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Bo Sanders: Public Theology

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Preaching to the Choir

How should we handle the ‘crisis of the week‘ from the pulpit?

In my year of being a professor I visited lots of churches. I noticed a predictable trend:

  • Evangelicals never preaching on the news
  • Mainliners almost exclusively preached on the news

I made a decision (based on past experience) to go a different direction – and it has led to mixed results.

Do I need to change my sermon every time something happens in the news? If I did that, all I would ever do is respond to the ‘crisis of the week’ … but if I never do it, then I am not speaking to the issues of the day.

I could use some help thinking this through.

New Podcasts for Sept 2018

Randy and I are enjoying the Peacing It All Together podcast. We are slowly picking up listeners and seeing the kind of conversation that we were hoping for.

A couple episodes to highlight:

Episode 14 was about peace being more than the absence of war.

In Episode 15 Randy introduces the Native American tradition of peacemaking.

Episode 17, which came out yesterday, asks ‘where do you get your news?’ and I would love if you would let me know about good sources as we construct a ‘resources’ page.

 

The church podcast is back this week. We took the summer off to catch our breath and enjoy the amazing weather.

Check out my short sermons – like this one on handling conflict well.

We also have great conversations at the table – here is Sara talking about finding the sacred in the EVERY day.

The thing I am most excited about it the return of Sunday School! Last year we had 1 big topic each week. This year I am layer 4 topics each week to form a theme. I hope that you will tune in to these dynamic conversations (I use an interactive style).

Jihad v. McWorld (part 4)

A Second Shift

In the previous 3 parts we established that a significant shift took place in the late 19th and early 20th century. This initial shift in modernity has subsequently created the possibility of a second, more contemporary, move that I want to explore. Taylor provides the context of this potential when he says:

In earlier societies, this ability to imagine the self outside of a particular context extended to membership of that society in its essential order. That this is no longer so with us, that many of these … questions are not only conceivable but arise as burning practical issues … is the measure of our disembedding. Another fruit of this is our ability to entertain the abstract question even where we cannot make it imaginatively real.[6]

It is in this potential that citizens of the 21st century already have, or likely will, move beyond national identities to something more potentially abstract, disembodied, plural and wrapped in multiplicity. Issues of citizenship, sexuality, race, ethnicity and religion are increasingly complex in an inter-racial, cross-cultural and multi-national globalized context.

Tomorrow’s posts will explore works by Kwame Anthony Appaih, Arjun Appadurai, Umberto Eco and Madan Sarup. Then we will address thoughts by Jean Buildrillard and Saba Mahmood as they relate to imaginaries and conceptions of community, the physical body and spirituality. 

In a section entitled ‘Global Villages’, Appiah points out that,

“People who complain about the homogeneity produced by globalization often fail to notice that globalization is, equally, a threat to homogeneity.”[7]

This is the same tension that was developed in the earlier section between secular and religious thought. Each sees the other as both the problem and a threat to their program – not realizing that in another sense, they actually give rise to each other and propagate each other’s reach.

It is addressed again in such examinations as Jihad v. McWorld: How Globalism and Tribalism are Reshaping the World by Benjamin J. Barber.  Forces that seem to be in conflict with each other are, in reality, dependant on each other in a complex interplay. Barber explains:

McWorld cannot then do without Jihad: it needs cultural parochialism to feed its endless appetites. Yet neither can Jihad do without McWorld: for where would culture be without commercial producers who market it and the information and communication systems that make it known?[8]

The complexity of the combative nature of the symbiotic relationship is found in the evolving nature of the situation.  Barber’s pairing of the phrases ‘Jihad’ with it’s perceived nemesis with ‘McWorld’ is deliberate.Jihad v McWorld

What I have called the forces of Jihad may seem then to be a throwback to pre-modern times: an attempt to recapture a world that existed prior to cosmopolitan capitalism and was defined by religious mysteries, hierarchical communities, spellbinding traditions, and historical torpor… Jihad is not only McWorld’s adversary, it is its child. The two are then thus locked together in a kind of Freudian moment of the ongoing cultural struggle, neither willing to coexist with the other, neither complete without the other.[9]

This juxtaposition is even more precarious than a simple ‘clash’ or ‘combat’ language would seem to provide. There is obviously an adversarial component but without addressing how McWorld gave rise to Jihad – and how Western constructs of religion gave rise to secularism – there is a falsity that exist for those who participate in the inflammatory dualism on both sides (as if there were only two). Conceiving of one’s identity within this fictitious and fracturous is layered in complications related to the imaginary employed.

An outgrowth of this increasing complexity is, as Appiah describes it, a “distinctively cosmopolitan commitment to pluralism”.[10] Cosmopolitan people know that we are different than each other – this is apparent at every turn – and they recognize that we have much to learn from our differences.[11] One theme that emerges repeatedly in the work of these authors is the centrality and role of media. Benedict Anderson addressed it through the textual nature of transmission that united disconnected people in the imaginary.

What Anderson coined as ‘print capitalism’ created permanent change in the way people conceived of their personhood and selfhood. Its power was housed in the dual developments of mass literacy coupled with technological innovation that allowed for ‘large-scale production of projects’.  The result was release from the need for face-to-face communication or even indirect connection between people or groups.[12]

You can see how, in these 4 posts, we live in a very different world than the one we have inhereted in our religious traditions. This helps to explain the baffling disconnect that can occur between our ancient documents and their ongoing implementation in our contemporary religious expressions.

In part 5 we begin to explore the lived and embodied implications of religion in the modern-contemporary context.  

_______________

[6] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press, 2003), 55.

[7] Kwame Anthony Appiah, Cosmopolitanism: Ethics in a World of Strangers (W. W. Norton & Company, 2007), 101.

[8] Benjamin R. Barber, Jihad Versus McWorld (Ballantine Books, 2001), 155.

[9] Ibid., 157.

[10] Appiah, Cosmopolitanism, 144.

[11] Appiah earlier broke down the intertwined notion of cosmopolitanism into two threads: the first is that our obligation extends beyond ties of family and kind (even citizenship) to those outside our immediate reach. The second thread finds value not just in human lives generically but in particular human lives. This is the loci for enlightenment liberal individualism. Ibid., xv.

[12] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization (U of Minnesota Press, 1996), 28.

How We Imagine A ‘Nation’ part 3

In the shadow of the Sochi Olympics and the unfolding tension in the Ukraine, we are exploring the theme/thesis that:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent.
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

[Trust me – I am going somewhere with this]

Benedict Anderson explains that the notion of imagined communities was revolutionary because:

“regardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship”.[1]

Such an imaginary provides a new capacity for obligation and ultimate sacrifice. Appadurai, in a section entitled ‘Patriotism and Its Future’ interacts with Anderson (among others) and observes that:

Modern nationalisms involve communities of citizens in the territorially defined nation-state who share collective experience, not of face-to-face contact or common subordination to a royal person, but of reading texts together.[2]

There are significant implications to this development because much of the rhetorical energies of the ruling powers are used in order to urge “their subjects to give up … primordial loyalties – to family, tribe, caste, and region” for the “fragile abstractions” called nations which are often “multi-ethnic … tenuous collective projects”.[3] The ability to call for ultimate sacrifice out of loyalty to an abstract imaginary is a defining characteristic of the most recent centuries previously unknown.

Two implications that illustrate the power of imagined community can be found in the examples of:

  1. ‘the tomb of the unknown soldier’
  2. the modern conception of French identity in the past two centuries.

Only within the power of national imaginaries can one see the possibility of such a monument as a tomb left intentionally empty or holding the remains of an unidentified combatant. Anderson points out the absurdity of “a Tomb of the Unknown Marxist or a cenotaph for fallen Liberals.”[4] There is no reserve of belonging that would justify such a display. It would hold little value outside the context of national identity. For what did one give his life? Neither a concept nor a conviction would suffice for such a cemented monument to loyalty and subsequent indebtedness. Only within the confines of a national imaginary does death qualify for such a combination of reverence and pageantry. These are the sole property of nation-ness. One can hardly imagine either the advantage or the desire to make the tomb of an unknown soldier outside that which is called for to preserve a conception such as ‘nation’.

A second illustration of the historic development can be found in France since the nineteenth century. Taylor, working off of Eugene Weber, states that it was only late in the nineteenth century when millions belonging to peasant communities were “inducted into France as a nation of 40 million individual citizens.”

My favorite historian, John Merriman of Yale University, when addressing the same phenomenon of changes in France leading up to WWI comments on the sheer number of dialects (or patois) that were subsumed when ‘citizens’ were conscribed to the French army in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Speakers of Walloon and Basque patois were thrust into defense of something that they barely conceived of themselves as belonging to and in defense of a unified imaginary they would have little reference for called ‘France’. Many (or most) would not have primarily spoken French and may not even have been able to understand their commanding officers.

Merriman often quips that the definition of a ‘nation’ is a dialect with an army.Pastor Holding Bible

One can see how powerful the recent development of conceptualizing the nation as a valid location of sovereignty has replaced both royalty and religion as an acceptable request for this kind of sacrifice. Whereas formerly this authority was reserved for a King or God, now it was conceptualized in a shared identity and responsibility worthy of such obligation. This also had deeply impactful ramifications on areas such as family, property, education and mobility.

Whereas in the past, family and family property were primary sources of security and survival, Nation now provided drastically different possibilities for citizens. Taylor comments that the new (modern) “modes of individualism seemed a luxury, a dangerous indulgence.” [5]

Indeed, to the previously established orders of royalty and religion, these are dangerous developments.

Come back for part 4 where we explore Jihad v. McWorld.

____________________________

[1] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[2] Arjun Appadurai, Modernity At Large: Cultural Dimensions of Globalization, 1st ed. (Univ Of Minnesota Press, 1996), 161.

[3] Ibid., 162.

[4] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 10.

[5] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 17.

Imagining a ‘Nation’ part 2

In part 1 I introduced a theme/thesis for this series of posts:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent. 
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

Charles Taylor utilizes the term ‘social imaginary’ to refer to god-like capacity described by Anderson.  The term encompasses a threefold meaning:

  1. First is the way that ordinary people “imagine” their surroundings both in theory and in images, stories, and legends.
  2. Second is the general acceptance and participation in the imaginary by a population and not simply the theories dominated by a small elite.
  3. Third is empowerment provided from the imaginary for widely shared practices and a sense of legitimization.[1]

These three aspects, illustrated as legs on a table, provide a stability upon which both national identity and personal belonging rest. Expectations for behavior and vessels of meaning are then hosted within that conception.

One impact of this capacity to conceptualize national identity and belonging is in answer to the question “what would make someone be willing to die for their country?” Anderson proposes a model of historic drift where sovereignty, which had previously been located in either religion or king (or both), has shifted decisively to the Nation in recent centuries. This is a dramatic innovation and recognizing nationality as a valid location for sovereignty has significantly altered matters related to loyalty, sacrifice and belonging.

Anderson proposes a definition of the nation as “an imagined political community – and imagined as both inherently limited and sovereign.” The distinction of imagined because “the members of even the smallest nation will never know most of their fellow-members, meet them, or even hear of them”.

Communities are limited because there must be some distinguishing demarcation outside of which are other communities (nations), which provide both competition and opportunities for cooperation. This distinction provides a vital function as classifications such as all of us are difficult without the contrast inherent within the project of establishing communities. It is difficult to conceptualize amorphous membership in groups such as everyone and all.

Communities are imagined as sovereign “because the concept was born in an age in which Enlightenment and Revolution were destroying the legitimacy of the divinely-ordained, hierarchical dynastic realm.” [2]  The dissolving social order of caste and class provided more level (if desperately unequal in reality) conception of both membership and participation for the mass of the population. This perceived leveling and opening gave rise to a new capacity for sacrifice on behalf of the imagined entity – an entity that was not solely and externally located in eternity or beyond, but in an ideal which one was associated (belonged) and participated and was thus responsible. To die for a religion (God) or a King was to reinforce that social order which established the hierarchical strata. Locating sovereignty within the conception of Nation – however dispersed and elusive – was a profound change.

In 1922 Carl Schmitt wrote his famous work Political Theology: Four Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty. In this book he makes two extraordinary claims: the first is that sovereign lies with the one who has the power to make the exception, the second is that “all significant concepts of the modern theory of the state are secularized theological concepts.”[3]  In 2011 Paul Kahn wrote an engagement of Schmitt’s work with four new chapters on the same subject. Kahn’s work is helpful in understanding this initial shift under consideration.

The capacity for the state to ask for this kind of sacrifices, the power to pardon – which is a remnant of Kingly authority, and the symbolic notion of a flag that needed to be defended are all remnants of a religious notion. The very word sovereign is borrowed from religious vocabulary.  Kahn explains:

Political theology today is best thought of as an effort to describe the social imaginary of the political… (arguing) that secularization, as the displacement of the sacred from the world of experience, never won, even though the church may have lost. The politics of the modern nation-state indeed rejected the church but simultaneously offered a new site of sacred experience.[4]

In this framing, we understand the constitution as the product of a popular sovereign, one to which we belong and participate. The constitution (law) is the result of an extraordinary act (revolution).  Kahn sees this as a deeply theological conception. It is born out of a (extraordinary/divine) moment; it produces a sacred center – the popular sovereign. The constitution is then the remnant that is left behind from that extraordinary moment. church

You can begin to see why the constitution is often thought of and talked about as an inspired document (sacred text) and why those who were responsible for it’s creation (founding fathers) are celebrated at patriarchs.[5]

If Schmitt is right – even partially – then all of these similarities are neither trivial nor inconsequential.

            The power of the state to ask for death in order to preserve itself and the capacity of people to willingly offer their lives in defense of that conception is profound. The notion of the sovereign holding the power of exception goes all the way from the individual being pardoned (as referenced earlier) to modern realities impacting all of humanity.

The President has the ability to launch nuclear weapons if he or she was to view that the national interest was in jeopardy. Kahn uses this to illustrate his point.

  • What are we saying about the nation that we are willing to jeopardize human heath, the planet, and subsequent generations for its defense?
  • What could possibly be above human health and planetary environmental conditions?

The answer is ‘only something that is of ultimate concern’.  The modern conception of the state is thus a result of religious conceptions and has replaced (in some sense) religion as the location of sovereignty one is willing to ultimately sacrifice and die for. Nation is a construct of transcendent meaning found in an imagined community.[6]

In the next post we round the corner (part 3)  toward Jihad v. McWorld (part 4)


[1] Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries, 23.

[2] Anderson, Imagined Communities, 8.

[3] Paul W. Kahn, Political Theology: Four New Chapters on the Concept of Sovereignty, Reprint (Columbia University Press, 2012), location 37.

[4] Ibid., 360.

[5] CBC Ideas part 5

[6] It is not difficult within this framing to view contemporary movements such as the Tea Party as merely an extreme example of a group calling for a romanticized notion of an imagined past or legacy.

Imagining a ‘Nation’ part 1

Watching the Olympics was different for me this time. During the past four years I have been in a PhD program and have burrowed down into topics that have deeply impacted me.  Within one of my cognate fields (non-core studies) I addressed the issue of nationalism and the modern imaginary.

The news about events that are currently unfolding in the Ukraine-Crimea has given new attention to the old alliances and tensions golden age of nationalism – something that many thought we have moved past in the new global economy / world market-place.

In the posts that follow (8 total) you will find a common theme:

  • ‘Nation’ is both sovereign and transcendent. 
  • ‘Nation’ is both a social imaginary and an emergent reality.

We will start with the ‘social imaginary’, move to Jihad v. McWorld in part 4 and finish up with ‘Body and Embodied Practices’.

I resonate deeply with Madan Sarup when after reflecting on and talking to many people about identity he comments that:

The intersections between ‘race’, gender, class, nation and religion, (show) that identity is not something we find, or have once for all. Identity is a process, and that is why it is difficult to grasp it.[1]

There are many disparate elements that contribute to the construction of one’s identity.  This paper will engage both the historic shift from pre-modern conceptions of community/tribe/family to modern expression of nationality as well as a secondary (and subsequent) shift from identity as ‘given’ to a more fluid and transitory notion. These two shifts provide a conceptual and narrative framework for addressing the contemporary context of social imaginaries and the hyper-real. The paper concludes with an exploration of the possibilities of embodied practices providing a location for identity and belonging.

Modern Social Imaginaries and Imagined Communities

Charles Taylor (2004) and Benedict Anderson (updated edition from 2006) take a macro-perspective to the issue of social conception of self and national identity.

In this way ‘national identity’ is a helpful entry point from which to examine social conceptions of self.

It is important to distinguish the massive shift that human belonging has undergone in recent centuries.[2] Long before we get the implications of social media, technological advancements, global consumer culture or changes in political, economic, or cultural realities since the Enlightenment, we need to acknowledge the epic change that has resulted since antiquity when it comes to:

What today we would call the “identity” of the human being in those earlier societies. Because their most important actions were the doing of whole groups (tribe, clan, subtribe, lineage), articulated in a certain way (the actions were led by chiefs, shamans, masters of the fishing spear), they couldn’t conceive themselves as potentially disconnected from this social matrix. It would probably never even occur to them to try.”[3]

This drastic shift in both personal and corporate conceptualization is significant for our addressing the potential understanding of another current shift being examined. The transition from pre-modern conceptions like Taylor is describing to modern frameworks of nation, and ones belonging within that national structure, is essential to establish before an analysis can be drawn for a potentially post-national social construct.

Taylor points our that

an American will never meet, or even know the names of more than a handful of his 240,000,000-odd fellow-Americans. He has no idea of what they are up to at any one time. But he has complete confidence in their steady, anonymous, simultaneous activity.[4] 

This reality occurs, obviously, nowhere outside of the reader’s imaginary and exists entirely in their capacity to conceptualize it as such. To say a sentence such as “Americans are _____.” (brave, selfish, innovative, etc.) is impossible. Such a sentence would have to incorporate both a person like myself, and someone I have never come into contact with – for instance a Latino single teenage mom in Florida who has dropped out of school. She and I might have little in common outside the capacity of the speaker to conceptualize both our connectedness within the imaginary and our relative shared embeddeness within a society. This society would be loose and expansive (regionally) at best. The sentence then is impossible outside of the speaker’s imaginary.

Come back for part 2 where the imaginary becomes sovereign and transcendent. 

[1] Madan Sarup, Identity, Culture and the Postmodern World (Edinburgh University Press, 1996), 28.

[2] It is an oft quoted maxim the two great errors to be avoided when dealing with cultural history is on the one hand to assume that people of the ancient past were entirely like us and secondly, to make the mistake in thinking that they were nothing like us.  Both are ‘gutters’ (to use a bowling analogy) to be avoided in this present examination.

[3] Charles Taylor, Modern Social Imaginaries (Duke University Press Books, 2003), 54.

[4] Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism, New Edition (Verso, 2006), 26.

 

‘Atheist Churches’ are more traditional than Emergents

I am loving the conversations that have come out of the publicity tour of Sunday Assemblies. The feedback and pushback that is being generated by these ‘atheist churches’ is proving very informative. I am actually learning a lot about how people think of church, atheism, tradition, and community.

If nothing else comes out of their moment in the spotlight, it has been very enlightening. I do, however, think that some more will come out of this.

The most illuminating resource that I have found so far was an interview with co-founder of Sunday Assembly, Pippa Evans on the Nomad Podcast ep. 55. Nomad is based in Britain – as are the comedic co-founders of Sunday Assembly – and Nomad comes out of the ‘fresh expressions’ branch of the emergent movement.

The interview with Pippa (Sanderson Jones, the other co-founder, comes in at the end) is 100% worth your time. The two things that stood out the most to me were:

  1.  Pippa talks about and has adopted the ‘form’ of church.
  2. The Nomad hosts hated it – but for the opposite reason you would think.

1. The Form: Pippa was very clear in several spots about her background in church. The telling part for me, toward the end, was when she mentioned being in Soul Survivor. If you don’t know what that is, you may have missed the reference. Soul Survivor is a very charismatic movement that has developed worship leaders and a style that has been imported around the world – including by US American evangelicals & charismatics.

Pippa explains the formula – it is all about flow:

  • Start with two high energy songs – one of them needs to be familiar and singable
  • A short presentation of poetry or reading (this is like the opening prayer or scripture equivalent)
  • A slower song
  • The offering
  • The sermon (presenting an idea)
  • Response / Confession of thanks (stuff your are grateful for)
  • A big song so that it ends with a bang

Pretty standard stuff! What it reminded me of was the hilarious parody video from a couple of years ago (which started out an in-house joke for a worship conference) about the formula for contemporary evangelical/charismatic worship services.

2. Traditional. The fascinating point that made by the Nomad hosts was that walking into and sitting through a Sunday Assembly was painful because it was reclaiming and repurposing all of the things they disliked about going to traditional church! The whole reason they are into ‘fresh expressions’ is because they found so little in the forms of the church.

They were horrified to walk in and find:

  • people sitting in strait rows
  • everyone facing forward
  • huge screens at the front with song lyrics
  • one person doing all the talking
  • passive participation by the audience
  • it was Sunday morning

My favorite part was when they asked Pippa about the possibility of conversation at future Assemblies.  She was not hopeful or  excited about the idea. She said that some people have asked for a Q&A segment at the Assemblies and that is not likely either. Her point is that things like conversation and Q&A’s happen in other places. That is not what the Sunday Assembly is for.

It was at this point that the Nomad hosts made the observation that – at least in this sense – the ‘atheist churches’ are more traditional than their emergent (fresh expressions) gatherings which have de-centered meetings and deconstructed elements. That was an epiphany for me.

I am so glad that Sunday Assembly is doing this – and even more pleased that they are so approachable about what they are doing and why they are doing it. I have already had more than a dozen conversations about ‘why we do what we do‘ with people. IMG_2181

I can tell you this though – now that I have met in the round and been in conversational church … I don’t know if I could go back to  everybody facing the same direction and not have interactive sermons Sunday after Sunday. I’m pretty sure that the future of the church is de-centered and conversational/participatory.

Let me know what you think – as you can tell, I love hearing others thoughts and being in conversation.   -Bo 

Athiest Churches: a fad or the future?

My news-feed has seen a steady stream of articles about the new trend of ‘atheist churches’ racing by this past week. Much of it seems to revolve around a successful publicity tour by British comedy duo Sanderson Jones and Pippa Evans, who are currently:

 on a tongue-in-cheek “40 Dates, 40 Nights” tour around the U.S. and Australia to drum up donations and help launch new Sunday Assemblies.

It is an impressive campaign. From LA to NY to Nashville and back to San Diego they are taking their roadshow in a revival style to rally the non-religious.  It’s a fascinating attempt. Even if it turns out to be (historically speaking) not much more than a publicity stunt, it is an indicator of something larger.

Many are fond of quoting the statistics:

“The Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life released a study last year that found 20 percent of Americans say they have no religious affiliation, an increase from 15 percent in the last five years.”

Others attempt to qualify and quantify those findings with categorical inconsistencies and clear definition problems*. Still, there is clearly some merit to considering the cultural shift.

 The question has to be asked: Are these atheist churches a blip or a significant trend? 

I think the answer is multifaceted. It is clearly more than a blip and is probably more like an outlier for what will eventually manifest. There is a clear challenge to this type of organization – their attempt to raise $800,000 has only resulted in $50,000 so far. One-night events are fun and exciting… sustaining that kind of energy is a different animal.

Which begs the question, “why would anyone give to, participate, or get excited about something based on what isn’t?”

It is a fun, if novel, moment, but sustaining that and providing direction to an organization-assembly requires more than that. MP9004065481-196x300

Here is the thing though … this is more than just a novelty. The foundations (I use that word intentionally) that we used to be able to count on are eroding. There is no doubt that the old buildings (and the institutions that occupy them) are in danger.

This matters to me. I wrote an essay more than 15 years ago (on a note-pad thank you very much) about the form of the church. As a young pastor I saw the oddity of what we did and how easily most of what we do could be imitated or replaced.

Let me say that again:

 most of what we do as the church could easily be imitated or replaced.

Unfortunately that is the problem with having a successful form. Of course there are always a dedicated minority who is really invested in worship music, liturgy and proclamation. A cynic might say that most people, however, will sing just about any lyrics** that are thrown up on the screen  and from the sermon they really just want some help being better people.

I have held for a long time that technically you could cobble together nearly every element that you get from church by intentionally seeking out a collection of experiences:

  • concert (group singing)
  • dinner/drink with friends (communion)
  • self-help seminar (information/inspiration)
  • AA meeting (accountability/confession)
  • work & give to a charity (contribution/conscience)

Which leaves only two things left to be said!

1. The beauty of the church is that you find all of those things in one place. That is the nearly miraculous thing about that list. It takes so much work to imitate and replicate what is all available in the community of saints.

2. The importance of the word ‘nearly’ . Even with the 5 elements that I suggested, for the believer there is still something missing: the transcendent.

In conclusion, while I see the merit and appeal of ‘atheist assemblies’ as a public announcement and maybe even protest, I am not sure that they are sustainable. What I am more concern with is that Christian churches of every stripe use the opportunity to evaluate what it is that we bring to the lives of people that they can not get anywhere else. I would argue that this is a gospel issue.

* The article is clear that “Pew researchers stressed, however, that the category also encompassed majorities of people who said they believed in God but had no ties with organized religion and people who consider themselves “spiritual” but not “religious.” 

** just look at the huge success of the CCM worship song “Like A Lion” last year

5 Biggest Pastoral Changes in the Past 5 Decades

I’m preparing to facilitate a conversation with some colleagues in the new year about ministry and honoring tradition. I want to begin – and thus frame – the conversation with the changing culture that we are products of, interact with and attempt to minister to.

It is a different way to approach the topic of tradition, admittedly, but my thought is that we start where we are and then trace threads into the past to uncover their significance. I almost always find it unhelpful to start in the past – say at the Protest Reformation – and then slowly work our way up. It is simply too limiting (in scope) and cumbersome (in process) for the contemporary expectations of ministry.

I have been reading a little Gordon Kaufman. He has me thinking about the ‘nuclear age’ and how deeply that shift, from the end of WWII, has impacted us sociologically, psychologically, and spiritually. I take this as my launching off point.

 So here are my Big 5 – in no particular order. I wanted to throw them out here and see what others who are older, or wiser, or more insightful might add to the list or modify.

 Pervasive Pop Psychology  – My dad tells a story about interviewing retired pastors 30 years ago. He asked them when things seemed to change. All of them, without exception, pointed to the window from 1968-1970. They talked about Woodstock, Vietnam, and Nixon among other things.

Many of them also talked about people’s awareness and pop psychology. I will always remember the story of a son who came home from college to visit his folks on the farm. He tried to talk to his dad about his feelings, motivations, childhood memories, his subconscious, etc.  His dad responded, ‘Son, what the hell are going on about?’ He just had no frame of reference for it. Similar stories were repeated, in differing configurations, over and over by  the ministers.

Pop psychology has permeated every facet of society. From Oprah on daytime TV to Self-Help books – it impacts what people expect from a pastor and what they want from things like premarital counseling.
In my first 10 years of ministry, I often said that I would have more prepared for the actual way I spent my week if I had gotten a degree in psychology  rather than in Bible.

Biblical Scholarship – speaking of the Bible, I am shocked as to how much different those conversations go than they did 20 years ago when I was trained in Apologetics/Evangelism.  Between the Jesus Seminar, the Da Vinci Code and Bart Ehrman popularizing the stuff many pastors knew from seminary but were not allowed to say in the pulpit, it is a very different playing field.

It is an odd split: people often know little of the Bible – because they know so much stuff about the Bible. We can’t assume even a Sunday School understanding or a surface devotional reading. But at the same time, the culture wide awareness of critical Biblical scholarship is shocking. That was not true 50 years ago.

The Internet – The Internet changes everything. From the way people spend time to the way that they shop for a church. Facebook has changed how people connect to each other. Google has changed the way people access information. It is impossible to overstate how big of an impact the Internet has had on Western society. If you are still doing church the way you did 50 years ago – and think that it will have the same effect – you are fooling yourself. You may have the same seed, but the soil itself has changed. It will not grow the same crop or produce the same fruit.

Two little examples: When kids who grew up in your church come home from college and sit in on Sunday school (for example). They will assume that they get to share their opinion. They don’t sit quietly and honor the elders by talking last. They will raise their hands and talk first. Is it that they are over empowered? No. It is that they assume that they get to help shape the discussion and their opinion is valid. They don’t sit quietly and try to get up to speed or catch up on what they have missed.

  • This is the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0.  A church website is 1.0 – the staff puts out the information that it wants people to see. You read it like a newspaper. It is not interactive. Facebook is 2.0 – it creates the environment but does not generate the content. Young people live in 2.0

Doug Paggitt talks of ‘the pastor as Google’. I love this. People don’t go to Google for Google. It is not a destination. It helps people get to their destination. If it does this well, people trust Google and go it often. Pastor used to be like encyclopedias. They were a resource, a destination for information. Now, the pastor’s office is not a destination, the art of pastoring is help people find theirs. If we do that well, they trust us and come back the next time they need direction.

Pastor as encyclopedia is a repository of information. Pastor as Google is a resource that knows how to find the information.

24 Hour News & Christian Media –  Cable news and Christian radio probably have a bigger impact on the people who fill the pews that any pastor can be expected to have in a 30 minute sermon once a week.  There is no other way to say it, the narrative that is being put out on media outlets like Fox News (Clash of Civilizations) or Christian Radio (the 6 Line Narrative) is so pervasive and so monolithic that it can feel as if your parishioners are being pastored far more by their TV and car radio that you will ever be able to.

This is also part of why our country and culture have become so:

  1. polarized
  2. adversarial

I am horrified by this trend more than all the others combined. I think that it hurts the heart of God and I know that it hurts our Christian witness.

Fractured Globalism  and PostModernity – People have great troubles conceptualizing and articulating how fractured, dislocated, overwhelmed and powerless they feel in the global marketplace. Things are not simple now. Things have never been more complex and overwhelming. Look at the food on your table? Do you know where it comes from? Think about your Thanksgiving dinner last week and imagine how many miles and from how many countries those ingredients were trucked to end up on your table. You might be shocked.

Think about your car. Was it all made and assembled at the same plant? Or even in the same country. The automotive industry was fairly straight forward 50 years ago. Now it is an example of inter-national, multi-corporation conglomerates. We have been de-centered, and people feel it. The way we conceptualize ourselves, our connection to family, the way we picture the world working, the universe and thus God. The best book I have read on the subject is “Identity, Culture, and the Postmodern World” by Madan Sarup.

The PostModern Turn – speaking of PostModern, this may be the biggest of the 5 changes. It is funny to me that some christians still want to debate if the category is real just because it can not be succinctly or universally defined (how very modern!)  Look, call it what you want: late-modernity, hyper-modernity, high-modernity, or some other thing – what can not be denied is that something big and deep has shifted. Blame it on the philosophers (Derrida, Lyotard, Foucault, etc) if you want. Make up a new name for it if you must. But please stop pretending that what we are looking at is nothing radical or unexpected. Even the ostrich thinks that it is time to pull your head out of the sand!

One interesting reaction, and this applies to denominations, is the counter-modern responses that want to go back to an imagined past and reclaim a romantic pre-shift relationship between the Christian religion and

  • society
  • the economy
  • science
  • other religions

You can see this in counter-modern responses like Radical Orthodoxy (retreating to the hills of Thomism), Post-Liberal thought, Hyper-Calvinism and the Tea-Party in politics. Even if you pastor with an established denomination (and many don’t) you have to contend with these fractious groups that will impact your congregation.

Those are my 5 Big changes for Pastors over the past 50 years. I would love your thoughts!  What would you take out and what would you add?

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