Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Suburbia and the rise and fall of megachurches

I just finished reading Christine Wicker's The Fall of the Evangelical Nation, which chronicles the tenuous state of American evangelicalism. She's a former religion reporter (and former evangelical) who argues that evangelical Christians are far less numerous or influential than often assumed in the popular media. Rather than 1 in 4 Americans being evangelicals, the real numbers are probably more like 1 in 14. Not insignificant, but not quite as dominant as usually touted. Southern Baptists claim about 16 million in membership, but actual church attendance suggests that the truly committed are more like 4 million. A few years ago the Southern Baptists aimed for one million new converts, but actually had just a third of that, less than previous years. And denominations across the board are losing members. Overall, the evangelical church may well be losing a thousand people every day.

Something that jumped out at me were some of her comments relating to megachurches and their suburban context.
A large reason megachurches grow is because of where they usually locate--in burgeoning suburbs. Young families, attracted to the suburbs' less-expensive housing, want religion for their children. They're energetic, and they have rising incomes. Megachurches have enormous overhead and a huge need for volunteers. Burned-out megachurch staff members sometimes complain that they spend more time "feeding the beast" than feeding the flock. Feeding the beast requires a constant hunt for "good" families. To the dismay of the more idealistic, good families don't mean those who need God the most but those who are committed, able, energetic, and prosperous. (pp. 105-06)

... trouble may soon hit megachurches too. The suburbs that gave megachurches their growth are filling up and growing older just as suburbs closer to cities did. These giant churches may find themselves in the same situation as the inner-city churches, saddled with million-dollar facilities that they can't merely jettison for a move to greener pastures. (p. 107)

[Megachurches are] top heavy on services for members, which means they must have huge budgets to keep the pace. Their building programs, their missions, their children's programs, their worship services--all have to be top-rate, which requires top-rate staff and plenty of volunteers. At Willow Creek the children's programming alone requires a thousand volunteers a week. As quickly as megachurches burn out one family, they need to replace it. Add to their troubles the fact that their growth has been supported by location. They started in rapidly growing, young communities. As young families are priced out of communities served by megachurches, they'll move farther out, and the megachurches, pinned down by big-box facilities, won't be able to follow. (p. 114)

So are the suburban megachurch's days numbered? Perhaps. One of the dirty little secrets in church growth circles is that many prominent megachurches are plateaued and or declining in attendance. I suspect that the multi-site church movement is one way that traditional megachurches are already retooling themselves to adjust to changing demographic and geographic realities. Instead of maintaining bigger facilities with more people commuting in from farther away, out of necessity churches are rediscovering the need to go local. Instead of focusing all of the church's programming and activities at a central hub, churches need to decentralize and distribute their ministry activity into local communities and neighborhoods.

Of course, with every death comes the possibility of rebirth. Many newer suburban churches today meet in buildings that were once discount stores or strip malls that failed when the economy changed. Historic mainline churches that died off are now homes for thriving new immigrant and ethnic-specific congregations. If megachurches become unsustainable and begin to fail, it will be interesting to see what new things happen with their old buildings and facilities. If foreclosed suburban McMansions become the new multi-family housing for the suburban poor, perhaps consortiums of five or ten smaller churches could join together to share an old megachurch building. Who knows? Suburbia has always been a place of new possibilities, so there could be new life yet for the declining megachurch.

Monday, July 28, 2008

More free excerpts from Andy Crouch's Culture Making

A quick post just to say that three more chapters of Andy Crouch's book Culture Making are now available for free online. In addition to the intro and chs. 1-2 posted earlier, together that's the first third of the book, about a hundred pages. Free!

Also, Andy's full-blown site for Culture Making has been launched. It's all about "celebrating and informing those who cultivate and create." Not only does it now host the archive of all of Andy's past articles, it's also his blog and commentary pointing folks to culturally creative and significant goings-on from all corners. Andy is one of the smartest cultural observers and thinkers in the Christian world today, so this site gives you something of a current newsfeed of the things that Andy's reading and reflecting on.

It's exciting for me as Andy's editor to see Culture Making get launched into the world. The editor's role is something of a midwife or delivery doctor, and we celebrate new books as we do new babies. At IVP's author dinner at ICRS, Andy confessed his struggles in the writing of the book, that for the first year he basically failed to write much of anything. My rejoinder after his comments was that I'm glad he took four years to write the book rather than crash it out in nine months, because the end result is a far better book, with greater maturity of thought and depth of insight.

And I'm pleased to see initial buzz about the book. David Neff, editor-in-chief of Christianity Today, just preached (and posted) a sermon that references Andy's book. Helen Lee also just blogged about the book. And those two items are just what popped up in my Facebook newsfeed this morning. A quick Google blog search turns up more items, including this two-part interview with Andy now available online and a bunch of other things I don't have time to look at right now.

Just to make a quick connection to suburban stuff - as I mention in my book, suburbia tends to be a consumer culture. It's a vast overgeneralization, but historically rural areas tended to be primarily agricultural and urban areas tended to be primarily industrial, but suburbia has been primarily commercial. We are consumers, not producers. And I quoted Andy's ideas in my book because he points to the significance of cultural creativity as a way to counteract consumer culture. We do not change culture by consuming it or critiquing it. We change culture by creating more culture. So if suburban Christians want to seek the welfare of their suburbs, one of the best things we can do is to practice cultural creativity and make culture. (It's no surprise to me that the items listed in Jeremiah 29 about seeking the welfare of the city are things like building houses and planting gardens. In other words, being culturally generative and creative.) Suburban churches can create alternate countercultures that show suburbia another way to live.

At any rate, I'm thrilled that folks like Tim Keller are calling Culture Making one of the most-anticipated books of the year. If you've not read it yet, check out the free preview samples and order your copy now. It's a must-read book that Christians will be talking about this year.

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Rapture Ready! on Christian pop culture and music

Having just returned from ICRS, it’s been fun to browse through Daniel Radosh’s Rapture Ready! Adventures in the Parallel Universe of Christian Pop Culture. His explorations include ICRS in Denver, 2006, where he encountered Christian pirates, Virtuous Woman perfume, Good News Tattooz and the “Jesus erases sin” pencil eraser. He takes note of the Smiling Cross, which has “its horizontal beam bent up into a cheery smile. Apparently the traditional symbol of Christ’s agonizing death by torture was just too depressing.”

Radosh mentions a conversation he has with Andy Butcher, editor at trade journal Christian Retailing. They note that all pop culture tends to be imitative, not just Christian pop culture – Christian singers try to be Ashlee Simpson, but the general market is also filled with girls trying to be Ashlee Simpson. And the imitative impulse tends to squelch true creativity. Radosh commented of the Christian market that “from what I’ve seen, it kind of looks like tacky is winning.”

Butcher replied, “When you are born again, God gives you a new heart and a new opportunity. He doesn’t necessarily give you new taste.”

Later in the book, Radosh visits Trinity Lutheran Seminary professor Mark Allen Powell’s course on Contemporary Christian Music. Powell, a New Testament scholar, former rock critic for the Houston Post and author of the Encyclopedia of Contemporary Christian Music, said that people need to understand Christian music for two reasons. The first is cultural. “Christian rock stars and music celebrities have replaced television evangelists as a primary media connection between pop culture and pop religion. Not knowing about Rebecca St. James or Steven Curtis Chapman may be this decade’s equivalent of not knowing about Robert Schuller or Jimmy Swaggert in the 1980s.”

The second reason is theological. Powell says that CCM offers “a window on American piety” and has become “a way of understanding American Christianity.” He gave Radosh this example: “Probably the biggest Christian rock band of the eighties was named Petra. Petra means rock. It’s a pun, of course, because they play rock music. Rock solid.” In contrast, “the biggest Christian band of the nineties was called Jars of Clay, which is something fragile and breakable.”

So Petra and 80s CCM emphasized triumphalistic, powerful music. On the other hand, Jars of Clay signified that “what was popular in the nineties was vulnerability, brokenness, fragility. That reveals something about our culture and about the culture’s connection to religion.”

(Check out Christianity Today's interview with Radosh, which also has links to Radosh's site, list of top Christian songs, and excerpts on Christian sex advice and the Bible business.)

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Final dispatch from ICRS

It's been raining in Orlando all week, so of course it's finally starting to clear up on the last day of the show just before I head home. I'm in a cybercafe on the trade show floor here at ICRS, and it's a bit of a ghost town. The last day of the show is always pretty quiet, more so this year because of low attendance, and perhaps also because it's Orlando and many folks are taking today off to head to Disney or Epcot or something.

A few more notes of various observations from the last few days:

Andy Crouch had a good word for us at our author dinner. He talked about how at a trade show like this, it's very easy to feel inadequate, to see the big signs featuring the hot new books and faces of the bestselling authors, to always be comparing ourselves to the next bigger author or publisher. And it was a nice reminder that all of us are already in a very privileged location to be in this work and industry, and that we can rejoice and delight in the work we have and the books we get to write and publish. (He said much more, and much more eloquently, but this is just my inadequate summary and distillation.) As Andy's editor, I presented him with a framed book cover, and I commented that when I first met Andy ten years ago, he was handing out copies of re:generation quarterly, which I had written for. And I contributed a few articles to RQ during his tenure as editor. So he was my editor, and now I'm his editor. And I'm grateful for our continued collaborative relationship, especially on his book Culture Making.

Yesterday our author Ruth Haley Barton of The Transforming Center was signing copies of her new book Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership, which uses the life of Moses as a springboard for exploring the spiritual challenges of being in Christian leadership. (She spoke on this at the National Pastors Convention in 2007, and you can hear the podcast here.)

There's something of a dueling study Bible smackdown in the works from two major Wheaton-area publishers. In this corner, weighing in at 2528 pages and 25,900 study notes, is the NLT Study Bible from Tyndale. And in this corner, weighing in at 2752 pages and 20,000 study notes, is the ESV Study Bible from Crossway. Both release this fall, and both are touted as the most comprehensive study Bibles ever. Both have impressive lists of editors, contributors and endorsers. And I'm sure both will serve the church well.

I picked up a few more books of interest. The timely We the Purple: Faith, Politics, and the Independent Voter by Marcia Ford (Tyndale). A Christianity Worth Believing: Hope-filled, Open-armed, Alive-and-well Faith for the Left Out, Left Behind, and Let Down in Us All by Doug Pagitt (Jossey-Bass), which is competing with Brian McLaren's A Generous Orthodoxy for longest subtitle. Donna Frietas's Sex and the Soul: Juggling Sexuality, Spirituality, Romance, and Religion on America's College Campuses (Oxford) is a landmark study and an important read for anybody in campus ministry. And as I continue to discover the literature of the field of disability studies and theology of disability, I'm glad that a friend at Eerdmans gave me a copy of Receiving the Gift of Friendship: Profound Disability, Theological Anthropology, and Ethics by Hans Reinders.

Show closes this afternoon, and after tearing down, we'll head home this evening. It's always fun to be here, but I'm eager to get home.

P.S. Funniest Christian knick-knacks and Jesus junk this year? Perhaps the EvangeBall evangelistic soccer ball, or the "Walk in the Light" flashlight.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Hi from the International Christian Retail Show in Orlando

I'm in Orlando for the International Christian Retail Show, formerly known as the Christian Booksellers Association convention. It's always fun to be here and to see industry friends. Things seem quite a bit slower this year, in terms of people and activity - a lot of the publishers have smaller booths and have been sending fewer people to attend. The economy has been affecting a lot of retailers and publishers. But it's still quite a gathering. Random stuff:

IVP hosted a breakfast with Leighton Ford, author of The Attentive Life. He talked about how as life has changed, his writing has changed. When he was a public evangelist with his brother-in-law Billy Graham, he wrote on evangelism. When he started developing new leaders, he wrote Transforming Leadership. In recent years he's been moving into spiritual formation and spiritual mentoring. Hence this new book on the attentive life and paying attention to what God is doing. He mentioned how American Christians are too frenzied and busy, and he exhorted us to "ruthlessly eliminate hurry." That comes from a John Ortberg book (which I quoted in my suburban book), and Leighton mentioned that the unnamed person who had told Ortberg to eliminate hurry was Dallas Willard.

IVP received a Logos book award for Gerald Sittser's Water from a Deep Well in the Spirituality category. Yay!

Andy Crouch's much-anticipated book Culture Making is now in print, and it's being received well. Had a good lunch with him yesterday. Andy did a signing and will be talking about it at IVP's author dinner tonight.

I was at an agency reception yesterday afternoon and met Gabe Lyons, coauthor of the much-discussed book unChristian. He mentioned to me that he lives in a suburban area and that he's reading my suburban book. It's on his nightstand. That's cool. His book is on my nightstand shelf as well.

A few new books being featured at this show that caught my eye:

Tell It Slant: A Conversation on the Language of Jesus in His Stories and Prayers by Eugene Peterson (Eerdmans)

The Great Emergence: How Christianity Is Changing and Why by Phyllis Tickle (Baker). The tagline describing the book is "Every five hundred years, the Church cleans out its attic and has a giant rummage sale." I heard Phyllis give a talk on this at a National Pastors Convention a few years ago.

My friend Margaret Feinberg was supposed to be signing her new book The Sacred Echo about hearing God's voice, but there was a problem with the printer and the books aren't ready yet. Bummer. So she was signing copies of her The Organic God instead.

Ellen and I didn't have any industry/trade show events last night, so we went to see Wall-E instead. It was excellent. I love Pixar movies, and this one was done very well. (See Ashleigh's insightful review and commentary on it.) And there's something oddly appropriate about seeing a Disney movie here in Orlando. When in Rome, y'know.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

sub•text: The missional church in the suburban context

Pastor-bloggers Steve McCoy and Joe Thorn have just launched sub•text, a site and ministry about the missional church and ministry in the suburban context. They've got blog posts and links to articles related to suburbia, including resources on evangelism in suburbia and what it means to be missional. Good stuff. They're based in the Chicago suburbs and will be hosting local forums about suburban ministry and mission. The first one will be held in November 2008 (oh, yeah, I'm the speaker).

One of their posts links to an LA Times article about how recent reports projecting the impending death of suburbia are probably premature. While high gas prices may make suburban commuting less desirable, the fact that more jobs are now concentrated in the suburbs and exurbs than cities will keep people living in the suburbs. High gas prices may encourage people to buy more fuel-efficient cars but not necessarily to relocate to urban centers. And technology and telecommuting make it more possible to decrease commuting within suburbia without relocating. All the demographic, population and employment trends point toward more suburbanization, not less.

All the more reason for Christians to be intentionally missional about ministry in the suburbs. It's great that folks like Tim Keller are encouraging people to be missional about center cities and the strategic cultural influencers that live there. But since twice as many people live in suburbs than in center cities, I'm encouraged that folks like Steve and Joe and Todd Hiestand are championing the importance of the suburban mission.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Cultural reasons for the absence of John 8

The passage from John 7:53-8:11 about the woman caught in adultery has long been a problem for biblical scholars because the story does not appear in some of the earliest and most reliable New Testament manuscripts. (Christianity Today recently reported on the latest developments and discussions about this longstanding issue.) As a result, some Christians are unsure whether this powerful narrative of "Go and sin no more" is historically reliable or authentic to the ministry of Jesus.

Well, Ken Bailey's landmark book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes offers a fascinating, culturally plausible theory why the pericope does not appear in some manuscripts:
For centuries traditional Middle Eastern culture has understood the honor of the family to be attached to the sexual behavior of its women. Thereby in conservative traditional village life, women who violate the sexual code are sometimes killed by their families.

Added to this is the fact that in the days of hand-copied manuscripts, the person who wanted a copy of anything usually acquired it by hiring a copyist. This was a private business arrangement. Since printing began, official committees of churches have determined the text of any Bible selected for publication. But in the early centuries of the life of the church it would have been very easy for the head of a household to take a copy of the Gospel of John to a professional copyist and say

"I want a copy of this document. Please leave out the story of this adulterous woman. I don’t want my daughters committing adultery and telling me, ‘Jesus forgave this woman and therefore you should forgive me!’"

The copyist would naturally oblige his customer. Other Christians were brave enough to preserve the story even though it violated deeply rooted cultural attitudes. The end result is that this story appears in some ancient texts and is missing from others. If this view is accepted, or if one considers it an agrapha, the story is authentic to Jesus. Raymond Brown writes, “There is nothing in the story itself or its language that would forbid us to think of it as an early story concerning Jesus.” Brown also notes, “Its succinct expression of the mercy of Jesus is as delicate as anything in Luke; its portrayal of Jesus as the serene judge has all the majesty that we would expect of John." With Metzger and Brown, I am convinced that it is a historical account.

Tuesday, July 08, 2008

The Last Lecture on living well

Some months ago I heard about Randy Pausch and his “last lecture.” Pausch had been diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and was expected to have just a few months to live. He delivered a last lecture at Carnegie Mellon University in which he shared what he wanted his students, friends and family to know. That lecture was expanded into a book, The Last Lecture, and it’s a powerful read. Inspirational, even.

One theme that emerges is that people are more important than things. Once he had gotten a brand new convertible, and he was visiting his niece and nephew. His sister was worried that the kids would mess the car up, and she exhorted them, “Be careful in Uncle Randy’s new car. Wipe your feet before you get in it. Don’t mess anything up. Don’t get it dirty.”

Randy thought, “That’s just the sort of admonition that sets kids up for failure. Of course they’d eventually get my car dirty. Kids can’t help it.”

So Randy opened a can of Coke and poured it out onto the cloth seats of the back of the car. No big deal, he said – the car is just a thing. And the kids were amazed. And later that weekend, his nephew Chris got the flu and threw up all over the backseat. And he didn’t feel bad because Randy had already messed up the car.

Another car-related episode happened shortly after he and his wife, Jai, were married. One day Jai pulled their minivan out of the garage and crunched into the convertible in the driveway. Both cars were dented. She put both cars back in the garage and told Randy at dinner, “I hit one car with the other car.” She said she’d get estimates for repairs.

Randy said that it wasn’t necessary. Both cars ran fine. Randy writes, “My parents had raised me to recognize that automobiles are there to get you from point A to point B. They are utilitarian devices, not expressions of social status.” So no need to do cosmetic repairs. The cars still worked fine, so they just drove them, dents and all.

“If your trashcan or wheelbarrow has a dent in it, you don’t buy a new one. Maybe that’s because we don’t use trashcans and wheelbarrows to communicate our social status or identity to others. For Jai and me, our dented cars became a statement in our marriage. Not everything needs to be fixed.”

Pausch is an inspiring figure and an incredible optimist. When diagnosed with cancer, he first asked the doctor, “How long before I die?” And the doctor responded, “You probably have three to six months of good health.” And that reminded Pausch of his time working at Disney. If you ask Disney World employees, “What time does the park close?” they are supposed to answer, “The park is open until 8 p.m.” In other words, the focus is on the opening, not the closing; the time alive, not the impending death.

So he told his wife, “Even if the scan results are bad tomorrow, I just want you to know that it feels great to be alive, and to be here today, alive with you. Whatever news we get about the scans, I’m not going to die when we hear it. I won’t die the next day, or the day after that, or the day after that. So today, right now, well, this is a wonderful day. And I want you to know how much I’m enjoying it.”

Randy Pausch is a wise man. He knows not only how to die, but how to live. He says that each of us must decide whether we will be a fun-loving Tigger or a sad-sack Eeyore. Given the choice, whatever the circumstances, Pausch would exhort us to choose Tigger every time.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

The particularity of John 14:6 revealing God as Father

The retreat center I was at last weekend happened to be a Southern Baptist camp, and it had a number of signs with verses like John 3:16 and John 14:6 and the Ten Commandments posted around the grounds. Very intentional and evangelistic of them, of course, that these things are quite visible to any who might visit.

I happened to be glancing at one sign of John 14:6, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me," and I wondered to myself how non-Christian visitors might respond to that if they were seeing it for the first time. And something occurred to me that I'm not sure I'd thought about before.

John 14:6 is very particular that no one comes to the Father except through Jesus. But does that necessarily mean that no one can have any knowledge or understanding of God apart from Jesus? I'm still playing with this, but it seems significant to me that Jesus is specifically talking about coming to "the Father" here.

Perhaps it's not that Jesus is completely invalidating the religious experience of people in other world religions. John 14:6 doesn't rule out general revelation. Perhaps the emphasis is rather that if you want to know God as a Father, then you need to come through Jesus. That's Christianity's uniqueness among all other religions. Jesus alone reveals God as Father.

I think sometimes Christians misuse John 14:6 to claim that all other religions are completely invalid, or that adherents of other faiths do not know anything of the true God. This probably overstates what John 14:6 actually says. I think Christians, when interacting with other religious traditions, can say something more along the lines of, "I'm glad that you're spiritual and people of faith. It's great that you're committed to your religion, and I don't doubt the authenticity and sincerity of your religious experience. But y'know what? Jesus claims that we can know God as Father, and that's unique. No other religion or faith tradition claims that kind of personal relational intimacy with the divine. And Jesus invites us to know God as Father through following him and believing in him."

Back in the mid-'90s, I remember getting into discussions of postmodernism's critique of propositional truth, and one insight I had was that John 14:6 is not merely a propositional statement about the exclusivity of Jesus. Sometimes Christians wield that verse like a blunt object, as if merely quoting it to people will persuade them of its truth. And I think we need to experience John 14:6 the way the disciples did. Imagine, instead of just hearing it as an isolated verse ripped out of context, you had actually lived and walked with Jesus for three years. You'd heard his teachings, seen his compassion, witnessed his miraculous actions. Only then, after three years of embodied, lived experience, does he say, "I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me." And you'd say, yeah, that makes sense. No one else speaks and lives truth like this Jesus. No one else has this kind of life. Of course Jesus must be the way.

So instead of seeing John 14:6 as a trump card to close the deal and hammer home the uniqueness of Jesus and Christianity, see it as an invitation. Jesus invites us to discover that God is a different kind of God than we might have presumed. Hang out with Jesus for a few years, explore who he is, experience what he does. And then it won't seem so strange that this Jesus claims to be the way.

Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Yo, Joe! Er, Joseph!

I'm a child of the '80s, and I grew up during that first generation of deregulated kids' TV that had shows based on toys and product lines like Transformers, G.I. Joe, Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite and all the rest. Well, I just saw the following item in a Christian retail industry e-newsletter:
G.I. Joe creator introduces new additions to Almighty Heroes. When Don Levine created the Original G.I. Joe in 1963, he revolutionized the world of boys’ toys and changed the face of the toy industry forever. With more than $5 billion in worldwide sales, G.I. Joe remains one of the most treasured and collectible action figures in the world. Last year, Levine introduced a new line of action figures called Almighty Heroes, specifically targeted to the Christian marketplace. Continuing on the success of the toy line, this year Almighty Heroes is releasing new action figures: Joshua the Warrior and Joseph, each with their own four-color Bible storybook. In addition to the redesigned Samson muscle suit dress-up for boys, Almighty Heroes is introducing a Queen Esther Dress-Up suit for girls. Another new item to the line is a Goliath blow up bop-bag.

I just looked these up on, and here are pictures of some of the figures. See if you can guess who they are.