Tag: Nadia Bolz-Weber

Random Religion Reflections on a Wednesday

A number of things have caught my attention over the last few days. I’ve been trying to figure out how to tie them together in a nice coherent essay, but I can’t get there. So rather than spend a week crafting this post, I decided it was prudent to write some general reflections:

1. What role can congregations play in mitigating what Bill Bishop called The Big Sort?

One of the principle sociological processes of the 21st century is our tendency to stay in lifestyle enclaves. In suburban rings, these show up as gated communities (whether real or imagined). In inner-cities, they look like ghettos (in the technical and historical sense of the term). This separation has significant consequences for social policy.

This weekend, my friend Scott Emery posted a Washington Post article by Emily Badger (If you care about urban policy at all, follow Emily on twitter at @emilymbadger). Her article, titled “How our cars, our neighborhoods, and our schools are pulling us apart” summarizes work done by Robert Putnam in Bowling Alone as well as other works. The byproduct of such separation is a lessening in interaction even with those in our neighborhoods and a general sense of distrust of people in general.

I shared the piece on Facebook with this question: “What would it take for the local congregation to be one place that counters this trend?” What if our churches were the places where people interacted with those different than themselves, shared meals, and actually shared lives?

I was thinking of a research project I conducted in the early 90s. I had hypothesized that congregations played a key role in linking various voluntary associations within a community. I examined the social networks within three congregations as well as their associational memberships. I found limited support for my hypothesis, in part because I focused on bonding capital (friendship) instead of bridging capital (information flow and problem solving). I completely ignored Grannovetter’s “Strength of Weak Ties” that I’ve written about.

If we put a priority on both bonding and bridging capital in the local congregation, we’d do a great deal to counter the dynamics we’re seeing in the news. Local churches could be key sources of revitalizing communities while living out the call as the Body of Christ.

Emily Badger wrote another story about how the gentrification of urban areas can be a good thing if it means expanding jobs and services to previously isolated inner cities.  If millennials are disproportionately moving to cities and inner suburbs, their local congregations might be key to transformation. That is, if they don’t all settle for non-church community.

2. Attendance Still Matters

This was a theme I explored a couple of weeks back when I analyzed the 2007 Pew Religious Landscape study. In that post, I argued that you cannot really understand what it happening in evangelical and mainline religion by looking at membership apart from attendance. There are lots of folks who claim religious identification who rarely go to church and they shouldn’t be part of our calculations of what’s changing (or not) in the religious world. For example, the data on “church switchers” needs to take into consideration that 1 in 5 of those claiming a childhood faith rarely if ever went to church.

With the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention happening this week, there was news of a continuing membership decline. The SBC has lost 800,000 members since 2003. Trevin Wax wrote a nice analysis for Religion News Service exploring factors contributing to this change. He identifies four issues: the rise of nondenominationalism, lower birthrates, changes in attendance, and lessened outreach. It’s the third one that got my attention:

Several years ago, Southern Baptists began a conversation on membership and church discipline. After a resolution was passed encouraging pastors to be more accurate in reporting, many churches cleaned up their rolls as a way of moving toward “meaningful membership.”

To put this another way, it’s not just mainline churches who had “cultural Christians” — people who claimed religious identification but didn’t attend. This is significant to the whole “church decline” argument. If what we’re seeing is a shift away from casual membership, this is good for congregations. But it also means that what we used to see as the dominance of religion in society may have been substantially overstated.

3. Belonging is Prior to Believing.

There are many who would argue this the other way around, that right belief is a condition for belonging. But I think that’s bad social psychology. We have a desire to be accepted for who we are and to work through our differences as a condition of remaining in a group. If we are not allowed to be ourselves and to ask legitimate questions we have, there are serious social costs that result which play out in a number of ways. I wonder how many church conflicts, power struggles, gossip sessions, and fights over music style are really about identity more than content.

http://www.nakedpastor.com/2015/06/is-this-your-relationship-to-the-church-and-sale/
http://www.nakedpastor.com/2015/06/is-this-your-relationship-to-the-church-and-sale/

David Hayward shared this cartoon yesterday. He explained that this venn diagram describes his relationship to the church. But I find it has a deeper meaning.

If the left circle is who I am, then a small slice of me is allowed at church. Conversely, much of the work of the church has little impact on how I live my life. I’d label the overlap (which he labels “complicated”) as authentic identity.

Consider the lessons shared in this piece from Leadership Journal yesterday. Oneya Fennel Okuwobi explained the steps involved in building a truly multi-ethnic congregation: 1) Take time to listen; 2) Empathize with Outsiders; and 3) Going beyond a veneer of peace. These aren’t just lessons for dealing with ethnic or racial diversity — they are the steps toward true community.

The desire for community is not simply a millennial preference (although they may be less likely to hang around in its absence). This was the dominant theme in Church Refugees — those Done With Church simply couldn’t find the resources to keep going in the face of such denial of identity.

4. Rethinking Congregational Life

This is the central theme I wanted to weave together but I realized that I really need help from people who are involved in ministry on a week to week basis. But it seems to me that if we wanted our congregations to be places that people invested in, that impacted their communities, and that made belonging central, we’d do some things differently.

Perhaps we need to recognize the small group ministries are an admission that people aren’t at home in the congregation. They go to church and they “do life” in their groups. Why is this? What would it look like for us to do life on Sunday (making Hayward’s overlap a little bigger)?

Two of the schools I’ve worked at have had cohort based degree programs for adults. When you go to commencement and hear people speak of their experience, you find that their loyalty resides with Group 23 and not with the institution. Have we done the same thing in the local church?

I’ve been looking over some recent books by disaffected millennials. In seeing where they struggled with congregational life, we might gain insights into the questions we need to pursue (even if I’m not ready for answers yet). In Erin Lane’s excellent Lessons in Belonging, she shares some concrete ideas.

a. Identify peoples’ gifts (my edit: not in terms of what the church needs done but what gives them fulfillment — it’s called Asset Based Community Development)

b. Create safe space for sharing one’s life, maybe by limiting conversation to just a few minutes without judgment

c. Have everyone wear name tags at church (and make enough time for real conversation and not just a handshake)

d. Have set aside times where people share their faith journey

e. Be genuinely interested in those with views different than our own (including those outside the church).

I’d love to see these ideas blended into the actual worship service and not simply things around the edges. What if the sermon was in two parts — a presentation by the pastor, a reflection from a member, and a response from the pastor? What if people’s journeys were a regular part of conversation? (I have gone to church with people for years and not known what they did for a living before they retired or how many kids they have.)

We could have congregations that filled the void in our communities small and large. But to do so requires us to question our practices for this post-Christian society.

I saw a story today about a speech Nadia Bolz-Weber gave to the UCC in Massachusetts. Here’s an excerpt:

Bolz-Weber said people shouldn’t take the Pew Research Center surveys showing fewer people are attending church to mean that they don’t care about Christianity anymore.

That would be like saying because there are no phone booths, no one cares about talking on the phone anymore, or because there are no more Blockbuster stores, no one cares about being able to watch movies at home, she said.

So what does it mean for local congregations like mine to rethink how we do what we do in the same way cellphones and Netflix have changed their respective dynamics? I don’t have answers worked out but I think I’m headed toward some possible answers.

A Voice In Ramah: Power, Protest, and Presence

A voice was heard in Ramah,
weeping and much grieving.
Rachel weeping for her children,
and she did not want to be comforted,
because they were no more.

(Matthew 2:18)

Brooklyn_Museum_-_The_Magi_Journeying_(Les_rois_mages_en_voyage)_-_James_Tissot_-_overallThis passage from Matthew is a response to horrific injustice. King Herod, learning from the Wise Men that the King had been born, is unable to locate the specific child that represented a threat to his Power. So to play it safe, he draws a circle on his map around Bethlehem and uses the legitimate authority of his government to execute all boys under two within that circle.

It’s understandable that Christmas pageants end with the arrival of the Wise Men. It makes a nice conclusion to the story. Very Important People “traverse afar” to acknowledge the King and humble themselves before Him. Clearly, power bends in the face of the Incarnate God.

But that’s not the whole story. Power is also used to exterminate innocents. Undeserving others who happened to be born in the wrong neck of the woods. Who couldn’t have possibly have been born just six months earlier so that they’d be over two when that horrific order came down.

Thursday night we finished my “Spirituality, Faith, and Justice” class. The students recognized that power and our response to it was a central theme to all of our readings. (They also rightly pointed out that I probably intended that since I picked the books and ordered the readings.) By the end of all of our books, a quest for power had given way to something else. Michael Sandel was calling for a communitarian response to the common good. Christena Cleveland calls us to a broader circle of identity and a commitment to serve others in response to Christ’s model. David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw call us to practice Incarnational Pluralism, where we engage the communities in which we live to bear witness to the Kingdom.

Walter Brueggemann provides the best deconstruction of the role of power. He sees that Truth undermines power in remarkable and unpredictable ways; not of our acting but because God is already intervening in pursuit of Justice. Here are some passages from the last few pages of When Truth Speaks to Power:

I have no wish, mutatis mutandis, to draw too close an analogue to our own time or to overstate the totalizing aspects of the present American system. Except to notice that the present concentration of power and wealth among us, the collusion of much of the media, and the alliance of the courts make it possible to think that totalizing is ready at hand among us. Those of us who attend to and mean to adhere to the testimony of truth in the biblical tradition are left with the quite practical question concerning the performance of truth that concerns emancipation and transformation in a context that does not intend any emancipation from dominant ideology and that intends transformation only inside that system. The wonderment among us is that there are agents of truth who find daring, risky ways out beyond the totalism. Sometimes (many times?) the church colludes with the totalism and blesses it, to its own considerable benefit. But sometimes the church— in feeble or in daring ways, in conventional or in imaginative ways—has an alternative say….It is finally the God of all truth who breaks the grip of totalism, who confounds the imperial governor, and who makes all things new … here and there … now and then.

A society that has lost its way may indeed be ready for serious discipleship that informs citizenship. Such deep obedience to the truth that marks discipleship does not aim, in citizenship, to transpose the body politic into the church or into a theocracy. It aims rather to insist that the holy truth voices gifts and commands that matter in a society that depends too much on greed against neighbor, that practices too much denial about the crisis in the neighborhood, and that ends too much in despair.

It occurs to me that the situation of the church in our society, perhaps the church everywhere always, is entrusted with a truth that is inimical to present power arrangements. … The truth that is variously enacted by such agents is not an idea or a proposition. It is rather a habit of life that simply (!) refuses the totalizing claims of power.

Naturally, all of this thinking about issues of power leads me to reflect on Ferguson and Staten Island. How can grand juries fail to indict bad behavior? If we think about the totalizing aspects of power, it would be naive to expect an indictment. That would require the entities of power ruling against the agents of power. Sure, we can find cases where “bad apples” are isolated and removed, but that does little to disrupt the power involved.

The protests in the streets across the nation has been a fascinating display that people think “something is wrong”. But some of those protests have been designed to compete within power domains. Perhaps, they seem to suggest, if we disrupt shopping malls or traffic patterns, then change will come. But often that simply turns into an invitation for contesting power that plays into the hands of those who wield it most effectively and who have more structural resources upon which to draw.

So where does that leave us? If power is not the coin of the Kingdom, how do we nurture change and justice? Again, it’s worth reflecting on what happens in the midst of lament. As I’ve noted before, Brueggemann suggests that when the Israelite slaves cry out in their Egyptian oppression, God acts — even though they don’t ask God for deliverance. Our presence and participation in the pain of others is more of a testament to Truth than dozens of organizations or twitter hashtags.

God is also present in the suffering. In Pastrix, Nadia Bolz-Weber reflects on the perrennial question of theodicy: where is God in suffering? Her answer is remarkably simple: he is on the cross. He is incarnationally present in the midst of the pain.

One of my favorite parts of Frederick Buechner’s Wishful Thinking comes as he’s discussing Job’s suffering. Buechner suggests that we often want explanations of how these bad things happen. Who is to blame? What is the point? He also suggests that God is simply present in the pain.

Understanding in terms of the divine economy why his children had to die, Job would still have to face their empty chairs at breakfast every morning. Carrying in his pocket straight from the horse’s mouth a complete theological justification of his boils, he would still have to scratch and burn.

God doesn’t reveal his grand design. He reveals himself. He doesn’t show why things are as they are. He shows his face. And Job says, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear, but now my eyes see thee” (Job 42:5). Even covered with sores and ashes, he looks oddly like a man who has asked for a crust and been given the whole loaf.

The Truth is that God’s Presence is there in the midst of the crowds in Ferguson and Staten Island and everywhere else. He has not abandoned the world. And we in the church, acting as the Body of Christ, are similarly present. We are vicariously suffering the loss of lives and the pain of incredulity that such things happen.

It’s worth looking back at the Jeremiah passage that Matthew quotes following the Slaughter of the Innocents. The very next verses, Jeremiah 31: 16-17 say that God is aware of the suffering and that things will soon be different.

The Lord proclaims:
Keep your voice from crying
    and your eyes from weeping,
    because your endurance will be rewarded,
        declares the Lord.
    They will return from the land of their enemy!
17 There’s hope for your future,
    declares the Lord.
        Your children will return home!

Maybe we need to include Herod in the Christmas pageants somehow. Maybe it would let us stay aware that we’re not about trusting in power, even when it’s ours to exercise. Maybe it’s worth reminding ourselves every year that Truth is playing on a very different level than simple Power.

I’ve often wanted a different ending to the second chapter of Matthew. The Wise Men are “warned in a dream” not to return to Herod. I kind of want them to go back and then refuse to tell where they find the Child. It would have cost them, but maybe would have saved those children.

But it’s not my story to write. It’s God’s. And as one of his ambassadors, maybe it’s enough for me to live in the tension and pain of loss. To suggest that there is another way. That one day, hopefully soon, we will all be returning home from the totalizing power of Empire into the reward of the Kingdom of God.

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.