Sermons, Sermons everywhere and all the Churches did shrink

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" is a wonderful poem about the experiences of the "ancient mariner." Of the memorable lines there is this one:

“Water, water, everywhere,
And all the boards did shrink;
Water, water, everywhere,
Nor any drop to drink.”

Here the crew of the ship is stranded and without fresh water. They find themselves in the ironic position that they are dying of thirst while being surrounded by water. 

This poem came into my head when I came across preacher Skye Jethani's post entitled "Is it time for another reformation?" in which he examines preaching through a economic supply/demand lens. It was an interesting little read and I hope you can take the time to read it in full here.

Jethani opens by reminding that massive changes in the church were preceded by a massive change in communication technology. For instance, Luther's ideas would not have taken off as he did if not for the printing press. Likewise, the church is seeing a massive change on the heels of the advent of the internet. Specifically Jethani points out, prior to the internet, most Bible teaching required you to go to a worshiping community. Thus the Church had the "supply" of Biblical teaching and there was a demand that was met when people attend a worshiping community. 

Even if we assume that the demand for Biblical teaching has remanded constant, there is a glut of supply. Each week I listen to four different preachers through my smart phone, I read two daily email devotionals and am notified every three hours to prayer via my watch alarm. This does not count the physical books, in person interactions and other "analog" access to my spiritual practices. Jethani puts it this way:

This low demand and high supply means the market for Bible instruction has reduced the cost to virtually zero. That’s a good thing, right? Yes, unless you are a church that still expects people to pay the high cost demanded by the old model. Most institutional churches continue to make the preaching act the centerpiece of Sunday worship, and Sunday worship is the centerpiece of most church structures. An audit of virtually any Protestant church will reveal a massive percentage of the institution’s resources (space, funds, leadership) is devoted to the Sunday preaching event and its related activities and facilities. In other words, most churches have inherited a sixteenth century model that is increasingly out of step with twenty-first century realities. 

Prior to asking very poignant questions, Jethani states:

Pastors carry a Reformation mindset that sees Bible teaching as a scarcity which makes their sermons valuable, while Millennials with a digital mindset recognize the abundance of Bible teaching making most pastor's sermons, and therefore Sunday attendance, unnecessary.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poem concludes with the hearer waking up "sadder and wiser" for hearing the tale of the Ancient Mariner. It is possible for us to become sadder, but may we also be wiser. 


My young adult has left the Church (part 6)

As a final of three areas of bridge building conversation between those whom I have had a conversation with who might be identified as “deChurched”, I wanted to turn to a rather ‘hot topic’ for many people: religious pluralism

I do not know what it was like to grow up in Christendom. What I mean is I do not know what it is like to be a member of the Church when the Christian Church was the only religion on the block. I never have known a monoculture (and I would be willing to be you may not have either if you look deep enough). It is clear to me that my situation is becoming, or perhaps already is, the norm for my peers and those younger than me. This might be why there is so much resistance and tension when my peers and I begin to talk about religious pluralism because it is native to our world and perhaps others are migrants into this world. I do not know, but I hear many conversations of people in and out of the Church who share something like, “I don’t say it out loud, but I just cannot understand or believe that Jesus is the only way to God” or “You cannot tell me that Gandhi and Mother Teresa are not with God” or “Why do Christians put so much emphasis on believing when the parable of the sheep and the goats placed no such emphasis on belief but on action?”.

If you want to engage your young adult who might be leaving the Church, the area of pluralism might be one of the most "bridge building" areas because the young adult has so much they can teach us. They know more about other religions in the world than previous generations in part because of the internet but also because they actually know practicing Buddhists, Hindus, and Muslims. So in an effort to engage conversation strike up a conversation about the areas of these different religions they find interesting. As the conversation moves along you can begin to see what it is your young adult is drawn to so you might be able to share with them the same/similar practices in Christianity.

For instance, few Protestants ever have engaged a labyrinth, Tazie worship, the hours of the day, worship art walks, Christian mantra, fasting, adoration, confession, journaling, or other disciplines which are often of interest of young adults. Engaging in a conversation and expressing how many of the things which are "spiritual" in other religions are very much alive and well in the Christian faith.

When asked with the question, "Do you think Christianity/Jesus is the only way to God?" I do not know the answer to that question, but I do think that Jesus is the way that I experience God and I know that many others can find God through Jesus. My bias is rooted not only in my conviction for Jesus but also, I must admit, my ignorance in other religions. Perhaps I can find a way to God though Hinduism or perhaps the teachings of the Tao, I do not know. I can honestly say that for me, Jesus is the way to God.

The boundary setting Christianity (that is using the Bible to decide who is "in and out") is often the Christianity I hear being rejected by young adults. I have found great success with engaging in conversation which exposes a personal conviction rather than a universal claim. For instance, rather than telling people who Jesus is, I have found much greater success in conversation by telling people who Jesus is to me. This removes the universal claims which keeps the boundaries from being set so early and thus shutting off conversation but also this focus makes me a little vulnerable.

When we share about Jesus through the Creeds and Scripture and do not share Jesus through our own lives it is easy to keep Jesus at a distance as though Faith is an academic endeavor. Rather if we begin to share with people who Jesus is to us, Faith is not focused on the head but the heart. Caution to the Christian: when you share about Jesus in your life it is a vulnerable position - you are exposed and you can feel uncomfortable. But these are the same things which encourage honesty and authentic conversations. We have to be willing to share our own story if we expect others to share theirs.

So I ask you, without using creeds or scripture (which by the way deChurched do not put any authority in those things but they do put authority in relationships) - who is Jesus to you?

Great, take that answer and share it.

My young adult has left the Church (part 5)

This is a little series of posts I put out in 2010, at the time they were helpful for a number of people, I hope that continues to be true today.

Continuing to look at how to engage with the "deChurched" we look to the issue of theodicy. This post is not an exhaustive conversation on the question of why is there evil in the world if there is a God (aka - the question of theodicy ), rather it is to help ignite conversations between those in the Church and those who have left the Church. This is a rather lofty topic and I anticipate you have thoughts of your own as well, consider this an invitation to share those thoughts.

Before I go any further it should be noted that I do not know a single person who can explain this mystery. I know there are people who have thoughts on the topic, but I have yet to discover if there is any sort of consensus on this issue. If you are reading this and looking for the answer to the question of theodicy, I am afraid I will not meet your expectations.

In that same vein, this is also not a post about what I believe about theodicy questions. Rather, this is a post to offer tools which have helped me begin conversations with people of all kinds and tools which I hope might be helpful in your conversations with people you encounter.

Generally speaking, when theoldicy issues come up in a conversation I have with a "deChurched", agnostic, or atheist the other person has a very logical and methodical argument. These arguments are generally very tight and the person seems sold on the logic they present. So, as one about to engage in conversations it is worth noting that people think very deeply about this issue. I recently got an email that was three pages long on written by a "deChurched" person on this topic and that instantly said to me, "this is a passionate issue to this person."

When I have engaged conversations on theodicy with the "deChurched" I have found great bridge building when I ask a lot of questions. Not questions to trap or questions intended to lead down a path that you think leads to a certain "logical conclusion". No, questions of authentic curiosity are the type of questions I am talking about.

"Why do you think there is violence in the world?"

"Do you think humanity, at our core, is inherently good or evil?"

"What sort of ethics do you follow?"

"Where or how did you come to learn this?"

Questions like these are not perfect but they do not need to be. The intent is to open conversation and get at the heart of the matter (which I believe is what each of our God images are).

As you engage in conversation I promise you will be challenged and encounter questions that may cut to the core of your own theology and God image. That is a good and wonderful thing. Allow the conversation to open you up and share what you believe and where/how you come to believe this.

As for me personally, I have found great success in reading a lot of Rene Girard, anthropology books, Walter Wink, behavioral economics, and evolutionary psychology. These sources give me many more areas to pull into the conversation from additional questions and metaphors to science experiments and illustrations. I would invite you to find resources that address the issues of theodicy and weave them into your own thought/question asking. There is only so far in the area of theodicy that one can go on their own without help and I hope we Christians would continue to seek help from God and our neighbors.

I know this is rather vague, but it is important that we do not have all the answers especially in areas of such a great mystery. If you do have the answers and you are trying to 'convince' others of your answers, I am curious to know how that is going? If you are not having any 'success' I wonder what would happen if we stopped trying to convince people with our words and invite them into a relationship with our actions.

My young adult has left the Church (part 4)

This is a little series of posts I put out in 2010, at the time they were helpful for a number of people, I hope that continues to be true today.

Of the three issues which keep coming up in conversation with those who might be considered "deChurched" the first one I wanted to address is the most fundamental, but perhaps the least controversial of the three (especially as I listen to Christians talk about these three issues).

Again, the list to consider is:

1) God image (who or what is God like).

2) Issues of theodicy (why there is evil in the world).

3) Pluralism issues (is any religion the only way to a relationship with God).

It can be argued that our God image shapes the way we each see and interact with the world. For those who view God as one who sets boundaries and enforces edicts, those same people might view the world as a place that boundaries need to be set and edicts need to be enforced. For those who view God as boundary breaking and inclusive to all, those same people might view the world as a place that boundaries need to be shattered and inclusion is to be highly valued and sought after. These are general statements but I would be willing to bet that the way you see the world to the way you interact with neighbors to the way you view the role of governments even to the way you respond in a crisis are all impacted and connected to the way you see God.

Our world is shaped by the way we see God (and by the way, when I say God I understand that it is difficult for me to talk about God outside my own God images). When a person who take the agnostic or atheist position, at least in my experience, generally has a God image that many people who affirm the reality of God also have. When I encounter someone who is a vowed atheist or agnostic I generally ask them about how they view God. Sometimes I put the question in the negative, "Tell me about the God you do not believe in." Getting people (all people) to talk about their God image is not only a great starting point to engage conversation but, and perhaps more importantly, hearing God images is the source of much bridge building between people.

For instance, I recently had a conversation with a person who was agnostic. She had a wonderful story to tell and I was captivated by it. In the course of the conversation she said, "I just do not think the God is looking down on us all keeping track of our wrongs. I just think God is more like the love that connects me to others."

To her surprise (I think) I said, "I agree with you. In fact that view of God is often called 'panentheism' and is upheld by many Christian teachings and doctrines. It is how I often view God."

She sat there for a moment and said, "I thought Christians had to believe that God was 'up there' (pointing upward to the sky) and you have to believe that in order to avoid 'down there' (pointing down to the floor)."

By affirming her God image and rooting her image in a tradition of thought that was beyond her knowledge - panentheism - made her feel less "out there" with her thoughts and in many ways 'normalized' her feelings and gave a sense of confidence. She and I walked away with a bridge that we both could walk on, albeit she is still a vowed agnostic at this point.

Bottom line, by talking about and addressing our own God images we can build bridges between those who are "other" because more often than not - we all have overlapping God images in some way.