Emerging firmware

Our team just gave a presentation at our synod’s “Mission Fair,” which focused on engaging our postmodern, post-Christendom, post-denominational culture. Our breakout was on “Re-forming Worship” – why curating participatory, multisensory worship and contextualizing everything from music to preaching is both biblical and lutheran (small “l” intentional). A familiar question was raised, as was during my presentations to synod staff and leaders and in Karen Ward’s workshop last month: What do we do in existing churches? Can postmodern ministries exist in the church-as-we-know-it, or must we start new ones?

This question was particularly acute in the area of worship. When we presented the ideas of prayer stations, participatory sermons, movement and changing of sacred space, there were a number of comments along the lines of “my congregation would never go for that.”

Privately, though, I was pulled aside by a charming older lady who resonated with the simple worship station that opened our breakout and our talk of engaging heart, mind, body and soul in Christ. She recalled the tactile rituals she had experienced years ago worshipping in the home of friends who were converts from Judaism. “This movement has to start in the living rooms,” she said, and pastors/leaders need to be willing to let that happen. “I’m 81 years old, and I think you’re on the right track,” she said.

That’s just one of a number of experiences that are helping to clarify my thinking about this. Here’s another: Keynote presenter Jim Kitchens, author of The Postmodern Parish, related well to the boomers and builders who predominated. He noted that as a boomer postmodern is a “second language” for him, and he gave an informative, “modern” analysis of the cultural shift. And it was needed. As one gentleman said in one of our workshops: “This postmodern thing is important. Why haven’t we heard about this before?”

Here’s my insight: moderns and postmoderns are talking past each other much of the time because our approaches are not choices or learned behaviors – not products of conformity to the system or rebellion against it – but are hard-coded. Modern or postmodern approaches to the world are “orientations.” They are the BIOS in our biological computers, that determine how we will deal with any input we receive and how we will process them and communicate them back to the world. Unlike in digital computers, our firmware isn’t “flash” upgradeable, but we are able to adapt and change over time.

It’s false to say – as many do – that there is a modern/postmodern dualism: You’re either one or the other. We’re all a mix of elements, some of which could be labeled one or the other. Historically, there have always been people who have held opposites in tension and those who see only one way. Luther’s thought – his embrace of paradox, his view of God’s strength in weakness, his deconstruction of authority – has many elements we would now label postmodern. His followers who structured his insights into an institution were less so. I am a late boomer and have come to realize that postmodern is one of my native tongues, if not my only one. I know others my age like this. I also know some thoroughly modern young people; they’re often the ones who are around church. As Brian McLaren says, “90 percent of our young people become postmodern young adults, and the rest stay in the church.”

This mix has changed over time, as the world has changed. In my parents’ generation, people who questioned the monolithic modern assumptions suffered the way society failed them in silence. Boomers learned that structures can be challenged and sometimes changed. My children consider their ability to question, to participate, and to be taken seriously a birthright.

Put these trends together and you can see why this question is so common. Modern faith communities that value belonging to the group over individuality, the unity of common action, the authority of one way of teaching and learning, and clear structure are confronting new generations who think and act not just a little differently but in some case the complete opposite. Builders, meet those who need to deconstruct before they can reconstruct.

And there’s the rub. These approaches are not very compatible, although I believe its possible that they can be complementary. Not, however, in the way most of us now approach the “shift.”

Postmoderns, while being generally willing to coexist with moderns, want them to let go of some of their stress on conformity, on tradition. Moderns, on the other hand, tend to want to analyze and categorize postmoderns, like animals in the zoo, and honestly believe that if we just learned enough or valued the group enough we could change and become like them. Ain’t gonna happen, folks. It’s in the BIOS, remember?

So here, finally, come some thoughts on the question posed at the top of this post (remember that long ago?). The answer is that ministry to postmoderns can happen anywhere that people are serious about doing ministry with postmoderns as postmoderns, and will fail anywhere they want to do ministry to postmoderns.

If you’re comfortable in a traditional church, you’re no more going to turn a postmodern into a clone of you than you are to change into a postmodern. So there needs to be a way to have a community within your church that can really be a postmodern community. Not just a postmodern style of worship, but a community that relates to each other and the world in a more communitarian, less hierarchical, more participatory and interactive way. A community that can govern itself in ways that will drive your church council and old guard crazy. A community that can try and fail and learn from it, not be penalized for it. A community that might just end up questioning the values of its host.

The perception of control so necessary to moderns has to be let go of in order to let postmoderns be postmoderns.

On the other hand, if you just want to appropriate an emergent “style” of worship to bring people into a church that expects the new people to change to fit it, rather than changing to incorporate them, you will likely fail. As one young emerging Lutheran leader put it, “people my age can smell the bait-and-switch stench a mile away.”

In short, if your approach involves requiring someone to reprogram their BIOS, it is destined to fail. And there is a real question here – if there are people you want to reach whose BIOS is different than yours, how do you do so in a way that honors the integrity of who they are and honors who you are (and how your church is)? If your church can’t reprogram itself to allow different firmware to exist at the same time, in parallel, there are lots of options:
  • Empower some of your native postmoderns to gather a community, and then turn them loose.
  • Send postmodern missionaries out of the church into your community, and support them.
  • Plant a daughter church
  • Get together with some other churches to plant a new ministry.
  • Support your synod or another church who is trying something new.
There is room in God’s kingdom for the-church-as-we-know-it and the-church-that-is-emerging. There will always be people, even in the postmodern age, who resonate with the traditional church, perhaps with more interactivity, more ownership, and different mustic. We need to ask how we take care of the institution and those who thrive in it while reaching out to those who are wired to seek God in other ways.



"Do you take sin seriously?"

That was one of the questions posed to Karen Ward during her presentation in our synod last month. I loved her answer: The younger adults in the community that she serves experience the world as a profoundly broken place, and most are realistic about the idea that they're "messed up." The alienation and brokenness we associate with sin isn't an abstract idea for them, it's a reality.

I can see where the question comes from. Part of what is driving the church that is emerging is an attempt by Christians to distance themselves from the easy moralism of our civil religion (what Dallas Willard calls "the righteousness of the scribes and pharisees"). The refusal of "emergents" to toe the line on the hot-button sin issues of our day, or even to acknowledge a position, is often seen as being soft on sin. It's not just an emerging thing; people within the ELCA who are open to change in position on homosexuality, for example, are often accused of the same thing.

It's a matter of emphasis, I think. Modern religion, born in Christendom and often envious of the power of the state, has tended to focus more on the sins we commit rather than corporate sin or the reality that "we are in bondage to Sin and cannot free ourselves." Postmoderns, in my experience, are concerned with the failures of systems (economic and political) and institutions as well as those of individuals. While there probably are folks who would live down to the stereotype of ignoring personal sin altogether, I haven't met them. Some argue that the church that is emerging pushes the pendulum too far the other way, but then, after generations of terrorizing people over their transgressions while giving corporations, governments and armies a pass, relatively speaking -- and of being more concerned with leaders' sexual purity than their positions on peace and poverty -- maybe that's not a bad thing.

While previewing some videos from highway video the other night, we watched a pretty blunt documentary on children and the sex-trade that skewered government and the church for not taking harder stands as well as criticizing those who participate in this sordid business. When it was done my wife said, "Anyone who thinks the emerging church doesn't take sin seriously hasn't seen this video."

It's just more complicated to think through the why's and how's of the Sin that fights us and the sins we commit than to come up with rules to follow. It's hard to grapple with what it means to be simul justus et peccator -- Luther's keen insight that we are at once saints and sinners. It's even harder to get our minds around a God who loves sinners who are in bondage to sin, and who doesn't magically free us from those chains. (We're a lot like caged birds who keep circling rather than flying out when the master opens the little door.)

It's hard, but vitally important. Luther knew the importance of preaching the good news of the cross, of offering medicine to treat the sinsickness diagnosed by the law. The church that is emerging seems to be trying to keep this message in front of us. Rick in SF recently posted a poignant reflection on this reality. Here's an excerpt:
It’s not Divine punishment that defeats the toxicity of sin; it’s Divine love that overcomes the damages of sin and brings new life. Huge difference. I think much of the talk in certain church circles about grace stems from a form of religion that has convinced folks that they are bad but God is good. No wonder many people in the church act like abused animals starved for affection—they have been.
How radical is our concept of grace? Do we take sin seriously? Do we take God's intent to heal and restore even more seriously?

Luther said it well: Sin boldly, and believe in Christ more boldly!

Digital distractions

Newsweek's Stephen Levy writes this week about a new "syndrome" called CPA -- continuous partial attention. CPA is diagnosed when we have so many digital channels open at once -- cell, IM, email, web feeds, etc. -- that we don't actually pay full attention to any of them. Multiple feeds allow us to track new information and collaborate, though we often get hung up trying to be a "live" node all the time. But there's a downside:
But there's a problem in the workplace when the interruptions intrude on tasks that require real concentration or quiet reflection. And there's an even bigger problem when our bubble of connectedness stretches to ensnare us no matter where we are. A live BlackBerry or even a switched-on mobile phone is an admission that your commitment to your current activity is as fickle as Renée Zellweger's wedding vows. Your world turns into a never-ending cocktail party where you're always looking over your virtual shoulder for a better conversation partner. The anxiety is contagious: anyone who winds up talking to a person infected with CPA feels like he or she is accepting an Oscar, and at any moment the music might stop the speech.
A time to blog, a time to think; a time to get mail, a time to pray... There's plenty of clutter out there, and more and more of it gets past our tech filters every day. How to stay plugged in and yet close the virtual door when necessary? We need to be accessible, reachable, and speak the language of the digital denizens...and yet offer an antidote to the constant distraction that diminshes our personal relationships. A tall order. How do we achieve this balance?

Technology: tool or trouble

J.R. links to a fascinating article in which a former senior Xerox scientist and a high schooler discuss the future of technology. He poses the question: "What's your take on technology?"

I've been thinking about this a lot since I'm in part a tech guy. I really like using technology for worship experiences, though I know that there has to be a much deeper core or it won't be worship, no matter what tech is there. I do believe that e-mails and web boards and blogs introduce us and relate us to ideas and people we wouldn't otherwise know...sounds like community to me! ...and that it's good to use technologies we're using anyway to transmit and translate the Gospel.

(As an aside, if you want to explore a little of the generational perspectives, go read J.R.'s post, then the article. I'll wait. ... tap... tap... tap...)

So J.R. asked for our take on technology: Is it a curse or blessing? Here's my comment on his post. What's your take?

A hammer's a neutral piece of technology -- you can use it to drive a nail or split a skull. At least until everyone's carrying a hammer and whacking at each other.

Technology is by nature neutral as well. But the way the culture uses it influences our choices to use it for good or for evil. As my places of ministry embrace technology I see potential, and I also worry about becoming a slave to it (mostly because I'm the tech guy as well as the content guy).

But I think that anything that becomes just assumed in work and life poses that danger of making one a slave. I sometimes worry that the weekly rhythm of curating and preparing for worship saps my time, energy and passion for living out my call in other ways.

I found it interesting that the teenager seemed to want more balance than the senior scientist -- it's easy for us to accept 'the way it is' as we get older. It's also possible that his place in life allows him more natural balance than many of us can assume.

Either way it's an interesting contrast between a modern "tech and progress" view and the relational, more holistic approach to life Shannon described. I'm not sure she's completely representative of her generation's views on technology...but I hope her voice is heard.

So what's my take? Technology isn't the great Satan and it isn't going to solve our communal problems. It isn't impirically neutral but it is what we make of it. I feel like I need to monitor it more to see where it is feeding relationship and balance, and where it is fighting it, and avoid it where it isn't helping.

Thanks for posting the link!


No post before its time

I'm celebrating National Procrastination Week a week late. Do you think I jumped the gun?

Before you ponder that, have a laugh with this video clip. Then get back to work. :)


"Get involved with what God is doing..."

For worship last week we used this video combining images and songs our group recorded on our trip to Africa along with excerpts from Bono's National Prayer Breakfast presentation.


"Emerging" is more than skin deep

One of the points that Karen Ward of Church of the Apostles made clear at our recent learning party is that the "emerging church" is not just a worship style. She uses "ethos" to describe the distinctive spirit of Apostles Church. Karen notes that ethos is more than superficial style, more than the "coffee, candles and cool video" that many critics see as the totality of the church that is emerging. A community's ethos includes its shared values, how authority and leadership are defined, how it views Scripture and pastoral roles and the priesthood of all believers. Dictionary.com defines it this way:
e·thos Audio pronunciation of "ethos" (Pronunciation Key (ths)
n. The disposition, character, or fundamental values peculiar to a specific person, people, culture, or movement...
There are some common threads of a hypothetical "emerging ethos" that would resonate with some -- but not all -- people and churches that would use the "emerging" label: a high value on true community rather than the "social club" model that plagues some churches; a commitment to what Karen calls "deep ecclesiology," drawing from the well of Christian history and tradition rather than just one denomination's story; a focus on living the way of Jesus out in daily life and social action, rather than just going to church on Sunday. Some would argue with one of these points, others will suggest additional points. That's why the church that is emerging is a conversation, not a denomination. But this high-level emerging ethos isn't really the point.

The point, Karen said, is "radical contextualization." It's not so much about how the "emerging ethos" and the "traditional church ethos" collide and resonate. What's important is that the Christian community is true to the "disposition, character and fundamental values peculiar to" its members. That doesn't mean that the Gospel conforms to people's preconceptions, but that the community expresses the dreams, gifts, and longings of its people. If the community has an egalitarian view of leadership, for example, its structure will look different than the classic church hierarchy. An artistic community will nurture and encourage the gifts its artists and poets and musicians bring. (Karen noted how Apostles' musicians created a space and even composed a piece to allow one member's gift of accordion playing to be lifted up.) A community responding to Jesus' social action will make that an integral part of its life. Part of contextualization is being open to the interplay of the Gospel, the people and the Spirit's leading.

I heard Doug Pagitt of Solomon's Porch describe this well. He said that when people become part of the the community their gifts, their aspirations, their issues become part of the community as well -- and as a result the community is different. In other words, the church and the community have roles in shaping each other. How different from the old model of an immutable church whose role is to shape its members?

Karen was asked a question I receive often: Can existing churches emerge? Can this ethos flourish within the church or must it go outside (or underground)? Specifically, she was asked if it would be appropriate to add an "emerging" service to an existing church.

This gets to the heart of the matter: Is "emerging" a skin we can apply to the same underlying church, like changing the look but not the functionality of software, or is it an "ethos" that defines how we are the church? Karen wisely noted that any configuration is possible. UK churches have long housed several mainly autonomous communities under one roof; that's how many of the alt.worship communities that have flourished in the UK exist. Youth churches have started in evangelical and mainline churches, often viewed as a feeder into the "regular" church, though this has been less effective than hoped for because people with a truly postmodern ethos don't fit real well in the "regular" service.

Her bottom line was this: If you want to connect with postmodern emergents, take their ethos seriously. There is not a formula -- some will be more artistic, some more service oriented, some more or less comfortable with the existing church structure. But if you empower a group to discover its ethos as a worshipping community, let them stay at it. Don't bait and switch them into the "regular" environment, and don't try to snap all the regular rules and expectations onto the new group as a means of control, because they won't stay around.

If people become engaged with the faith in an emerging fashion, something powerful will be unleashed, and you probably can't control it. There will eventually be tension -- over styles, over times, over space, over control issues -- so let it be creative tension that sets the Spirit in motion, rather than the destructive anxiety that divides so many congregation and can kill great ideas for fresh expressions of the church.

I appreciate Karen's focus on the ethos of the community. All communities have their own ethos, and the church is no exception. We have congregations in our ELCA tribe that are very formal and stiff, and ones that are more flexible and user-friendly. We have congregations that are perceived by newcomers as warm, cold and suffocating. We have those that idolize hierarchy and those that deal with it. Those that embrace experimentation and those that have trouble with seasonal variations to the liturgy.

The postmodern shift, she pointed out, provides new challenges. The openness to many points of view to tell the whole story, distrust of experts and instititions, multimedia and multisensory ways of learning, acceptance of different intelligences and learning styles, and the flattening of hierarchies are difficult to assimilate. But we must understand that these are not merely styles adopted by postmoderns that they can be cured of by a big enough dose of modernism. This is part of the ethos of the emerging culture -- perhaps the defining aspect of which is that there is no one emerging culture -- that people will not check at the door of church, any more than they do at the door of the office or the mall or the voting booth. To engage postmoderns we must accept their ethos and accord it the deference we give our own and, as church planter Rachelle Mee-Chapman has said, "dance in the overlap."

Jesus has my number!

Our book group is discussing "The Divine Conspiracy" by Dallas Willard, which is driving me to look at the sermon on the mount in a deeper way. I posted this reflection on the book group blog to lead us into chapter 5:

Jesus has my number!

That’s what I think as I read again Luke’s account of the “sermon on the plain.” (Luke 6:17-49) Compared to Matthew’s encyclopedic account of Jesus’ teaching, Luke presents the radio mix, the summary for short attention spans. And immediately it jumps out at me:

Jesus has my number!

Luke’s gospel is built around the idea that God is turning the tables on the world-as-we-know-it and on self-satisfied “religion.” And it’s a story of Jesus being misunderstood, not meeting anyone’s expectations, right from the start. His parents don’t get why he would stay riveted at the feet of the temple’s teachers. John doesn’t get that he actually needs to be baptized. His friends and neighbors don’t get how he could have a new interpretation of a familiar prophecy. Those who actually see him expel a demon can’t figure it out. The healed crowds don’t get there are other sick for him to go to. The Pharisees don’t get – well, ok, condemn – his table companions and his view of the Sabbath.

Jesus consistently disappoints the conventional wisdom (which is always the former and rarely the latter). The pundits of his day would have put his name next to a big down arrow on the CW watch, and said something like this:

\/ Jesus. Knows his law inside and out, but following it? Not so much. And his dinner companions leave a lot to be desired.

Not exactly a candidate for high priest.

Really, only Mary, who overcomes her intitial shock to embrace Gabriel’s message, gets it. And the devil, who respects that Jesus has a deep understanding of God’s message – not superficial like so many of the religious folks he deals with – and withdraws to find another way. Oh, and the shepherds in the field, whose expectations are so low that any news is good news.

But misunderstood as he is, Jesus understands them all.

And it scares me how well he understands me.

Jesus knows that I’d like to think I have it made and my worries are over. That I’m pretty satisfied with myself sometimes, and like it best when I have “control” in at least some circumstances. He knows that given half a chance I run from suffering without looking back. That I can "go along to get along." And if someone takes advantage of me, I am so not into helping them use me further.

Jesus has my number!

I know I can lead worship or teach or pray publicly and then turn around and snap at one of my kids. I can find fault with the best of them, and I’m no stranger to expecting the worst from people. I’ll tell you I don’t expect something back from my giving, but I want it to “make a difference” (in my eyes, on my time), and I think it ought to count for something. Jesus knows, too.

Jesus’ teachings from the plain (or the mount, in Matthew) show that it’s not our world that is reality, but God’s kingdom. Dallas Willard says that these teachings prove that Jesus is brilliant, and I think he’s right. Jesus has both real, deep, intimate experience with that flawed thing we call human nature and a clear-eyed appreciation for what really matters – the reign of God. But this is not theological insight divorced from real life, not psycho-babble, not control disguised as orthodoxy.

Jesus is divinity shining through real humanity. He’s authentic, he’s with people, he’s focused on wholeness and healing, not making people feel worse. His authority is so real that he doesn’t need to impose it except on demons and religious leaders (interesting combination, don’t you think?). No wonder crowds surge toward him, longing to connect with the energy that radiates from him.

If I’m going to be known, this is the guy I want to know me.

Jesus proves in these brief paragraphs that he sees past all our masks and good intentions. He can repeat all the lies we tell ourselves before they escape our lips. But does he condemn us – condemn me?

No. Jesus’s response isn’t to lecture, or to exclude, or to feel better at our expense. He doesn’t whack anybody over the head with a Torah scroll. He shows us, in ways we can’t deny, that he knows we miss the mark; and he knows that we know that. He explains and models a better way to cope with our less than ideal reality. He doesn’t tell us what to think, he shows us how to live.

Luke dutifully scribes all of Jesus’ teaching for his audience of outsiders. But he leaves in a few delightfully telling details about how this master class goes down. As Jesus and the disciples settle on the plain, crowds press in on them, delirious for the healing and wholeness that they have heard that he brings. Gigawatts of God’s power flow out of him, and Luke tells us that every one of them was healed.

Before Jesus ever utters a syllable about living generously and pouring one’s life out for others – he does it.

He keeps doing it, right to the cross.

He’s still doing it.

Jesus, help me to watch what you’re doing. And do it, too.