From Consumption to Engagement

At the recent Christ & Cascadia Conference a few weeks back, I had the chance to present a paper on my working view of discipleship and young adults. Here's the abstract from the paper:

“From Consumption to Engagement: Discipleship and Millennials in Cascadia”

Much has been written and researched outlining the hasty exit of millennials from the church in recent years.  Cascadia is no exception. Within the cultural pluralism of Cascadia, religious commitment is but one choice among many, and one that is decreasing in popularity. Cascadia churches that are intentional about engaging millennials do so in a variety of different ways. From a surging New Calvinism, to thriving experientially-based worship events, to a growing emphasis on gap-year discipleship education, to cultural adaptations for belief and practice, many sectors of the Cascadian church are attempting to alter the trends of millennials leaving the church. But is it working?

The focus of this paper is twofold: 1) I will briefly outline several approaches to discipleship with millennials in Cascadia, suggesting a propensity to adopt consumeristic tendencies;  2) I will provide an alternative approach to discipleship with millennials drawing on James Davison Hunter’s model for “faithful presence” as a way to avoid the common consumeristic tendencies (in To Change the World).  I will suggest that faithful presence requires churches to emphasize local relationships rooted in a theology of covenant and participatory leadership with a view of culture that explores faith in Christ in the midst of the tension between challenge and collaboration. In a culture as diverse as Cascadia and to a demographic as religiously complex as millennials, I will argue that discipleship centered on “faithful presence” can provide a sustaining faith and set millennials on a trajectory for a lifetime of authentic discipleship.

U2 and Serious Ridiculousness

I strongly believe that ideas are best understood when enacted in our lives. We need to avoid two extremes: irrelevant abstractions and thoughtless behaviors. By themselves, both display an ignorance to our interconnectedness as humans - the reality that we are both human beings and human doings.

Such self awareness may be naively optimistic in a culture that demands both instant knowledge and immediate gratification. We don't have time for self awareness. Perhaps this is why Ann Powers, in her recent article on U2, draws on Dostoevsky's concept of "serious ridiculousness" to describe U2's way of being in the world that demands the practice of belief. As a band, U2 invites participation from the audience - "...what people love and hate about U2 is the band's insistence that listeners not just watch or listen, but enter into an experience with them."

I'd describe myself as a casual U2 fan. I know the main songs, own a few albums, but am far from being a die hard fan. I'm inspired, however, by their example of engaging life through their music with a raw honesty towards life and meaning. They disavow both naïve hope and apathetic hopelessness. And whether you like the music or not, U2 presents an engagement with our world and the human experience - "belief as practice" - that we could all use a little bit more of:

Ordinary ridiculousness comes from not being aware — from either simply not thinking about bad or excessive choices, or from embracing blind faith in the self, a God or a system. A seriously ridiculous person is clear-eyed. She knows that idealism is a fool's game to begin with, and that every conviction carries the risk of closed-mindedness. But she takes on belief as a practice, a way of being around others that seeks common ground. The ridiculous man or woman has found a way to connect things within life's inevitably broken landscape. It's an act of reaching out that can never be fully fulfilled, but which changes things in the moment, which is all we really have.

You can read the rest here.

Christ & Cascadia - Scarcity or Abundance?

Cascadia: “Cascadia” is something called a “bioregion” which includes Oregon, Washington, British Columbia, and pieces of Alaska, California, Idaho, and Montana. Its boundaries are not political—they are natural. By definition, bioregions like Cascadia share a common set of natural characteristics (animals, plant life, soil, watersheds, climate, and geology). That said, many observers have begun to argue that Cascadia shares a lot more in common than mountains, salmon, and rain—it shares some important cultural and spiritual characteristics as well. More than lines on a map, regional observers have begun to argue that Cascadia is also a cultural and spiritual state of mind (Matthew Kaemingk)

I had the opportunity to participate in the inaugural Christ & Cascadia conference recently in Seattle. The conference was a gathering of scholars, leaders, thinkers, bloggers, activists, normal folk, and not-so-normal folk, all conversing around the intersection of Christianity in this region called Cascadia. The purpose of the conference, as stated, was “to know and love this place.

Having grown up in Cascadia, I find it interesting to hear how people understand and process the particularities of Cascadian culture. In the area of religion, this can be especially interesting. Cascadia is often known as the home of the “spiritual, but not religious.” Or as journalist Douglas Todd has described, people here are “secular but spiritual.” Studies show that God and spirituality remain popular, but religious affiliation continues to decline. This is the land of “religious nones.”

For Christians, this can be difficult to accept. The reality of “religious nones” fuels a general negativity towards Cascadian culture, this pagan and irreligious place. Overall, from a Christian perspective, Cascadia culture is seen as insufficient, scarcely able to offer much of anything of value spiritually. And at a conference such as this, one could expect this to be dominant theme.
But it wasn’t.

In fact, many of the presenters, myself included, while not ignoring the challenges related to Christian commitment and a “secular but spiritual” culture, offered reasons for Cascadia to instead be seen in a much more positive light. As James Wellman, professor at the University of Washington, proclaimed, Christians need to drop their “none-zone theological prejudice” and also see Cascadia from another angle: “a place of abundance!” From the abundant beauty of the environment itself, to the innovative and creative impulse of many, to the desire for authentic relationships (be it in tension with a hyper-individualism), there is much to be celebrated in Cascadia. Are traditional forms of Christianity going to face challenges in terms of integrating a vibrant religious expression in Cascadia? Absolutely! But such challenges don’t have to assume a position of negativity or hopelessness in the midst of the culture we find ourselves. Instead, as this conference suggested, cultures are always a complex reality of opportunity and challenge, and to pay attention to beauty and goodness - abundance! - can potentially reveal the ways in which Christ is already present in Cascadia.

 
 

9/11 - Somber Hope

9/11 remains a significant date in history. America pauses to remember, particularly in New York City, Pennsylvania and at the Pentagon. And the rest of the world watches and remembers alongside them. Thirteen years later, it’s still a somber day.
 
It’s somber because…

  • ...of the lives lost and families forever changed.
  • ...of the ensuing patterns of violence and hatred that continues to this day.
  • ...it’s easier to become desensitized to injustice then actively respond.
  • ...while we say we remember today, tomorrow we quickly forget the impact of this tragedy and its similar daily occurrence around the world.

Yet not all hope is lost. Having a chance to visit the 9/11 memorial site earlier this year, I witnessed hope through the sorrow. In this and many other situations of death and sorrow, hope persists.

World Trade Center Memorial - Feb., 2014
There is hope because…
 
  • ...countless New Yorkers volunteer time to tell stories of courage and community in the midst of tragedy.
  • ...the legacy of the victims has brought life to many in many different situations through relief foundations and other charitable work.
  • ...violence and hatred isn’t the only legacy of 9/11, as countless individuals and organizations call for peaceful responses of love and forgiveness.
  • ...of a greater reality beyond what we see today: “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God.‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away” (Rev. 21:3-4).

Words are easy

The tongue is a small part of the body, but it makes great boasts. (James 3:5)

Words are an interesting thing. We use them in all sorts of ways. Ask.com reports that on average, adults say 16,000 words per day. What we say is a big deal, literally! And so it’s no wonder we find in the book of James a warning about how we speak. Words matter.

I wonder, though, how James would address our words today. In a social media culture, words are typed as much, if not more, than they are spoken. Gone are any fears or hesitations related to face-to-face interaction. Via the Internet or texting, we can say whatever we want to someone from the comfort of our own private space. Words are easy.

For James, he was concerned with people intentionally misusing words to distract or lead people away from faithfulness. The dangers of the tongue were quite obvious. Today our problem isn’t so much an intentional misuse of words. Our ‘cursing,’ as James puts it, is far more subtle. In the world of social media, our use of words is more of a naive indifference as we blindly type this or that without ever considering what we’re saying or who we’re saying it to. An overly expressive status update; a judgmental tweet; or an ill-timed ‘LOL’ reverberates into cyberspace much like the “great boasts” James warns against.
No human being can tame the tongue. It is a restless evil, full of deadly poison.
With the tongue we praise our Lord and Father, and with it we curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness. Out of the same mouth come praise and cursing. My brothers and sisters, this should not be (James 3:8-10)

James is calling for consistency in word and deed. And while our audible words remain important today, it is just as important how we use our words online. So before you send your next text message or publish a status update, consider how James’ teaching can inspire a faithful use of your tongue, whether it’s heard or typed:

1. Pause: Do I need to share this right now?
2. Think: Is what I’m saying uplifting to God and others?
3. Seek Clarity: Can this be misunderstood as selfish or insulting (“boasting”) and how can I make my words as clear as possible?
 
 
A variation of this post first appeared on indoubt.

 

Pastor Tom Wright

This review first appeared in the latest edition of the MB Herald:

Besides offering an example of discipleship himself within academia, N.T. Wright isn’t typically known for his work on the topic of discipleship. Yet in his recently updated book, Following Jesus, we get insight into Wright’s pastoral side, an area often overshadowed by his scholarly accomplishments, but one I would say is no less important. Yes, Wright is a formidable New Testament scholar, but his years as a chaplain, bishop and a preacher provide a ministry context for his work that is worth sharing. Following Jesus is the fruit of such ministry, showing that discipleship and theology belong together.

Discipleship needs the church

Following Jesus is composed of several of Wright’s sermons from a variety of ministry contexts, giving glimpses into his view for theological discipleship. But the book isn’t an abstract presentation on a theology or model for discipleship (although it is deeply theological while also highly accessible). Rather, Following Jesus offers a window into how Wright sees discipleship occurring within the context of local worshipping communities.
 
These sermons reflect the day-to-day journey of discipleship within a church. And while at times they don’t fit together as seamlessly as many of Wright’s other books, the accessibility of his sermons more than makes up for any disconnection from chapter to chapter.

King Jesus makes the difference

Part one contains a collection of sermons from 1994. Naturally, some of the cultural references are dated, but these still contribute to Wright’s ability to connect theology and discipleship to the real world.
 
Each sermon in this section provides a summary of a biblical book from the lens of following Jesus. Highlights include an engaging and continually relevant sermon on Colossians that challenges disciples to recognize Christ’s kingship over all things. Contrary to the world’s way of leading by force, discipleship is about allegiance to the suffering king.
 
The reader should also note Wright’s sermon on Revelation both for his insightful treatment of the text itself and for the hope Revelation offers. To be the people of the King is to offer the tangible hope of the resurrection in the world.
 
In this whole section, Wright’s preaching and teaching acumen is on full display. He’s an example
to preachers in all contexts of how to deal concisely and clearly with vast information, without overloading the listener or simply skimming the content.

Following the God of resurrection

Part two has more variety as the sermons come from several contexts within Wright’s preaching ministry. Yet in multiple ways, all the sermons contribute to a broader task of offering a biblical model of discipleship.
 
The theme of resurrection continues in this section, with the sermon “The God Who Raises the Dead” setting an important tone for how we define discipleship: it’s God’s work in the midst of our failures and struggles that inspires our faithfulness.
 
Here Wright shows his pastoral heart, guiding the reader to accept that, while we live with much failure, we follow a God of resurrection.
 
The sermon on hell offers brief but challenging commentary on justice, humanness and theological priorities. Wright points out how what we believe about hell will impact how we live as Christians.
 
Finally, the book concludes with “New Life, New World”) connecting discipleship to Wright’s later popular themes around heaven (e.g., Surprised By Hope). It’s interesting to see these concepts percolating in Wright’s mind long before his wide publication of them.
Overall, in Following Jesus, Wright proves that discipleship and theology can go together. In fact, they belong together.
 
Discipleship without theology risks mirroring the legalism of ages past, and theology without discipleship risks becoming mere belief that creates an illusion of faithfulness. Together, however, theology and discipleship reveal the path of following Jesus to be about our whole selves, individually and together, as we seek to love God with our heart, soul, mind and strength in all that we encounter in the world.

 

Presence and Place

I continue to be intrigued by the connection between the places we live and the people we are. Whether we know it or not, the places we inhabit shape the people we are becoming. And so I find it helpful to pay attention to various cultural shifts in how people and place relate. To this end, this quote from James Davison Hunter describes well current shifts in presence and place:

For millennia of human history, body and location were inextricably connected to experience. The worship of God, the cultivation of friendship, the conduct of business, and the expression of anger and hostility, the pursuit of romantic affection, the experience of the natural world all presupposed physical presence. The expressions on the face, the gestures of the hands, the body's mien, touch itself--by their nature, worked together to limit, expand, and shape communication and relationship. Place mattered no less. The towering reaches of a cathedral, the foreboding form of a fortress, the warmth and intimacy of a home or hostel, the beauty and power of the ocean or landscape, for example, were all inwoven with the experience within these places.

Both physical presence and place continue to matter to us, but neither matter as much as they once did. We are, of course, present in time, but less and less present by virtue of our physical presence. For example, when one can communicate with anyone at anytime from anywhere--whether through a cell phone, the Internet, or some other technology--presence and place simply matter less. They matter less to the cultivation and maintenance of relationships and less to the work we do. We are in a sense, released from the gravitational pull that presence and place once necessitated for both relationship and labor.

What is more, when the physical places we inhabit--whether homes, offices, gyms, shopping malls, interstate highways, airports, parking lots, cities--look alike, place seems to matter even less. What was distinctive about a place etiolates into space and we end up with what James Kunstler has called "a geography of nowhere"--where every place looks like no place in particular.

The development of new technologies of information and communication are clearly one of the sources of this cultural change. In a time such as ours, more and more of us inhabit our relationship to the world--at least increasingly so--through these technologies. Whether work, friendship, romance, rivalry, hostility, the natural world, or specific places in the world--all can be and indeed are increasingly mediated through programming. Consciousness, experience, identity, physical presence, and the landscape around us, in short, are disembodied through these technologies.

The weakening significance of presence and place is but one way in which what we take as reality has dissolved. Like most things in the world, there is ambivalence about this turn of circumstances. There are ways that the technological changes that brought this about can be and are liberating and empowering. But they are not with cost, for in their net cultural effect, they can also be profoundly disorienting and, in ways, deeply incapacitating. As it bears on faith, the weakening significance of presence and place brought about by the broken trust between word and world cuts to the very core of what it means to believe--the reality of what we believe and the implication of our belief for how engage the world we live in.
Hunter, To Change the World, 238-239
 
  • How does your physical space shape your values and actions?
  • How do you shape your physical space?
  • How do you experience cultural shifts as liberating or disorienting?