Friday, November 27, 2015

"Lies, damned lies, and statistics." | "You are what you share."

Mark Twain popularized the first aphorism, but attributed it to Benjamin Disraeli. The second is from Charles Leadbetter.

I've been pondering them while reading a bit of sociology this week. Robert Wuthnow's Inventing American Religion: Polls, Surveys, and a Tenuous Question for a Nation's Fate, is a narrative I've been anticipating for quite some time, and there's nobody better to write it. Essentially, statistics on religion have been affected by two major trends. First, most statistical analysis is based on very, very small data sets, and is really statistical data about the people willing to respond to polls and surveys.

As a result, many of the nation's top and most respected polls vary widely from year to year. They're presented as science, as fact, solid and undeniable. The truth is more complicated.

In an era of dramatically declining polling response rates, polls that gather qualitative rather than quantitative data are better.  Yet we tend, in much of our public conversations, to prefer quantitative to qualitative data.

More importantly, often these polls are biased, presenting data that skews things in the direction the pollsters were already anticipating. In this sense, many polls are self-fulfilling prophecies. Again, it depends on the poll, but by and large, it's probably the case that polls create the world they measure, at least to a degree.

In religious polling, perhaps the least biased large data set is from Pew. After that, Gallup. The Barna Group is pretty questionable. And so on. For an excellent review of Wuthnow's book, read The Meaning of Life in One Amazing Chart.

The other book I've been reading is Joseph Baker and Buster Smith's American Secularism: Cultural Contours of Nonreligious Belief Systems.  Baker and Smith are attempting to do what is seldom done in sociology--understanding the social phenomena of secularism as it is, for what it is. "To move beyond a binary classification [of secular and religion] requires the consideration of multiple dimensions of secularity and religiosity" (14).

About a third of the way into the book, they offer this remarkable description of media and change:
 While it is hypothetically possible for media consumption alone to lead to identity change, it is highly unlikely to do so absent interpersonal interaction. Social networks remain the key determinant of 'conversion' and role exit. People are inspired to change their identities based on interactions with others whose views they value rather than by encountering another position in mediated form. Disembodied appeals made through media alone are not effective tools for identity change, but mediated communication plays a critical, supplemental role in identity maintenance and change. Once a self-identity is in place, people consume mediated communication that reinforces, supports, or extends their views of the world. Consumption is identity maintenance in practice. (40)
Just so.

So what are we supposed to do? The statistics we read in ever-new reports from the polls are far less reliable than we assume, and all the sharing we do of all these articles and reports does very little to effect real change in the world. Should we give up, and join REI on a big group hike in the outdoors?

Well, in fact, yes, we should do that.

But then back to the data, and social media, it remains to be seen whether polls and statistics are completely useless, and it remains to be seen what social media sharing actually effects.

"If people define their situations as real, they are real in their consequences." (W.I. Thomas) Much the same could be said of our reading of polling data.

For example, some of the biggest movements in recent history have happened primarily via social media.

And many global young people, when asked, consider social media to be essential to real social change.

I believe, on the issue of polls and statistics, that awareness is half the battle. We need not abandon them altogether, but we certainly should consume them in smaller doses, and with greater moderation. And the cutting edge of sociology is precisely in what Wuthnow encourages--qualitative study, and perhaps also in ethnography.

Similarly, on social sharing and social change, I know that I need to consider more carefully the supplemental nature of mediated communication in identity maintenance and change. Mediated communication can quickly devolve into an echo-chamber of the likeminded. It's important to cultivate relationships with others in such a way that we end up valuing one another's views, because then we might actually change, together.

Then it's important not to forget that this focus on relationships is not at the expense of mediated communication. Instead, the ambient intimacy of media sharing can facilitate and continue and develop the real interpersonal communication we carry on with each other.

In other words, there's no replacement for getting to know one another. You can't know atheists based on polls. To know an atheist, you need to know an atheist. Your view of Syrian refugees won't change based on a Huffington Post article. It will change if you get to know and love a neighbor who is Syrian and whose loved ones still live in country or are currently in flight from their home country.

You will not hear the voices of African-Americans better because there is Black Twitter, but a real relationship with somebody of another race will help you code switch and read the communication of Black Twitter in more sympathetic and productive ways.

All of this being said, for all I know I'm contributing little if anything that is new when I share stuff on social media. Perhaps in sharing, I keep hoping what I share will change things, make a difference. But it's true"That my own contribution was simply a product of the Zeitgeist I have never pretended to question." (Lester Frank Ward) 

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Lincoln's Thanksgiving and Ours | The Power of Advocacy

Abraham Lincoln was one of our greatest presidents because he was also one of our greatest theologians. He so often hits the right note, observing the propriety of giving thanks while also issuing a call for continuing repentance. In his national Thanksgiving proclamation, he gives thanks for the many blessings of life in the nation he led, while also remembering and lifting up those most adversely affected by the nation's "lamentable civil strife." One could wish that more of our national leaders on a day like thanksgiving would also, in this humble way, recognize our complicity not just in the effects of various civil struggles, but also the global implications of our national defense strategy, which are horrific.

I am also inspired today by Sarah Josepha Hale, whose persistence and advocacy efforts led to thirty states establishing days of Thanksgiving, and finally in the result of a powerful letter to the president, a national proclamation of the Day of Thanksgiving.

So today, as #blacklivesmatter and refugee advocates campaign and write letters and publish and march and speak, we remember that the persistence even of a single citizen towards a good cause can have incredible impact (Luke 11:9). 

Let's give thanks for leaders like Lincoln. May their kind increase. Let's give thanks for tireless campaigners like Sarah Josepha Hale (who also, incidentally, wrote "Mary Had a Little Lamb"). Let's pray it takes far less than thirty years (the amount of time Hale campaigned for a national day of Thanksgiving) for our leaders to listen to the real needs of those affected by our national perverseness and disobedience. Lord come quickly, and give us the spirit to give thanks in all circumstances.

By the President of the United States of America.
A Proclamation. 
The year that is drawing towards its close, has been filled with the blessings of fruitful fields and healthful skies. To these bounties, which are so constantly enjoyed that we are prone to forget the source from which they come, others have been added, which are of so extraordinary a nature, that they cannot fail to penetrate and soften even the heart which is habitually insensible to the ever watchful providence of Almighty God.
In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign States to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere except in the theatre of military conflict; while that theatre has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union.  
Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defence, have not arrested the plough, the shuttle or the ship; the axe has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased, notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege and the battle-field; and the country, rejoicing in the consiousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom.
No human counsel hath devised nor hath any mortal hand worked out these great things. They are the gracious gifts of the Most High God, who, while dealing with us in anger for our sins, hath nevertheless remembered mercy. It has seemed to me fit and proper that they should be solemnly, reverently and gratefully acknowledged as with one heart and one voice by the whole American People.  
I do therefore invite my fellow citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next, as a day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the Heavens. And I recommend to them that while offering up the ascriptions justly due to Him for such singular deliverances and blessings, they do also, with humble penitence for our national perverseness and disobedience, commend to His tender care all those who have become widows, orphans, mourners or sufferers in the lamentable civil strife in which we are unavoidably engaged, and fervently implore the interposition of the Almighty Hand to heal the wounds of the nation and to restore it as soon as may be consistent with the Divine purposes to the full enjoyment of peace, harmony, tranquillity and Union. 
In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and caused the Seal of the United States to be affixed. 
Done at the City of Washington, this Third day of October, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, and of the Independence of the Unites States the Eighty-eighth. 
By the President: Abraham Lincoln
William H. Seward,
Secretary of State

Thursday, November 19, 2015

All our sins on the heads of Syrian refugees

When he has finished atoning for the holy place and the tent of meeting and the altar, he shall present the live goat. Then Aaron shall lay both his hands on the head of the live goat, and confess over it all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all their transgressions, all their sins, putting them on the head of the goat, and sending it away into the wilderness by means of someone designated for the task. The goat shall bear on itself all their iniquities to a barren region; and the goat shall be set free in the wilderness. 
The Syrian refugee population is the scapegoat for the United States. We know we've sinned. We are aware (even if that awareness is deeply sublimated) that our global military activity is largely responsible for the destabilization not only of Syria but of many places across the globe. But we cannot bear this burden, it is too much for us. So we, collectively, have cast our iniquities on to the refugees. The governors and many other prognosticators have laid their hands on the heads of the refugees, and said, "Away with you to a barren region. You cannot come here."

Because we have passed our iniquity to them, we must name them sinner on the way. They are violent Muslims, bent on global domination. They are terrorists, guilty of much, never mind that the terrorist act most recently perpetrated that sent the governors into scapegoat mode was committed by radicalized nationals of European nations.

In a scapegoat mechanism, the facts don't matter. There is just the goat, and the need for it to be sent away.

In this very moment, the Christians who have most loudly lamented the decline of faith in America have proven the bankruptcy of their own religion. Suddenly we aren't a Christian nation anymore, we are just Americans, and you can't hold civil authorities up to Christian standards. They're just keeping us safe.

Keeping us safe by scapegoating the vulnerable. Apparently they are willing to sacrifice anyone for perceived safety (which is really just political posturing, because they want the votes). Any goat will do. It's better if the goat doesn't get the goat of those voters they're trying to win.

I have quite a bit of firsthand experience resettling refugees. When I was a pastor in Wisconsin, our congregation helped resettle a family. Today they are dear friends. If you've met a refugee, you know they arrive with little or nothing, other than internal resilience and hope. Most refugees who come to the United States learn English quickly, find jobs, become self-sufficient in astonishingly quick order, and contribute to our nation in countless ways.

I also have quite a bit of firsthand experience living abroad. I used to be a missionary in Slovakia. I know what it is like to not speak the language, to complete bureaucratic forms I didn't fully understand but needed in order to stay, to cross borders, to be documented.

In particular, I knew the hospitality of my colleagues and friends who helped us. Slovaks who spent countless hours waiting in line, walking with us to ensure we could be their neighbors, teach with them, be at peace, feel at home.

I know what it is like to be welcomed, to be loved, and I am horrified beyond anything I can adequately articulate to realize our great nation, the nation of opportunity and dreams, has communicated in resounding fashion to anyone globally who is listening that we have no interest in welcome, we will exclude and divide anyone from us for any particular and irrational reason if it allows us to practice our fear.

The thing is, these governors know better. They know the refugee resettlement process, or they have staffers who do. They know its pace (long and arduous--the family we resettled in Wisconsin lived in a refugee camp for eighteen years before finally coming here). Not only that, they know the potential impact their words can have on those who already live here. They know that when they condone racial profiling and religious exclusivism, that they crank up the heat on xenophobia. They are responsible, and they should be ashamed.

Never mind if they are Christian or not, in this case the governors have exercised that famous Schmittian dictum, "Sovereign is he who decides on the exception." So they have decided to throw their sovereign weight around, and see if their pathetic chest-thumpings will stand. Oh proud governors that they are, with such powerful laws and beautiful high walls, who can keep vulnerable refugees on floating rafts crossing the Mediterranean from crossing the border of Arkansas. They will be able to remember in their retirement the glory days when they kept those damn refugees out of their states.

I seem to remember (although most conservative Christians are convinced I never read my Bible) reading in Scripture a repeated refrain, "Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt" (Deuteronomy 15:5, 15). A basic, fundamental, absolute encouragement of our holy texts is the maintaining of empathy with those currently going through what we once went through. We were once slaves in Egypt. Their story is our story. So now the story of all those who sojourn is our story also. "Do not mistreat or oppress a foreigner, for you were once slaves in Egypt" (Exodus 22:21; Leviticus 19:33).

The Syrian refugees are us. When we say we will refuse them, we are in fact saying we will refuse ourselves. In our refusal, we are casting ourselves into exile. We no longer know who we are.

Of course we should also care for many others. Our track record at caring for homeless veterans is abysmal. Far too many families with U.S. citizenship are homeless. Rather than this being a zero sum game, a rhetorical strategy to deflect from our responsibility towards refugees, the recognition that we have been inadequately up to the task of sheltering veterans and homeless families is essential, but only inasmuch as we recommit again to shelter all.

We are a nation wealthy enough, and capacious enough, to shelter all. We could welcome all the refugees of the whole world, all of them. Best estimates put the number at 16 million. We currently commit to welcoming less than 100,000 total refugees annually, and we are having a national debate over welcoming an additional 10,000. 10,000. Maximum of 65,000 over the next five years. In a nation of 320 million. “Accommodating sixty-five thousand refugees in our country . . . of three hundred and twenty million is akin to making room for six and a half more people in a baseball stadium with thirty-two thousand.”

We should weep. Those of us who are Christian, really any of us who are people of the Book, should remember that the people of Israel went into exile after the prophets (delivering the word of God) condemned them again and again on practices comparable to ours. We have forgotten the exile also.

Honestly, we have forgotten so many stories. We have forgotten the story of the welcome by first peoples here on these shores, or the welcome of neighbors and neighborhoods who received our ancestors when they settled here. We have become so narrow and scared in our focus that the best we can do, the highest we can rise, is to a national debate about whether or not to welcome some of the most vulnerable and injured people in the world.

We are cold and complicit. We are unwilling to admit that we contributed in large part to the political situation that eventuated in the rise of Syrian refugees. We then blame them for the very thing we caused. We are failing at empathy. We are failing at Christlikeness. We are failing at being Americans. And lest I recycle the scapegoating, I confess, pathetic Lutheran that I am, that I am complicit in so many ways in the system that has led us to this place. I, we, are responsible. Lord have mercy.

And the world is watching.

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Be Informed About Refugee Resettlement, and Take Action

Stand for Welcome logo
Refugee Welcome sign

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Together we #StandForWelcome for #SyrianRefugees in the US. Info for calling your governor: @LIRSorg
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Dear Clint,
In light of the tragic attacks in Paris, we must stand together with vulnerable Syrian refugees who seek safety and a future. Reacting out of fear, Governors of over 25 states along with Members of Congress, have proposed extreme measures that would exclude all Syrian refugees from the protection of the United States resettlement system. This is not an acceptable response to this tragedy.

Our faith calls us to stand for welcome, even in the wake of fear. "Make sure that nobody pays back wrong for wrong, but always strive to do what is good for each other and for everyone else." 1 Thessalonians 5:15 As people of faith, we cannot turn our backs on our Syrian brothers and sisters as they flee the same violence from which we seek to protect ourselves.

The United States refugee resettlement program has a sophisticated and multi-layered approach to vetting any prospective refugee prior to entering our country. Indeed, refugees are the most highly screened population that enters the United States. The current screening processoften takes years to complete and includes face-to-face interviews, database checks, and biometrics by the Department of Homeland Security, FBI, Department of Defense and multiple intelligence agencies.

LIRS asks that you contact your Governor and Members of Congress TODAY and urge them to protect Syrian refugees. Your tireless commitment to protecting the world's most vulnerable does make an impact. Please consider forwarding this alert to your friends to amplify your voice!

There are two ways that you can take action: 
While the United States must balance the integrity of our resettlement system with our desire to provide protection to vulnerable refugees, we must not bow to fearAs Christians, as Americans, and as global citizens we must stand for welcome. We will keep you informed as Congressional action continues to center on Syrian refugees. I remain grateful for your commitment to vulnerable populations, especially as so many are responding with fear rather than welcome and protection.
In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Monday, November 16, 2015

We Stand for Welcome

Dear Clint,

We are broken with grief at the senseless loss of life in Paris, as well as the deaths in Beirut, Egypt and across the Middle East – all at the hands of brutal terrorists. These actions of ISIS are the embodiment of evil, carried out by champions of death and cruelty. They are intended to cultivate fear and mistrust in our very midst.  

We live in a world where there is so little time allowed for grief. Even as we mourn, and leaders of the world’s nations commit to bringing the perpetrators to justice, we cannot forget the new victims of ISIS, suffering under an onslaught of terror today, tomorrow and the day after.  

Every day, average Syrian people, including Christians persecuted for their faith, are being tortured and murdered, bombed and traumatized. An open field, a perilous journey, separation from family, a rickety boat, a refugee camp – are their only hope for safety. And for the most vulnerable, a relatively small number, who have no chance of ever being able to go home in safety – starting life anew in a strange land is the only possibility other than death.

The protection that the United States offers to a very small percentage of the world’s refugees must not be foreclosed for Syrians who themselves are fleeing the terror of ISIS. The US refugee program has, since 9/11, built up rigorous and multilayered security screenings to ensure that those we admit as refugees do not mean us harm. To close the door on resettling Syrian refugees would be nothing less than signing a death warrant for tens of thousands of families fleeing for their very lives.

As Christians, as Americans, and as global citizens – we must choose to stand for hope and life. We must not bow to the fear that ISIS spreads, to the seeds of doubt they cast over the land, or to the test they present to our most cherished values.

We are a nation and people that stand up to those who slaughter innocents. We stand with the most vulnerable who seek safety and a future.  And we stand for welcome.

Yours in faith,

Linda Hartke
President and CEO
Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service

Spiritual Exercises for a Digital Age

New patterns for seelsorge are emerging as an increasing amount of our interpersonal communication is happening online. I notice this in particular when a global tragedy like the Paris attack occurs.

I get wrapped up in it, like the rest of the social media world, because it is so tragic, yet also so rare, for such an attack to happen in that city.

Then this happens:

Increasingly, we are having conversations about our conversations. Some of this is needed. Some of it is a byproduct of the full-on echo-chamber we've all entered with the presence of a billion social media users getting on Facebook every day.

In the meantime, the real care of souls is declining. It takes some words of wisdom from a pastor to help clarify.

"I find that when people are shocked and scared it is generally not a good time to impress them with the fact that if they were better people they would be shocked and scared about a wider range of things. Using people's immediate emotional responses to a tragedy as evidence that they require your moral instruction is unkind and unlikely to be effective." (Pari Bailey)

Or this:

It's okay to not have an opinion, to share the wrong meme, to be surprised by grief. It's okay to not know what you don't know. It's okay to be wrong, and then right, and then wrong again. It's okay to surf the current set of sensibilities of your tribe, and even crash into those of others.

In all instances, the way forward will be to slow down, to listen, to try again taking account of what's new, all the while repenting when necessary and keeping the goal in sight--to live in such a way that the full humanity of all is honored, and our shared world sustained. We are all making this up as we go along, and the immediacy of our shared life in new media is forcing us to relearn the examen.

We need an Ignatian Spiritual Exercises for the Internet age. It would do us all good. 

So I offer an adapted version here:

Stillness: Recalling God's Presence
Relax in God's presence in your favorite prayer place and posture. Ask the Holy Spirit to come into your heart and to help you to look honestly at your actions this day and how you have responded in different situations, particularly on social media. With the Spirit's inspiration you can recognize what draws you close to God as well as what pulls you away from God.

Gratitude: Expressing Thankfulness
Review your day and give thanks to God. Try not to choose what to be thankful for but rather to see what springs to mind as you reflect. Think of the concrete details of your day—the aroma of coffee brewing, a smile from a co-worker, a humorous meme. Recall the gifts that God has given you that you can share with others—your ability to help in a crisis, your sense of humor, or your patience with children. Pause and express your gratitude to the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Reflection: Looking Back on Your Day
Again review the events of the day and notice how you acted in the many situations in which you found yourself. Recall your feelings and motives to see whether you considered all of the possibilities and freely followed God's will. Ask yourself when you were conscious of God's presence. Think about opportunities you had to grow in faith, hope, and charity. When we think about why we did or did not take advantage of these opportunities, we can become aware of how we might change our actions in the future. Be grateful for the occasions when you freely chose a course to help others. Perhaps you paused before responding to an angry comment on your Twitter post. These are examples of responding freely as God wants us to. When we reflect on the times we did or didn't act with God's grace, we can be more sensitive to developing habits of positive responses.

Sorrow: Asking for Forgiveness
After you have asked for the Holy Spirit's guidance in recalling and reflecting on the actions of your day, spend time talking with God or Jesus. Express sorrow for the times you failed to follow God's direction and ask God to be with you the next time you encounter a similar situation. 

Hopefulness: Resolving to Grow
Ask God to help you as you look forward to a new day tomorrow. Resolve to build up, to engage the news in ways that make for real positive change. Resolve to cooperate and trust in the loving guidance of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Conclude the day's prayerful review with the Lord's Prayer.

By prayerfully reviewing your day, you will experience the difference it can make in the way you live. If you make a habit of practicing the Daily Examen, you will grow closer to God in your thoughts and deeds and will be free to choose to follow him.

Saturday, November 14, 2015

As a Christian, what should I think about Islam and Terrorism?

Q: Hi! I've seen people lately talking about how Islam isn't a religion of peace. That they have read the texts themselves and that they call for war and to convert everyone to Islam. My thoughts are that you can twist anything to read into anything any way you want to including obviously the Bible. While I believe Islam is a peaceful religion, how do you respond to that? Is it just like someone reading the Bible and saying I've read the Bible and it clearly states slavery is okay or whatever? (When you get a chance to respond. No rush.)

A: This is such a very big and important subject, and involves how the world's two largest religious traditions relate to each other. There isn't just one monolithic kind of Islam, just like there isn't one monolithic Christianity. There are many versions of each, and all of those versions are shaped by culture and historical context.

I remember taking a course in Islam at Luther Seminary, and our professor, Charles Amjad-Ali, a convert from Islam to Christianity, spent the first two months re-teaching us Christianity rather than anything specific about Islam. That was wise. Perhaps the first step in understanding another religious tradition is to allow ourselves to inquire into our own religion before assuming too much about theirs. 

In fact, a great first step, always, is to ask the same question of your own tradition you are applying to the religion of others. 

So, is Christianity a religion of peace? Looked at in historical perspective, Christianity encompasses quite a bit that is violent. Christians aspire to be peaceful, and they worship the Prince of Peace, but they don't always live that peace out. Here are examples of violent movements that claimed to be Christian: the Crusades, apartheid, race based chattel slavery in the United States, World War I (on both sides), the Troubles of Northern Ireland. I could go on, ad nauseum.

Does Christianity aim for worldwide forced conversion? At many stages of history, the answer would be a resounding yes. End of the Roman Empire. Quite a stretch in the Medieval period. The Spanish Inquisition. Forced conversion of indigenous people the world over. Some Muslims (an obvious minority of them in today's world, even if they grab the news through politically motivated terrorist activity) seem to be aiming for this also. But Quranic law is actually against such practices (2:256). Of course, a scholar of the Koran will likely correct me, and rightly so, and tell me their Scriptures are more complex than this. I need to listen to those who know their own Scriptures better than I do.

If I listen to them, this is what they are saying:

ING and its Affiliates nationwide join the global chorus of voices praying for and offering our deepest condolences to the families of the victims of today’s horrific, ongoing terror attacks in Paris, France.

No belief, cause, or grievance justifies the kind of gratuitous and senseless violence employed by the attackers in Paris. Such inhuman behavior accomplishes nothing and flies in the face of both natural ethics and the commandments of God. We pray that the perpetrators are found and quickly brought to justice. In the face of such tragedy, it is heartening to see people in Paris and around the world responding with acts of love and service, such as Parisians opening their doors to anyone in the city seeking shelter and safety for the night coordinated through social media, and taxi drivers across the city offering rides at no cost.

  • As Muslims, people of all faiths, and leaders across the world swiftly and fully condemn these attacks, we reaffirm the following values and principles that we have previously emphasized
  • We affirm and uphold the sanctity of all human life, the taking of which is among the gravest of all sins. 
  • We affirm the right to freedom of thought, conscience, and speech. 
  • We affirm the right to security in one’s livelihood, profession, and residence. 
  • We believe that God created us with all the diversity of race, religion, language, and belief to get to know one another, not to despise or hate one another. 
  • We believe that Islam is above all a religion of peace and mercy, and that Muslims are obligated to model those traits in their lives and characters and to work for the good of our homeland and society, wherever that might be.
Specifically, if you want to know what Muslims are saying about ISIS, you can read this:

So why do I think some Muslims are engaged in the violent kind of terrorism we have seen in Syria, Kenya, and most recently in Paris? Because they subscribe to a corruption of their own religious tradition frequently called Islamofascism. In other words, it's an ideology that has connections to some violent politico-philosophical categories of the West re-inscribed on certain forms of Islam (in particular, Wahhabism).

Notice how dangerous I've gotten. If you're reading this, you have the impression I know a ton about fascism and Wahhabism. I've suddenly become an expert on the combination of a political and religious movement at considerable historical or cultural remove from my own social location. Isn't it easy to pontificate on things distant from us!

And in the meantime, I've deflected all attention from my own complicity in the political and religious structures that have contributed to the development of tensions between nations, and worldwide geopolitical instability. I'm not scrutinizing my own Christianity at all, or my implicit nationalism. 

We are called to do a better job of turning our suspicion of others around on ourselves. It's better to turn more of our inquiry on our own practices, in the way Todd Green does in his recent post with Sojourners, 3 Reasons Christians Shouldn't Ask Muslims to Condemn Terrorism.

The truth: religions don't exist in the abstract, they have no life apart from the people who constitute them.  “Every religion in the world depends on what you bring to it. If you’re a violent person, your Islam — your Judaism —your Christianity — your Hinduism — your Buddhism is going to be violent.” (Reza Aslan, via a muslim perspective on terrorism and a response to the paris attacks)

Is Islam a missionary religion, with the goal of bringing more and more people into the faith, and becoming a global faith? It seems it is. But then, Christianity is making a bid for the same position, and currently claims many more adherents. Remember that it is Christianity that includes the Great Commission, "Go, therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit" (Matthew 28:19). Imagine how many non-Christians hear that command of Christ. 

If they are at all sympathetic to religions with a missionary impulse, they understand that mission need not be Borg-like, with a culture of forced assimilation. So much depends upon the how of mission. I believe both Christianity and Islam understand this, and simultaneously have more work to do on it, in order to be properly and respectfully missiological.

There is so much more to be said, much of it related to the historical contexts and cultures in which our respective Scriptures were written. No faith can be disembodied from that. There are no ahistorical religions. This is why, when anyone blames religions for being inherently violent, they are on such sketchy ground, because religions of every type are so strangely correlated to violence and war that it is difficult in the extreme to make the shift from correlation to causation. Religions are often used to justify violence, which is of course different from religion causing the violence. In many instances, the religion is a veneer for what violent people and groups wished to do anyway.
Of Gods and Men

I will leave it to experts more knowledgeable in biblical and Quranic studies than I to help us understand the violence described, condoned, or even encouraged in both our respective faiths. It takes quite a bit of intellectual work to engage it. It takes courage, and faith.

In the meantime, I find a few portrayals of how to think about each of our faiths, and their relationship to each other, helpful. My favorite is the film Of Gods and Men. I wish everyone would see it. It illustrates the peace so faithfully expressed by loving and neighborly Christians and Muslims.

Second, here's a letter from the American Church in Paris. It's a good read, and offers a faithful word for all of us who are grieving and worrying. After that, read this, so much this, ( encouragement for all of us trying to maintain the grey zone so that ISIS and all the other violators of every type will not win. Then finally, for a challenging and even more global perspective, read this:

Friday, November 13, 2015

7 Media Pro-tips that will Transform Your Ministry

There are no silver bullets. Okay, well there are, but they only work on vampires. Or you can invest in them as a flashy political gesture supposedly combatting inflation. For real.

But investing in silver bullion bullets is not the pro-tip of the day. The real pro-tip is around great digital media resources to improve ministry. Church leaders, and really anyone, can make use of these lesser known resources for sharing faith and strengthening disciples.

Add your other pro-tips in the comments. And enjoy your bullion!

The pastor pro-tip: Facebook Messenger Audio

Along the bottom of Facebook messenger, a series of icons allow you to send recipients different types of messages--standard text, photos, emojis, and now also video and audio messages. As a pastor, I have found it particularly helpful to send audio messages in response to prayer requests. Just click on the record button, record your message, and the recipient has audio of you praying out loud for their prayer concern. They can listen to it right away, later while they travel, or even play the prayer back for the person they sought prayer for.

The apostle pro-tip:

Imagine being able to host panel discussions frequently, teach distributed classes regardless of weather, or just chat with colleagues in an open format where others can listen, chime in via text. And record the conversation so others can listen later. That's Blab, and it's wacky wild, video conferencing on steroids. If you're considering teaching, leading worship, or organizing meetings on-line, I recommend you first check out the context and play around in it for a while first. Join Blab, and listen in on a few conversations. Browse around the community. Then compare Blab to a few other video-sharing resources to see which matches your creative intentions. Other great tools include Periscope, a video sharing site, and Go-to Meeting, a more traditional web conferencing resource.

The deacon pro-tip: Basecamp

Gather all your church council or board conversations into one devoted space, and declutter your e-mail inbox.  Create to-do lists, ping members to check in on their progress, initiate conversation threads, organize projects, post, share and edit documents, and develop a year round calendar that actively reminds the board about key actions and events.

The evangelist pro-tip: Youverse

The Bible on your cell phone. It is downloaded as frequently as Instagram (so far about 200,000,000 times). Increasingly dynamic and social, it's the go-to resource for bringing the bible into the 21st century.

The missionary pro-tip: Uber

Having trouble meeting your neighbors. Need a little extra cash. Sign up for Uber and start meeting people by driving them around town. Yes, you can use this tool to get a taxi. But at the top of the page you can also sign up to become a driver. If you don't like the driving so much, try Couchsurfing instead, and start sharing your house with others.

The prophet pro-tip: Online advocacy

Most senators get less mail than you think. If they get a stack of letters from constituents, they perk up. They might even change their vote. Really. And it takes less letters than you think. So join your denomination or favorite non-profit in their letter writing campaigns. My favorite and most frequent advocacy resources is Lutheran Immigration and Refugee Service.

The teacher pro-tip: Blog

Some people think about starting blogs. Some actually do. Even less keep at it. Persistence is the key. Keep at it, and over time, you find your voice, discover your audience, and create a reliable body of resources people come back to over and over. It's easier than ever to blog. I'm a long-time fan and user of Blogger, but I also quite like the newly minted Medium, and am considering a more intentional relationship with my friends over at Patheos. To get a taste of the blogging world, check out this top 25 list of Christian blogs you should be reading.

Finally, a bonus insight. People keep saying people are leaving Facebook. It isn't true. Not only is Facebook growing, people are going back to it, and Facebook has way less inactive accounts than other digital media platforms. So if you want to be where most people are, Facebook is still the place. However, if you want to be on the platform that has the most influence on traditional media like television and radio and the news, opt for Twitter. Or if you just want to make a really cool Norwegian sweater, then I recommend Pinterest.

Oh, and keep reading and sharing Lutheran Confessions. With or without silver bullets.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


Stand for Welcome logo
Refugee Welcome sign

Write to your senators, then share to help build support:
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Contact your representative here: to support $1 billion in emergency funding for the #refugee crisis.
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Dear Clint,

Today the world is facing the largest refugee crisis in recorded history with at least 20 million refugees and 60 million forcibly displaced persons, many of whom lack access to even basic necessities. In response to this crisis, President Obama increased the number of refugees allowed to resettle in the United States from 70,000 in fiscal year 2015 to 85,000 in fiscal year 2016. It is critical that Congress appropriate sufficient funding to support the admission of these refugees—10,000 of whom have fled from Syria.

Current government funding expires on December 11, 2015. Congress must agree on funding levels for the federal government by that date, or we face another government shutdown. Congressional appropriators are making critical decisions this week and early next week on what programs to fund.

LIRS asks that you contact your Members of Congress in the next few days and urge them to ensure robust funding for refugee protection and resettlement.

There are two ways that you can take action today:
Your tireless commitment to protecting the world’s most vulnerable does make an impact. Increased funding for refugee assistance and resettlement should be a reflection of our country’s longstanding commitment to standing for welcome. Urge Congress to protect those fleeing violence and persecution through robust funding today. 

In peace,

Brittney Nystrom
Director for Advocacy

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Understanding and Engaging a Post-Christian World

Have you thought about earning a Doctor of Ministry? Know somebody who is thinking about it? I really love the program at Fuller Theological Seminary, and invite you to consider this course: Understanding and Engaging a Post-Christian World . Here's the full course list for the program.

October 24-28, 2016
Pasadena, CA
4-8 units

In North American contexts, observers may ascribe a decline in religiosity to the rise of what is sometimes called "secularism." But what is secularism exactly? And this decline in religiosity, is it really a decline, or is it a shift? And how would we know? Because many faith leaders remain in the dark about these cultural transitions, both advocates or detractors of secularization misunderstand the phenomenon and are ill-prepared to engage the "post-Christian" context in which they actually find themselves. As just one example, more and more people are interested in theology but not in church. Others are spiritual but not religious, or are even developing the secular as its own spirituality. A variety of cultural observers, both secular and religious, are attempting to chart the new landscape that the multiplication of these secularities and spiritualities creates. 

Even beyond the important intellectual context, average believers and seculars of all types are affected by the mixture of secular and religious that has ensued in the wake of modernity, globalization, and pluralism. This makes Christian mission exceedingly more complex than in the premodern era, and more exciting. It is one thing as evangelists to try and attract Millenials and Nones to the church. More effective, and perhaps essential in a post-modern context, is to develop facility with the language and discourse of those making a transition to a post-Christian worldview, to comprehend the history of this development, and to receive training in ethnographic practices that will equip them for mission in this emerging context. Faith leaders are called, in our era, not simply to think about these transitions in theology, but also to observe and write about them in winsome ways that open the church to the post-Christian world in which it finds itself.

“Whether we "spiritualize" our life or "secularize" our religion, whether we invite [humanity] to a spiritual banquet or simply join them at the secular one, the real life of the world, for which we are told God gave his only begotten Son, remains hopelessly beyond our religious grasp.” (Alexander Schmemann)

#RedCups, #Mizzou, #VeteransDay

A morning meditation: Yesterday I stopped at Starbucks for a coffee, and a little Snow Man
sugar cookie for my son. The clerk in the store leaned over to him and said, "Save the head for last, it's the best part!" He did, and it was.

Starbucks sells big red bags of coffee beans that read "Merry Christmas." They also sell super attractive Advent calendars with little numbered ornaments. I want one.

In fact, although my social conscience has concerns about the commercial nature of the holidays, and my social hackles are raised by the capitalist co-optation of the season, all of that is actually trumped by the fact that a) I really love joining everyone in a collective seasonal shift in sounds, smells, and sights, and b) I like peppermint. Nor do I mind how early it arrives.

I chatted with the store clerks about their experience of the Red Cup Controversy. First, they rolled their eyes and spun around. Next, they said, "Officially, we are not allowed to have a position." I will not tell you what they said after that just in case big brother is watching. Let's just say they were very good at expressing the ways they do not have a position on the issue.

The bigger issue is simple--I could do better at tipping servers. I could do better at advocating for adequate pay for all workers. It drives me crazy how much wealth leverages things, so the football players at Missou have collective bargaining power because of the economic impact of their sport, and the universities bank on the possibility they'll just play the game and never leverage that power.... and then when they do leverage the power, they are mocked and told they should have their scholarships revoked, and few notice how brave they are, and strong. It is no easy thing to put your future, and something you love, on the line, for what you believe to be right.

I hope none of us lose that youthful ideology that says, "If we do this, we can change the world. Let's do this." I hope that we don't conform to confirmation bias, living in echo-chambers that never challenge us, and simply start parroting what everyone else says because it basically tells us we were right all along. I'm amazed at the president at Missou, who said, in an unqualified manner, "I was wrong." That takes another kind of strength, and bravery. He didn't listen, at first. But he did listen. We can honor that.

On all sides of this, people want to be heard. Those who fear the loss of cultural Christianity really are afraid. They're expressing their loss of prestige. That's a real feeling (and also a strange fragility). Those who are afraid of the powerful culture-Christians who want to enforce one religion, in a country whose veterans have regularly defended it so that it might be a place for the free expression of religion, are also correct to fear. They have had to experience the bitter isolation of not being honored by the very faith that is supposed to recognize humanity in everyone. They meet Christians who are confused, who think Christianity is about forced conformity rather than real freedom.

Christians who are attempting to disambiguate their kind of Christianity from that kind of Christianity are right to do so. It is a slow and tiresome thing to communicate, "Yes, I'm a Christian, but not that kind of Christian." The problem is when this kind of communication starts to take the form of privileged condescension. It's an easy pit to fall into.

So the point would be to listen to each other, to take joy in smaller things, even complex things, like sugar cookies. The point would be to try to listen to those even who anger you, perhaps especially who anger you. And then use your position and voice and power not for shrill whistling argumentation, but real leveraged change. And to make sure and join and get on the side of the weak more frequently than the privileged. Join the voice of wise students like those football players. Actually listen and learn. There is a difference in action that proceeds from hearing. You will know it when you see it. The first sounds like a wind tunnel. The second like a song.

Tuesday, November 03, 2015

Religionless Christianity | Worldly God

From Bonhoeffer To Eberhard Bethge, April 30th, 1944
“Bonhoeffer introduced the term ‘world come of age’ (Mündigkeit) in a letter to Bethge on June 8, 1944. Borrowed from Dilthey, it referred to that ‘movement toward human autonomy that began around the thirteenth century,’ which has now, following the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, come to fruition. This coming of age of humanity meant that human beings have learned to live and manage their affairs without any reference to God. This is not only true in science, politics, law, and medicine, but more generally for daily life in its entirety. The term ‘’world come of age’ did not mean that the world or human beings were more moral. Nor did it mean that there was no residue of religion that attracted those who felt the need for such, or that there were no places in the world where religion still played a major role in the life of society. Rather, it means for the vast numbers of people, especially in secularized Europe, the ‘God hypothesis’ was no longer needed to explain reality and meet human need. Even failures and tragedies did not undermine such human self-confidence. Bonhoeffer anticipated that this process of secularization would continue unabated and spread more widely. Whether he has been proved wrong by the resurgence of religion in the past few decades has been widely debated by scholars, but current debates about God and the response to them have also demonstrated how much he has been proved correct on many of the issues.
Despite this historical development, the church and theology, in a last ditch attempt to shore up Christianity, resorted to an apologetic based on ‘ultimate questions,’ such as despair, sin, and guilt, to which God alone was the answer. In doing so, God was reduced to a deus ex machina who is only needed when everything else has failed, thus in effect pushed out of the center of human affairs to become the God of individual piety, bourgeois privilege, and a ghetto church, that is, the God of religion. Such an apologetic assumed a ‘religious a priori,’ that is, a religious long and a sense of weakness in human beings that could be appealed to in preaching the gospel with that in mind as the point of contact. But it was precisely this that Bonhoeffer questioned. By contrast, he wanted to speak of God at the center of life and address men and women in their strength, that is, their maturity and autonomy as responsible human beings.
These convictions were strengthened by Bonhoeffer’s daily meditation on passages from the Old Testament (notably the Psalms and the Song of Songs), which convinced him that biblical faith is focused not on redemption from the earth but on its sustainability, not on withdrawal from the world but on engagement with its life, not on asceticism but on a genuine appreciation of the body and sexuality, not on private piety but on engagement with the world. In fact, the more he read the Scriptures, the more he discovered that the God of religion was not the God of the Bible. God, Bonhoeffer provocatively insisted, wanted us to live ‘before God’ yet as people who can live without God. This, then, called for a ‘nonreligious’ interpretation of Christian faith…
The consequences of this for the church and for Christian life in the world were, as Bonhoeffer recognized, far reaching. For what is at stake in Bonhoeffer’s ‘nonreligious’ interpretation is not apologetics or even hermeneutics—that is, simply interpreting Christianity in a new historical context in a new linguistic and conceptual key—but a fundamental reorientation, or metanoia, that leads to an identification with Christ in his sufferings, and therefore to a different way of being the church-community in the world. If Jesus exists only for others, then the church must not seek its own self-preservation but be ‘open to the world’ and in solidarity with others, especially those who are oppressed and suffering…

Just as Bonhoeffer’s ‘this worldliness’ is not banal or superficial, so he insists that the need for the church to be ‘open to the world’ by existing for others does not imply surrendering either its identity or the profound mystery of its faith in Christ, for that would simply be another example of ‘cheap grace,’ or a confusion of the penultimate and the ultimate as he distinguished them in Ethics. For this reason, it was necessary that the church recover the ‘arcane discipline’ of the ancient church, whereby the mysteries of the faith are protected from profanation. In this way, prayer, worship, the sacraments, and the creed would remain hidden at the heart of the life of the church, not thrust upon the world in some triumphalist manner. In the world the church would be known by its service and its work for justice and peace rather than by the disciplines that sustained its life of faith, hope and love. In sum, as Bonhoeffer wrote on the occasion of Dietrich Bethge’s baptism, ‘we can be Christians today in only two ways, through prayer and in doing justice among human beings. All Christian thinking, talking, and organizing must be born anew, out of that prayer and action.” (Excerpted from Dietrich Bonhoeffer's Works, volume 8, 23-30)

Monday, November 02, 2015

Improving Our Faith Conversations (Clinical Evangelical Education)

Would you like to share your faith more confidently while also respecting the faith of your neighbor? Are you interested in critically analyzing the way we actually speak about our faith with others, with the goal of improving? Join us on November the 10th at 7 p.m. CST at for a clinic on faith conversations.

Please note, you might want to visit Blab prior to the session to familiarize yourself with the platform, create a Twitter handle if you don't already have one, etc. Drop in on some ongoing conversations and perhaps even join one. You might end up having a conversation that interests you enough to write a verbatim about it. Here's the link:

At this November 10th blab, we will analyze some pre-written verbatims in order to gain facility in conversation around sample texts. A link to the sample verbatims will be posted the evening of the session. Beginning December 8th, we will host periodic gatherings to discuss actual verbatims participants bring. Additionally, because of the social nature of blab, we hope this first session will inspire participants to begin hosting their own blab conversations, in particular conversations that function as clinics for evangelical/faith conversation.

Resources: Below find an article on how to write a verbatim, as well as three sample verbatims that we'll use as the basis for our conversation.

How to Write a Verbatim

A verbatim is a written record of an evangelical conversation in any real life setting that you can use to analyze and improve upon future conversations.

When writing a verbatim, include the following five sections: introduction, verbatim script, personal awareness, theological analysis, and learning goals.

1. Introduction

Give the date this experience took place. Provide the reader with a sense of the factual information you had prior to this experience.
Note: the experience should be your own, current, and personal.

2. Verbatim Script

Sit down as soon as possible after this experience and jot down a stream of key words that will help you remember the sequence of the conversation. Take time to recall your feelings during and after this exchange with as much detail as possible.

Enter only direct quotations when you begin to type up the encounter. Use a separate paragraph for each speech, identified by the initials of the person speaking. Place all non-verbal communications in brackets as well as significant thoughts and feelings of which you are aware. Note periods of silence and places where you cannot remember the exact words spoken.

Pastor/Dad: Hey, great day for a game, eh?
Mom: Yeah. Finally some sun.
Pastor: Argh. Just realized I forgot our water bottles. Oh well.
Pastor: So I saw that you brought the kids for worship a few weeks ago.
Mom: We did.
Pastor: How has that been going for you?
Mom: We've enjoyed the times we've come.

Do Don’t
Use first names or initials Use full names
Use stream of consciousness Over-edit

Note: Only provide the most critical aspect of the conversation under reflection. It is understood that you will not be able to remember a conversation word for word, but try to restate what you remember, as best you can. What you remember is significant regardless of whether it is literally what was said or done.

3. Personal Awareness

What was on your mind before this interaction? Were you aware of any anxiety or excitement? Was there anything that was unrelated to the experience that may have affected your behavior during this experience? Are there socio-cultural or other factors that may have influenced how you process this verbatim (differences in language, economic status, race/ethnicity, age, education, etc.?) What motivated your responses in this particular situation?

4. Theological Analysis

(Use these as they are useful, or create your own theological analysis.)
Use this section to reflect theologically on your ministry encounter. To do this exhaustively would take many pages, so focus on what you think offers the most insight or perplexes you the most. The group discussion will respond and fill in from there.

Embedded Theology: What “embedded theology” seems to be operating in the situation, i.e. with what theological issues is this person concerned (issues of trust, hope, illness, despair, etc.)? Did the individual speak openly of God and, if so, how would you describe the God they worship? Were fear, love, and other qualities associated with their God-talk? Does your embedded theology differ from that of the other persons in the situation? How do those differences affect your words and actions?

Deliberative Theology: Move now to think more deeply about the theological issues presented here: What is the call of the Gospel in this context? What would salvation look like here? Was any aspect of divine activity revealed in this experience for you?

What does the encounter reveal about the human condition? Sin? Structural evil? Grace? What does this encounter say about vocation? What course of action is fitting following this situation? What aspects of your own faith were explored, challenged, or reaffirmed? Now that you have reentered this experience, what faith response is called for by you or by the others involved? What have you learned from this experience? What might you be able to do to help this person grow socially, emotionally, or spiritually? How did you or will you follow up on this situation?

5. Learning Goals

What do you hope to learn from having your classmates discuss this experience?

Three Sample Verbatims

Verbatim #1: Sidelines at a sporting event

Pastor/Dad: Hey, great day for a game, eh?
Mom: Yeah. Finally some sun.
Pastor: Argh. Just realized I forgot our water bottles. Oh well.
Pastor: So I saw that you brought the kids for worship a few weeks ago.
Mom: We did.
Pastor: How has that been going for you?
Mom: We've enjoyed the times we've come.
Pastor: I saw you were with us a few weeks in a row, then wondered about more recently how it was going.
Mom: To be honest, it's nothing about church, but it's just really hard to change our Sunday morning patterns. We're interested, we're just hard to stir on Sunday mornings.
Pastor: I get that. Routine is hard to change.
Mom: I fear we'll always be a little spotty on attendance. Forgive us that.
Pastor: No worries. Just know you are welcome and invited.
Mom: I know. I know. We're absolute heathens [with a smile]. We don't do routine well, but we thrive when we do.
Pastor: You're not heathens. There are a lot families want to do together on the weekend. Lots of good options.
Mom: Yes. We'll give it a try again. Thanks for asking.
Me: No problem.
[things get started with the game and we drift away]

Analysis: This sideline conversation is probably the most common evangelical conversation this pastor has: well-intentioned families wishing they could establish a new worship routine, but not actually able to get in the new groove. It also happens to be the conversation with which he is the most dissatisfied. He has a variety of discomforts. First, he hopes to be evangelical rather than proselytizing or even mercenary. He wants the conversation to be good news. So, the hint in this conversation, "We don't do routine well, but we thrive when we do," is the kind of thing he latches on to. He would love to name Jesus more in the conversation, but he doesn't know how to do it well. Some initial questions that come to mind: Might his own life be a model for the connection between Christian faith and routine? If it is, would there be a way to present it in this conversation that would be friendly and not condescending? Or should I have asked, "What does it mean to you to thrive?" He also worries inordinately either that a) the conversation causes the mom guilt, or b) that he has the wrong motivations for the conversation. All of that being said, he would indeed like the conversation to be effective, and his definition of effective in this conversation would be expressing the gospel in relation to worship attendance in a way that inspires the mom to engage her family more regularly in participation in worship (at his congregation).

Verbatim #2: Is any of this for real?

A newly baptized Christian: It was such a high moment, but now through the summer, I've just been feeling kind of low. I've started to have a lot of doubts.
Pastor: It's not unnatural for people of faith to have doubts. I kind of think doubt is actually part of faith, intrinsic to it.
NC: I guess so. But it's like, I wonder, is any of it for real? Sometimes I don't even know what I believe, or if I believe it.
Pastor: What would help?
NC: That's the thing. I wish I knew. I mean, it's all so complicated. And then the fact that a lot of people around me either don't believe it, or are puzzled by my decision...
Pastor: Who else do you have that you can talk to about this kind of thing?
NC: Well, my sponsor. But I don't know if they would get it. We don't share the same experience exactly.
Pastor: Lately I've been reading this amazing book. I think it's the best thing I've ever read about the relationship between faith and doubt. My Bright Abyss by Christian Wiman. Have you seen it?
NC: No.
Pastor: He's a poet. He wrote it out of his own struggles with terminal cancer. He expresses his faith much better than I can do in summary, but basically I think his doubts and struggles were the forge in which his faith was formed.
NC: Yeah, I could see that. I'd like to read it.
Pastor: You know, it strikes me, you are kind of doing this alone a little bit. I mean, you and I are talking, but I wonder, would it help to talk with someone else who is also a new Christian?
NC: I guess it might.
Pastor: I guess I didn't think of this before, but I should get you together with Sally. Both of you have been on a similar journey. You might be able to support each other. Are you open to me connecting the two of you?
NC: Sure. It couldn't hurt.
Pastor: Great.

Analysis: It didn't occur to this pastor until she had this conversation how important evangelical conversations are after conversion or adult baptism. We focus so much on preparing adults for baptism, but once we are living the life of faith, that's actually where new and really difficult challenges crop up. So first of all, the conversation caught her by surprise, at least to a degree. Not only did she need to be better prepared for this conversation, she was called by the conversation to put more systems in place to strengthen the post-baptismal catechesis of adults in her context. She can also see herself going to some standby responses in the conversation, and wonders why. She recommended a book (in this case, not all bad, because her interlocutor is also a reader). She tried to lessen the concern and doubt rather than really listen well (a CPE fail). What is it in this conversation that made her uncomfortable? Did she feel like she had failed the newly baptized person somehow? Did guilt motivate her responses? On the other hand, connecting this person with someone with a shared experience was kind of a revelation. There is likely a reason Christian communities throughout the centuries have offered catechumenal preparation for groups of catechumens. There is strength in being baptized with a community with whom you can then share the common struggle of the life of faith. She plans to keep this in mind as a go-to method in other evangelical conversations. Be a bridge-builder. Bridge-building is evangelical.

Verbatim #3: Parishioner inviting someone to church

Note: a lunch meeting with a new friend she hadn’t met face-to-face yet. After a long conversation about other things:

Friend: Soooooooooo, do you believe in God?
Parishioner: Yes, bu…
Friend: (laughing) Uh oh. This friendship might not work. I had questions about my belief in God in the past and it ruined a long-term relationship that was headed for marriage.
P: Yeah, I’ve known that to happen. For some, not sharing religious conviction is a deal-breaker. My husband isn’t big into going to church, and I wasn’t either for a long time. Sorry that happened to you. But what I was going to say about my belief in God is that my record is a bit spotty. My faith has ebbed and flowed throughout my life. I also can’t imagine that two people have the same exact definition of God. So, this could turn into a really long conversation. Too bad our lunch hour is almost up!
F: (laughing again) Agreed. So, you’re a scientist and you also believe in God.
P: Yep, and I’ve found a really cool church with a pastor that encourages deep and careful consideration and dialogue on the intersection of science and faith. I needed a place where my questions are respected. The judgment I used to fear when I avoided church doesn’t seem to exist there. And my kid totally digs going. She often asks if we can go to church every day!
F: I’ve been thinking I should take my son to church but I don’t want to go back to the churches I’ve been in the past. I just didn’t feel comfortable.
P: I’d love it if you came to church with us sometime. I could introduce your son to my daughter. They have a rocking Sunday school program too.  The Pastor is super cool and super smart. And if it turns out it isn’t your thing, that’s cool. I won’t dump you like your last lady friend even if you don’t want to come back to church with me.
F: Ok. We’ll give it a shot this Sunday!
P: Sweet! We go to the second service usually.

Analysis: This is a really straightforward invitational conversation. Rather than communicating Jesus or the gospel directly, it responds to questions in a simple way about being a scientist and being a Christian, and the gospel is an invitation to experience church and Christian community. It would be interesting to know how the conversation would have proceeded differently if the parishioner had communicated what they believed about the gospel or Jesus. On the other hand, the conversation as it proceeds seems very natural and heartfelt, and the gospel is implicit in the conversation if not explicit. Are there ways to navigate people's past hurt by the church even more successfully? What would the parishioner have done or said if the invitation to church were rebuffed? Also, this parishioner is really energized to share her story, and invite people to church. Has she given sufficient thought to what motivates her? Has she explored in prayer what enlivens her and her faith? Has she set aside time to intentionally pray for people she anticipates conversations with? She can evaluate this conversation as a growing edge in her life of faith but also as an example of what a passionate evangelist she already is.

These are, I hope, relatively familiar situations many pastors and parishioners encounter on a weekly basis. They are evangelical encounters that require few of the cross-cultural challenges many missionaries undergo to reach those culturally different from themselves. The interlocutors did not need to learn another language, or travel to a distant land. The conversations occurred in familiar contexts, and on rather common topics.

Are you, like me, wrestling with the how-to of evangelism as a mainline Protestant leader? These everyday conversations are surprisingly difficult to navigate faithfully. In many ways, it is easier to be ready to preach a twelve minute sermon than to participate in a thirty second evangelical conversation.

Imagine more direct evangelical encounters, especially ones where we are asked not simply to invite others to church, or help the newly baptized establish deeper Christian community. Imagine being asked, very directly, to articulate at length the core of the Christian faith.

One pastor, a good friend, had such an opportunity with his 17-year-old son recently. On a long drive home, his son asked him to explain what the cross means in the Christian faith. My friend, untypically, shared a theological and existentially rich discourse on the cross with his son. For example, at one point, after his son turned off the radio to listen more closely, he concluded, "Knowing that in Jesus God loves us without limit, even at our worst, frees us from our self-preoccupation. It frees us to give ourselves to others. Trusting in this way is a kind of dying, and so Christian faith involves dying in two senses. Figuratively, we die to our self-preoccupation and rise to a new life of loving others; and literally when we die, we trust God’s promise to raise us to new life."

This is not how many of us speak to our children, even those who are pastors. The experience was profound enough that he needed to workshop it afterwards, and shared this:

"The difference between the approach I took and those that I didn’t is precisely what I have felt unsettled about since the beginning of my seminary education — the relationship between speaking and listening; between taking initiative and following the lead of my conversation partner; between speaking explicitly of Jesus in religious language and speaking more specifically about my conversation partner’s religious or faith experience; etc. I’ve come to accept that being forced to find the value in “client-centered” listening, etc. has been salutary in my development. At the same time, I’ve not found much help in integrating that value with an unabashed kerygmatic ministry that I see in the New Testament and believe is consistent with the evangelical theology of the Lutheran tradition."

I believe forming intentional clinical contexts in which faith leaders, and especially pastors, could workshop verbatims of evangelical conversations, could open up an entirely new way of doing practical theology together. We rehearse the Christian faith for preaching, for teaching, for writing blogs and church newsletter articles, but much less often do we "clinic" our evangelical conversations. As my friend recognizes, client-centered listening is indeed salutary for our development, but if it is exercised at the expense of the kerygma, it may be time for us to implement patterns like CEE that provide balance, bringing the rehearsal of evangelical conversations once again more centrally into the formation of pastors.

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