This place has been fallow for a while.

Let’s be honest, I’ve been fallow for a while.

But, as happens, things change. I find that I’ve had a lot more energy to be excited about the work I do and the things I care about. (And been able to really feel the joy of the reality that the work I do and the things I care about are very often the same.)

So, no promises—to myself, or others—but I’m going to try to give myself this space as a place to wonder again. About ministry, yes. About technology, yes. About the weird and wonderful work and process of being a professional amateur in community building, mission work, and creative art, action, and writing.

I’m sure from time to time it may seem like I’m only talking about one of those things… and that may or may not be interesting. But… we’ll see.


“Everyone worships something”

Usually I try to avoid posting the same thing to every type of media I have at my disposal. Nonetheless, rules are made to be broken, and so here you go. SLC and YDS alum and general source of awesomeness, Emily, published an excerpt from David Foster Wallace… here.

Sometimes I need to remember – even in the planning of worship – what the stakes are if we confuse what the true center of worship is really meant to be.

If you’re in NYC, seriously, why are you not already going to St. Lydia’s to hear Emily lead and preach, and to have fabulous community and food and song? Get on that, will you?

Thought from the trenches. Generations.

Not a whole bunch to say, really. What I can think of today: I spend a lot of time talking to people about generational trends in churches, in faith, etc. The fact that my generation is so rarely in church communities, tends to make folk (sometimes very falsely) think that I have answers or insights to the problems between the young and young adult generations and the mainline church. Many times, I have no clue. (For one, my experience of adolescence is pretty far outside how anyone else experiences it.)

Monday I had lunch with almost all of my congregation who are over 90. What I can say from that is I was amazed by how loosely and lovingly they held the past… their own, and the church’s. That’s just what I want to linger with… how can we hold our generational identities – loosely? How can we be more fully accepting of the wonder of living out a church life amongst people so diverse? Someone wanted to talk to me about taking his horse to school the other day. ME. “Teh blog-o-faceyspace guy”. That’s an amazing amount of difference in one room working for understanding and presence… Anyway. I’m just not so certain my job is best served by all of the demographic slicing and dicing all the time. Sometimes, especially when we’re telling stories over lunch… we’re just folks.

Carol Howard Merritt on the “New Adulthood”

Yup. Coming up for new names for 20-somethings does very little change the pressures in their lives. And as someone who destroyed a large portion of my 20’s waiting for all of the bits of my life to indicate that I was now “an adult,” I really wish someone could have told me that what I was going through was not “failure to reach adulthood” but maybe, in fact, “the new adulthood.”

Death, in Music and in Church

Lutheran Forum via the wise Pastor Andy

“It is a strange world where heavy metal bands are brave and truthful and churches are escapist and irrelevant. It hasn’t always been so. The liturgical and hymnic inheritance the church has bequeathed to us is full of forthright, strong expressions of what it means to live in the midst of death…

Dying people are hungry to live. This is the beauty and the secret of the church’s worship. While death is its ultimate subject, the church’s worship teaches victory over death quietly, subliminally, week after week after week so that a culture of eternity is inculcated in the hearts and minds and, yes, the bodies of those who attend. We are prepared incessantly to die while we live. And though we are dying, everyday in the church, we live in the presence of the eternal God.”

I have often maintained this line of thinking as a way to excuse my very dark musical and liturgical tastes: that we should be in the business not of hiding away death from our congregations and our own thoughts, but rather wrestling and grappling with the hurts and realities of loss, of time, and of death… our own finitude. That’s the only way the Christian message makes a whole bunch of sense to me, as a way to slowly make sense of the losses that we experience in the passage of time and each other. Our message cannot mean anything if we try to make faith about cheery ignorance of our real world experiences… Faith comes from a hope that stands in full recognition of pain, and in expectation of a place or state of being that may lay beyond it.

Getting to Know FPC from a park bench.

FPCImage I sat outside Pilgrim Hall (the office and education building where I’ll work in the future) and took this picture of the church right before I went in to preach for the first time. It’s always been an important message in my preaching and my ministry to talk about how we – by which I mean mainline institutional churches – need to remember that we are communities of faith, not just the residents of a particular building. In other words, the four walls are not the description of a church. Nonetheless, as I sat outside that morning I thought about a lot of things in the building that do describe the church I want to work for.

I like the style: Congregational Gothic, I’ve taken to calling it. The marriage of the old wood meeting houses of the congregationalists, while echoing back to the larger Christian tradition of gothic cathedrals. I like that some time in the not too recent history there was a conscious choice to use stained glass to replace the windows, for the sake of light and art and “transported-ness” that it can add to a space. I like that there are so many doors into the church, and that they come from every direction… like the whole world is welcome, no matter where they’re coming from.

Are there challenges in this building? Of course, just like everywhere. It wasn’t until the end of my sermon that I realized there was a crowd in the transept (the seating which occupies the “horizontal” line of the cross floor-plan). I had never even thought to look over at them; I’ve never preached in a space with a transept! I know many churches and pastors that have struggled even worse with issues like this, and I know plenty of places where the building has started to shape the church, and not the other way around. I also know that in many of these situations the conversations about how we worship and how we use our buildings has become a conversation like politics at Thanksgiving… easier, and much quieter to avoid altogether.

This morning, the thing that gave me hope and excitement was the clear evidence all over the building of how this congregation has a history of blending, combining, changing, and making choices to be more truly church throughout all their years. The building is important, but only so much as how it has reflected and served the community within it.

Also, that morning?… I felt like I was home, and where I needed to be.

Vitality or Threat?

An interesting interview between Reinhold Niebuhr and Mike Wallace from back in the day… I’m struck by the sense of existential threat that permeates their discussion. At one point, they discuss America’s current fear of either communist conquest or nuclear destruction.

Given the recent memories of the violence and evil of WWII, and the presence of this sense of continuing conflict, is it any wonder that churches were full at this time, and that participation in church was at its height? Such a great threat on the minds of so many would seem to be a pretty compelling reason to be in church. When we locate the “golden days” of American church in the 1950’s, are we white-washing the outside cultural influences that led to that period? It would be as if someone tried to attribute the increase of church-going in the months after September 11th to an inexplicable improvement in Sunday-schools during that period of time. Existential threat always leads to existential engagement, church programs rarely have anything to say to that.

My point isn’t to “debunk” these periods as important for the church, but rather to suggest that membership has always been a suspect way to measure vitality and success for church communities, and that to achieve vitality we should avoid dreaming up “golden days” that didn’t exist, and yet we long to “return” to, either in our culture or our churches. Churches (and other houses of faith) are indeed a great place to ask questions as a community and a people when we face existential threats… but I think true vitality comes when we help each other face the myriad tiny threats and rewards of life, as well, and its here that I think we have to engage our future, our imagination, and our energy.

The New Membership – Aggregation for Media and Church

I’ve been thinking a lot about the implications of the NY Times fight over the Pulse news aggregator for iPad. If you’re not familiar, the rough idea here is that the Times has made an attempt to have Apple remove a new RSS news application for violating the Times’s online terms of service. The problem, of course, is that the reader is one of several that simply collect the information that the Times publishes on its public RSS feeds, and allows readers to view it (as it is on the web) in a small browser. It’s not clear exactly what the Times Company’s objections truly are here, but they seem to be around the facts that users might not experience the Times as they mean to present it (presumably because of the fear of ad revenue losses, though the ads are actually rendered in Pulse’s browser), and the fact that Pulse is making money by selling an app that presents NY Times content.

There are parallels between the struggles of new media and new church. Both are diverse institutions that have previously thrived on “membership” as their primary driver of their work. To start with, I want to talk about the communications problem: the fear that modern aggregation of information is destroying the intended identity (and hence revenue stream) of our institutions.

Newspapers such as the Times depended on subscription models that they haven’t been able to translate to the web. The Times seems insistent that there is an animal called “A New York Times Reader.” This was previously true… and easily defined: a NYT reader was someone who found such value in the content (and in a subtextual way, the curation of content) that the paper provided, that they paid to have the paper delivered to them. At most, these readers likely only subscribed to a local paper besides the Times.

In objecting to the use of the Times’s content in other applications, the company suggests that they are sure that this class of people (“NYT Readers”) exists, and still wants to experience the whole of the paper as the company and curate and compile it. They have good reason to, in fact: that’s how they sell advertisements to people. They claim that they reach a special category of consumers who can only be reached through the New York Times. This is at the center of their complaint about anyone “repackaging” their content: you lose the curation that has defined the Times in the past.

The problem lies in the fact that users of the are now comfortable curating for themselves. No self-respecting person in our world today would be able to claim to be well-informed after only receiving their information from one website. Instead, they piece together a stream of information from multiple sources, of which, hopefully, the Times is one. The shift in thinking for the industry is realizing that there is no one category of “NYTimes Reader” anymore. There are instead: “The Technology/Bits blog subscribers”, “Maureen Dowd readers” , “Sports Section readers”, etc. Rather than one big ship, the majority of readers more accurately view the Times as a flotilla of tiny boats that are always — roughly — moving in the same direction. Interacting with these readers happens on a very granular level.

The same is true of churches in the modern-day. Millennials are curating their church lives by aggregating their experiences. They may do mission work with the local UU church. They may relish in the quiet of a high-church compline service. They may identify with the social justice stances of one denomination, but thrill at the liturgy of another. They may worship one place on a Sunday morning, and some place vastly different on a Wednesday evening. This often causes frustration on behalf of churches, because all of these sidestep the basic unit that has defined church life for the past several centuries: membership. Churches, much like media, have been certain that their role is to provide holistic spiritual homes for people… that there is a “1st Church of the Assumption, Plano – member” class of people. In this view smaller numbers of members means that either people are no longer interested in being part of that class (which they may call “secularism” or blame on stances the church has taken), or that the message just isn’t getting out.

All of this means that we have to start providing our content – both church and media – with the assumption that aggregation is the new membership. We cannot continue to operate as giant tanker ships, but rather, must work as well-coordinated fleets of tiny vessels. Churches in particular must fight our urges to drive membership by assuming that all people who participate in one program want to participate in them all. How can we be more comfortable with — and be a welcoming community to — the couple that wants to participate in missions to the homeless, but has no desire to join the crowd at Sunday worship? How can we share our “members” with multiple congregations: between different worship traditions, services, and activities in our daily lives? (Ecumenical work is no longer a “nice thing to do,” it is a requirement for those churches that wish to survive… but more on that later.) Perhaps the hardest question remains: how do we deal with the risk and flexibility required to support ourselves financially when we have a decentralized notion of what a “dues paying member is?”