Sunday, September 28, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Overseas missions vs. urban ministry

Another question from Elizabeth: "On pg. 179, you say, "many suburban churches give more to overseas missions than they do to support local ministries in nearby urban centers." Why do you think this is? Is it because churches have individual callings and some are not called to urban centers? Or is it lack of knowing about the needs? Or some other form of neglect? Thanks for doing this - I've enjoyed interacting on the blog."

Thanks, Elizabeth - it's been fun for me too!

I think that historically, evangelicals have championed overseas missions in a way that has not been true with domestic urban ministry. We've romanticized the heroic overseas missionary, going to the far corners of the world. At the same time we've had something of an anti-city bias. Evangelicals have tended to view cities and urban centers as dens of iniquity and evil. And part of this has been affected by America's racial history and dynamics; even though both suburbs and cities are far more diverse today, there's still a cultural narrative that says that white folks live in the suburbs and other folks live in the cities, and thus suburban white churches have been nervous about urban connections/ministries because of their "otherness."

So when young people say they want to become overseas missionaries, their suburban home churches are likely to laud the decision and support them as their sending churches. It bolsters our sense of identity to reach out in such noble ways, to those "poor natives." But if our young people say that they want to move into a local urban neighborhood or get involved with a ministry in the city, that's not as glamorous or sexy. That makes people nervous. That might be perceived as outside our turf or sphere of responsibility - those city churches can minister to their own.

(The cynical side of me would say that for some predominantly white suburban churches, it's fine to minister to different-looking people on the other side of the world, but not people with different skin color in the same metropolitan area. Somehow the local cross-cultural dynamic is scarier than the exotic overseas journey. I saw something recently about a study showing that multiracial churches tend to work only until kids get to high school age. Then white parents bail out because they don't want their daughters dating black guys.)

Also, there's a dynamic where it's easier to support overseas missions because of the remove and distance. You don't see the daily realities because they're not immediately before you, so it's a safe way of ministering by sending a check or going on an occasional short-term mission trip or hearing updates from the missionaries that you support as your proxies. But local metropolitan urban ministry is nearby enough to be inconveniently disturbing. You're just a few miles away from people who live in contexts far different than your own, and it's troublesome to ask why they live in such unjust conditions when you have your comfortable houses just a half-hour drive away. Better to not get involved at all so you don't have to think about those troubling realities.

I realize I'm caricaturing and overgeneralizing, but I think these are some of the subtle psychological dynamics at work behind why we selectively choose to support some missions/ministries and not others. It's hard for us to be self-critical and ask probing questions about how we prioritize different ministries, since there's almost always good reasons for this or that. So to answer your latter questions, yes, it's all of that - some churches might legitimately feel callings not to focus on local urban work (though this can be a cop-out), and others just aren't aware of the needs or issues involved and need to be better informed. It ultimately might boil down to an idea that "we are not the city, so it's not our problem."

As I've said in various ways, as the suburbs continue to urbanize and diversify, suburban ministry is becoming urban ministry. Suburban churches no longer have the luxury of assuming they can merely stay in their suburban bubbles. It's increasingly important for all churches, urban and suburban alike, to seek the welfare of the whole metropolis. It's got to be a both/and. Limited resources mean that every church needs to be discerning and selective about what they do and don't do, but we can't overlook our own metropolitan area and only deploy resources in our immediate suburban communities or overseas. It ought to be a triple both/and, that we have concentric spheres of ministry that are suburban, urban and global.

Friday, September 26, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Urban engagement/relocation and church hopping/anonymity

Two questions from Christy:

1) "I appreciate your thoughts on urban vs suburban living. What observations would you have for Christians who desire urban engagement but are hesitant because they feel they would be sacrificing things such as their children's education etc.?"

Relocation has of course been one of the hallmarks of John Perkins and the Christian Community Development Association, and they have long advocated that true transformation and urban renewal happens most when Christians incarnationally live in a local community rather than trying to minister by commuting in from a remote location. If someone is sensing the call to relocate but has doubts, I'd recommend reading books like Bob Lupton's Renewing the City and Randy White's Journey to the Center of the City and Encounter God in the City to get a good picture of both the challenges and the opportunities of relocating to an urban context. Both authors talk about how they've grappled with issues like parenting and education, and the short answer is that their kids have come out fine, with appreciation for the experience. And when Christians really inhabit a community and get involved in the local school districts, the education experience improves not only for their own children but for others as well.

As I say in the section on "Displacement" (pp. 184-86), relocation (in any direction!) needs to be discerned carefully. Sometimes taking baby steps of displacement (short-term trips, urban plunges, etc.) can be a catalyst for a larger lifestyle change and an opportunity to hear God's call to a new environment. And of course it's essential to have like-minded community and fellow travelers to help you in the discernment, displacement and relocation.

2) "In your book you address the mega church response to suburban life. Can you share some of your observations regarding the issue of 'church hopping' in these types of communities? Can you expound on the idea that anonymity is one reason these larger church communities are attractive to those with the suburban mentality?"

I'm not sure I have any significant observations about church hopping except that it happens. It's kind of a default way people find and change churches these days; we've long passed the era of denominational loyalty. I read a statistic some years ago that when couples get married, if they come from different denominational backgrounds, 9 times out of 10 they leave both traditions and start going to a third. In our consumer culture, people change churches and church hop just like they change brands of jeans or cars. If they have a strong sense of community and affinity with a church, they'll be more likely to stay - if not, they'll hop.

Regarding anonymity, I'd first note that anonymity tends to be a suburban cultural norm. We tend to be anonymous when going to the grocery store or the movie theatre. Even if we're regulars at a particular store or restaurant, often we won't ever see the same cashier or waiter. It's easy to slip in and out of places without connecting with anyone or having name recognition. So that's a cultural norm and unconscious expectation that many suburban church visitors bring with them when they visit churches.

Various church experts have noted that in many cases, certain kinds of visitors actually don't want to be greeted at church the first time. Many want to just slip into the back of an auditorium and watch the proceedings while they decide whether or not this particular church is their cup of tea. At smaller churches, it's more likely that an usher or greeter will make personal contact with a handshake or a conversation, and so megachurches with large worship spaces provide a more anonymous entry point for those who are initially wary of being approached. This is not how things should be, but this is generally how things are, at least for some.

So smaller and midsize churches can provide an alternative by genuinely welcoming visitors - some have said that for people to stick with a church, they need to be able to identify and recognize at least six or seven other people by their fourth visit. Sometimes this will be a self-selecting kind of thing, and people who want anonymity will naturally gravitate to the bigger churches, while those who want to connect and know and be known will go to smaller churches. But there's always a complex mix of dynamics going on in every situation.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

George Fox Q&A: More on megachurches

This question is from Dan J.: "I have been greatly influenced, as have many, by the ministry of Willow Creek. Your book makes some good observations about Willow and other megachurches as far as influencing the lives of suburban Christians. However, I'm wondering how much of a detriment that an all inclusive Christian community such as Willow Creek might be to the overall idea of creating or influencing redemptively the "physical" communities that suburban inhabitants actually live in? In other words, can we really afford to spend more time hiding from the communities that we've been called to?"

Your question gets to the heart of some of the megachurch backlash that we've been seeing in recent years, as megachurch attendees start to wonder if the megachurch is really good for them and their community or not. Call it the law of unintended consequences at work. Megachurches do some (many) things very well, and that's why they're megachurches. They would not be what they are if they were not authentically ministering to lots of people on a large scale. But the fact that they create this "all inclusive Christian community" has its own unintended consequences in relocating the focus of Christian life and activity to the church facilities rather than incarnationally dispersed throughout local neighborhoods. Hence the multisite corrective I mentioned earlier.

I think the bottom line is that megachurches can do some things that smaller churches can't do, and smaller churches do some things that megachurches can't do, and we need both. Some people will be reached by megachurches that would never be reached by smaller churches, and vice versa. So there's a place for both in the suburban landscape. Churches of all sizes need to be aware of their own pitfalls and tendencies, and to guard against negative unintended consequences, like hiding from our communities, as you mention. If church time displaces us from really being rooted and involved in local neighborhoods, then we probably need to cut back on how much time we spend and invest at the church and rediscover ways to locate ministry and community life away from church.

George Fox Q&A: Finding your church's calling

Another George Fox question from Vaughn: "In Chapter 8, you repeatedly mention the vocation/calling of suburban churches. Could you say more about how you believe local churches go about determining their calling, and is there anything specific that suburban churches should keep in mind when seeking their calling?"

One way that churches can determine their uniqueness and sense of calling is to explore their own history, identity, context, experience, and gift mix of current members. Every church has a particular story and a distinct way of being and doing church that is different from other churches in the area. One diagnostic that always gets a lot of good discussion is for church leaders and members to ask each other, "Why did you come to this church? Out of all the other churches in the area, why did you visit this one? Why did you stay? What did you find compelling about this particular church?" (I blogged earlier about some other questions that churches can ask themselves.)

How a church discerns its sense of call and vocation is a mysterious process much like it is for us as individuals. Over the years, we as individuals get a sense that God has created us in certain ways, with particular gifts and interests and aptitudes for certain kinds of work or ministry, and we prayerfully ask for God's guidance as he leads us into things that seem to be what he has called us to do. When we find those things, it's like Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire - "God made me fast, and when I run, I feel his pleasure." Likewise, God made our churches in particular ways, and each church is uniquely positioned to do some things well, and when we do those things, we feel God's pleasure.

Books like David Benner's The Gift of Being Yourself can be read and discussed congregationally and applied to a church context. Also, resources like Good to Great (and the companion Good to Great and the Social Sectors) are helpful in determining what it is that your church can be best at.

As far what suburban churches in particular should keep in mind, let me tag back to the previous post and say that suburban churches should understand their calling in relation to their particular suburban context. Your church exists for such a time and place as this. What is it about your particular church that is called to minister to this particular suburban context? Know thyself, and know thy context, and somewhere in the intersection of the two may be clues to your church's missional calling.

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Systemic mission and field reconnaissance

A question from Vaughn: "I really appreciate your encouragement to see the suburbs as a place for mission both in the sense of personal transformation and systemic transformation (p .187). I would love to see my small suburban church plant develop a parish mindset in which we found common purpose around a mission to bring transformation to our local neighborhood (as some have defined "Missional Church"). However, in my middle class neighborhood there aren't many visible systemic issues other than those that you noted in your early chapters (consumerism, individualism, etc...and I certainly share your concern with these issues as well). Do you have any suggestions for how middle class suburban churches might approach "systemic" mission in their own neighborhoods?"

Great question. I think that every church can identify the systemic needs and issues in their particular community and neighborhood by doing some "field reconnaissance." One pastor I know (whose church is located in a Southern Californian suburban area with lots of changing demographics) talks about how every suburb has systemic issues, but they're often hidden below the surface, and it takes some work to sniff them out. Some ways you can do this:

- Visit and talk to social service agencies (whether governmental or nonprofit) serving your area. What needs do they see? What resources do they lack?

- Talk to public school teachers. If you have any teachers in your congregation, they may be some of your best "field agents" because they are on the ground, in the community, and they see what their students are facing. Teachers are often the first to see problems when students are struggling, and can often get a sense of trends in economic hardships, parental alcoholism or abuse, lack of health care, mortgage foreclosure, etc.

- Go to a city council meeting. I know, these can be mind-numbingly boring. But some people really get a kick out of them, and they can shed light on what systemic issues a community might be facing. If you have a policy-wonkish member of your congregation that loves debating politics, send them to a local city council meeting and have them invest their energies on a local level instead of just being concerned with national politics all the time. All politics is local, and often local concerns are far more bipartisan and less polarizing than national issues that can be all abstract and removed.

- Visit neighbors. Bill Hybels did this when starting Willow Creek, and he got a sense of what kind of people lived in his community and what concerned them. We can do the same today. It's unfashionable to go door-to-door these days, but maybe there are ways we can talk to people at parks or Starbucks, not with an evangelistic tract or a hokey "religious survey," but with genuine efforts to hear what people are grappling with locally and personally.

These are just initial steps, obviously, as I don't know that I can make specific recommendations for next steps without having a sense of the particularities of your actual context. And I'm going to wrap up this post because another question just got sent to me!

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

George Fox Q&A: "Consuming Christianly" or "being consumed by Christ"?

Here's another George Fox student question. This is from Josh: "On page 76, you ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" While I agree that Christians, by and large, fail to live by Christian standards in the marketplace and global economy is this really the question that we need to be asking? I agreed with many of your conclusions regarding suburbia and how it shapes and defines how we understand and define spiritual vitality; yet, is it not the suburban mindset that would lead us to ask, "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" It seems that a more pertinent question that we should be asking is: How can we be consumed by Christ? In your opinion, what can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God, and thereby be consumed by Him?"

Good question and good point, Josh. You're of course quite right, that we should be asking, "How can we be consumed by Christ?" I think you can ask both questions side-by-side. One is more practical, one is more spiritual. My question "Is there any way to consume more Christianly?" was in the context of the discussion of consumption. Because consumption is unavoidable, we can't simply say, "Don't consume." We have to consume. So we have to ask how we can do it most Christianly.

And, as Andy Crouch points out in Culture Making, some cultural goods are meant to be consumed and received with gratitude. He writes, "There are many cultural goods for which by far the most appropriate response is to consume. When I make a pot of tea or bake a loaf of bread, I do not condemn it as a worldly distraction from spiritual things, nor do I examine it for its worldview and assumptions about reality. I drink the tea and eat the bread, enjoying them in their ephemeral goodness, knowing that tomorrow the tea will be bitter and the bread will be stale" (p. 92). But he goes on to say that Christians consume far more than we ought, and that consumption should not be our default posture. Consumption is an occasional gesture to be used appropriately, but it is not our fundamental stance toward all of life.

So consumption should not be the center of the Christian's identity, and I think you're getting at the question of whether even using the framework of consumption is in some way capitulation to consumer culture's values and worldview. That's a very good point - Christians should subvert and transform consumer language and find more thoroughly Christian language and vocabulary.

As far as the specifics of your question, "What can we do to help people move from consuming to fully surrendering themselves to God?" I think a starting point is a fundamental reorientation of rooting our identity as citizens of the kingdom of God as opposed to as consumers in this consumer culture. Our primary identity should be as followers of Jesus and heralds of his good news. Once that reorientation takes place, we can begin to resist the idolatry and competing allegiances of our consumer culture. We can employ any number of spiritual disciplines and practices to cultivate a deeper commitment to God, which of course can vary depending on your theological tradition and ecclesial background. (I point to disciplines of creativity, generosity and simplicity, but of course there's much more that could be said than just these.) We can affirm the theological truths that God truly is shepherd and that he is our fundamental source of provision. Trusting God as shepherd is a theological orientation that runs counter to our cultural consumer narratives that we need to provide for ourselves via our own consumption.

One quibble, though, with the language of "being consumed by Christ." Sometimes this comes across as an overspiritualization, that we are so caught up in adoration of Christ that it's all we think about, that he consumes our every waking thought and whatnot. The language of "being consumed" can imply that we're consumed in the sense of something being consumed in a fire - used up, extinguished. I'm not sure that's the most helpful metaphor or image for Christian devotion or ministry. Better, I think, to talk in terms of being equipped, mobilized and deployed for God's good works, not just to be consumed up in some private act of devotion.

When we eat food, we consume it, but not just for the sake of consumption - the food fuels our bodies for activity and good work. When we fill up a car with gas, we consume the gas, but for a purpose, of transportation and getting us somewhere. Likewise, if we are consumed by Christ, it shouldn't be just exercising energy for our own personal spiritual benefit. It ought to be deployed outward, with some sort of missional purpose, that God is using us and our resources for some good ends. Ideally, we should all be fully devoted to Jesus, to "be consumed by him," but in the sense of living actively for the sake of the kingdom, in whatever ways he has called us and gifted us to live.

Well, that's what comes to mind this morning. What do you think? Are there other ways to counter consumer culture and to be consumed by God in positive, constructive ways?

Thursday, September 18, 2008

George Fox Q&A: Megachurch response to commuter culture

A question from Dan: "On page 63 there is reference to the commute that Christian people may have to their places of worship. What positive ways, if any, have you seen the megachurch respond to the idea of the "recovering a parish mindset" that you talk about on p. 67?"

Later on in the book I talk about the multisite church movement, and this is something that has been bubbling up in recent years. Instead of churches building bigger and bigger facilities and people commuting in from farther and farther away, churches are decentralizing and focusing on individual neighborhoods and local communities. They're setting up local campuses and neighborhood home groups that are still connected to the regional "mother ship," but focus on a particular local area or suburb. It's a retooling away from the commuter model toward the parish concept.

It's encouraging that megachurches like Willow Creek have been shifting away from an affinity-based ministry approach to a more geographic-locality-based ministry approach. (A few years ago they hired Randy Frazee, author of The Connecting Church, to help them focus on local multisite campuses.) So instead of affinity-based ministries segmented out for twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and divorcees and singles and recovery groups, now Willow is focusing on local campuses like their DuPage County campus, or McHenry County or North Shore or downtown Chicago. Even those attending the main Willow campus in South Barrington now organize themselves so they sit with people from their local community. Lake Zurich area here, Mundelein, Schaumburg. If you go to Willow’s website and click on the Neighborhood Life link, you’ll find ways to connect with others in various local suburbs. Much of it is organized by school district. That way people can connect with people from their local area and build community together (and spend less time commuting all over the Chicagoland region).

The shift from affinity-based ministry to geography-based ministry is one of the major paradigm shifts of the last five years or so. I affirm both approaches, since different churches and contexts usually require different things, but I applaud the geographic shift in emphasis. And it’s often a both/and. A megachurch like Willow is big enough to have plenty of people within the geographic groups to also have affinity groups within the geography groups. For smaller churches, there are certainly times to have affinity groups for singles or college-age or retirees or whatever. But there’s a big benefit to having local, community-based intergenerational life together that crosses affinity group categories.

Another megachurch example of parish localism happened at Rick Warren's church, Saddleback Church in Orange County, a totally suburban environment. After 9/11, Saddleback provided lawn signs to their church members. The signs said "Pray for Peace" or something like that. Folks went home and put the lawn signs on their lawns. As it turned out, people saw these lawn signs pop up all over their neighborhoods, down the block, across the street. They discovered that all these other Saddleback Christians lived in the same area. They had no idea that these neighbors were Christians, let alone went to the same church! And out of that a lot of local small groups were developed, and people became intentional about creating community in their local suburban neighborhoods. Not only did this help them connect with Christian friends that were nearby, these groups had better evangelistic witness and ministry impact in their neighborhoods.

George Fox Q&A: "missionary impulse" and "critical mass"

Another question from a George Fox student, Elizabeth: "My experience with suburbia is that there are few Christians in suburbia who have any kind of "missionary impulse" (pg. 30) and if a "critical mass" (pg. 52) were reached in a neighborhood it would result in a Christian clique forming rather than an embodied witness of the body of Christ to the neighbors. How do you define "critical mass" and can you offer any suggestions on how to inspire a "missionary impulse" in such a group?"

Elizabeth - alas, yes, there are too few suburban Christians that are truly missional about their suburbs! Most suburban churches are concerned about evangelism and outreach, but that's somewhat different than seeing your suburb missiologically and actually exegeting/exploring one's suburban culture for the purpose of living and ministering there incarnationally.

A "critical mass" of Christian presence in a neighborhood naturally would look different in different situations, so I don't think I have a specific guideline or concrete number of how many or what percentage. I agree, there's certainly a danger of Christian cliquishness (which is true of any church or Christian community). But the alternative is usually that there's no visible Christian presence or witness at all. So better to build a Christian community and to guard against it becoming ingrown and cliquish.

How to inspire a "missionary impulse"? Here's one practical idea. I love what Todd Hiestand's church, The Well, in suburban Philadelphia did this past summer - they had a short-term mission trip to their own suburb. Think of how much anticipation and preparation the average church does for an overseas short-term trip. People raise money, write prayer letters, learn basic language phrases, watch videos, try making indigenous food, get acquainted with culture, music, clothing, etc. Well, imagine if a suburban church invested a similar amount of time and energy preparing for a mission trip to their own suburb! I think people would start to view their suburban context very differently if they went through the exercise of preparing to be short-term missionaries to their suburban area.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

The limitations of voting

As all of the conversations around the water cooler and on Facebook indicate, we are in the thick of the political frenzy season. I'm already feeling political fatigue and am ready for this whole election thing to be done with. So just for the heck of it, here's a post that has the potential to annoy everybody on all sides.

The campaign process wades through long months of complex debate on innumerable topics and issues but then drills down to one ultimate question: How will you vote? I think one of the limitations of the American two-party political system is that it necessarily forces us to make imperfect voting decisions as if we are giving full endorsement to one or another position. There is no way to vote with reservations, to say, "I want to vote for candidate A's health care policy but candidate B's foreign policy" or "I'm only voting for this part of the candidate's platform but not that part." Every party and every candidate is a mixed bag, and I wish we could offer partial votes.

This election cycle, I'm hearing more people say that there's much they agree with and disagree with on both candidates, and neither one fully encapsulates the "ideal" candidate or ticket. I was interested to discover in 2004 that respected Christian historian Mark Noll had publicly stated that for several elections he could not bring himself to fully support either major candidate, so he has chosen not to vote.

A new book just came out a few months ago called Electing Not to Vote: Christian Reflections on Reasons for Not Voting, edited by Ted Lewis, which argues in favor of Noll's position. It argues that not voting could and should be a legitimate option for Christians. I've not read all the way through the book yet, but it has provided a number of very interesting perspectives that seem to resonate with the many Christians who feel that they can't fully support either ticket.

Contributors suggest that voting reinforces the idolatry of the nation-state, and they discuss how voting has been co-opted by the party system, how voting is necessarily an overly simplistic response to very complicated issues, and how historically some of the most significant social changes have happened outside of the actual voting process. For example, the civil rights movement was accomplished in many ways by people who were shut out of the traditional voting process. Social change can and does happen apart from voting; voting is one avenue of public engagement, but certainly not the only one.

One interesting observation is that Christians might actually wield more influence prior to voting than afterward - once your vote is cast, you can be taken for granted. So to withhold your vote might actually be an act not merely of protest but of active political engagement. The contributors argue against an easy checking out of the system and say that if you don't vote, you actually need to be more involved in the political process in different, alternative ways.

If a voter has studied all the issues and candidates and still could not support a candidate, it could be legitimate to not vote as an act of protest. If we cannot vote with a clear conscience, then we should not vote. If the system is broken, then it may be an act of futility to participate in the system. Our electoral process is a tremendously flawed, imperfect system that unfortunately happens to be better than any other alternatives. Of course, this is not to say that we should abandon government. Those who are gifted with political savvy and governmental access can work for reform; others of us not so called may well sit out.

Some have argued that voting is a right, a privilege, an obligation and a duty for us as American citizens. They say that we are derelict in our responsibility if we do not vote. But I am quite skeptical of language about the "duty" or "obligation" to vote. During the primaries, one of my colleagues exhorted everybody to vote. I responded that the right to vote also means the right not to vote. I think using the language of "duty" or "obligation" to vote might actually weaken the principle of participatory democracy. If we are not free to NOT vote, we are not truly free to vote.

Anyway, I'm not necessarily convinced by all of this book's arguments, but I thought it raised a number of good points and it gives voice to a lot of the ambivalence and conflictedness that I'm sensing this year. I haven't decided yet how I will vote, or even if I will vote. But these are my thoughts at this point of the season.

Okay, I've said my piece. Open fire . . .

Monday, September 15, 2008

George Fox class Q&A: Intentional communities

Jason Clark is teaching a course on Missional Ecclesiology at George Fox Evangelical Seminary, and one of his textbooks is The Suburban Christian. His students are reading the book this week and next, and Jason asked me if I'd be willing to interact with them via this blog. I said sure, I'm game.

So here's the first question, from Tom B.: "On page 51, you discuss intentional community and the idea of a sixplex with individual living quarters and a communal kitchen, dining area and common area. This idea is intriguing. Are you aware of any such dwellings here in America? Is there any information about how this concept actually works in practice?"

I first heard this idea from Tom Sine of Mustard Seed Associates some years ago, and he described it as an alternative to typical suburban single-family housing, which tends to isolate us from one another and also saddles us with heavy individual mortgages. The sixplex model was designed by one of Sine's friends, and he referenced the sixplex idea in his books Cease Fire and Mustard Seed vs. McWorld. Here's a little more detail on the concept:
Sine suggested beginning "cooperative communities" as an alternative to suburban living. A starter home in Seattle, he said, costs an average of $150,000. Financed over 30 years, the accumulated cost is $500,000, he observed. By contrast, homes can be built in a "six-plex" with common activity areas for about $60,000, financed over five years. Eventually, a husband and wife living there could afford to cut back to 20 hours of work per week, freeing up more time to spend with children and for ministry. "We're going to have to think that radically," he said. "The single-family detached lifestyle is the most expensive way to live," Sine said. "If we don't create a community where people start to care for one another, we don't have a future."
I'm afraid I don't know to what extent this has been lived out; you could probably contact Sine and find out. Of course, the new monasticism has been saying a lot about intentional communities in recent years, and it seems that they can take form in any number of kinds of living spaces, whether traditional single-family houses, rehabbed storefront or warehouse space, apartment complexes or old churches or school buildings. With the ongoing mortgage crisis, some are speculating that today's suburban McMansions will become new multi-family housing for the suburban poor. It's possible that suburban new monastic groups could get a big foreclosed house on the cheap at an auction and turn it into a new way of doing intentional community in the suburbs.

I'd love to hear suburban examples of intentional community in whatever kind of housing configuration. Stories?

Thursday, September 11, 2008

A corrective to parents' lives revolving around their children

My wife, Ellen, just got back from a trip to Hong Kong and South Korea. The boys and I picked her up from the airport last night, and we're all thrilled to have her home. And this morning I realized that it's the 7th anniversary of 9/11. Just heard a piece on NPR about a passenger of Flight 93 that had been a standby passenger. So sad. So I'm not taking Ellen's safe return for granted, and I'm remembering the victims of that day.

In honor of Ellen's safe return, I'm reposting an entry from her blog that I thought was quite insightful. While researching my suburban book, one suburban pastor told me that one of the biggest issues for his church and community is "the idolatry of children." Ellen's post seems to me a healthy corrective to some common pitfalls about parenting and kids.

A Confession

I have a confession to make. Not everything I do is for the enrichment of my children. Sometimes I do things just because it's something I enjoy.

At a recent event I attended one young mother mentioned how her sisters' lives seem to revolve around their children and the various activities they are enrolled in. One mom mentioned that it would be good for our kids to have one night a week where they can't participate in outside activities because it is mom's night to do something. Another mom mentioned that her friend tells her children that date night with her husband is "to make sure you are happy."

As I drove home from the event I thought about the idea of explaining date night to our kids as something we do to keep them happy. Explaining alone time with my spouse in this way, I realized, would actually reinforce the idea the world revolves around our kids. While it may be true that maintaining a happy marriage will help my children remain happy, the main reason I spend time alone with my spouse is that I really like him. I enjoy having uninterrupted conversations with him that allow us to connect at deeper levels than "When was the last time we changed Elijah's diaper?" or "Have you seen Josiah's backpack?"

The same is true of other activities that take me away from home. I enjoy taking sign language classes, leading worship and having coffee with friends. I could explain to our kids that I am a better mom when I am able to pursue activities I enjoy, but I think it may be better to simply tell them, "I am doing this because it is something I enjoy."

I can't do everything that I enjoy all the time. Sometimes I decide not to do something because I would rather spend time with my family or because my kids need me to be with them. I enjoy being with my kids and I want them to feel loved and to know that they are important to me. And I am intentional about making sure that I am frequently home with my kids. At the same time, I want them to know that I am more than just their mom. God has given me gifts to serve both my family and the world around me. Having children may require modifying my activities, but it doesn't mean that I have to hit the pause button on my life indefinitely.

Having a child with special needs can sometimes exacerbate this issue. Children with special needs often require more of our time and energy. We may become so wrapped up in helping and advocating for our children, that we allow their diagnosis to become a primary part of our identity. If mothers of typical children are tempted to believe that their kids can't survive even one evening a week without them, imagine how mothers of children with special needs often feel, especially when our children require special medical care.

But when we lose our own identities to our children we are not the only ones who lose something. Our churches and communities lose out too. They may lose out because we are not using our gifts to serve, but they may also lose the opportunity of using their gifts to serve us. And, if we are so worried about our children that we do not allow them to spend time in someone else's care, they may lose out on the opportunity to learn about our kids and how to love and serve people with special needs.

I just signed up for a second class in sign language this fall. I'll be out of the house on Wednesday evenings from late October through early December and the kids will be spending a little more time with Al or, in some cases, with a babysitter. But that's okay. I enjoy learning sign language. The kids will survive without me for one night a week.

Posted by Ellen at 12:23 PM

Monday, September 08, 2008

The age of Obama and Palin: The generational significance of the 2008 election

Something that has been emphasized throughout this campaign is Barack Obama's youth, and likewise Sarah Palin has been described repeatedly as "young." Obama is 47, Palin is 44. The fact that they are identified as "young" is heartening to me, now that I'm closer to 40 than 30. Heck, I'm not getting old - I'm still just a kid compared to them!

All this talk of the candidates' youth reminds me of when the baby boomers first emerged as presidential candidates. The baby boom generation is usually defined as birthyears from 1946 to 1964. In 1988 Dan Quayle (b. 1947) was the first baby boomer to be elected vice president, and in 1992 Bill Clinton (b. 1946) became the first boomer president. In the 1992 election, Clinton was tagged as very young for the presidency, and his candidacy contrasted sharply with his much older opponent, the WWII-generation George H. W. Bush (b. 1924). In 1996 Bob Dole (b. 1923) was the last of the WWII generation candidates. Since then, the major candidates have mostly been boomers or slightly older: George W. Bush (b. 1946), Dick Cheney (b. 1941), Al Gore (b. 1948), Joe Lieberman (b. 1942), John Kerry (b. 1943), John Edwards (b. 1953), Hillary Clinton (b. 1947), Rudy Giuliani (b. 1944), Mitt Romney (b. 1947), Bill Richardson (b. 1947), Mike Huckabee (b. 1955). John McCain (b. 1936) and Joe Biden (b. 1942) are part of the "silent generation" born between 1925 and 1945, and will likely be the last major candidates from that era.

We've had sixteen years now of boomer presidencies, and it looks like this election may well mark the tail end of that era. Obama was born in 1961. Palin was born in 1964. Both were born in those early '60s years where the baby boom was ending and the baby bust was beginning. In fact, some demographers define Generation X as birthyears from 1961 to 1981. So by this definition, Obama could be our first Gen X president, or Palin could be our first Gen X vice president.

It seems to me that Obama and Palin's historic candidacies have much to do with the generational shifts that have led up to this cultural moment. America had already moved past the height of the civil rights era by the time Obama came of age. He had more opportunities than African Americans of earlier generations, and his biracial/multiethnic identity transcends older black/white divides. Likewise, Palin grew up as the beneficiary of earlier women's movements. While she probably still faced glass ceilings, they likely were different than the ones that women of Hillary's age encountered. It has become far more normal that women like Palin could be in positions of leadership and prominence.

I am encouraged that Gen X, maligned for so long as a bunch of cynical slackers, may well be the historic generation that finally puts an African American or a woman in the White House!

What's even weirder - if the next president serves for two terms, then it's entirely possible that the candidates for the 2016 election will be Xers who were born in the '70s, like me. Yikes. What will America look like when it is governed by those of us who came of age in the '80s? The principal in The Breakfast Club said something like, "Someday these kids are gonna be running the country. This is the thought that wakes me up every night."

When I turned 35, I officially declared my non-candidacy on my Facebook status. But I'm not ruling out my run for 2016 just yet. In fact, I'll go ahead and work on my stump speech:
My fellow Americans, it's a long, long way to the capital city. Previous generations of civic leaders were inspired by the likes of Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt or Kennedy. But my inspiration to public service was the classic anthem "I'm Just a Bill." Thanks to Saturday morning Schoolhouse Rock cartoons, I know the preamble of the Constitution inside and out. Join me in singing: "We the people, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility-eee-ee . . ."

I grew up in the era of big hair, so I know how to deal with big problems. I learned to solve the Rubik's cube in 3rd grade. Balancing the federal budget should be a snap in comparison. I am a member of that pioneering first generation to grow up on Atari and Nintendo, and our minds were trained to make quick decisions. You can trust that my foreign policy has been well-honed by countless scenarios of Missile Command and Contra.

I am guided by those great philosophers who told us that there's always more than meets the eye, and that knowing is half the battle. Our country's problems may look huge, but remember, size matters not.

We have had some growing pains. But I will strengthen our family ties. I know this economy is tough. Your job's a joke, you're broke, your love life's DOA. But I'll be there for you, when the rain starts to pour.

I pledge to you that I will build bipartisan and multilateral coalitions at home and abroad. After all, if an athlete, a brain, a princess, a criminal and a basketcase can find common ground in just one day of detention, surely we can overcome our differences. We are, truly, the world.

My fellow Americans, this is not a time for fear. Fear is the path to the dark side. Instead, look back to the future. Always in motion is the future. Because life moves pretty fast. If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.

So this election, seize the day. When you're in that voting booth, don't you forget about me. Don't, don't, don't, don't you. Forget about me. God bless you, and God bless America.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

Sarah Palin, Down syndrome and special needs

My younger son, Elijah, has Down syndrome, so naturally I was very interested to hear about Sarah Palin's candidacy. Her experience of getting a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome halfway through the pregnancy parallels our own experience. Our doctor told us, "Based on this diagnosis, you can choose to terminate the pregnancy." (We later learned that about 90% of babies prenatally diagnosed with Down syndrome are terminated.) Like the Palins, we chose to have our baby, and now we can't imagine life without Elijah. (My column for the forthcoming October issue of Christianity Today is going to be about Down syndrome and disability, because October happens to be Down syndrome awareness month. I had already written and sent in my column a month ago, long before Palin's candidacy had been announced. Kind of wild.)

After the announcement of Palin as the VP pick, at first I didn't know who she was. Then I realized I had read articles about her last spring when Trig was born, when she said, "Trig is beautiful and already adored by us. We knew through early testing he would face special challenges, and we feel privileged that God would entrust us with this gift and allow us unspeakable joy as he entered our lives."

I thought about blogging about Palin earlier, but Andy Crouch beat me to the punch. He notes that when he was a teenager back in the '80s, he remembers seeing numerous kids his age with Down syndrome. But he doesn't see as many today, because so many have been aborted. On the Palins' decision to have Trig, Andy observes,

I cannot think of any other public figures in my adult life, at least of the prominence they are about to enjoy or endure, who have made this decision. They will cause many, many families to reconsider the horizons of the possible. Their public example could very well lead to a cultural sea change—a dramatic shift in the “horizons of the possible.” That phrase from my book is no metaphor. Those horizons are so real that, for a future generation of children and their parents, they are quite literally a matter of life and death. For this reason, which utterly transcends politics and this year’s election, the sudden prominence of the Palins is, in the deepest sense, an extraordinary act of public service.

I also saw a letter to the editor in the Chicago Tribune by Mark Mostert, codirector of Regent University’s Institute for the Study of Disability and Bioethics. He wrote:
For years advocates fought to have people with Down syndrome brought from the shadows of institutionalization to their rightful place in our communities and lives. Lately, though, there are fewer and fewer of them around.

Why? Because the vast majority of in-utero Down syndrome diagnoses result in abortion. The numbers don't lie: When it comes to people with Down syndrome, they're considered defective. The message is clear: We'd rather just not have them around.

Good for Palin for standing up to the pressure from the medical community, which almost always recommends termination of the pregnancy.

Good for Palin for making the statement that needs to be made much more often: Genetic discrimination against people with Down syndrome must stop. Now. No excuses.

Last night, Palin introduced Trig alongside her other children, saying, "We were so blessed in April; Todd and I welcomed our littlest one into the world, a perfectly beautiful baby boy named Trig." Then she said, "Children with special needs inspire a special love. To the families of special-needs children all across this country, I have a message for you. For years, you sought to make America a more welcoming place for your sons and daughters. I pledge to you that if we are elected, you will have a friend and advocate in the White House."

After Palin's speech, Mostert posted this blog entry saying, "She faced the camera squarely and said what no other politician on either side of the aisle has, so far, been willing or able to say: That all people with disabilities matter, that they will no longer be ignored. That they have a rightful and unmistakable place at the table of civic life. That they are, before anything else, Americans."

Not only are they Americans, more significantly, they bear the image of God and thus have inestimable value and worth. Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, regardless of chromosome count or disabilities. Children with Down syndrome, like Trig Palin and Elijah Hsu, are people deeply loved not only by their families, but by God. And our society is richer for their presence.

This blog post should not be taken as an endorsement of Palin or the GOP ticket. But whatever one thinks of Palin or her politics, I think some of the most significant aspects of last night's speech were the camera shots of little Trig, alive and well. This boy's very existence has brought disability awareness, special needs and prolife issues to the forefront of a national discussion. I am hopeful that regardless of what happens this election, our country will become a better place for and with people with disabilities.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Publishers Weekly on what's emerging/emergent and what's not

I was interviewed by Publishers Weekly for an article, "Emergent and Beyond: Books for the broader conversation of faith," which has just been published in print and online. A few snippets:
Other forms of alternative Christianity are often mistaken for emerging/emergent, but are not. One cause for confusion, says Al Hsu, associate editor at InterVarsity Press, is that many books that are not theologically emergent still resonate with emergent readers, such as IVP's The Circle of Seasons (Nov.), a title about the liturgical year from Presbyterian writer Kimberlee Conway Ireton.

And then there's the mistaken assumption that to be young and edgy is to be emergent. “A traditionalist in a younger body is not emergent,” Hsu says, pointing to Shane Claiborne as an author who is frequently referred to as emergent but is not. Claiborne, who with Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove coauthored Becoming the Answer to Our Prayers (IVP, Oct.), lives in an intentional community in inner-city Philadelphia.

What everyone seems to agree on is that no matter what you call it, the category is changing. “Emerging church books are evolving to be not just topic driven but perspective driven,” Hsu says. “Before, we saw a lot of books on the nature of church or theology in general. Now, we're seeing books on a particular topic from a certain perspective.” One example for IVP is Julie Clawson's Everyday Justice, which releases next year (see sidebar).

“Emergent is coming to a time when it is ripe for critique, and not just knee-jerk reactions” from both critics and defenders of the conversation, IVP's Hsu points out.

Tony Jones blogged about the article here and responded to the article's claim that he/Emergent promote an "unorthodox" interpretation of Scripture. As the commenters point out (and article writer Marcia Ford admits), the article probably would have been more precise (and less theologically loaded) by using the word "unconventional." Brian McLaren also comments on the article here.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

If school milk tastes different, here's why

Josiah is in first grade now, and he brings his own lunches to school. But we also signed up for him to get milk provided by the school. He didn't take it the first few days. We asked him why, and he said, "It tastes different." I'm guessing that he's getting 2% milk at school, and he's used to skim milk at home. (He seems okay with school milk now.)

Well, at church this past weekend, one mom told me that her daughter, Isabel, also did not like the milk at her school. Here's the reconstructed conversation:

Isabel: Mommy, I don't like the milk at school.

Mom: Why not?

Isabel: It's goat's milk.

Mom: What? [This is not some fancy school district with locally grown organic meals or anything.] It's not goat's milk. It's just cow's milk.

Isabel: No, it's goat's milk.

Mom: What makes you think it's goat's milk?

Isabel [annoyed]: I can read, Mom. It says goat milk. G-O-T M-I-L-K.