Wednesday, June 24, 2015

The Non-Application Gospel

There is a form of Christianity, a close relative of mine, like an awkward kissing cousin, what I guess I'd call conservative mainstream Protestantism, that puzzles me. I experience it like a nested set of Matryoshka dolls, fascinating because you can keep peeling back layers, but vacuous because in the end there is no "there" there, it's all the same all the way down with no content.

It goes something like this:

What is the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus? The gospel.
Why proclaim the gospel? To make disciples.
What are disciples? People who have heard the gospel.
What is the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus? The gospel.
What did Jesus do? He proclaimed the gospel.
What does the gospel do? It teaches us about Jesus our Savior.
What's a Savior? Jesus.
Who follows Jesus? The Church.
What is the Church? It's the community that embodies Jesus in the world.
What does Jesus embodied in the world look like? The gospel.
What is the gospel? The gospel is the gospel.
What's the mission of the church? To proclaim the gospel.
What's the gospel? Jesus.
Who is Jesus for? Everybody.
What difference does Jesus make for everybody? He's good news.


This form of Christianity believes it is apolitical, perhaps counter-cultural, not conforming to the world because it keeps "the main thing the main thing." It might be that it believes it isn't political because it isn't liberal, much the same way Fox News believes it is fair and balanced because it isn't liberal.

Many of these types of Christians consider me an apostate. I wouldn't go that far in reverse. I wouldn't call this version of Christianity apostate--although it's damnably close. It's just that it lacks incarnation. It's perhaps neo-gnostic.

Here's an example in the concrete, from a recent newsletter article by the bishop of the North American Lutheran Church:
"We have been entrusted with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Nothing is more urgent in our day than a Church that believes the Gospel and makes it the fundamental starting point and directing power for its life. This Church must stand firm in its assertion that the Gospel is true — universally true — for everyone in all parts of the world in every point in history. 
The NALC must stand over and against the rampant relativism espoused by those who claim to be the Church, yet reject the Gospel in favor of the cheap manmade substitutes of universalism, arbitrary acceptance, and inclusivity. 
The very thought that we could redesign and improve God’s grace in favor of our own version of what it means to be gracious is apostasy. The grace of Jesus Christ, His life-giving love and salvation through His atoning sacrifice and death on the cross is the only and all-sufficient grace of the Church — the only saving grace and the only Gospel we proclaim. 
Then if that Gospel is true, if it tells us where all of history is headed, then mission must follow! If the Gospel is true, then the story must be made known. Jesus didn’t write a book, but He left behind a community that would make known the Gospel — the Good News of the Kingdom of God — by embodying that Gospel in its life and in its deeds and announcing it in its words. Jesus left behind a community of His disciples. 
He charged His disciples, His Church, with the mission we have before us: “Go and make disciples of all nations!” This time between His first coming and His second coming is the time for the witness of His Church. Mission is not optional but an essential part of redemptive history. The Gospel is true and must be shared universally. This is the nature of making disciples: to lead others to faith in Jesus, to teach the one holy catholic and apostolic faith, to live the faith in our various vocations and to equip all the faithful to pass on this faith and guide others in living the faith. When those we teach and equip are able to disciple others we know our teaching and example of living the faith is firmly rooted in their lives."
Now, I do agree that we are called as Christians to make the gospel the fundamental starting point of our lives. I also think many Christians confuse grace with other things. So in this sense we align.

But, here's my concern. The gospel of Jesus Christ, if it is anything at all, is incarnational. It's the intersection of God and humanity, God made flesh, God made manifest, which means it has radical implications for our life in the world. Jesus didn't die on the cross because he proclaimed a milquetoast message. He died because he was perceived as a threat to the governing authorities, to current economic realities, to vested cultural realities.

I'm afraid what much of this Christianity labels relativism, Jesus would label solidarity with the poor. What this form of Christianity calls universalism, Jesus Christ illustrates in his person as power over sin, death, and the devil. What this community calls inclusivity, Jesus calls eating with people.

Ultimately, the problem with this kind of Christianity is that it rejects Jesus Christ in the flesh as the Incarnate one, and selects instead their own Jesus, a Gumby Jesus, bendable and conformable to their own politics and culture, politics and culture, I might add, of which they're largely unaware because they believe, strangely, that there is somehow a way to live above and beyond the culture, politics, and economy of this world in some abstracted Jesus Gumby space.

But Jesus is the least Gumby kind of guy I know. He was a rock.

He was in the trenches, questioning the use of Roman currency, operating like a political partisan at odds with the traditional partisans, revolutionizing relationships between rich and poor, healthy and sick, male and female.

Try this out:

What is the gospel? It is the good news of Jesus Christ.
Who is Jesus Christ? A political revolutionary with a preferential option for the poor.
Why proclaim the gospel? Because it lifts up those who are oppressed, and brings down the haughty.
What are disciples? Those following Jesus into the trenches giving their lives away for the neighbor.
What is the gospel? Good news for the poor.
Who is Jesus? A poor man for the poor, a Jewish man of Palestine. Also, Son of God.
What did Jesus do? Lived apart from the Roman cash economy.
What does the gospel do? Tells us how we might have life in God because God shares life with us.
What's a Savior? Someone who is bringing about an alternative kingdom and economy.
Who follows Jesus? Not very many of us. We're all trying and failing.
What is the church? An outpost of the kingdom of God in the world, a weak one.
What does Jesus embodied in the world look like? The martyrs, most recently the Charleston Nine.
What is the gospel? #blacklivesmatter
What's the mission of the church? Accompanying the lost, lonely, and least.
Who is Jesus for? Everybody.
What difference does Jesus make for everybody? He wakes us up to now, and here.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

We have a lot of work to do (#blacklivesmatter)

The world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can't prove this, but I know it. It's the terror of being described by those they've been describing for so long. (James Baldwin)

The cumulative grief and trauma in the United States seems overwhelming right now. We're all in various ways doing what those who sit with those who grieve always do. We're grieving alongside. And we're asking ourselves, "How can we help?"

Collectively, those of us who seek to be allies with the African-American community, and by extension, all communities in our country experiencing bigotry and racism and exclusion and violence and terror, do indeed have work to do. Lots of it. We can help.

It's important to do the right things for the right reasons. We need to ask the right questions, open ourselves to critique, assume a teachable posture, and educate ourselves.

If we do not, much of what the majority culture will "do" in response to the the tragedy of #Charleston will become exercises in meeting our own needs. "I need you to need me. I want you to want me. Look how helpful I am!"

This is always a danger in therapeutic or helping situations. It's particularly dangerous when there's a sense of collective guilt or complicity. 

So, part of our work is to self-differentiate, to do work ourselves so that we can be a better and stronger presence for others. 

One way to self-differentiate is to become less fragile. Learn to accept the criticism of minority voices, free of defensiveness. The two most effective beliefs that keep white people from seeing racism as a structural issue are that 1) racists are bad people, and 2) that racism is conscious dislike. 

A second step is to acknowledge that whiteness is a thing, and it can be described. Last week while I was in Chicago at 57th Street Books I happened upon a collection of interviews with James Baldwin. In one interview, he was asked, "What is the role of of black writers today?" His response is incredible, "This may sound strange, but I would say to make the question of color obsolete."

Now, if a white author had said that, the implication might have been that erasing color is important, in order to start assuming again that the world is white. But that isn't Baldwin's point. So he continues:

"Well, you ask me a reckless question, I'll give you a reckless answer--by realizing first of all that the world is not white. And by realizing that the real terror that engulfs the white world now is a visceral terror. I can't prove this, but I know it. It's the terror of being described by those they've been describing for so long. And that will make the concept of color obsolete. Do you see what I mean?"

Lester: I see what you mean, but some black writers of my generation might say that the responsibility of black writers is to write about black people.

Baldwin: That is not a contradiction. If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. That has to be the inevitable result."

If our voices are heard, it makes the concept of color obsolete. If we want to stand up to racism, our first step is to ensure black voices are heard. So how can we do that? White people can do it by listening better. Follow #blacktwitter. Learn from NPR how to code switch in reverse.

Lots of us, naturally, also want to reach out to and comfort Mother Emmanuel AME as a congregation. And there are good ways to do that. For example, the city of Charleston is itself taking up a collection that will cover funeral costs, and all remaining funds will be given to the congregation itself: Their web site itself includes a donate button, and contact information if you'd like to send a letter:

My own tendency is to take my emotional struggle and grief and to channel it into proactive work and love here in our own community. If you are in a predominately white congregation, reach out to a local African-American congregation and support them. Go be with them in appropriate ways. White people like to make minority communities come and meet them where they are. If we want to change, we have to be open to discomfort. It's not easy visiting other faith communities, because you have to learn where to park, how to act, what to say. But it's worth the time.

If you are in a white ELCA congregation, get in this for the long haul. Lutherans are known for sticking with the work until its actually done. Where will you be next month, next year, five years from now? Our own congregation is organizing a year long conversation on Race, Reconciliation, Reparations, and Restoration. We are going to read, and talk, and study, making use of ELCA resources and a variety of books. We are also going to ask ourselves over and over again, after listening to our neighbors and study resources, a simple questions: "How can we do more than just talk?"

If you are super ambitious, one excellent syllabus that has been making the rounds is worth a look:

Then, there is this post from Sojourners on how white Christians can get in the game:

And finally, because of the making of blog posts there is no end, I will conclude with a confession of complicity, that this most recent tragedy, this domestic terrorist act, was perpetrated by a member of a Lutheran church, and against pastors trained in a Lutheran seminary. This one hits so very close to home. Which is why the grief is so deep, and the need to respond more urgent and deep than heretofore. We have a lot of work to do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

[All] [Are] [Welcome]: New Media and Ministry

[All] [Are] [Welcome]: New Media and Ministry
June 17

Shared life in a new media era includes "getting to know" people before you "meet" them, and in this case there are many of you I was thrilled to finally meet face-to-face after years of mutual mission together in the ambient, virtual context of digital social media. Others of us have already "met" in "meat-body," but then maintained durable diachronic connection via social media. I'm sure some of us would have stayed in touch the way Melanchthon and Erasmus did, via hand-written letters, and perhaps even published them... but in the meantime, we have what we have by way of the media between us, and archivists of the future, if they are going to study the correspondence of theologians and church leaders of this era, will have to sift through Facebook groups and Twitter feeds to get a sense of what we all thought and taught.

Since I'll be talking today especially about new media and and ministry, it's worth remembering how new some digital social media is, for all of us. We're only about a decade into this. Facebook was offered to the public for the first time in 2006. Twitter also. But most users didn't start using social media until much later. 

By comparison, when I was on internship fifteen distant years ago, everyone in my parish contacted me by phone or in person, and not everyone on council had e-mail. I still wrote lots of letters by hand.  Nobody knew what I was up to on a Thursday afternoon because I wasn't posting status updates on Facebook or photos to Instagram. And I could neither receive nor send texts. 

I still don't Snapchat.

So, most of the changes we are considering with the advent of social media are, honestly, still simply the effects of the transition to new media rather than descriptive of a "new world." We're all catching up with a swiftly changing media landscape. We have by no means "arrived," if we will ever actually arrive.

This is a reminder for us to be patient with ourselves, and with one another, at least in the sense that we recognize we are all constantly playing catch up. On the other hand, because of how embedded digital social media has become in the world and our lives, we are required to also be impatient with each other also. If we don't raise awareness of the effects of new media for ministry and the life of the church, we will allow those systems (like the market, advertisers, and the like) who are aware, to dictate the terms of our transition to new media.

As Catherine Malabou writes, "We are still foreign to ourselves, at the threshold of this 'new world,' which we fail to realize makes up our very intimacy itself." (3) It is a new world. We're invited to engage it not in fear or by withdrawal, but eyes wide open, ready, aware, awake.

[All] [Are] [Welcome]

So today I ask a simple question, which, although at first blush is not directly related to new media, is, I believe, intrinsically bound up with media and ministry. 

Here's the question: What do we have in mind when we declare, "All Are Welcome!" 

What dominant metaphors/concepts attend this liturgical and ecclesial assertion?

This past Sunday, I participated in a meeting in our own congregation with a group of folks helping craft a welcome statement. I'm very committed to the process, because I know statements of welcome matter. It's hard work, developing a theologically rich statement of welcome that says what the community wants to say, in the way it needs to be said, so that it communicates real mutuality and welcome. It's an art. Here's an example, one of my favorites, from The Refuge in Denver:

Invitation to Community  
the refuge is a mission center and christian community dedicated to helping hurting and hungry people find faith, hope, and dignity alongside each other. we love to throw parties, tell stories, find hope, and practice the ways of Jesus as best we can. we're all hurt or hungry in our own ways. we are old, young, poor, rich, conservative, liberals, single, married, gay, straight, evangelicals, progressives, book-smart, street-smart, certain, doubting, hurting, thriving. yet Christ's love binds our differences together in unity. at the refuge, everyone is safe, but no one is comfortable. we're at different places on our journey but we share a guiding story, a sweeping epic drama called the bible. we find faith as we follow Jesus and share a willingness to honestly wrestle with God and our questions and doubts. we find dignity as God's image-bearers and strive to call out that dignity in one another. we all receive, we all give.

Welcome statements are an art, at least partially, because we are constantly disabusing ourselves of prior assumptions about welcome. We may have in mind somewhat antiquated hierarchical models of welcome. The pastor as head of the church is welcoming. The church has an official statement of welcome. Our denomination is welcoming.

At least partially, we may have in mind more contemporary models, like distributed networks. We are welcoming because of how we act. We are autarchic, each individual rules, and most individuals here in this place are welcoming.

These assumptions raise who-questions. Who is doing the welcoming? In more recent discussions of hospitality, even the guest/host binary has come under scrutiny, and rightly so. Gregory Walter, in his recent book on promise, makes the point clearly in a Christological meditation on the Eucharist:
Meals, ancient and modern, are kinds of hospitality where a host welcomes guests. Taking into account that Jesus is a strange host — in fact, no host at all, in the conventional sense — it would be no repetition of the promise to consider Christians in their communities as hosts who welcome guests. Instead, Christians are neither host nor guest, because they have no place to stand in the promise, no clear territory marked out for them by the host. If the promise were an ordinary gift, it would need that host to rule over the table and guests to be welcomed to the meal as lesser participants. Instead, the promise shared in the cup and paten opens any community up for trouble — especially trouble in the form of strangers and interlopers — because Jesus’ doubled promise is given entirely for the sake of another... God’s promise is trouble because it calls those of us who participate in it to give freely of ourselves to our neighbors — just as the promise-maker has already done for us (
There are other questions, including, To what are we welcoming? When we welcome visitors/guests/first-timers into our ecclesial spaces, are these spaces imagined as homes/clubs/tribes/brains/tables? What picture do we have in mind? If we take Walter's point, that Christians have no place to stand, no clear territory, is there nevertheless some mental map that might most helpfully organize our way forward?

Many churchgoing Christians, if asked, state that their church is like a "family." It's an attractive way to think about church, and probably illustrates how many of us, fairly comfortable in our church homes, feel about "our" church. But hang the "All are welcome" sign in front of an actual house, where families live, and the juxtaposition is stark. Most of us certainly wouldn't erect a sign in our front yard declaring, "All are welcome!" 

So if not a family, then what? A network? A hive? A group? Church is always going to be described by some metaphor or another. 

There is a third question, the how of welcoming. The how of welcome presents as its own kind of problem, because apparently the dominant concept for the how of welcome in our faith communities is predicated on "grace," with an operative definition of grace resonating at quite a semantic remove from its historic and theological origins. This is grace as acceptance, grace as tolerance.

Here's a recent example from social media. A member of the ELCA Facebook group (not the clergy group, but the larger Facebook group for all ELCA members) asked not long ago if his friend, a Methodist, could join the group. A significant number of people immediately chimed in by repeating the phrase, "All are welcome! This is a grace place!" 

Well, okay, maybe that's true. After all, we are in full communion with the Methodists. And in terms of Facebook architecture, every member of that Facebook group has the power to add anyone they themselves are friends with, so it really is the case that pretty much anyone is welcome (as an aside: the fact that a member of the group felt a need to ask permission illustrates the degree to which we still operate on dated hierarchical concepts of welcome). 

However, imagine a scenario where suddenly, in a group of 10,000 people, 20,000 were added who were of another denomination. So now you have a group called "ELCA" 2/3rds of whom are Methodists. A welcome that wide can change the "who" of the community into which the welcome occurs. Should the communal reaction to the original question moderate somewhat? Perhaps, perhaps not. But in such cases the consequences of certain types of welcome become apparent.

Additionally, what if somebody joins the group and then fails to follow acceptable communal norms? Grace is misunderstood if it doesn't allow empathy and firm-ness to live in tension with one another. Certain types of bigotry, abuse, certain types of disordered behavior, may necessitate a more nuanced response than the overly simple, if attractive, "All are welcome!"

There is quite a bit to work with here, much to consider. But at root, much of any confusion or clarity we have concerning inclusion and welcome does boil down to our mental imagery, the concepts we carry around which underly our commitment to inclusion.

Models and Mental Images

In what follows, let's play a bit with the Deleuzian understanding of virtuality, wherein we can inscribe what we "really see" into the network of our anticipations and memories. The virtual is an aspect of the real, ideal but nonetheless real. In a sense, all our concepts are like this. Virtuality is the event of reality. 
Rabbit hole #1: Virtualizing the Word: Expanding Walter Ong's Theory of Orality and Literacy Through a Culture of Virtuality by Jennifer Camille Dempsey
So let's consider a few models as virtual objects. Catherine Malabou, in her fantastic, essential book, What Should We Do with Our Brain? (Perspectives in Continental Philosophy)
illustrates convincingly that our brains haven't caught up with their own self-understanding. We may still be stuck thinking of the brain as a hierarchical, centralized processor--a motherboard, if you will. In fact the comparison between computers and the brain are common. "The brain has always been described by means of technological metaphors," says Marc Jeannerod.

However, contemporary advances in neuroscience have moved scientists and philosophers beyond this view of the brain and towards an understanding of it as a decentralized interaction processor. This more "plastic" brain already has implications for the design of newer super-computers. Whether we are aware enough of the plasticity of our own brains is the larger concern for Malabou. "Not to replicate the caricature of the world: This is what we should do with our brains" (78). To be conscious of the plasticity of one's own brain is to give oneself the means to say no. Here we are only just raising consciousness. No positive proposals are at hand. We are currently at work on simple awareness.

Rabbit hole #2: In a recent, terrifying novel, Dave Egger's plays with this plasticity as it relates to capitalism and social media. 

In our churches, do we still operate with the motherboard mentality? Do we plug new members into slots, assuming that the basic components of the board are fixed, and people or groups are already adequately performing the functions of the board? Can the new only plug in if they fit existing slots?

If we were to shift to a more plastic view of the communities into which we are welcoming newcomers, what would our map look like? At least in part it would be a plastic network of mutable, mutual resiliency.

Here's one example, the story of a colleague, Eric Bodenstab: Eric invited me to play games while in Chicago. The thing is, we've never met in person. Our first meeting will be this evening, at the hotel. In the old world prior to digital media, networking for this conference would have been somewhat different. We'd meet up with people we already knew in Chicago (we are doing some of that also). But in the era in which we find ourselves, there is a new kind of networking, the ambient intimacy of social media, with new kinds of exclusion and embrace of subcultures. Facebook facilitated a connection, one #boardgamegeek to another. For better or worse, we all find ourselves adapting to these new and more fluid networks. The weak link by affinity has as much or possibly more pull on my actual time at this conference, because I have scheduled a Wednesday evening event with Eric, but not with any of you. That's intriguing. And it seems to be more like a plastic neural network than a motherboard... for better or worse.

This new kind of networking is catching us by surprise. In some instances, we are simply giving into it. In other instances, we are self-differentiating and defining in the midst of it. Malabou hopes we will do more of the latter and less of the former.

The intriguing thing about these new forms of social interaction are their modification of traditional models of welcome. Boardgamers can now connect like never before, but only "geeks" (of whatever flavor) are welcome or even connected in this way. Assortativity is at work. If you aren't into board games, you'd never have known. For all I know, the other keynoters at this conference have connected with their own peculiar subcultures while in town, but I won't know all of them unless they mention them in their presentations.

Subgroups and networks of all types are now sorting themselves out in our parishes and faith communities in a manner similar to this. Networks are multiplying, overlapping, organizing, shifting in ways they never have prior. Getting an adequate picture in mind of these networks is increasingly difficult, and increasingly essential.

[of course, now that you've heard me name the gaming meet up in the keynote, you're welcome to come play with us tonight, 8 p.m. in the hotel lobby]

Links, Nodes, Networks, Structural Holes, and Centrality

The statement, "All are welcome!" makes complex assumptions about the existence/presence of social links, along with our opportunity and ability to connect. Implicit in "all are welcome" is a soft and insidious assumption, "'They' will show up, somehow, because we're here, and we're interesting, and worth joining. And when they arrive, they will be or become like us."

In a social network like a Christian faith community, the number of links that are heterophilic are typically small. Those of us deeply embedded in faith communities have increasingly less open links outside the communities in which we reside. 

This is why often new Christians are the best evangelists. Their links to non-Christians are more numerous.

Many of our faith communities are propinquitous (linked by place and geography) and homophilic (linked to people who are like them), with high levels of transitivity (linked to the multiple others they are also linked to) and reciprocity (mutually linked one to another, rather than unidirectional).

There's nothing unhealthy about this per se. All networks rely for their stability and self-definition on links and networks characterized by these types of close connections. However, when a community proclaims, "All are welcome!" they are often less aware of their limits, the structural holes and limited number of bridges that could actually connect those currently at some considerable distance (in network perspective) from those already in the network.

They may also be less aware than they could be of the primary type of network their community hosts. It's worth evaluating whether our communities are primarily, as in the chart above, centralized, decentralized, or distributed, and then what this means for their shared mission.

Finally, I am thinking here, although I will not go into extensive detail, about Alan Hirsch and his concept of cultural distance. Hirsch argues rather convincingly that most of Christian mission is designed to reach people who are, at most, just one level of cultural distance from those already in Christian community, which means that roughly 60% of people in North America fall outside the level of cultural distance the average Christian is willing to travel to meet and welcome the "other."

Rom. 10.14    But how are they to call on one in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in one of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone to proclaim him? 

Firewalls and Norming Norms

On Firewalls: I'm somewhat suspicious that barriers to our connecting to those outside our network is constructed rather than accidental. Our faith communities may not actually even be aware of the structures they have in place to ensure that new links don't form with outside networks. 
Rabbit hole #3: Read this post about packet switching,
Let me offer an example, and then feel free to compare it to the structure of firewalls. When faith communities serve meals at a soup kitchen, they often make sure that they are the servers and hosts of the meal, while the recipients of the meal receive the food at the other side of the table, and then sit down together while the servers remain in the kitchen. Of course, all of this is set up in ways that make it look kosher. It's good food handling practice, etc. However, in terms of networking, it ensures that the inside network (the faith community) has a very gated interaction with the outside network (those coming to eat the meal). There is a kind of middle space between the hosts and the guests where certain types of interaction can take place, but any actual crossover between the outside and inside networks is more difficult to navigate, and fraught with perceived or real perils.

So it's not surprising that the ELCA Ministry Among People in Poverty (MAPP) Report included this summary statement: "Although there are many notable exceptions, our experience is that frequently what people in our congregations see as their response to the poor is to see the poor as clients for their charity, rather than living in faith community among the poor or facilitating the fullness of community among the poor. As a result we have many examples of places where the poor will come to the Lutheran Church for food and clothing but go to church down the street at the Pentecostal church, because at the Lutheran Church they are poor people, but at the Pentecostal Church they are just people."

It would be worth evaluating current parish practices of welcome in comparison to the function of firewalls. What firewalls do we have up, intentional or sublimated? Are they appropriate? Are they actually working at cross-purposes to our goals of becoming a welcoming community?

There are also intranetwork norms to consider, the norming norms of the communities we curate. If we look at various media contexts, it is sometimes difficult to discern how committed we actually are to the "all" of welcome. Take, as a comparison example, the comments section of Youtube videos. Youtube is a fairly open community, and the communal norms established over time have allowed for a kind of culture and dialogue that is no-holds-barred. Youtube maintains its "center" as a source for video footage, but then plays fairly free with community participation and what behavior should look like in that community, through its soft-moderation of the comments section on individual videos.

Interestingly, Youtube has also, over time, been able to develop a fairly open community space and culture, while adhering carefully to finely crafted community guidelines:

Each social media site, over time, develops a set of norming norms. Because digital social communities have been at this work for the past decade or longer, and have discovered a few things along the way, it is worthwhile for faith communities to take time to learn from them how they are developing community norms as they make transitions to new media.

My friend Drew Curtis, who launched back in 1999 (in the early, early days of social media), writes: “I’ve never been any good at making Farkers do anything, however I’ve gotten really good at putting things in front of them that I know they’ll want to react to.  It’s a subtle distinction.  The lever you use is context – tell them why they should care.  If you can’t figure out why or they just plain don’t agree, they won’t move.  And that’s fine.  Sometimes though the right contextual twist makes all the difference between ignored and viral.”

Returning to Welcome

Lots of churches think they welcome all, but it just isn't true. We've illustrated above a variety of ways faith communities could learn from digital social media how they might do welcome better. Perhaps a better posture, overall, for faith communities to take, might be to offer this as their statement of welcome: "We would like to learn to be more welcoming, we confess our past failures. Teach us how to do it better."

Case studies, real life application 

All of that being said, I'm going to conclude with a kind of choose-your-own-adventure. Here's a list of examples we might discuss, making connections between these real-life situations and the social media pictures and metaphors offered above. Consider:

1) Recent robot movies, like Ex Machina and Transcendence, and the strangeness of needing to get distant in order to get close
2) This conference itself and some of the online conversations we all observed on Facebook and elsewhere in preparation for the event.
3) Every individual everywhere--why are we so focused on congregational media ministry when the social network now is "here comes everybody." Is it possible, again, that we have mistook plasticity for flexibility and passivity, and so the church is engaging new media in a capitalist mode rather than mutual plasticity to the point of explosion and/or resilience?
4) Economic case study: how are things going with accessibility for the poor?
5) The split in many churches of the ELCA over becoming "welcoming," and the plasticity of our recovery
6) The catechumenate as an example of ecclesio-plasticity
7) Ministry with those on the margins--digital media and liminal church. I don't go to church much, but I follow all your posts.
8) Why don't people share more? How can we go viral? Is viral good?
9) Failure and learning: Our first couple of time & talent surveys--from motherboard mentality to missional plasticity
10) The relationship between public, media presence and local, parish ministry

Saturday, June 13, 2015

The Three Best Strategies for Utilizing Media as Faith Formation

"It is the author's job to try to dislocate older media into postures that permit attention to the new. To this end, the artist must ever play and experiment with new means of arranging experience, even though the majority of their audience may prefer to remain fixed in their old perceptual attitudes." (Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man)
All writing (all media, for that matter) has the potential to be not simply informational but formational. What I mean by this is that many people make use of the resources we author as part of their faith development, not just as publicity on how to attend events where real formation happens.

For example, with our church e-newsletter, we see much higher click through rates on material that is fresh, formative, and opens space for readers to learn, grow, and explore. The best content generates comments on blogs, re-posts in their networks, and conversation around coffee Sunday morning or supper Wednesday night. 

Three things contribute to high levels of engagement, all of which correspond nicely to Aristotle's three elements of rhetoric--ethos, logos, pathos--so I will use these as the frame. 


I think pathos in modern publishing jargon is "copy." So much media comes at us every single day, we need writers to attend to that first sentence, the title, and draw us in with an appeal to our emotions. We need what is published to capture our eye.

Good titles matter, attractive content matters, layout matters, design matters. Anything published that does not attend to copy simply doesn't get read.

Copyblogger is the best resource I know to learn how to write great copy. I suggest everyone take time to read their tutorials:

The art and science of direct-response copywriting involves strategically delivering words (whether written or spoken) that get people to take some form of action.

For another great resource on the creation of designs that capture the attention, see: Presentation Zen: Simple Ideas on Presentation Design and Delivery


This is the actual content, the deliverable. We want to capture the attention of our audience for a reason---we believe in the content. What we write needs to make a difference in people's lives. It needs to inform, persuade, inspire, convict. 

Increasingly, those of us publishing in digital media are realizing it also needs to cultivate community, engage conversation, and "spread" (check out Henry Jenkins new book,Spreadable Media: Creating Value and Meaning in a Networked Culture (Postmillennial Pop)

A sign that the content matters to people is their sharing of it. When media spreads, it matters. It matters even more if the content then changes other aspects of the life of those who read it. This is formation. For one spectacular resource observing how faith formation is happening on-line all over the place:


Ethos is the appeal to the authority or honesty of the speaker/author. I may have caught your attention, my content might be engaging, but do you trust me? Why should you listen to me? This last point may be the most elusive aspect of using digital media for faith formation. Those of us who publish and write in this digitally mediated contexts have to earn the trust and interest of our readers, and it is not always clear how to do that.

A good friend, Drew Curtis, who started the web site and has figured out far more about creating community in digital environments than I will ever know, wrote recently, 
"I've never been any good at making Farkers do anything either [he had just finished reading my dissertation, where I mentioned that in running the ELCA Clergy Facebook group, although I could get the group to discuss almost anything, I struggled to get them to collectively "do" something together], however I've gotten really good at putting things in front of them that I know they'll want to react to.  It's a subtle distinction.  The lever you use is context - tell them why they should care.  If you can't figure out why or they just plain don't agree, they won't move.  And that's fine.  Sometimes though the right contextual twist makes all the difference between ignored and viral."
Which brings us full circle. Speakers and authors are trusted at least in part because they know their audience well, and read the context. To gain the trust of readers, know your readers. Listen to them. Then put things in front of them that you know they'll react to. Then get out of the way.

Friday, June 05, 2015

An enigma wrapped in a mystery and deep batter fried: a second corinthians series

I am not going to try and explain 2nd Corinthians. That's impossible. What I am going to attempt are various incursions and confusions. If I can interrupt what we currently assume about Christian faith, this series will be a success.

Let's get started. Consider 2 Corinthians 1:5-7:
5 For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ.  6 If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering.  7 Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. 
Paul assumes the gospel is not about prosperity, success, or abundance. God's will for us, if we can even speak in those terms, is not for victory, joy, comfort, safety, blessings traditionally construed.

Anyone who actually believes that the focus of Scripture and Christian faith is prosperity or comfort or success is going to need to find another religion, because this one ain't it. Israel fails. Christ dies. Paul boasts exclusively in his sufferings and the cross of Christ. Paul's message, though even more strident than some of what has preceded, is on message with the faith conveyed in the biblical witness.

Paul, who himself has been suffering in a variety of ways (in his own body, and in his ministry), believes that his sufferings are "for" others. They are "for" others not in the sense that he should avoid them, or pass them off to others to experience, but rather so that his suffering might be a consolation and even salvation (!) for others.

Paul is crushed, oppressed, compressed, troubled. Instead of escaping it, wishing it away, complaining about it, he turns his sufferings into a form of neighbor love. He suffers for his neighbor, his brothers and sisters in Corinth.

Not only this, but he believes his own sufferings, and the consolations he receives in and through them, can be an encouragement for those receiving his letter in the sense that they can make sense of their own sufferings in the same way.

Sufferings are not failures, hazards, things that separate us. Instead, suffering is shared, and when shared, something that produces hope (Romans 5:1-5).

I'm intrigued by the portrayal of this in some contemporary media, most recently Mad Max: Fury Road. I'm not quite sure what to do with a movie like Fury Road. It's clearly feminist, conveying a pretty interesting sacrificial ethic. At the same time, it's an over-the-top chase movie. It might be what you could call "glam-theology-of-the cross."

We'll come back around to this later, but it is true that Paul, in more than one letter, but especially 2nd Corinthians, chooses to "boast" in his sufferings and weakness. He wears his suffering and weakness as a badge of honor, for Christ's sake.

I'm not convinced that is what a movie like Fury Road does, but it does have intriguing parallels.

Paul will keep coming back around to the difference between the hope we have in Christ, and the momentary afflictions we are currently experiencing (2 Cor. 4:17). I wonder... no, I more than wonder, I am convinced... that because we misunderstand how to relate to suffering in our lives--in particular, the suffering we experience not passively, because we are sick or some accident befalls us, but because we take action, we stand up for something right and good, we act on our convictions and beliefs in a way that makes us suffer so that another person might have relief--we end up misinterpreting these passages.

The promise of glory after or through suffering is not escapist at all. Quite the opposite. It is a word of strength, that we might not lose heart (2 Cor. 4:15). It is a call to action, to step up and participate in the same suffering Christ and Paul underwent, for the sake of the gospel.

In North American culture in particular, we have been listening to the siren song of a false gospel for so long, we hardly know how to suffer in this way, because we believe we have "earned" our comfort and ease and wealth, and we deserve it, so there is no need to give it up, to hand it over, to suffer the loss of it for the other's need.

Yet Paul, madman that he is, asserts repeatedly that if we are to boast in anything at all, it should be in our sufferings. Because our sufferings are for the consolation, even the salvation, of others. As Paul writes in another letter:
Col. 1.24   I am now rejoicing in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am completing what is lacking in Christ’s afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church. 

Monday, June 01, 2015

Whatever you do, don't read 2nd Corinthians

A good old-fashioned letter. When was the last time you received one in the mail? You know the kind. Hand-written, ink or pencil, front and back, signs of labor seeping around the edges, crossed-out words, bent edges, some words etched deep with emotion.

The New Testament is made up of a collection of these, mostly the letters of one person, Paul, corresponding to communities of faith he has recently visited (and sometimes established), and in one case (Romans) a faith community he has never met but anticipates seeing.

Of these letters, the correspondence with the Corinthians is the most enigmatic. The letters are indisputably Pauline. Unlike some letters ascribed to Paul, nobody doubts Paul wrote them. They are enigmatic not because they are contested, but because they represent a lengthy correspondence, and an increasingly contentious one.

In fact, Second Corinthians is not actually second. If we take the letters themselves seriously, then First Corinthians is actually second, and Second Corinthians is actually fourth. Preceding each of them are letters, one a "warning" letter, the third a "severe" letter, neither of which have become canonical (except, perhaps, inasmuch as 2 Corinthians is redacted and contains portions of the "letter of tears" that would have been third if all four of the letters had been collected).

So imagine this back and forth between Paul and the church of God which was at Corinth. It is not unlike, on some levels, a rather vigorous debate in the comments section of a blog. The Corinthians post their letters to Paul. Paul retorts. Because of the lack of face-to-face, perhaps the dialogue escalates. But this is all they have to work with, these letters, so the letters become living letters themselves, standing in for the ones writing them.
"You are our letter, written on our hearts, known and read by everyone. You show that you are Christ's letter, delivered by us. You weren't written with ink but with the Spirit of the living God. You weren't written on tablets of stone but on tablets of human hearts" (2 Corinthians 3:2-3).
And boom, we are into the parts of this letter that illustrate its genius. It is a self-aware letter. The medium is the message. It is a letter that communicates the very presence of the author, who is himself a living letter.

It is difficult to overstate my next point. This letter is aware of its immortality. It is written to live forever, nonpareil. Written by one individual dying man to one specific and transient community, it has now been translated into a majority of the world's languages and is read around the globe.

In a series of white hot, luminous chapters, it evokes almost everything of continuing significance in this thing we call Christianity:

  • The autobiography of Paul as it relates to the message of Christ
  • The nature of testimony
  • The shape of reconciliation
  • Gentiles taking up funds for the church in Jerusalem (I'll come back to this in a sec)
  • The hardships of ministry
  • Divisions in the church
  • The joyous exchange (fröhlicher Wechsel): "For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." (2 Cor: 5:21)
  • Glory
  • Holy Spirit
  • Suffering
  • Visionary experiences
  • Generosity
  • Weakness and foolishness

Let's come back around to the special collection for the church in Jerusalem. Imagine, if you would, a scenario where small, struggling communities made up of immigrants took up a collection and delivered it to the wealthy, established church in the center of town. Imagine, for example, that this comfortable and established congregation itself started lots of little churches, was uncomfortable with the theology and sociological makeup of the congregations taking the collection, but nevertheless, this outsider missionary who had established many of the new churches took up a collection, and brought it to the mega-church for them to use as they would.

From The Political Theology of Paul, Jacob Taubes

We get small peaks into this story in many of Paul's letters, but 2 Corinthians takes it up with a rigor and attentiveness unparalleled in the New Testament correspondence. If you want to understand, at least in part, the Jerusalem collection, you have to read this letter. To understand Pauline political theology, you need to read this letter over and over and over.

There is this and so much more to attend to in Paul's letter, not to mention just this one individual letter, itself part of a larger correspondence. The surprise is how infrequently this letter has garnered significant attention in commentaries, at least when compared to other Pauline epistles. I sometimes consider it the most relevant of letters, Paul's letter for the 21st century, Paul's letter for us. As it now appears as the second lesson in the Revised Common Lectionary cycle for the month of June, I'll be preaching on it, and will hope, at least in part, to evoke what is so immeasurably rich about this epistle on fire.

If you are looking for a devotional resource for the journey, consider reading A Heart for Reconciliation: A Walk Through 2 Corinthians