Friday, August 29, 2008

Upcoming Invite08 Soul Care for Leaders retreat/conference

Yesterday I caught up with Mindy Caliguire, founder of Soul Care, a spiritual formation ministry serving church leaders. She's the author of IVP's series of Soul Care Resources, including two new volumes, Simplicity and Soul Searching, that just came out this summer.

I'm a workshop leader at Soul Care's upcoming Invite08: Soul Care for Leaders one-day retreat/conference to be held at Willow Creek this October. I'll be doing a workshop on spiritual formation in the suburbs. Here's the description:

Suburbia can be a challenging environment for a healthy spiritual life. How does the geography and sociology of the suburban landscape affect our relationships with God and others? This workshop will explore the cultural forces at work in suburbia and how Christian spirituality and practices can counteract suburban tendencies. The workshop will also help church leaders contextualize their ministries to connect with suburban seekers.

IVP's publisher, Bob Fryling, is also doing a workshop on "spiritual coherence and leaders," which will be a preview of his forthcoming book on spirituality and leadership. The event should be especially helpful for pastors and ministry leaders (whether church staff or volunteers) who find themselves responsible for people's spiritual health but may feel like their own souls lack spiritual vitality. If you're in the Chicagoland area (or close enough in the Midwest to drive in for the weekend), I invite you to Invite08!

Here's the info:

Invite08: Soul Care for Leaders

Saturday, October 25, 2008

As church leaders, we need to listen to and care for our souls. Most of us are responsible for the care of others, too. Do you truly know how it’s done? Are you making time for it? Join us as we seek God to learn what it means to work whole-heartedly for His purpose.

Gather with others in our area to enjoy worship, retreat, conversations, reflection and learning.

WHEN: Saturday, October 25, 2008 9am – 4pm

WHERE: Room 100 at Willow Creek Community Church, 67 E. Algonquin Road, South Barrington, IL 60102

COST: $35 until Oct 1, $45 after that. Cost includes casual pizza lunch

Anticipating a blessed day with you,

Invite08 Leadership Team
Mindy Caliguire, Soul Care
Dan Lovaglia, Willow Creek
Doug & Marilyn Stewart, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Back to school

Well, it's official. This past weekend I went through registration and orientation, and I now have a campus mailbox, ID card, syllabi and a stack of textbooks. I'm now a PhD student in educational studies at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School.

It's been twelve years since I finished my master's in communications at Wheaton Grad School, so I'm a little daunted about getting back into the system. I had considered doing doctoral work immediately after my master's, but I had been in school for so long (K-12 plus four years of college and two years for the MA - a total of 19 years!) that I felt like I really needed to get out in the real world and work. My dad was a PhD (in electrical engineering), my uncle was a PhD (in economics), so part of me figured I'd get a PhD eventually, but I didn't know in what or when. I didn't want to enter into a PhD program just for the sake of getting a PhD or for the wrong reasons, so I basically relinquished the idea. I didn't know if I would ever get back to school, because things have been rolling along pretty well career-wise this past decade or so, and it's hard to shift gears mid-stream.

But then a few years ago I was in an Asian American leadership development program through InterVarsity, and my mentor was Peter Cha, professor of practical theology and sociology of religion at Trinity. And one of the first things he asked me as we met was, "So when are you going to do doctoral work?" I resisted the idea at first just because life was busy enough as is. Decided against it, at one point. But the topic kept coming up over the next year or so.

So last year I decided to start formally explore all the various options (so much easier now than for college or my MA, before schools had websites!). The main challenge was that there's no such thing as a PhD in publishing. I considered PhD programs in communications and looked for programs in religious media studies or media and theology. I'm not qualified for programs in sociology of religion, but I wanted to explore sociology of religion and theology of culture if possible. I wondered if I could adapt a DMin program to a parachurch context. Explored some distance possibilities, some interdisciplinary PhD programs. I even looked into MFAs and MBAs. I considered a particular PhD program with connections between a seminary and a university (I thought it would be interesting to do theology at the seminary and communication studies at the university), but I got a speeding ticket on my way to the campus visit, and the lunch they provided had a chicken salad sandwich that gave me food poisoning and knocked me out for the weekend. I took that as a sign from God not to apply to that school.

So ultimately, I came back around to Trinity Evangelical Divinity School's PhD in educational studies. This particular program specifically seeks out people who have been working professionals and can bring real-life experience to bear on the program, so it's not merely theoretical but anchored in practical realities. The classes are modular, so it's more doable for people with full-time jobs. The school and faculty align pretty well with my broadly evangelical identity. My mentor Peter Cha teaches several sociology courses in the program. I can contextualize the program to bring educational theory and pedagogy into dialogue with Christian publishing praxis. The program is interdisciplinary (my texts cover a range of fields from history, philosophy and epistemology to anthropology, psychology and sociology). And it's local here in the Chicagoland area, so I don't have to uproot my family or leave my job. Seemed like a good convergence of all the various factors and criteria.

So I applied, and I got in. I'm still a little daunted, but at orientation yesterday the dean welcomed us and told us that we don't have to feel like we have to prove ourselves to be here. He said that they accepted us into the program because they wanted us to be part of this community and were confident that we could contribute and do scholarship at this level. And one minor thing that's pretty cool is that during library orientation yesterday, they showed us a little feature that imports bibliographic reference info and automatically formats it in whatever style guide you need - Chicago, Turabian, APA, whatever. Wow! They didn't have that when I was in grad school twelve years ago. I'll be gosh darned by all this new-fangled technology.

All this to say that I probably won't have time to blog as much these next few years. We'll see how things go. I'm a little worried that blogging has wrecked my ability to write academic papers. I've gotten used to brief blog posts without extensive lit review or note referencing. But at any rate, I'm finally underway on this doctoral journey. Pray for me!

Friday, August 22, 2008

The Shack: Theology, narrative and the cultural moment

Yesterday several of my colleagues and I had a lunchtime discussion of William Young's The Shack, the self-published book that has become a bestselling phenomenon with two million copies in print. I read it a few months ago after hearing some of the initial buzz about it and wanted to know what all the fuss was about. (And I have to say that the title of the book always makes me think, "Love shack, baby, love shack!")

As Christian publishing industry professionals, my colleagues and I had a good time bantering about The Shack's merits and demerits, assessing its theology, discussing its narrative efficacy, unpacking the cultural dynamics and publicity. (If the following is slightly vague regarding plot specifics, it's to avoid spoilers for those who have not yet read it.)

One of the most interesting points of our discussion was The Shack's portrayal of the Trinity. That's easily one of the most distinctive things about the book. Most Christians focus on just God or Jesus, but The Shack personified the Holy Spirit as well. And seeing the three of them converse, interact and relate to each other is striking, so much so that one of my colleagues said that she'd happily use the book as an introductory textbook for teaching theology.

All of us in the room were curious to hear what one of our editors had to say, as he has a PhD in theology and has specialized in Trinitarian thought, especially of Karl Barth and T. F. Torrance. And he actually was quite positive about The Shack's take on the Trinity. He said that even if the language and notions could have been articulated better, he didn't see anything that was a gross misappropriation of the Christian tradition, that basically various orthodox Trinitarian theologians throughout the ages have said many of these things. Not all in one person, perhaps, but The Shack is a bit of an amalgam of various portraits of social trinitarianism.

One particular critique of The Shack's theology is that it confuses the persons of the Father and the Son, especially in the suffering of the Son (leading to charges of the heresy of patripassianism). My colleague didn't agree. Instead he pointed out that these detractors more often too rigidly separate the persons of the Trinity so that they seem like three separate Gods, as if the experience of the Son is not at all experienced by the Father. Indeed, some theologies place great (over?)emphasis on the Father's action against/upon the Son, which necessitates a sharp distinction between them. The Shack should be seen as a corrective against this overemphasis, to remind us that the three persons of the Trinity truly are one God.

Another key theme in The Shack is the problem of evil and suffering. Here we also generally affirmed The Shack's take on theodicy. Rather than overly spiritualize bad things as somehow happening by God's secret design or plan, The Shack says that evil truly is evil, and not God's plan or intention. The approach correlates well with Tom Wright's book Evil and the Justice of God - God is not the author of evil, and less important than the "why" of why bad things happen is the "what" of what God is doing about evil.

This relates to the cultural context and why perhaps The Shack has caught on so much. I think The Shack in many ways is doing for this generation what Philip Yancey's books Disappointment with God and Where Is God When It Hurts? did two decades ago - it gives voice to people's questions and heartcries about their own suffering and doubts about God's goodness. It used to be that apologetic questions were about "Is the Bible true?" or "Is Christianity the right religion?" Now the more fundamental questions are "Is Christianity good?" or "Can God be trusted?" If there is a God, is he really a good God? And The Shack goes a long way toward tapping into this cultural moment and answering (positively) that despite a world of pain and suffering, we can still believe in God, because he is still good, even if we haven't always recognized this as such.

The downside to The Shack's approach, perhaps, is that more traditional perspectives of God and church are the necessary foil to this message. So the book naturally appeals to the many who have had bad experiences with the church, Christians or God. (Which of course is another aspect of this cultural moment.) There's an implicit anti-authority and anti-institutional approach to this book (which is made more explicit in another Windblown Media book, So You Don't Want to Go to Church Anymore).

Another downside of The Shack is its "preachiness." The didactic sections of the book are a little heavy-handed, and the fictional narrative is mostly a delivery device for the author's message. The story is engaging, but does not rise to the heights of the best Christian fiction. Nor does it really parallel the fictional-yet-didactic narratives of books like C. S. Lewis's The Screwtape Letters or The Great Divorce. If anything, the tugging-at-the-heartstrings approach of the book is somewhat manipulative. My wife commented that she was in tears at various points of the book, because of the emotional nature of the plot developments, and that seemed to be a manipulative way for the author to get you to respond to and affirm his theology.

We recognized that while most of us in the room were interested in discussing the theological aspects of the book ("Wow! A popular book for a mass audience that actually has Trinitarian theology!"), we recognized that most people reading the book are likely not looking for the theology. They're primarily looking for an interesting read. But they're finding something compelling in both the format and the content. It surprises, and that causes buzz. It's not a self-help book, and it's not really an "inspirational" book. But it's grappling with real issues about suffering and evil, whether God can be trusted and is God really real and good. Somehow the book connects with human doubts and points to the character of God. And that's a good thing.

We also talked about the book's publicity and word-of-mouth buzz. The sense was that for many of us, Eugene Peterson's endorsement (that it's this generation's Pilgrim's Progress) was enough to validate the book to make us check it out and see what all the hype was about. Many of us are jaded publishing professionals who have seen plenty of shallow bestsellers come and go. I'm still dubious about the overall value of endorsements, but this is one of the rare cases that an endorsement made us take a second look at this self-published book.

Of course, as publishing folks, we're wondering what we can learn from The Shack and whether it has any implications for our own publishing. IVP's kind of publishing is quite different; we're more likely to publish Tom Wright's straightforward exposition about evil than a fictional narrative about the topic. But we're not completely averse to fictional narrative approaches. In the last year three of my own projects have been narrative: Don Everts's One Guy's Head series (one volume of which, The Dirty Beggar Living in My Head, is all about questions of evil, suffering, hell and justice), James Choung's True Story and Robert Velarde's Conversations with C. S. Lewis. And it occurred to me during our discussion that Conversations with C. S. Lewis has uncanny similarities with The Shack, including a fictional narrative about a suffering, grieving protagonist who has lost a loved one and meets guides that give him new perspectives on loss and God. (Yeah, I have to slip in the obligatory "If you liked The Shack, you'll love Conversations with C. S. Lewis!" plug here.)

At the end of the day, our discussion was surprisingly positive about The Shack. Does it say everything it could or should? Of course not. But far better for millions of people to be reading The Shack than The Da Vinci Code or Eckhart Tolle. Overall, our sense was that the book, though imperfect, was helping readers encounter God - not just a generic fuzzy god, but the distinctly Trinitarian God of Father, Son, Holy Spirit. And we can rejoice and be glad.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Free new Nooma samples on Facebook

A few years ago I was at a Calvin seminar on Christian writing, and during one segment we discussed Rob Bell, his book Velvet Elvis, and his Nooma videos. A few of us watched several of them together. The end of one of them, "Luggage," came as such a surprise that one of my fellow seminar participants blurted out, "Damn!" We discussed Bell's rhetoric and communication style, and our sense was that in many ways, Bell was accomplishing for this generation what Billy Graham had done for the post-WWII generation, using current technology to contextualize and communicate the gospel in fresh, new ways.

I've watched maybe seven or eight of the Nooma videos, and for the most part I've appreciated what I've seen. They provide engaging ways of entering into various topics, and they seem to be good for sparking discussion. Some have critiqued Noomas for not being wholly comprehensive in their teaching, depending on your theological perspective. But if people have misgivings, they can certainly augment them with further discussion. I don't know that they are intended to be the whole enchilada all in themselves anyway.

At any rate, I've not seen more of them mostly because they're not the kind of things I tend to buy. So this morning I was pleased to stumble across some free samples and previews of Noomas available on Facebook. One of the ones available in its entirety is "Rich," which I saw at a trade show a while back. This one is particularly relevant to our consumer culture, as it puts our consumerism in global perspective and calls us to better stewardship and generosity.

Right now the newest Nooma, "She," is also available, and this one looks at the experience of motherhood as a window into God's character. Riffing off of Isaiah, Bell observes that if you've ever seen a mother comfort her child, you've seen a glimpse of who God is. A mother's labor and giving birth is a picture of God's grace - we did nothing on our part to be born, but somebody else's suffering, labor, blood, sweat and tears is what gave us life. The film is quite moving, and it's a great tribute to moms everywhere. I'll bet this one gets plenty of use next Mother's Day.

Thursday, August 14, 2008

The Point Radio: Olympic Lessons

Prison Fellowship's The Point ran a one-minute radio spot referencing my CT column "Olympic Snapshot." You can listen to the spot here. Here's the text:

"What can the Olympics teach us about heaven? Hi, I'm Mark Earley and this is The Point. With China's record of human rights abuse, the Beijing Olympics have been shrouded in controversy. But that can overshadow a lesson that the Olympics may hold for us. As Al Hsu recently pointed out in Christianity Today, the Olympic Games give us a snapshot, that for some of us is the closest we may come to seeing the international, multiethnic nature of the kingdom of God. One day people from every tribe and tongue and nation will worship Jesus Christ. Even today, our own churches should be shaped by this rich diversity.

"So as you watch the Games, let the reminder of the many flags and faces of people from all across the world stimulate your imagination. Because one day, nations will come not to compete for the gold, but to lay crowns at the feet of the true victor, Jesus Christ. I'm Mark Earley, and that's The Point. For more, visit us at"

And what thrills me most about this spot is that they pronounced my last name correctly! Thanks, BreakPoint. I appreciate it.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

Missional in Suburbia seminar, and questions for the suburban context

This past weekend I was in the suburbs of Philadelphia to do a seminar on being Missional in Suburbia. It was hosted by The Well, a church that has taken its suburban context seriously, thanks to its copastors Todd Hiestand and Gary Alloway. They recently hosted a forum on suburban poverty and went on a mission trip to their own suburb.

We had some great interaction, and they've posted audio from the seminar online. I have not listened to them (I hate hearing myself talk) so I'm not sure what all was captured, but you can find links for downloading the audio here. There are also some blog posts and comments from folks who attended here and here.

Thanks also to the Ecclesia Network and Biblical Seminary's C4ML (Catalyst for Missional Leadership) for cosponsoring the event. John Franke, professor of theology at Biblical Seminary, was on the closing panel, and he validated the importance of thinking missionally about the suburban context. It was great to interact with him and others on this topic; he pressed us all to think theologically about suburbia, especially the nature of the gospel and God's mission in suburbia. We talked about how the gospel cannot be overly individualized (as has often been the case in evangelicalism); the gospel must be good news not only for individuals, but also for communities and places. It's not merely a vehicle for self-improvement to make your suburban life a better suburban life; the gospel must challenge suburban assumptions and point to a different kind of life.

To facilitate processing and contextual application, I had people break up into smaller groups (organized by geography) and discuss the following questions. I'm posting them here so anybody can use them to diagnose their own suburban context and think about their church's role in suburban mission. Feel free to adapt and share them with your local churches and communities.

Part 1: Exploring Your Suburban Context

Describe your suburban context, where you live/work/worship/minister. How did you come to live here? What brought you to the area?

What would you say is distinctive about your particular location? Consider these cultural cues:

· What institutions are important in your suburban area? Commercial, governmental, nonprofit, educational, entertainment, etc.?

· What major employers are based in your area?

· What kinds of local festivals or community events are held in your area?

· What different kinds of residents live in your area? Where do they live?

· Why do people move to your local suburb rather than others?

· How is your particular suburb different from others nearby?

What are the needs of your suburban area? Assess the “as is.” Consider physical, economic, social, emotional, relational, spiritual dimensions.

What would your suburb look like if the kingdom of God became more manifest there? What problems might be alleviated? How would your suburb be different?

What is your vision for your suburb, your neighborhood, your community? Describe the “could be.”

Part 2: Identifying Your Church’s Role

Why do people come to your church? (If you don’t know, call some ordinary church members right now and ask them, “Out of all the churches in the area, why did you decide to visit our church? What made you stay?”)

Why do people leave your church?

What’s your church’s distinctive DNA? How is it different from other churches in your area?

What does your church do that other churches don’t do? What can your church do that other churches can’t do?

What do you wish your church could do? Is that hope anchored in reality?

Consider the “as is” and “could be” discussed in part 1. What is your church’s role in contributing toward this “could be”?

How can your church partner with other churches in moving toward this “could be”?

Friday, August 08, 2008

Kingdom Sightings: Olympic Snapshot

In conjunction with the opening of the Beijing Olympics, Christianity Today has posted online my August column:

Olympic Snapshot

Imagine swords turned into plowshares, and soldiers into soccer players.

Al Hsu posted 8/08/2008 07:26AM

I love the Olympics. My grandfather attended the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles and brought back an Olympic keychain that I used for two decades before the clasp broke. I have pins from every Olympiad since my birth. I'd love to take a class at Regent College in the winter of 2010 just so I can be in town for the Vancouver Winter Games. I'm hoping Chicago gets to host the 2016 Olympics so I can volunteer.

Every Olympiad, both summer and winter, I spend two weeks engrossed in obscure events and medal counts. I find myself caught up in the competitions and the stories of the individual athletes, as well as in the global community the Games foster.

But I've been conflicted about the 2008 Games ever since they were awarded to Beijing. As many have noted, China's human-rights record is tainted with abuses. The international community has rightly been concerned about China's relationships with Tibet and Sudan.

In addition, I am a second-generation Taiwanese American, and Taiwan and China have been at odds for decades. Part of me feels kinship with Chinese culture and history, while another part carries a fierce sense of Taiwanese independence.

A few years ago, I visited mainland China, and I had an uneasy feeling at the Beijing airport. It was akin to how an American might have felt visiting the Soviet Union during the Cold War.

The closing ceremonies of the 2004 Olympics marked the transition from Athens to Beijing with a cultural display of Chinese dance and music. I realized that I can honor China's 5,000-year history, which far transcends China's modern-day Communist rule. I can affirm my Chinese ethnic heritage even if I find myself protesting certain aspects of the present Chinese government. I can also celebrate the redemptive possibilities of the current Olympics.

Christian Vision Project editor Andy Crouch writes in his new book, Culture Making, that the cultural treasures of this world will be redeemed and incorporated into the kingdom of God as "the furniture of the new Jerusalem." Like athletes entering a stadium, the kings of the earth bring their splendor (Rev. 21:24). Far from being destroyed on the Last Day, cultural goods will be purified, renewed, and received into the kingdom as tribute to the one true God.

Thus, the Olympics as a cultural artifact can be seen as a sign of the kingdom. The Olympics are one of the rare occasions when the world comes together in peace and unity, with a minimum of political division or acrimony. The "Olympic spirit" or "Olympic ideal" harks back to ancient Greece, when city-states would declare a truce while the Olympic Games were taking place. Imagine if fighting ceased worldwide during these 17 days in August. Imagine not just swords made into plowshares, but soldiers turned into soccer players.

Of course, the Olympic spirit is not the Spirit of God. But the Holy Spirit can certainly work through the Olympic Games to call the church to global mission. Christians watching the Olympics can see both a snapshot of the "next Christendom" of the majority-world church, as well as windows into people groups that lack a viable witness to the gospel. (Prayer trigger idea: Pray for Christian witness in each country as they are featured during the Games, and keep a copy of Operation World handy so you can look up specific missional issues.)

The Games likewise give us a snapshot of the future world. In Surprised by Hope, N. T. Wright notes that Revelation 4 and 5 do not merely provide a vision of the future consummated kingdom. He argues that they also provide a picture of the present global church as "the heavenly dimension of our present life." The international, multiethnic nature of the church is a prophetic sign of the kingdom of God in today's world.

At InterVarsity's triennial Urbana mission conventions, college students encounter God's call to global mission in the midst of a transnational, multilingual, and multiethnic array of worship and speakers. For many delegates, this is the first time they have worshiped with people and in ways outside their own cultural tradition. They often exclaim, "This must be what heaven is like!"

Well, yes. But it's not just a preview of heaven. It's also a picture of what earth should be like.

Jesus taught us to pray: "Thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven." My prayer is that this global, crosscultural kingdom vision will be glimpsed not just at Urbana every three years or at the Olympics every four years, but also every day in churches both at home and around the world.

Copyright © 2008 Christianity Today. This article first appeared in the August 2008 issue of Christianity Today. Used by permission of Christianity Today International, Carol Stream, IL 60188. Click for reprint information.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

sub•text interview on the church and suburbia

The new site sub•text, which provides commentary, links and resources on being missional in suburbia, posted the following interview with me about my take on suburbia.


Al Hsu is an editor at InterVarsity Press. He is the author of three books, including The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty. He blogs at and is also a columnist for Christianity Today magazine. He and his wife, Ellen, serve as worship leaders at their Anglican church plant, and they live in the western suburbs of Chicago with their two boys. In November Al will be speaking at a sub•text forum in suburban Chicago.

1. Tell us about your experience in American suburbia. (Where do you live? What’s it like? Do you like it? Etc)

I grew up in the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota, in Bloomington, home of the Mall of America, just south of Edina, home of Southdale, the first indoor enclosed shopping center. Mall culture grew up in Minnesota partly because of the frigid winters! My hometown experience very much reflected the suburbs of the ’70s and ’80s, hanging out at the mall, watching reruns of The Brady Bunch. It wasn’t until college and later that I realized that suburbia was not necessarily a normative experience.

I now live in the western suburbs of Chicago; I came here about 14 years ago for grad school and stayed because of employment in the area. So the majority of my life has been spent in suburban contexts. A few years ago, I started to wonder how the suburban landscape and culture affected me, for good and for bad. So I started researching the history and geography of suburbia and explored the sociological dynamics of how suburbia works. I came away with a greater appreciation for suburbia on its own terms, even as I resist some of the challenges of suburban culture. Like any place, suburbia is something of a mixed bag. But we as Christians are called to live here incarnationally and missionally, exegeting the culture and finding prophetic, countercultural ways to herald the gospel in suburbia.

2. How are churches doing in reaching suburbanites? Successful? Not? Why?

Some of the most “successful” (in terms of numbers) churches are suburban churches. Part of this is simple demographics - churches like Willow Creek and Saddleback were in the right places at the right times to connect with a growing suburban population. But they’ve also been very intentional and savvy about seeing suburbia as their mission field and connecting with suburban people in suburban ways. This too has been a mixed bag, as sometimes suburban ministry efforts have focused more on contextualization and have not been countercultural enough.

For the average local church, however, it seems that many churches struggle to find a clear sense of their particular ministry calling within their suburban context. They can no longer rely on denominational loyalty to bring them new members. They can’t compete with the megachurches; they can’t be all things to all people. But they can be some things to some people. And the challenge for them is to discern what specific kinds of ministries their particular congregation is called to.

Also, this is probably a vast overgeneralization, but my guess is that most suburban churches are better at transfer growth than actual conversion growth. There’s regional variation, of course - some areas of the country that are more post-Christian might lend themselves to more radical efforts to reach the unchurched. And the biggest challenge today may be the de-churched, the formerly churched who are simply no longer interested in traditional congregations. But this may be an opportunity for the non- traditional church plant, or the alternate Christian gathering that might come up with different ways of being a Christian community in suburbia.

3. How should churches approach ministry to people in suburbia?

The gospel must be translated into suburban culture and contexts, but also must challenge suburban assumptions and expectations. So suburban church ministry should be both contextual and countercultural, and that balance can be tricky to discern.

I love the example of the church that gives free car washes. One person going through said, “Oh, I get it. Back in Jesus’ day, people walked around, so he washed their feet. Today, we drive, so you wash cars.” Duh! Suburbia is a commuter culture where we have to drive to get anywhere. We can challenge the dependence of car-based culture and encourage people to live more locally and think in terms of neighborhood parishes. But we also need to meet people where they’re at and offer transportation ministries to help people navigate suburban commuter culture, with things like providing free oil changes for single moms.

I also think a major opportunity for local churches is to reframe their ministries in terms of “being good neighbors.” It’s not just a matter of individual evangelization; it’s also a matter of churches seeking the welfare of their suburbs. I like a phrase that Scot McKnight used to describe one particular church; he called it “a gift to the community.” One fellow I met at a conference told me that his church has gotten involved with community institutions like the park district, fire department and local school districts to see if there are ways that their church can be of help and assistance. This kind of local involvement and investment has helped their church build relationships with people in the community, and has been more effective in helping people find God than traditional efforts in individual evangelism.

4. You’ve written The Suburban Christian. What is the contribution you want this book to make?

I wrote The Suburban Christian in part because I saw a number of books about missional ministry to urban centers, but comparatively little was being said about missional ministry to the suburbs. In terms of sheer numbers, there are roughly twice as many people inhabiting the suburbs than city centers, so it seemed like this was a significant oversight. And certain circles of the church seemed to write off the suburbs as shallow, vapid and a place of “selling out” rather than a place just as much in need of the gospel as anywhere else. I wanted to help the church realize that suburbia is a mission field, perhaps one of the most strategic mission fields of the early 21st century.

I’m encouraged that there are now a growing number of “new suburbanists” that are taking suburban mission seriously. Blogs and sites like this one, sub•text, are great resources for the suburban church and helping people see suburbia as a legitimate and strategic mission field.

One of my friends mentioned to me that their suburban church, which had been meeting in a rented location, just got their own property. And now their church members are talking about the possibility of moving into the local community, to be able to minister and invest in the immediate neighborhood and area. I’m encouraged to hear about more suburban churches thinking in these kinds of missional terms these days.

5. What do you see as the future for the suburbs and suburban mission considering the difficulties of the housing market, high gas prices, etc?

There’s no doubt that suburbia is changing, but projections about the impending death of suburbia are probably premature. We’re seeing a maturation and aging of suburbia, which includes increases in suburban poverty, the weakening of suburban infrastructure, the urbanization of suburbia, the diversification of suburbia. As new suburbs become new cities, old suburbs become old cities, with all the same challenges and problems.

But suburbs are still home to the majority of residents and jobs, and it’s unlikely that there will be any mass exodus from the suburbs to either cities or small towns. The demographic population trends all point to continued suburbanization, though those suburbs are changing. The mortgage crisis has shown that suburban development has limits, and that there’s an increasing need for more affordable housing. High gas prices are affecting suburban commuting patterns, but it seems more likely that people will switch to smaller, more fuel-efficient cars rather than relocate to urban centers. I think it would be a healthy shift for suburban residents to recover the notion of the local parish, and to live, work, shop and worship all in the same geographic area. But because of the uncertainty of the economy right now, folks are hesitant about making big changes unless they really have to.

In short, suburbia is not going away anytime soon. It will certainly change as the economy changes and as the culture changes. McMansions may be retrofitted into multi-family housing. Big-box churches may give way to smaller, more nimble multi-site communities. Whatever happens, the new suburban landscape will require a new generation of suburban Christians and churches that take suburban mission seriously and herald the gospel to suburbia.


Monday, August 04, 2008

Al Hsu is thinking about Facebook statuses

I’ve been noticing that Facebook statuses are changing how I live. I often find out about news from people’s Facebook statuses. I first heard about the death of Steven Curtis Chapman’s daughter through a Christianity Today editor’s Facebook status, and likewise several people posted about the passing of theologian T. F. Torrance a few months back. I saw a status today with "RIP Solzhenitsyn." I’ll see prayer requests, job postings, engagements and new babies announced on Facebook statuses. I learn all sorts of things about old friends and new acquaintances in terms of their hobbies, travel, relationships, anniversaries, birthdays, everything.

It seems that there are quite a few different kinds of Facebook statuses:

The announcement. “Joel is leaving IVP.” “Ted is looking for a new news editor for CT.” “Kurt and Taryn's baby is a mischievous rascal who won't let anyone know its gender.”

The travel update. “Amanda is leaving for Ramallah tomorrow.” “Heather thought she was going to Maine but ended up in Venice!”

The media review. “Kylene just saw a really great musical – The Jersey Boys!” “Deacon just saw Swing Vote and has decided to vote.” “Christa thinks that sequels to Hellboy and Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants might qualify as crimes against humanity.”

The cultural reference. “Rebecca thinks that tomorrow night will be a Dark Knight.” “Al is defying gravity.”

The spiritual status. “Ann is awestruck by God’s kindness.” “Joshua is distressed but trusting in God’s faithfulness.”

The commentary. “Laura thinks ill of Hasbro.”

The school status. “Karissa keeps falling asleep while trying to memorize Hebrew vocabulary.”

The parenting status. “Christina is deeply understanding what is terrible about two.”

The just-for-fun status. “Kevin is trying fried things on sticks at the state fair.”

The status that says that there’s more to the story. “David made it halfway through VBS with only one visit from the cops.” “Adrianna may have saved a man’s life.” “Al hopes he got all of the poop off of the TV.”

The enigmatic status. “Agnieszka is opening the red vein of pathos and the blue vein of analysis.” Andy is singing, "When I think of dexamethasone and all it's done for me, I could dance, dance, dance all night."

The status on the status. “Warren is sitting here trying to figure out what to write in this box.”

It also occurs to me that statuses can be occasion for temptation. Sometimes it’s hard to know if a status is self-aggrandizing or boastful. I wonder if I should post a status like “Al just got his official membership certificate from the Triple Nine Society for scoring at the 99.9th percentile on a standardized intelligence/aptitude test.” I want to post it, but is that bragging? Sigh.

Facebook statuses are kind of like author bios (which are usually provided by the author). A Publishers Weekly article by Elisha Cooper commented that “Ms. Bigtime Author divides her time between New York and London” also means “…and you don’t.” Cooper says that it might be more honest to have something like: “Mr. Midlist Author worries a lot. He lives in New Jersey. He’s hoping his new novel is better than his last one.”

I also realized recently that the fewer friends your friends have, the more impact your Facebook status will have. If your friends have a thousand friends, your Facebook status will barely register on their screen – blink and you miss it. But if your friends only have a few hundred friends or less, there’s more chance that they’ll actually see your status.

Anyway, what other Facebook statuses are there? The health status, the job status, the work status, the snarky status, etc.? I thought of the “too much information” status, but didn’t want to give any examples. And I have yet to see someone announce a breakup or divorce through a Facebook status. What other kinds of statuses do you see?