagers is Telling the American Church - p. 24)

And a sorry side effect of treating young people as separate from “us” is the perception that older people just don’t matter any more. Ministry is “about being the church” for youth, young adults, middling adults, and the really old ones, as well. And if there’s a place to point in order to explain the decline of the church it is at our ineptitude at “being the church” - period.

As Diana Butler Bass puts it, “Between business-as-usual church, internal stresses, external scandals, and rank hypocrisy, finally compounded by economic crisis, American Christianity is in a mess.” (Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening - p. 83)

The point is, of course the situation is driving young people away. That’s because it is driving everyone away.

You want to get young people to come back to church? Be a better church.

Which brings me back to my initial thought - Where are our pastoral Warren Buffets, Betty Whites, and Paul McCartneys? What are they doing? Are we relegating them to museum display identities that we smile at and applaud, but don’t really listen to?

Or are we engaging the wisdom, passion, and experience of such as these to provide vision, purpose, and integrity so that we can be as good a church as we possibly can?

Obviously, there is a lot of room for mulling over these questions. I am still in mid-mull myself. But I read two articles almost back to back this morning that started this mull, and I encourage you to give them a read also.

This one was a business piece in Newsweek. (Where the term "Buffet Effect" came from.)

This one was a column on the UMPortal.

I’m eager to read your mulling ... let's mull together!

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Jesus is Overturning Tables Again

As John tells it, the cleansing of the Temple is a story about how people tend to create rules for how to do something, and then allow the rules to become more important than the something they were intended to do.

John omits the phrase “den of thieves” from his version of the story, and John never does anything by accident. Every word counts. “Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” (NRSV) This marketplace was a house of commerce in which the transactions necessary to worship according to the rules of the Temple were accomplished.

The rules were there, in scripture. Following the rules was equivalent to being faithful. The system very well may have been corrupted, as Matthew, Mark, and Luke seem to indicate with their “den of thieves” quip. But John isn’t focused there. He is focused on the rules themselves, rules which have taken priority over the very thing they were intended to facilitate, namely an encounter with the Divine.

We miss the point when we think this story is about selling stuff in church. It’s way more than that. This story is about how the church tends to allow the rules (or norms, or customs, or standards, or …) to become a higher priority than encountering God.

Every church has rules. They are rarely explicit.

In some churches…
- Young people must act like older people.
- Hair must not be a peculiar color or shape.
- Only ears may be pierced, only on women, and only one time each.
- Gay couples must not hold hands.
- Clothing must not reveal too much skin.
- The skin that is revealed must not be inked.
- Scruffy looking clothing will not be tolerated.

And in some churches …
- Old people are just awful.
- “Traditional” sucks.
- Suits and ties are stuffy, and people who wear them are automatically hypocrites.
- Un-inked, un-pierced, un-dyed = loser.
- All gay people are liberals.
- It has to be loud to be worship.
- Scruffy looking clothing is cool, but only the expensive scruffy looking clothing that is designed that way and supposed to look scruffy in order to make a statement.

I hope that you read the above lists with a sense of tongue-in-cheek, and don’t take offense at either one. And please, I know that the temptation will be to do the whole “not in MY church” thing. Right, okay - go ahead and get that out of your system.

My point is simply to say that there are “rules” in every church (as well as in every neighborhood, in every office, in every town, etc.). And those rules are there in order to serve a greater purpose. And people will gradually but inevitably forget the greater purpose and just follow the rules.

Which is exactly what was happening in the Temple, and what John wanted to illuminate in the way he told the cleansing story.

So, the cleansing of the Temple wasn’t just to get rid of the “bad” stuff, it was to get rid of everything that had be prioritized ahead of God, good AND bad.

There is more going on spiritually in the world today than just the stuff contained in the specific, superficial lists of rules I poked at earlier. There are deeper and more profound shifts happening when it comes to the way people encounter God these days. Authors like Diana Butler Bass, Brian McClaren, and Phyllis Tickle (among others) have taken note and written about it.

Old rules are being challenged, though these rules are broader, and more difficult to extract.

Here’s a pretty simple example:
- A person has to become a member of a congregation in order to follow Jesus.
The category of “member” is in such a state of flux right now that it is nearly unrecognizable by the older standards. Being a member of Sam’s Club often has more meaning for people than being a member of a congregation.

Here’s one:
- People have to attend worship every week in order to feel connected to a congregation.
It does not seem to diminish one’s feeling of connectedness in the slightest to be only infrequently face-to-face with others in the congregation, and with God for that matter. Online social networks and new digital communication tools have altered forever the ways we connect.

And how about this one:
- Never borrow anything, beliefs or practices or anything, from non-Christian religious traditions.
Post-modernity has flattened the earth and made us aware of our global community in unprecedented ways. We (meaning people all around the world) routinely adopt that which seems helpful from other cultures and traditions into our own. Yoga, anyone?

Remember, Jesus wasn’t overturning the tables because the tables were inherently bad. He was overturning them because they had become more important than God. So the spiritual shifts taking place in our world today, call it a “Great Emergence” or another “Great Awakening” or “A New Kind of Christianity” or something else, are not taking place because the old way is bad.

They are taking place because Jesus is overturning tables again.

Therefore, nobody needs feel threatened by these shifts. Nobody needs to panic. And definitely nobody needs to figure out ways to make the old rules fit into the new reality. They don’t. They won’t. Ever again.

There will be congregations that will cease to be. There will be denominations that will simply dissolve. 80 years from now “church” will be unrecognizable by today’s standards. And I for one see that as a wonderful, miraculous, God-inspired and Spirit-led possibility.