Tag: Boundaries

There is No Spoon: Christian Boundary Maintenance

I have been fascinated with the idea of social networks since taking a great course in grad school when social network analysis was just beginning. In some ways, the question of who’s in and who’s out is a connecting thread that runs across my career.

My dissertation was on people who regularly attend church but never join (I saw them as boundary poachers, although the findings proved more complicated than that). I used network analysis to study three congregations and their relationship patterns in the early 90s (but I didn’t pay enough attention to bridging capital — more later).

Perhaps that research is what led me to be so critical of the effort we put into maintaining boundaries. I distinctly remember hearing a Focus on the Family broadcast telling of a group of school children playing at a newly constructed playground. Well-intentioned psychologists, it was argued, believed that they didn’t want to limit the childrens’ sense of adventure and so didn’t put fences around the school yard. The children, not knowing where the edges were, huddled anxiously in a clump being afraid to venture out. The chagrined psychologists had fences put up and then the children played happily in their new playground.

Parenthetically, I once put my university library staff along with the psych department to work to locate the original source. It appears to be apocryphal but is regularly repeated in blogs, sermons, and parenting articles. (A google scholar search just now came up pretty empty.)

trafalgar

Anyway, when I heard the report I knew what was wrong. They were looking in the wrong direction for meaning. It’s not at the edges but it’s in the center. I suggested to a friend (as I have repeated for years) that the solution isn’t to focus on the fences but the build a monolith in the center of the playground and tell the children they can play where ever they want as long as they can see the statue. This picture of Trafalgar square is as close as I’ve come to capturing what I had in mind.

The same ideas apply to Christian identity. If we spend all our time exploring the edges that separate us from others, we’re investing in creating and maintaining boundaries that function to that end. If this boundary weakens, we have to go and repair it right away like a rancher keeping the cattle in.

Instead, we can rest in the New Testament image of the Shepherd who knows the sheep and walks in their midst. They listen for him and move when he moves.

But we keep trying to build fences. I think this is a normal sociological process. We like to be with people like us. So we spend our energies creating points of separation that keep the outsiders out (and the insiders in). It’s an effective form of social control and identity marking, but it is a far cry from the outreach of the Gospel.

Spend just a few days reading Facebook or Twitter and you’ll see this in operation. We find things about which to be offended: how dare you say Happy Holidays instead of Merry Christmas? Women can teach Sunday School but not preach (there was a great blog but I lost it). We have church trials surrounding a Methodist minister who officiated at his gay son’s wedding. We separate the Wesleyans from the Calvinists. We separate over science and faith. Don’t get me started on the Christians engaged in political fights on Facebook, calling each other out for not being True Christians.

In my Spirituality, Faith, and Justice class Thursday night, we were discussing the role of narrative in the pursuit of justice and the common good. This combined readings from Michael Sandel’s Justice and Walter Brueggemann’s Journey to the Common Good. Attending to story can bind us together. The real task, paraphrasing Brueggemann, is to reconstruct community is such a way as not not privilege one group over another but validate all stories.

weakties

I was attempting to illustrate this by drawing on the distinction between bonding social capital and bridging social capital. In that context, I returned to a classic piece of modern sociology — Mark Grannovetter’s The Strength of Weak Ties. Grannovetter argued that tightly bonded groups are good for social support but bad at building connections. For that, we need weak ties — the acquaintanceships that tell us about job prospects or allow information to be tested against reality.

For a quick explanation, check out this link from Information Week (where I got the graphic). The implication of the graph is that the energy in a strong tie group is expended inward. This provides a clear sense of who is in and who is out. The energy of a weak tie group is always expended outward — one never knows which of the surrounding circles is the source of potential contacts or information.

In the context of the class discussion, i was attempting to connect this to my prior work on millennials. One of the reasons they are concerned about the church is because they’ve maintained connections through social media with a diverse group of folks from different spheres of their lives. In short, they live in a weak-tie world.

This weekend Zach Hoag filled in on Zack Hunt’s blog (Zack has a cute new baby, but I’m a little biased about smart and beautiful babies since my granddaughter was born). Hoag wrote about the false fronts that are involved in our never-ending search for niceness. We stay away from the real messiness of the world because we’re maintaining face. Erving Goffman was a pioneer in exploring the ways in which we manage cues and props to create and maintain impressions. Boundary maintenance is another outcome of the same process.

One can find people who are less concerned about boundaries. Jonathan Fitzgerald wrote a profile of Nadia Bolz-Weber in the Daily Beast that defies membership in a single group (while acknowledging the danger of creating yet another Christian celebrity). In any case, Bolz-Weber fits a weak-ties model of social capital.

When I was talking to my class last week explaining the notion of social networks, I was struck by a new insight.

The notion of inside and outside are fictions. They’re helpful fictions and we find them comfortable. But they are fictions nonetheless.

There_is_no_SpoonI felt compelled to start quoting The Matrix (I’d already done a riff on Life of Brian). I found myself thinking of the boy Neo meets when he visits the Prophet. The boy can bend a spoon with his mind. Then Neo is told “There is no spoon“.

That made me think again about the Weak Ties diagram. The notion that we have all these little circles we’re part of isn’t true. It’s one big circle. And we’re all part of it.

God’s circle is bigger than we imagine and is not bounded by time or space much less by simple distinctions on who gets to preach or who gets to marry or who reads which science books.

What would happen if the evangelical church caught a vision of the bigger circle and the ways in which our stories are being co-written with each of us as influencers in every other story. Yes, I really liked the Day of the Doctors! What if all the energy we expend on separateness was spent building linkages to those different than ourselves?

It’s a great narrative — a storyline that starts at creation and runs throughout history to the restoration of that creation on earth as it is in heaven.

The Kingdom of God is at Starbucks

New Starbucks

I drove to the Chicago suburbs on Friday to attend a Mission Alliance conference. The program posed the question: “How do we lead the church into our local neighborhood/context and what do we actually do when we get there?” It was a great time interacting with theology professors, church planters, mainline pastors, seminary students, and community organizers.

We started Friday night by eating dinner at Bishops, a lovely little chili joint in Westmont that has been in the same family since 1925. We didn’t tell them we were coming, but they were great nevertheless. The owner modeled the kinds of things we talk about in terms of servanthood in spite of a room full of conferency folks who didn’t know what they were doing.

After dinner, we went back to the church plant where we were meeting and heard the opening session from Chris Smith on the story of Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis. For a variety of reasons, the church was in need of healthy dialogue about what bound them together and how they’d articulate their shared identity. That has allowed them to build bridges into the broader Englewood community to partner with various agencies in addressing social needs. You can read more here on your Kindle device for only $2.99.

As I listened to Chris’ presentation, I kept thinking about our assumptions about how the congregation related to the broader community. It seemed like the goal was to work through “issues” in the congregation in preparation for engaging those “out there”. Then new people would come in and we could bring them up to speed on what had transpired over time. But I wondered, why couldn’t we let those “out there” see us in our messiness? Why do we have to clean ourselves up before we engage? Does such an assumption push us into putting on our Halloween masks all year long?

If we do that, it seems that two things result. First, we lose the ability to be authentic with others because we’ve spent so much energy in making sure our masks fit. Second, those “outside” may have serious concerns about their ability to measure up to us (mostly because we didn’t tell them where the mask store is located!).

I’ve played around before with how much energy evangelicals expend in boundary maintenance. Sitting in a church in a western Chicago suburb, I returned to those same questions. How does the church engage? Can we do that without having to persuade others of the superiority of our position? Can we simply connect and leave the convicting and demonstrating to the Holy Spirit?

Saturday morning began at Starbucks as I connected with Michelle Van Loon, who I’ve written about as an internet buddy but hadn’t met. Meeting Michelle proved that the “othering” of the internet still can allow for personal connection. The Holy Spirit had gone before and allowed us to find great commonalities in spite of very diverse backgrounds.

Back at the meeting, David Fitch opened the day by suggesting that we think of the Kingdom  “out there” as a material reality and not a theological possibility. We connect in the authority of the Holy Spirit who is already working in the neighborhood before we get there. David contrasted an approach based on projects with those based on presence. We don’t just do stuff — we are. We relate. He told a story about his connection with one of the guys who is a regular at the McDonald’s he goes to (I don’t like McD’s coffee, so therefore Starbucks is in the title of this piece). The guy was in need and David was able to offer his connectional resources as an investment into the person’s life. It was a Kingdom moment even though nobody talked religion (yet).

The next session dealt with issues of reconciliation, but I was still bothered by the us-them language that showed up in that context. First we separate, then we repent of the separation and look for bridges. Part of that discussion involved the confrontation passages in Matthew 18. Go to the sibling who has wronged you, then take some friends, and finally treat the person as a sinner or tax collector. That sounds like inside/outside language describing what to do when people are out of line. The final stage is be put outside the group. But in the small group discussions, several of us recognized that Jesus gave us a model for dealing with the sinners and tax collectors. He ate with them.

So they weren’t excluded from our company. They were still connected. Their lives are important and significant.

Lunch was catered from a wonderful restaurant down the block from the church (where church folks were regularly engaged, including waitressing there). We gathered around tables in the lower level of the church. Interestingly, the village of Westmont held their annual Halloween walk on Saturday. While we were eating, I could see children in costume and their families walking by the casement windows. All of a sudden I realized how much better the church would be at engaging the neighborhood if we had glass walls on our churches. We could  see the neighbors engaging their lives, they could see us with the messiness of being a community of Grace. Maybe Robert Schuller had part of a good idea. Don’t build a Chrystal Cathedral with sunlight and birds. But find a way to let others see in and for you to see out.

That set up the final session. Cyd and Geoff Holsclaw presented on what it means to Proclaim the Gospel. This Gospel isn’t solely the focus on Sin-Salvation-Service of past evangelism. This is the Gospel but not the complete Gospel. Cyd reflected on Luke 4 and how we are “proclaiming the year of the Lord’s favor“. When we confront people in need, people who are hurting, people who are fearful, people who despair, we are really telling them: “It isn’t supposed to be like this“. God is restoring his creation in our midst even when we can’t see it.

Geoff followed up with a wonderful illustration of a guy at Starbucks. Someone who struck up a regular conversation, much like David’s McDonald’s friend. Geoff took the opportunity to engage, to explain his own work and commitments. That opened the possibility for the other guy’s life struggles to be authentically shared. The story doesn’t end with a marvelous conversion tableau that can be shared in conferences. It is just the illustration of connecting to another in Jesus’ name. Geoff didn’t have to take the Kingdom to Starbucks because the Kingdom was already there.

I went to the conference to try out an idea I have about how evangelicals can engage a broader culture that doesn’t agree, doesn’t understand, and likely doesn’t care. My thinking is that if we can simply be present and tell our story about God’s Grace, we’d still be playing a vital role in society.

I came away revising my thinking considerably. We don’t begin by being ready to witness. We begin by being aware of the Kingdom around us. Then we find that the stories “out there” aren’t any different than the stories “in here”.

Which was really the Gospel we were trying to Proclaim anyway.