Friday, December 29, 2006

The interdependence of the global church

In last night’s plenary, Oscar Muriu, an Anglican pastor from Nairobi, spoke about the shifts in the global church. As Philip Jenkins has documented in The Next Christendom, the majority of the world’s Christians now live in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Missions is no longer from “the West to the rest,” but from everywhere to everyone. (See Samuel Escobar’s The New Global Mission for more on this theme.)

Muriu gave an application of 1 Corinthians 12 – the North American church cannot say to the African church, “I don’t need you,” and vice versa. Many churches and missions in the majority world have been dependent on Western support and funding, but the move should not be toward independence, but to reciprocity and interdependence. America is the third largest mission field in the world after China and India. African churches are catching the vision of sending missionaries to their former colonial powers, Great Britain, France, Portugal, Belgium, etc., planting new churches in the world’s gateway cities like London, New York and Los Angeles.

One practical challenge that Muriu offered – when American churches send a missionary to the Two-Thirds World, they should also work to receive a missionary from the Two-Thirds World. When churches send a team on a short-term trip, they should likewise receive a team from their partnering church or mission. The North American church must realize how much it needs the life and perspectives of our brothers and sisters around the globe to help us live missionally in our own culture. After all, every part of a human body both gives and receives from others. We are impoverished if we think we have nothing to receive from the majority world church.

As an example, Muriu mentioned how one church asked a Western team to preach on the story of Joseph one Sunday and then an African team preached the same story the next week. The Americans exposited the text and lifted out the theme that no matter how difficult life gets, the important thing is to be faithful to God and God will always protect you and be with you. The next week, the Africans exposited the same text and lifted out the theme that no matter how high you rise in power or how your family might betray you, you must always care for and be in relationship with your family. Both are essential readings of the text, and they certainly go hand in hand. (We carry in the Urbana bookstore the first-of-its-kind Africa Bible Commentary, written by African scholars and church leaders. It’s an amazing volume. Check it out.)

Also that evening, Brenda Salter-McNeil talked about the juxtaposition of Genesis 11 (the Tower of Babel) and Genesis 12 (the call of Abram). God’s original call to humankind was to fill the earth and bless it. But at Babel, people resisted the call and instead built a monument to themselves. So God scattered humanity so that they would indeed disperse and go to the corners of the earth as he intended, that the whole earth would be filled with his glory. Terah, at the end of Genesis 11, is described as heading out to Canaan but settling in Haran, where he died. That’s the context for the call of Abram in Genesis 12. Terah settled and didn’t go where he was supposed to go. Abram heard the call and went. Babel and Terah said no. Abram said yes.

Brenda, in a great rhetorical move, asked, “Where have you settled? What have you settled for?” Abram was not limited by what his father did or did not do. He moved beyond the place where his father settled. (This particularly resonated with me, as my father was not a Christian, and following Jesus has taken me places my father never would have wanted me to go.) We are called to go where God calls, even if we don’t know where or can’t explain it to our parents.

For suburban Christians, I think we need to transform the concept of suburbia from a place of settling to a place of going. We must minister both to and from suburbia. It is both a place of sending as well as a strategic mission field (American suburbia by itself would be the seventh largest country in the world). If we settle in suburbia, we must also simultaneously minister and partner with the global church, always aware of larger urban and global realities. The world will continue to need American missionaries to go to the ends of the earth. And in our interconnected, globalized society, the American church desperately needs the perspectives of our African, Asian and Latin American brothers and sisters to minister to our own suburban contexts.

Hi from Urbana 06

I’m at Urbana 06 in St. Louis! This is InterVarsity’s 21st student mission convention, and it’s the largest ever, with over 22,000 delegates in attendance from every state and province and 144 countries. It’s been amazingly busy here, so there’s not much time to blog, but I’ll try to get a few posts in here and there as the convention progresses.

This is my fifth Urbana; I attended Urbana 93 as a college senior, and then I worked at Urbanas 96, 2000 and 03 in IVP’s onsite bookstore, first as the bookstore logistics coordinator in 96 and then staffing the book info booths in 2000 and 03, wearing fashionable bright orange Home Depot-like vests and helping students find the books they’re looking for. We at IVP attend many various conferences, conventions and trade shows each year, but Urbana is one of my favorites because we get to interact with the actual readers of our books, not just intermediaries like bookstore buyers or distributors or whatnot. It’s thrilling to see folks with armfuls and stacks of IVP books.

And though I’ve been to larger events, like Promise Keepers, I think Urbana is by far the most intense convention experience (often described as like trying to drink water from a firehose). There’s something extremely compelling about an arena of 20,000+ enthusiastic college students all eager to discover how God can use them around the world. The theme this year is “Live a Life Worthy of the Calling,” and we’re spending the week dwelling in Ephesians. Ajith Fernando is the Bible expositor for the convention. The opening night, Urbana director Jim Tebbe noted that this is the 200th anniversary of the Haystack prayer meeting at Williams College in 1806 that launched the modern missionary movement.

During a prayer response time, the prayer leader challenged us to pray big prayers that only God could answer, things that we could never personally accomplish on our own. Struck by the potential of what God could do through the lives of all the people in the room, I prayed for God to transform whole countries and continents, for the gospel to shape societies and nations in ways that even secular historians would have to recognize as being the result of the Christian faith. That Urbana 06 delegates would be called and deployed to cure AIDS, to relieve poverty, to stop wars and bring healing, reconciliation, justice and salvation to the ends of the earth. I haven’t prayed macro-level prayers like that for a while.

There are various tracks and emphases this year – urban issues, slum communities, business as mission, AIDS, much more. For certain delegates that are housed together in tracks, experiential discipleship is integrated into the program. In the slum communities track, housing is such that people are crammed into rooms with insufficient bedding, and some were issued a five-gallon bucket upon registration and told to use those five gallons of water for the totality of their bathing and washing for the week. Tonight for an AIDS emphasis, dinner will be a basic porridge (recipe from World Vision) that is easily digestible and provides needed nutrients for people who have the AIDS virus. The cost saved by having this meal instead of usual convention dinner fare will be donated to global missions.

Some of the most compelling components of the program this time are the theatre team’s platform presentations. For several Urbanas now drama has been used to act out Scripture passages as well as stand-alone sketches and parables. This time, the dozen or so theatre segments tell an ongoing, episodic story of a group of college students as they grapple with the realities and challenges of campus witness and global justice. Meg sees a university service project as an opportunity for mission, Paul thinks she’s being naive but Meg thinks Paul is too wishy-washy, Joe is excited to go on a short-term trip to Egypt but stumbles over learning Arabic, another student is conflicted about his ethnic heritage and family issues while another seems to have an eating disorder . . . (The dramas, as well as plenary talks and much of the program, are available online on Urbana’s webcast.)

It struck me that historically, different eras of students have resonated with different aspects of the program – back in the 60s and 70s biblical exposition took center stage, with expositors like John Stott unfolding Scripture. In the 90s musical worship came to the fore, and mission and worship fueled each other. Now theatre and drama seems to be what resonates with a generation raised on reality shows and episodic TV like Lost and Heroes. On a practical level, the dramas are keeping students coming back session after session because they want to find out what happens to these characters. On a larger level, it’s a great model of narrative theology and the power of story. We want to be part of a story of significance, and we see ourselves in these characters and can envision how God might work through us in the story.

What are your big prayers for the world? If you could, please do pray for the Urbana delegates, that they would hear God’s call for them and discern their role in the dramatic story of God’s mission. (BTW, one Urbana delegate was standing in the IVP bookstore when she got a call on her cell phone that her brother had been killed in an accident. She and her IV staff worker are headed home. Please pray for her and her family as well.) More later.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Martin Marty on diversity in the ancient church

One last comment regarding the Ancient Evangelical Future conference. Martin Marty's address was an evaluation of the Call document and a whirlwind tour through church history. A few offhand comments he made at the end really resonated with me - he said something along the lines of, "Was the ancient church's polity congregational, presbyterian or episcopal? Yes. Was their soteriology Christus Victor, penal substitution or exemplary? Yes." He went on to give a few other examples of such diversity among the patristic and early church fathers, affirming that the Christian church has always practiced and believed various dimensions of a number of issues, even while affirming one key unifying truth: "the human Jesus is the exalted Lord."

During the follow-up panel response, one of the theologians pushed back on Marty on all this, saying that there might have been diversity, but one or another position was the main belief or practice, and kept pressing to argue for the primacy of one particular view. Marty pushed back and basically said, sorry, it's not that simple. Yes, we have one, holy, catholic and apostolic church and the Nicean and Chalcedonian and other such creeds and formulas for the general consensus. But in any number of theological areas, diversity is simply a historical fact.

And it struck me that this is the difference between the systematic theologian and the church historian. The theologian wants to press for precision and the way it (perhaps) ought to be. The historian accounts for what actually was and is.

Personally, I find historical theology extremely helpful in navigating the multitude of options in Christian belief, church practice and the like. I've always been something of an evangelical mutt, heir to multiple traditions, seeing the value in the rich, diverse heritage of the faith. That's why I love IVP's four views books and the fact that we're broadly evangelical and publish a variety of perspectives on various issues. Even though I will usually find myself agreeing with one view in particular over others, I still find it valuable to understand why other Christians in other traditions believe and practice differently. If something was believed at some point in church history by some group or another, there were probably historical reasons for it. In the overall 1 Cor. 12 ecclesiology of the body of Christ, it seems that we need different parts of the church to emphasize things that other parts may have de-emphasized.

Tangent: I recently read our new The Nature of the Atonement: Four Views, and something I found interesting was that three of the four contributors argued in a more traditional theological and philosophical framework (which was okay but somewhat flat), while one contributor was able to engage the imagination and to be far more holistic in his presentation, using examples from Narnia and elsewhere to demonstrate why his view is more comprehensive and persuasive than the others. (Example: In response to the view that the atonement should be understood in terms of healing and restoration, he said, imagine that a scientist discovered a cure to every virus in existence. While it would be true to cheer, "Yay, he healed us of our infirmities!" the more fundamental truth is that he conquered the viruses and defeated the powers that caused the infirmities in the first place. Thus the Christus Victor view includes and supersedes the healing view of the atonement.) Whatever one might think about the theological merits of any of these positions, I think this contributor was a far more effective dialogue partner than the others because of his rhetorical approach and pastoral style. (It's telling that he is the only one of the four contributors who is a working pastor rather than a seminary professor.) This is something that Scot McKnight has blogged about, arguing that professors and seminarians tend to talk in theological seminary-speak and do not know how to communicate effectively with people in the pew.

Anyway, enough for now. I'm off to Urbana 06 after Christmas and probably won't be able to blog for the duration. Merry Christmas!

P.S. Some material from the Ancient Evangelical Future conference is available online at the Paradoxology blog. You can start here and scroll forward or go to the end and work back. I've updated my previous entries to have direct links, and here are entries on the presentations by Brian McLaren, Frederica Mathewes-Green and Lauren Winner.

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

iPod vs. wePod

I've been noticing in the Sunday newspaper ads that there are now stereos, speaker units and even alarm clocks that are designed to have iPods plug into them. This is an interesting development, because it seems to be a reversal of the trend toward privatization and personalization in music listening. Historically, the earliest music playing devices were meant to be listened to corporately, in group settings, whether gramophones or radios or turntables or even jukeboxes. Music was enjoyed in social settings like dance halls, discos or nightclubs. It wasn't until the Walkmans of the 1980s and their accompanying headsets that people tended to turn the music experience into a private, isolating one, on the bus, while jogging, etc. iPods have of course been the latest version of this, and I find it significant that there might be a reaction against listening to one's own private playlists in isolation and instead a move toward music that can be experienced beyond the individual.

This reminds me of a random comment that Andy Crouch made during my Calvin seminar last July - he mentioned that his family owns an iPod, but that the kids are not allowed to use it privately. It is meant for the family to use and share together. I don't know if he meant that they all have their own earpieces on a shared output jack, or if the iPod is plugged into a larger amplification device, but the concept is still a good one. Andy also mentioned that they try to be intentional about listening to music that is generated by local artists and personal acquaintences, rather than stuff from major labels.

I don't own an iPod, personally - I haven't really kept up with current music since the mid-'90s. My car radio presets are retro '80s stuff, a Christian station or two and NPR, which is by far what I listen to most of the time. What is interesting to me sociologically about iPods is how they and iTunes dovetail nicely with the whole long tail concept. I stopped buying CDs in the '90s because they were expensive, I couldn't keep up, and I never cared for all the songs (hence I tended to buy things like greatest hits albums). But the physicality of CDs meant that at least there was a limit to the amount of music you would get at any one time. If I were to buy songs one at a time, the infinite playlist might mean that there would be no end to possible purchases. I'd be curious to find out if people ultimately buy more or less music a song at a time rather than by the CD.

At any rate, thinking about iPods as an icon of Western individualism made me notice how much this permeates society. It's MySpace, not WeSpace. If you go to, the running heads change each time you refresh the screen: "i want, i need, i post-rationalize . . . i worry, i check, i checkup . . . i hope, i stretch, i glow . . . " I suppose this is the fusion of individualism, personalization and consumerism. And yet we yearn for community and niche tribalism. We seek out and connect with communities even as they're positioned as being all about me. Sigh.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Lauren Winner on ancient Hebrew roots, practices and sabbath keeping

Lauren Winner's talk at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was about retrieval of our Hebrew roots. Her initial observation was that when we talk about our ancient roots, we usually mean the early church, whether the patristic or medieval era. But she encouraged us to go further back, to our Jewish roots in ancient Israel. She went on to talk about several Jewish practices, particularly sabbath keeping and bereavement/mourning (ground she covered in her book Mudhouse Sabbath), that modern evangelicals would benefit from recovering. There was some ambiguity here - I think her presentation may have conflated ancient Old Testament practices with those in contemporary Orthodox Judaism, but the exhortation was still valuable.

A major theme here was that in Judaism, formation and learning happen through doing, not just by hearing, knowing or understanding. Judaism has always been an embodied, practiced faith, not merely a creedal formulation of doctrines to assent to. As such, the twin themes of practice and community emerge in many of the Jewish traditions Lauren highlighted. Sabbath is practiced in community, not individualistically, and the practice of lament takes place in a community that offers particular rituals for the first week and the first year following a death.

She commented that when talking with other authors who have written about sabbath, it seemed to all of them that their books have not had much overall impact because people would read about sabbath keeping but lack the community to help them practice it. She didn't say it in quite these terms, but my take on it was this: If a community does not practice the practice, then the individual cannot (or is far less likely) to practice the practice.

What came to mind for me was the fact that my church meets on Saturday nights, because we are a church plant meeting in another church's building. Thus for us, sabbath begins at 5 p.m. on Saturday evenings. And all day Sunday is spent practicing sabbath. We take our time getting up and getting ready, we might have pancakes or waffles for breakfast, and during the warmer months we might go for a leisurely walk or play in the park with our kids. There are no meetings, no committees, just uninterrupted time for rest, restoration, relationship and delight in God's creation. And this rhythm is made available to us as individuals because it is the corporate practice of our church as a community. Not that you can't do this if you go to church on Sundays instead of Saturdays, but it's different.

I'm also reminded of the Taiwanese church I went to as a kid, where every single week, the entire church would have a potluck. We'd all bring food and eat together and hang out at the church until 2:30 or 3:00 or later. We kids would run around the building and play hide-and-seek in the sanctuary, and we'd fall asleep in the car on the way home. Only later did I realize the countercultural significance of the entire church practicing this rhythm of eating together every single Sunday, as opposed to going out to eat at restaurants (and making other people work on Sundays). There's something very powerful about how a church can create a culture where sabbath is a time for the community of God to fellowship and break bread together, not run off in individualistic directions for nuclear family activities.

If we extrapolate this further to local communities, especially suburban ones, we can consider other systemic and structural ways. I heard about a local municipality somewhere in New England that decided not to have any school sporting events on Sundays. No soccer games, nothing. I don't know if this was particularly motivated by a Christian or Jewish sense of sabbath or if it was merely a desire to have an activity-free zone during part of the weekend, but it strikes me as the kind of thing that suburban Christians can work for in their local school districts and park programs. Practicing sabbath can transform entire communities, thus enabling more individuals to experience the sabbath God intends.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Frederica Mathewes-Green on an ancient evangelical spirituality

Frederica Mathewes-Green's topic at the Ancient Evangelical Future conference was on spiritual formation. As she gave her presentation, she scrolled through a series of icons and commented on their significance and relevance to the topic. Ancient Christians, after all, were mostly illiterate. So they could not read books, but they could read faces, gestures and postures. They learned Christian character and spirituality through the images of faithful saints in the icons.

In keeping with the recurring theme of the global church, I was glad to see that many of the icons Frederica displayed represented a broad diversity of cultures and national backgrounds. I didn't jot down all the names or places, but I recall that some of the saints and icons were from Africa, Russia and Latin America. One in particular that struck me was an icon of the Holy Chinese Martyrs of the Boxer Rebellion.

Frederica talked about the classical Orthodox spiritual practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, and I was glad to hear her broaden the definition of almsgiving to include various ways of loving one's neighbor, whether care for the poor or social justice or global mission. Often we evangelicals view spirituality and spiritual formation in private, internal terms, where it's only about inner personal transformation. In actuality, spiritual formation is incomplete if it remains private. Personal inner transformation should fuel us and propel us toward outward activism.

Tagging back to my last post, let me mention a brief hallway conversation I had with Brian McLaren relating to the global church and spirituality. Part of our discussion was about the fact that when we retrieve the ancient church's practices of spiritual formation, we need to be careful that we don't only focus on the Western church's spiritual practices. This might be an overgeneralization, but Western spirituality tends to be more contemplative and cognitive. But when we look at the Eastern church and Asian practices, we see a more embodied spirituality. The East was not quite as affected by philosophical dualism or Gnosticism, so it has always had a more holistic view of the body, mind and spirit. Thus it's not surprising that many modern Christians are now exploring Asian practices like yoga and tai chi, precisely because they affirm the physicality of spirituality and have a more concrete (yet meditative) experience. I'm reminded of an Emergent gathering I went to a few years ago that had morning Christian yoga at the tennis courts, and when my colleague was hesitant to go, someone exhorted him, "Get out of your head and into your body!"

Of course, Christians are divided on how much we can or should appropriate or Christianize such practices, and we certainly need to be careful of underlying worldview conflicts. But I'd be very interested in finding out ways of recovering more authentic, indigenous Christian spiritual practices of the Asian, African and Latin American church and discovering how they complement and fill out our North American and Western European spiritual tradition.

Monday, December 11, 2006

Brian McLaren's thoughts on an Ancient Evangelical Future

Last weekend I attended a conference on "A Call to an Ancient Evangelical Future," based on the document produced by Bob Webber and others. The conference was hosted by Northern Seminary and cosponsored by several organizations, including Christianity Today and InterVarsity Press.

In the opening session, Brian McLaren made a helpful comment regarding the emerging/Emergent church and the future of evangelicalism. He first mentioned that some think that Emergent should be seen as another "slice of the pie," alongside such slices as Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican, etc. He suggested that we change the analogy from pie slices to rings of a tree. Rings of a tree are shaped and affected by the external weather conditions, and we can envision the current outside ring of the tree to be the emerging ring. Different parts of the tree are still Presbyterian, Baptist, Anglican and so on, but McLaren's concept was that the outside, emerging Presbyterian part of the ring has more in common with the outside Baptist part than it would with Presbyterians in its own tradition four or five rings in. Today's emergent evangelicals, regardless of tradition, are responding to the same "weather conditions" and thus have much opportunity for collaboration.

CT editor David Neff later made a comment that the founders of modern neo-evangelicalism from the Billy Graham generation didn't see evangelicals as another slice of the pie, but were rather the "outer ring" of their generation. They saw evangelicals as a renewal movement within existing Protestant traditions, so there would be evangelical Methodists, evangelical Presbyterians and so on, not evangelicals as a separate category. In other words, evangelical as an adjective, not as a noun. And thus, Billy Graham and other neo-evangelicals were the emergent folks of their day. Likewise the charismatic renewal movements of the 1970s - they were the "emergent" outer ring of that generation. I thought this was a helpful observation.

Another comment that McLaren made was that churches have always tended to rebel against higher church traditions and to look down upon lower church traditions. He had a slide with a hierarchy of churches, with high church traditions at the top - Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Anglo-Catholic, Anglican/Episcopal, and then moving on through Lutheran, Presbyterian, Methodist, into free church evangelicalism and Baptist and Bible churches, with house churches and "micro" and "liquid" and other such churches at the bottom, which are akin to Barna's non-churched and de-churched "Revolutionary" Christians.

A lot of evangelicals are giving Barna Revolutionaries flak these days for not being part of a "local church." But we would do well to remember that today's independent non-denominational evangelical churches were themselves criticized by earlier generations because they lacked denominational accountability and structures. Even though I think Barna's book was rather thin, I think McLaren made a good case for the legitimacy of today's house churches and un-churches as standing in continuity with the church renewal movements of the past. And McLaren pointed to the interesting opportunities for retrieval of high-church traditions among low-church independents, especially in terms of recovery of the liturgy and other components from the earliest centuries of the church. As an evangelical Anglican myself, I found myself heartened by the potential for mainstream evangelicalism to join hands in identification as and in continuity with the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church.

Another thing that was encouraging was McLaren's attention to the global church. The emergent church movement has been criticized for being too much of a white, middle-class, suburban phenomenon and not really tied in with global church realities. But McLaren was keen on making sure that this was not merely a North American phenomenon and learning from indigenous church leaders and theologians of the Southern Hemisphere. One of my concerns with the "ancient" part of the ancient evangelical call is that this usually means recovery of an ancient Western tradition. But when we recover a more fully-orbed history of the ancient church, we see that it includes North Africa, India, Asia and more. I'll develop these thoughts in another post later and post some more thoughts from other presenters from this conference in the next few days.

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

The benefits of shopping locally

Last Friday our family had dinner at a new restaurant in downtown Downers Grove called the 2 Toots Steam Whistle Grill. It's right across from the train tracks, so you can watch trains go by, and the restaurant is thus themed, with a model train that delivers your burgers and fries to your booth. Dessert was a cupcake with a train whistle on top. Our five-year-old loved it. And it had good food and excellent customer service.

I mention this because we've tried to be intentional about going to locally owned, mom-and-pop restaurants and stores. Not only is the customer service more personal, it is far more likely that the owners and workers are going to be invested in the local community. I saw some statistics awhile back pointing out that 45-58% of dollars spent at a local independent store stay in the local community, while this is only true of 13-14% of dollars spent at national chains and big-box stores.

Here's a snippet from a recent article in Publishers Weekly about supporting local independent bookstores:

A study in Austin, Tex., revealed that more than three times the amount of money stayed in a town when it was spent at the local bookstore as opposed to a chain. Studies in Illinois and Maine back up this finding.

But there are many other reasons to support local businesses. Stores in downtowns—as many locally owned, independent businesses are—tend to be cheaper for their towns; they use fewer public goods and therefore fewer tax dollars. For instance, a study in Barnstable, Mass., found that a big box retailer "generated" a net deficit to the town of $468 per 1,000 square feet, whereas a specialty retailer produced a net annual return of $326 per 1,000 square feet.

Locally owned businesses draw tourists, too. Vermont's director of the department of tourism told me that a recent survey of tourists indicated that one of the primary reasons they come here is because of its distinctiveness. They don't want to shop at the same stores they have back home.

Also worthy of note is that small businesses give more to nonprofits than big businesses do. In fact, small businesses give more than twice as much per employee as large firms do.

Monday, December 04, 2006

Books as images of eternal life

I stayed up until almost midnight last night to finish reading a wonderful novel, The Thirteenth Tale by Diane Setterfield. Spending time with good literature is a Sabbath practice for me - it has a different qualitative feel to it than reading nonfiction theology or research stuff or current issues or magazines. I wasn't an English major, but I might have been in an alternate reality. At any rate, here's a paragraph that particularly resonated with me on the significance of books:

"People disappear when they die. Their voice, their laughter, the warmth of their breath. Their flesh. Eventually their bones. All living memory of them ceases. This is both dreadful and natural. Yet for some there is an exception to this annihilation. For in the books they write they continue to exist. We can rediscover them. Their humor, their tone of voice, their moods. Through the written word they can anger you or make you happy. They can comfort you. They can perplex you. They can alter you. All this, even though they are dead. Like flies in amber, like corpses frozen in ice, that which according to the laws of nature should pass away is, by the miracle of ink on paper, preserved. It is a kind of magic." (p. 17)

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Article: "Suburban churchgoers rethink spiritual values"

Here are snippets from a recent article in the United Methodist Reporter that quoted me:

"I think there's a growing sense that the suburbs shape us in ways we don't always understand," said Mr. Hsu, author of The Suburban Christian.

"Suburbs were designed with cars in mind," he said. "You can't really get anywhere in suburbia by walking -- things are spread too far out." Living in one suburb, working in another and perhaps attending church in yet another, he says, "fragments our lives into different communities that don't overlap."

. . .
Attending one of the most affluent UMCs in the country, Mr. Lueder senses that "everybody would love to release the pressure valve, to be able to not feel all this pressure to perform and to achieve and to send your kids to Harvard.

"It makes me want to say, 'Can't we all just join hands and say we're not going to put this pressure on each other any more?"

Mr. Hsu envisions something like that -- a way for Christians to redeem the suburbs rather than to abandon them. More people live in suburbs than in central cities and small towns combined, he notes, making American suburbia equivalent in population to the seventh-largest nation in the world. That's a vast mission field, Mr. Hsu says, and one that Christians need to understand before they can have an impact.

"There's a difference between a self-centered suburbanism that gets sucked into all the materialism and consumerism, and an other-centered Christian suburbanism that's focused on how to herald the kingdom of God in the suburbs," he said.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Study finds: Suburbia is friendly!

A colleague just e-mailed me a link to an article in the Los Angeles Times about a study by a UC Irvine professor on population density and social life. I found a press release from UCI with more details. Some excerpts:

A new study led by a UC Irvine economist debunks a popular argument against urban sprawl – that living farther from neighbors decreases social interaction. In fact, the data shows that suburban living is better for one’s social life.

Using data from 15,000 Americans living in various places across the country, researchers found that residents of sprawling suburban spaces actually have more friends, more contact with neighbors and greater involvement in community organizations than citydwellers who live in very close proximity to each other.

Among their specific findings were that for every 10-percent decrease in density, the likelihood of residents talking to their neighbors at least once a week jumps by 10 percent. And involvement in hobby-oriented clubs increases even more significantly – by 15 percent for every 10 percent decline in density. To measure these and other social interactions, researchers used data from the Social Capital Benchmark Survey and controlled for other factors such as income, education and marital status.

The LA Times article also cites historian Robert Bruegmann, author of Sprawl: A Compact History, as noting that the same criticisms about suburbia being anonymous and alienated were also made about downtown areas fifty years ago.

A Canadian news article reporting on the same study cites the lead researcher, economics prof Jan Brueckner (who is also editor of the Journal of Urban Economics), who said, "We found that interaction goes down as population density goes up. So, turning it around, it says that interaction is higher where densities are lower. What that means is suburban living promotes more interaction than living in the central city."

The article goes on to quote a suburban resident as saying,

"You couldn't give me a free house in the city and say, `Move here.' Honestly, I could never do it," she says. "There's just too many people, people are too close to each other and people are not friendly. I'm a chatterer and people don't chat in the city."

Costa is a member of her community centre, where she uses the fitness facilities five days a week and knows "almost everyone." She contrasts her lifestyle with that of her sister, who lives and works in Toronto, and concludes that she "would never leave the suburbs."

"People are always in a rush to get where they need to go and they work a lot more," Costa says of life in the city. "A lot of the time in the suburbs, people have families and their life is a little more relaxed."

My take? Suburbia may not be as isolating and anonymous as urbanites think, but it certainly still takes a good amount of intentionality for us to connect with our neighbors. I still don't know the names of all the neighbors on our block, and we've been living in our subdivision for two years. I'd be interested to find out more concrete details of this study - exactly how much interaction are we talking about? Chatting with a neighbor once a week? Having someone over once a month? Even if it's not as bad as we might have assumed it is, I'm sure there's plenty of room for growth, for suburban Christians to practice hospitality, friendship and community.

Wednesday, November 22, 2006

'Tis the season - shopping alternatives, Buy Nothing Day and ministry catalogs

The day after Halloween, our local Target had all their Christmas stuff up already. So the Christmas shopping season didn't really start the traditional day after Thanksgiving - they've added the entire month of November to extend the season even earlier. Which is ironic because if anything, the Christmas season should be shifted later, not earlier, to allow for the full Christmas season (in the church year) through Epiphany in January. Some churches have been encouraging folks to have all their Christmas shopping done before Advent starts, so the Advent weeks prior to Christmas can be spent in actual spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ rather than frenzied consumer shopping.

This Friday, the day after Thanksgiving, is being reclaimed as Buy Nothing Day, a day to not buy stuff as a countercultural move against holiday commercialization and consumerism. My wife and I have been talking about finding something fun to do with our kids that day as an alternative. We haven't quite decided what to do yet; at the very least, we'll likely spend some time at the library. (This past weekend we were in Wisconsin visiting Ellen's family, and after getting back we asked Josiah, "Did you like going to Grandma and Grandpa's house?" He said, "Yeah." We asked, "What's your favorite house?" thinking that he'd say our house. He said, "The library! Because it has lots of books.")

Another alternative to Christmas shopping, of course, are the various ministry catalogs that provide resources to people in need around the world. There are dozens of these available now, and we've used them to contribute goats or other animals, healthcare resources, help kids get out of slavery or sex trafficking, etc. The catalogs we've most often used are from Samaritan's Purse, World Vision and SIM, though of course there are many more. One of IVP's authors, in partnership with Partners International, is working on a book, Harvest of Hope, that will tell stories of how these catalog gifts change lives and transform communities.

Peggy Wehmeyer, former religion reporter for ABC News and now with World Vision Report, had a great NPR commentary about how her own daughters learned global compassion through using these gift catalogs. Her daughters were getting overly greedy and self-centered about their Christmas gifts, so Peggy and her husband revoked their gifts and instead gave them some of these ministry gift catalogs. “Here’s how much we’d normally spend on you,” the Wehmeyers said. “We’d like you to think about giving one of your gifts away to one of these kids.”

The girls took the task seriously. After looking through the catalogs, Lauren compiled a long list of all the things she wanted to order for other kids. “But honey,” Peggy said, “If you get all that, you’ll use up your budget.”

“That’s really what I want to do, Mom,” Lauren replied. “These kids need so much. I don’t need anything.” Peggy concluded her commentary by saying that though there weren't any packages under the tree that year, “the best gift was the one my husband and I received—seeing our girls turn into young women who would choose compassion over self-indulgence."

Friday, November 17, 2006

YouthWorker Journal interview on youth ministry in suburbia

The November/December issue of YouthWorker Journal has an interview with me and another author about "Seeking God in the Suburbs," with implications for doing youth ministry in suburbia. Here are excerpts from my material:

YWJ: What motivated both of you to explore this topic?

Al: I’m a lifelong suburbanite. I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, not far from the country’s first indoor shopping mall, and I now live in the Chicago suburbs. Some years ago, when interacting with friends from rural and urban contexts, I began to see the different ways that suburbia had shaped me, for good and for bad - ways that I didn’t even notice because it was so much the air I breathed. I was grateful for the opportunities of suburbia but was chagrined about the sense of privilege and entitlement I often found in myself. So I wanted to understand suburbia on its own terms. The better we understand how suburbia affects us, the better we’ll be able to affect suburbia for God’s kingdom purposes.

YWJ: How did your approaches differ? Or maybe better: What do each of you like or disagree about concerning the other author's book?

Al: Dave and I both say that Christians shouldn’t flee the suburbs, that we can find authentic Christian spiritual life here. We both emphasize the fact that Christians should live intentionally and Christianly in suburbia. Suburbia needs Christians, and I’m encouraged that there are more of us addressing the topic these days.

This is an oversimplification, but Dave has focused on the psychology of suburbia, while I’m particularly interested in the history, geography and sociology of suburbia. He’s done a lot of thinking about how suburban people get caught up in issues of status and comparison and the like. A lot of my research has been about the structural and socio-cultural forces, like physical land-use patterns or consumer branding, and their practical implications for our community and church life.

YWJ: Do you feel that suburbia holds more benefits for the spiritual lives of today's Christians, or more dangers?

Al: I’d say that suburbia is both a threat and an opportunity for the spiritual lives of suburban Christians. The fact that suburbia is a land of abundance cuts both ways. Suburban Christians have more access to material and spiritual resources, but we've become numbed to physical and spiritual needs both at home and around the world. There’s so much potential for suburban Christians to do remarkable, countercultural things with our affluence and influence, but there’s also the spiritual danger that we’ll just turn inward and build our own empires rather than seek the welfare of others.

The challenge we face is how to wield our resources strategically to advance Christian mission, champion the poor and the marginalized and advocate for justice and peace.

YWJ: How do the cultural values of suburbia impact youth ministry?

Al: First, suburbia tends to be a commuter culture. So suburban youth groups can easily have teens from eighteen different high schools, meaning that no one local high school has a critical mass of youth group members. And many youth workers are frazzled, commuting between a dozen schools to keep up with their students’ activities. This might be beyond the youth worker’s control, but churches could recover a local parish mindset and aim to have members concentrate as much as possible in immediate local neighborhoods and schools.

Second, suburbia tends to be a busy culture. Some youth groups feed the frenzy by constantly scheduling more and more events for their teens. But many teens are so overscheduled that the last thing they need is more activities. So I applaud the contemplative youth ministry movement and folks like Mark Yaconelli and Mike King’s Presence-Centered Youth Ministry, where youth group is a quiet space for solitude and silence.

Third, suburbia tends to be a consumer culture – suburbia is almost always a place of consumption rather than that of production. So a Christian alternative would be for youth workers to find ways to cultivate spiritual disciplines of creativity, simplicity and generosity. One Christian high school of 575 teens chose to give up Starbucks coffee, pizzas and prom dresses in order to raise money to fight AIDS in Africa. Over the course of a couple of years, they gave several hundred thousand dollars of their own money to build a medical clinic and provide medicine and health care materials to a village. They had caught the vision of giving up some of their consumer nonessentials on behalf of others who were in far more desperate need.

YWJ: What are the main differences between those kids who grow up in suburbia and attend suburban youth programs and those kids who don't?

Al: Maybe the safest thing to say is that suburbia can amplify and intensify some aspects found in American society at large – if America tends to be individualistic, suburbia can be all the more individualistic. All of American culture is materialistic and consumeristic, and that’s hyper-accelerated in suburbia.

YWJ: What can you say about how suburban kids define the good life?

Al: To oversimplify things, suburbia tends to be a material world. So suburbanites tend to define the good life in material terms, with all the requisite brand-name markers of clothing, possessions, technology and the like. Or we define the good life as the achieving life, or the popular life, or the busy life.

Youthworkers can challenge these suburban visions first by simply naming them and exposing them for what they are. And then they can hold up, live out and embody Christian alternatives: for example, the truly good life is a generous life that gives away rather than acquires for one’s self. The truly good life is a contemplative life that is reflective and not just active or busy, or a life of service that is focused on ministry to others.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

New e-book on cutting and self-injury

My colleague Elaina Whittenhall has a new e-book out called Cutting: Self-Injury and Emotional Pain that tells her story and explains what's going on when people (usually young women) cut or injure themselves. Something like 1.5% of the population deliberately harm themselves, and nearly 12 percent of college students admit to harming themselves. Here's an excerpt:
I had been in recovery from anorexia and bulimia for five years before I started actively self-injuring. I’d been depressed for some time when the idea came to me to cut myself. I was at work one day a few years ago, ruminating on the emptiness and unexplainable, thus maddening, sadness I felt. I got a paper cut in the course of filing some papers, and I felt oddly soothed. Somehow the sting of pierced skin seemed an appropriate expression of my pain. All at once, the physical pain seemed to be empathizing with my emotional pain, bearing testimony to it, while also being more acute and diversionary, the physical distracting from the emotional.

I drove home from work that night, again feeling an intense and almost unbearable sadness. I had to get rid of it now, even though I only had an hour until my second appointment with my new counselor. So I ripped apart a disposable razor and used the blades to make several thin, red lines across my arms. Calm seemed to settle over me. The sadness receded, and I didn’t feel the frantic need to get rid of some pain that I didn’t know why was there in the first place.
I remember going to a session at a counseling conference a few years back where the speaker talked about how cutting oneself actually releases a particular chemical that works as a pain analgesic. If you know someone who cuts herself and want to understand the emotional, physical, psychological and spiritual dynamics at work here, check it out. The e-book covers:
  • what self-injury is
  • who self-injures
  • why people self-injure
  • how to spot trouble in someone you care about
  • how to help those you care about
  • how to get help for yourself
  • what types of therapy and treatment are most helpful
  • how to handle relapses
  • what makes recovery possible

"If you are an active or recovering self-injurer or if you are concerned about a friend or family member, you'll find here practical suggestions for help, hope and healing. You'll also find information about therapy options and treatment programs nationwide and suggestions for further reading on the topic of self-injury."

A free sampler is available, and it can be ordered here for immediate download as a PDF or HTML. Should be a helpful resource for teens and twentysomethings struggling with this as well as their parents and youth pastors.

Thursday, November 09, 2006

What should I do with $100?

I have an envelope with five $20 bills sitting on top of my bedroom dresser. What should I do with this money?

Here's the background. This past summer, I was at a Calvin seminar on writing as Christian proclamation, and we were told that as part of the seminar, each participant would receive an additional $100 for use related to the purposes of the seminar. Originally we considered options like pooling our money together as a lump sum that could be used as a scholarship fund or something that would be used to encourage Christian writers, or to keep the funds as a reserve for us as an incentive - once we reached some goal, like writing an article or publishing a book, we would be sent the money. Ultimately we decided to use the money the way some churches have, inspired by the parable of the talents and the Pay It Forward concept, to use the money in some creative, constructive way for the sake of the kingdom, and then to write about the process and the results. We dubbed our project "Write on the Money."

Then we got word that actually, we don't have funding for this. It turns out that each of us already received our $100 in the form of reimbursement for the books we bought and read for the seminar. But instead of scrapping the idea, our seminar decided to proceed, and we'd come up with the money ourselves. What's been fun so far is that several of us have been surprised with money showing up unexpectedly - one participant received $100 for a medical study she was a part of, and another participant wrote an online article and got a check for, you guessed it, exactly $100.

In my case, this past July I was sent some interview questions about my suburban book by the editor of Youthworker Journal. He was going to put together a dialogue article by interviewing me and another author who had also recently written a book about suburbia. Part of the intent of the Calvin seminar was to set aside time to do our own writing, so one of the things I did during an afternoon was write out answers to the interview questions and send them in. A month or so later, I got a follow-up e-mail from Youthworker Journal asking me to submit an invoice for payment for my article. I hadn't realized that the piece was considered an actual article that I would be paid for. So I submitted the paperwork, and a few weeks ago I got my check for the piece. I deposited the check and immediately withdrew $100 to set it aside for this Calvin project. The envelope has been sitting on my dresser ever since.

So - what should I do with it? Any ideas? One of my fellow participants buried his money in the backyard, to try to understand the experience and thinking of the third servant in the parable of the talents. Since I got the money in conjunction with an article about my suburbs book, I think I should do something suburban-related with it. After all, two chapters of my book are dedicated to issues of consumerism and materialism, and I've reflected a bit on suburbia as a consumer culture. Is there a way that I could use this $100 constructively and Christianly in my suburban context?

I'm open to suggestions! If I end up doing some sort of ongoing project, I'll blog about it periodically here. And if anybody out there has been at churches that have done this kind of project, I'd love to hear what you or others did and what the results were.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Vocation, calling and the Dilbertization of work

Here are some further thoughts about work and vocation. In college I was a biblical studies/theology and pastoral ministry double major, partly because I had an insufficient view of vocation and calling and thought that if I was really going to serve God, the only things I could be were a pastor or missionary. Along the way, I read Liberating the Laity by Paul Stevens, originally published by IVP and now republished by Regent College. Stevens was a pastor for many years but realized that his church ministry distanced him from folks in his congregation, and he did not have many natural connections with non-Christians. So he quit his job and became a carpenter. He then found that his ministry was revitalized, not only because he was now active in the marketplace but also because his church ministry shifted to an equipping ministry where ministry was done by the entire congregation, not just the clergy.

Some years back I wrote an article for the late, great Regeneration Quarterly on "The Dilbertization of America" that got me thinking about the differences between Protestant and Catholic views of work, vocation and calling. I later expanded that piece into "The Dilbertization of Work" for the vocation issue of Baylor University's ethics journal Christian Reflection. Here are some excerpts:

I’m a Dilbert fan. I have a plush Dogbert toy on top of my office computer, and one of my coffee mugs depicts one of my favorite strips. The pointy-haired boss tells Dilbert, “I’ve decided to be more of a hands-on manager.” Looking over Dilbert’s shoulder, the boss commands, “Move the mouse . . . up . . . over . . . more . . . now click it! Click it! NO!!! YOU FOOL!!!” Dilbert sighs, “This has ‘long day’ written all over it.”

Dilbert, which appears in more newspapers than any other comic, symbolizes a paradigm shift in our approach to work. Older comics had a certain work ethos, displayed in characters like Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie. Dagwood might symbolize the workers of the World War II generation: a lifelong company man whose years of loyalty had earned him his own office. Mr. Dithers may have yelled at Dagwood when he fell asleep on the job, but Dagwood never worried about job security or corporate downsizing.

Contrast this with Dilbert, the quintessential worker of the postmodern era. Despite Dilbert’s education and specialized training as an engineer, his work is meaningless and unsatisfactory. Instead of an office, he has a cubicle. And his coworkers drive him crazy.

Dilbert’s colleague Wally embodies the cynicism of the workplace; his purpose in life is to do as little as possible on the job without getting fired. In one strip, Wally rejoices because he realizes that he makes just as much money whether he works or twiddles his thumbs all day. Beetle Bailey was lazy, but that was more a statement of his individualism within the military industrial complex. In Dilbert’s world, the whole corporate structure engenders laziness, frustration and even despair.

One positive aspect of Dilbert is that it serves as a critique of workaholism. Christians can applaud this. But what about those who, like Dilbert, feel as if their jobs are meaningless? Dilbert’s vast audience suggests that a large group of disillusioned office workers identify with him. Some of us are deeply unsatisfied with our work, but we hang on because we need the paycheck. How do we think about work when we are unhappy with our jobs?

. . . While it is true that all work is potentially meaningful and significant, it is not true that all work is equally strategic. Some work may in fact be immoral or irrelevant. If a job seems meaningless and we don’t discern that our presence there is of any long-term benefit to either the company or others or our own well-being, and if the job doesn’t fit our skills, interests, personality or sense of calling, that may well be an indication that we should pursue other opportunities, either within this company or elsewhere. A plateaued career can be a sign that God has something else in store for us.

. . . Scott Adams, Dilbert’s creator, spent nine years as “a necktie-wearing, corporate victim assigned to cubicle 4S700R at the headquarters of Pacific Bell.” He quit that dead-end job and decided to pursue his love of cartooning. The rest is history. Has Scott Adams found his calling? He has certainly found a career that matches who he is, where his work is tremendously successful and lucrative. But I don’t know if he sees it as the fulfillment of a calling, or if he acknowledges his work as something that God created him to do. The cynicism that suffuses his cartoons, though amusing to a point, does not reflect the gospel hope offered by the One to whom he is called.

In contrast, another cartoonist, Johnny Hart, is known for his work on The Wizard of Id and B.C. Not only does Hart delight in his work and success in syndication, he also sees it as the fulfillment of a God-given call on his life. One of my favorite B.C. strips is posted in my office. A stone rolls away from a cave. A confused caveman sees footprints emerging from the cave and follows them. They go across the top of a pond. In the final frame, we see the footprints go right on top of a snake, who says, “Well, that was rude! Some guy just stepped on my head.”

Many non-Christian readers might not catch the biblical allusion, and some Christians may be skeptical about Hart’s evangelistic use of his comic strip. I find it a wonderful example of Christian vocation lived out in the marketplace, where a Christian cartoonist lets his Christian identity permeate his work in subtle and clever ways.

What if you hate your job? What if your pointy-haired boss is making work hell for you? On the one hand, Christians would counsel forbearance and perseverance. After all, it is still true that all work is significant. Wherever you are, be fully there. You may be there for a reason.

But consider whether your job is the most strategic fit for your identity and calling. Ultimately, we have only a few choices: We can change ourselves – either adjust our attitude, so we are happier with the job, or develop our skills, so we are better suited for it. We can change jobs and find something that fits better with who we are. If the job is fine but the environment is not, we can change companies. Or we could change careers entirely. None of these choices are easy, but this is why Gordon Smith titled his book Courage and Calling; it may require true courage to make the choices to answer God’s call on our lives.

Yes, God needs Christians in every field: he needs Christian lawyers and doctors and journalists and engineers and so on. But it’s entirely possible that he does not want perpetually frustrated Christians working in what they feel are dead-end jobs. If we suffer from chronic Dilbert-feelings, this might be an indication to us that God has something better in store for us somewhere else.

Monday, October 30, 2006

The High Calling of Our Daily Work

Last Thursday while at the 50th anniversary celebration for Christianity Today magazine, I had lunch with Howard Butt, one of the founding board members for CT. Howard is a longtime champion of marketplace ministry and Christians living out the priesthood of all believers in business, work and other settings. We connected because I've written a few articles for their website,, which provides resources for people wanting to live out their Christian calling in all spheres of daily work.

Having lunch with Howard reminded me that I'd not yet blogged about their site. So here are links to some of the articles I've written for them, on topics from perseverance to anger to hope in adversity. One article I was asked to write was on "Is All Work a High Calling?" Here's an excerpt:
Christians in the workplace often wonder if what they do has eternal value or significance. Is all work in answer to God’s call? What about when work seems nonproductive or meaningless?

Let’s put this in a Christian framework. God created work to be good. God works, and we are created in His image. When we work, we reflect His divine purpose and intent.

But we also live in a fallen world. So we can’t give a blanket statement that all work is good. Some work is clearly bad. Some people’s “work” is morally wrong or downright evil. Theft and embezzlement, abortion and murder, prostitution, and drug trafficking fall outside God’s moral intent and plan.

Christians take heart that in Christ all work is redeemed and transformed. Virtually every job or profession is indeed a good and noble calling from God—and can reflect a divine purpose or intent for the world. Healthcare professionals, for example, reflect God’s identity as healer and Great Physician. Lawyers stand for justice and defend the oppressed, and law enforcement officers reflect God’s identity as judge and defender, refuge and shield. Christian judges, policemen, soldiers, and others participate in God’s justice.

Extend this to nearly every profession. Teachers and educators convey God’s wisdom and learning. Farmers, grocery store clerks, restaurateurs, cooks, and waiters participate in God’s good work to feed the hungry. Architects, builders, contractors and real estate agents help people gain needed shelter. Consider your own job and line of work. How might it reflect some aspect of God’s good character?

Let me also highlight Christianity Today's own site that is produced in partnership with The High Calling (and also reprinted that same article). And here are some further thoughts on implications of the kingdom of God for business and work, in an article "A Company? No, More Like a Kingdom":

Some people have told me to think of Jesus as my supervisor and God as my company’s CEO—and do my work to please them. Nice ideas, but for whatever reason, not helpful. Though my supervisor and CEO are both Christians, I rarely think that working for them is like working for Jesus. In fact, I have a hard time imagining Jesus as a corporate executive.

On the other hand, I often think about what it means that Jesus is king. He declared that the Kingdom of God is at hand. As Christians, we are the King’s servants. And as in medieval days, every king needs kingdom workers. Some are knights who protect the subjects. Others are artisans, craftsmen, and merchants. Some till the land. Others heal the sick. Some educate and raise the young. Some herald the king’s news. Every role is significant if a kingdom is to function effectively and the king is to rule justly. No kingdom runs by itself.

So instead of thinking of Jesus as CEO of my modern-day company, it helps to imagine myself as a medieval serf at work in a particular corner of the king’s realm. I get a better sense of how my daily job might serve my king. I am entrusted with certain work and deployed as a kingdom servant. My labor helps my king bring peace and justice to the land.

So why bring this up in reference to suburban Christianity? Simply this - being a missional suburban Christian is not just for suburban pastors or church planters. It's for all of us who live and work in suburbia. More people work in suburbia than in center cities. Most new industry is developing in suburban and exurban areas, like these tech corridors found in edge cities distanced quite some way from traditional urban areas. So suburban Christianity is not just a matter of transformation of residential neighborhoods and subdivisions - it's also about transformation of suburban commerce, industry and business as well.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Beware of cash advances

A few months ago, I stopped by a branch of my local bank and used the ATM to get $20. Unfortunately, instead of my ATM card, I accidentally used my credit card, which is issued by the same bank and has the same PIN (which is probably a bad idea, I know). The screen menu looked slightly different, but I thought it was just that this particular ATM had a different menu than usual. It wasn't until later that I realized I had gotten a cash advance on my credit card rather than an ATM withdrawal from my checking account.

I checked my credit card account online a few days later, and not only did the $20 cash advance show up, there was also a $10 transaction fee. Yargh. Then the next month, there was an additional 25 cent finance charge. I had paid the credit card balance off in full, so I wasn't sure why there was this additional charge. According to the statement, however, the "average daily balance" on the cash advance was $12.30. Because it had not been paid off (according to how they calculate these things), I had to pay an extra quarter.

So the next month, I intentionally paid an extra fifty bucks or so to make sure that the full cash advance amount would be wiped out. No such luck. This time I was charged another $1.00. Somehow the "average daily balance" had gone up to $13.87, even though my payment should have eliminated it.

Finally, on this month's statement, it shows that the cash advance has been paid off. So it cost me $31.25 to have a $20.00 cash advance, just because I accidentally used the wrong card. How annoying.

Lessons? Be careful what card you use. And more significantly, this experience made me think about folks who get trapped by usurious credit card debt. Evidently my credit card has a 12.99% APR for regular credit card purchases, but 23.99% on cash advances, not including fees. I'm not a math major, so forgive me if I'm calculating this wrong, but it seems like the net interest rate to use/borrow that twenty bucks was 56.25%. That's crazy.

Anyway, I applaud local churches that have financial management classes and groups to help us avoid some of these pitfalls. Consumer culture is challenging enough to navigate these days, even for those of us who try to practice good stewardship and disciplines of simplicity and frugality. Oh, that the spirit of Mammon would be defeated by the spirit of Jubilee!

Monday, October 23, 2006

Suburbia as Mission Field: BreakPoint on The Suburban Christian

Prison Fellowship's BreakPoint radio commentary today is about The Suburban Christian. PF president Mark Earley (standing in for Chuck Colson) mispronounces my last name (it's actually pronounced "shee," like "She went to the store"), but the commentary does a nice job of capturing the missional intent of the book. You can listen to the message here, and here's the text:
The Land of Two-Car Garages: Suburbia as Mission Field

What is suburbia? A place where they tear out trees and then name streets after them? Endless neighborhoods filled with rows of cookie-cutter houses and two-car garages? A place where people are so busy that they don’t even know their neighbors?

Author Albert Hsu sees suburbia as something else: a vast mission field. In his fresh new book, The Suburban Christian, Hsu presents an exciting vision where Christians live and work to transform suburbia from a sea of consumerist isolationism into a hotbed of Christian hospitality.

Describing the history of suburbia, Hsu gives us the example of Clapham Common, an eighteenth-century British neighborhood founded by William Wilberforce and his friends. Clapham Common was designed as a place where families could find a healthy environment, green spaces, and common civic areas—not so that they could escape the world, but so that they could live in community and collaborate in their Christian mission.

But today suburbia seems much more like a place where people try to create their own little utopias. Consumerism tricks us into believing that the most important thing in life is the best cable service, the biggest lawn mower, or a Gucci purse. The commuter culture runs us ragged, as we invest valuable time scurrying between home, work, church, the soccer field, and the grocery store.

I don’t think this is what William Wilberforce had in mind, and neither does Hsu, who challenges us to abandon our suburban complacency. By selling all of our possessions and relocating to China? No—by adopting a radically biblical worldview that calls us to approach suburbia as a mission field right where we live.

Hsu says, “If we aren’t called to go [to the foreign mission field], we must be sure that we are called to stay—not in a passive sense, but to stay with an intentionality of active sending, sharing resources and participating in global mission even at home.”

If some of us are truly called to suburbia, then we are also called to transform it by denouncing personal isolationism and embracing hospitality—a value, Hsu says, that is at the core of the Gospel. We can fight commuter culture—a trend that keeps us in our own cars instead of in relationships—by strategically living, working, shopping, and worshipping in the same part of town. And we can walk, bicycle, and carpool more. That way, we can be available to “Good Samaritan” moments, as Hsu calls them.

Hsu’s book is filled with practical ideas for living out these Good Samaritan moments. For example, in the spirit of Wilberforce—who fought against human slavery—those of us in local government, real estate, or building industries could marshal our resources to fight against economic slavery by promoting affordable suburban housing for the lower and lower-middle classes.

And here’s a less demanding but equally valuable idea—practice hospitality by foregoing a solitary evening in front of the television screen and invite your neighbors over for dessert. You never know—it might open the door to tell them about the Creator of hospitality right in the midst of suburbia.

By the way, Prison Fellowship has a new blog, The Point, which covers a wide breadth of topics. Very good stuff. One of their bloggers also recently read my book and made a few comments regarding it here and here.

Friday, October 20, 2006

CT's Top 50 Books and the future of evangelical publishing

Many of the articles from Christianity Today's 50th anniversary issue are now available online, including "The Top 50 Books That Have Shaped Evangelicals." This past February, I was invited to submit my nominations of five books I thought should make the list, along with a brief comment why. Here are the picks I sent to CT, along with my commentary and reasons why:

The Return of the Prodigal Son, by Henri Nouwen: Not only is it a contemporary spiritual classic, it also modeled the recovery of art as an avenue for reflection and meditation.

Knowing God, by J. I. Packer: Still one of the best examples of biblical theology in service to the church at large.

Basic Christianity, by John Stott: A compact classic and a model of elegance and brevity in apologetic argument.

In His Steps, by Charles Sheldon: Despite its weaknesses in application and trivialization into WWJD? bracelets and knickknacks, it still motivated generations of Christians to live out their discipleship.

This Present Darkness, by Frank Peretti: A book that reinvigorated the genre of Christian fiction and challenged evangelicals to take spiritual warfare and the supernatural seriously.

[If I’m not allowed to name Packer and Stott because they’re IVP books and I work for IVP, here are a bonus two.]

God Came Near, by Max Lucado: Before the pressures of cranking out a book every year made Lucado’s books start sounding all the same, this early work helped evangelicals reckon with the reality of the incarnation.

Jesus & the Victory of God, by N. T. Wright: This and others in Wright’s massive project competed with revisionist scholars on their own terms and modeled doing biblical historical work in service both to the church and public debate.

I was interested to see that three of my five main choices made the list. I was also pleased to see that eight of the top fifty were IVP books, including two of the top five - Knowing God came in at #5, and Francis Schaeffer's The God Who Is There landed at #4. I was surprised, however, that the top spot went to a book I had never heard of, Learning Conversational Prayer by Rosalind Rinker. CT managing editor Mark Galli's blog post explains some of the behind-the-scenes jockeying regarding the rankings. In the comments he reveals that C. S. Lewis's Mere Christianity should/could have been #1, but got booted down for various reasons.

I was also quoted in the same issue for an article on "What's Next: Publishing & Broadcasting." When CT associate editor (and former IVP intern) Madison Trammel e-mailed me asking for my thoughts, I sent him the following:
Fifty years from now . . . Christian publishing will become both bigger and smaller. Christian publishers will continue to chase after the next big book and big-name celebrity author. But at the same time, dissatisfaction with monolithic evangelical publishing will lead to more independent Christian publishing that is more narrowcast than broadcast, more tribalized than mass culture, as indigenous outgrowths of non-traditional, post-emergent communities of Christians that have little historic connection with the structures of American evangelicalism. Just as evangelicalism will continue to fragment into multiple subcultures, Christian publishing and Christian media will likewise fragment and reflect multiple tribalized, post-denominational Christian subcultures.

A corollary - Christian publishing will become both more corporate and more independent. Media companies like Disney and Viacom will launch their own Christian divisions to compete with FoxHarperZondervan and NelsonBigIdea. At the same time, Christian editors and authors outside the mainstream will start their own alternatives to traditional publishers. As they do so, the definition of what is a "Christian book" will continue to morph and change. It may be that "traditional" Christian publishers end up publishing books that are horribly compromised by syncretism and consumer commodification, while indie books laced with profanity become the new spiritual classics.

Fifty years from now . . . Christian publishing will be more reflective of the multiethnic, global environment, with a truly international exchange of ideas and more scholarship from the Majority World church. Publishers continuing to focus on the white minority church, publishing only in English, will be more and more marginalized and irrelevant to the global church at large.

Fifty years from now . . . Publishers will still bemoan the decline of reading and literacy and try to reposition themselves as "content providers" and to "think beyond the book." At the same time, a post-digital cohort of neo-retro-evangelicals, tired of the transience of everything electronic, will champion a movement recovering the incarnational beauty of the sacred printed page, with a rediscovery of illuminated manuscripts, classical bookbinding and physical paper.

Fifty years from now . . . new Bible translations will replace stodgy old versions like The Message, which will be so archaic that it is only used in some conservative fundamentalist circles.

Fifty years from now . . . evangelical elder statesman Robert Bell of the Nooma Center at Wheaton College will commission a new generation of young leaders to take the gospel to every tribe, planet and dimension, using new string relativity technology to contextualize the message to those in alternate timelines.

Okay, now I'm just getting silly. I'm trying not to give the standard old boring responses like "Christian publishers will continue to take the gospel to those who need it, in whatever format people will be using, by all possible means to reach the most possible people," yada yada yada. I'm sure some exec or another will also talk about digital paper and e-books becoming commonplace, some sort of iPod/Blackberry equivalent of books.

Did you know that Rupert Murdoch bought So it's News Corp/Fox/Harper Collins/Zondervan/MySpace. An eBayAmazonBarnes&Borders conglomerate is not a big stretch either. Maybe fifty years from now the big corporate giants of the world will be Brazos International and KregelDoubleday.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Parents spending more time with kids - and less time elsewhere

A New York Times article reports, "Despite the surge of women into the work force, mothers are spending at least as much time with their children today as they did 40 years ago, and the amount of child care and housework performed by fathers has sharply increased." The article continues:

At first, the authors say, “it seems reasonable to expect that parental investment in child-rearing would have declined” since 1965, when 60 percent of all children lived in families with a breadwinner father and a stay-at-home mother. Only about 30 percent of children now live in such families. With more mothers in paid jobs, many policy makers have assumed that parents must have less time to interact with their children.

But, the researchers say, the conventional wisdom is not borne out by the data they collected from families asked to account for their time. The researchers found, to their surprise, that married and single parents spent more time teaching, playing with and caring for their children than parents did 40 years ago.

For married mothers, the time spent on child care activities increased to an average of 12.9 hours a week in 2000, from 10.6 hours in 1965. For married fathers, the time spent on child care more than doubled, to 6.5 hours a week, from 2.6 hours. Single mothers reported spending 11.8 hours a week on child care, up from 7.5 hours in 1965.

On the one hand this is a good sign. But where is the time coming from, that parents have more time with kids? It's not that folks are cutting back on work;Americans are not working less. The NY Times article doesn't mention this, but other studies have argued that the time that adults are carving out for family has been taken away not only from housework (due to advances in technology and efficiency), but also from leisure activities and adult friendships. So parents are spending more time with their kids, but at the expense of larger community and church involvement. We focus on our nuclear families so much that we no longer have time for volunteer work or community service.

The article notes that families are getting smaller and incomes have risen over the past 35 years, so more time and money is devoted to fewer kids. Suburban Christians should beware of the tendency of turning inward to focus on children to the exclusion of outside concerns and ministry. One suburban pastor I talked to told me that the biggest challenge he faces in his suburban church is "the idolatry of children," of suburban parents focusing so much on their kids that kids' activities and development take priority over all other concerns, including church, ministry, witness, etc. Better, probably, to find creative ways of helping our kids join in ministry and mission to and from the suburbs, so that they don't just become self-absorbed and instead learn to focus externally on loving their neighbors as well.

Monday, October 16, 2006

What color are cherubim?

Next year is IVP's 60th anniversary, and as part of our commemoration of it, we're re-releasing a number of classic backlist books as IVP Classics. I was doing final checks on the manuscript of the forthcoming IVP Classics edition of Francis Schaeffer's Art and the Bible, and Schaeffer has a section about art in the tabernacle. There he mentions that the depicted pomegranites were blue, purple and scarlet. Schaeffer makes the point that purple and scarlet were natural colors for pomegranites, but not blue. So the implication is that art does not need to be photographic in representation and that there's freedom to make things artistically different from how they actually appear in nature.

Then, a few pages later, he's talking about another part of the tabernacle, and this line jumps out at me:

"Cherubim have form and are teal."

Wow! I didn't know that. How does he know that cherubim are teal? Or is Schaeffer's point that the artistic representations of the cherubim were painted teal? Boy, that seems like a funny color for cherubim. I thought they were supposed to be gold.

So I check the original edition of Art and the Bible. It says, "Cherubim have form and are real."

(BTW, Schaeffer died back in the mid-80s. So maybe he does know what color the cherubim are. One of my colleagues said that maybe this was his posthumous revision of the manuscript. "I've seen the cherubim, and they're very nice.")

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Nathan Bierma's On Language column: Buzzwords

Nathan Bierma of the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship and author of the recent book Bringing Heaven Down to Earth has a weekly column in the Chicago Tribune, "On Language," in which he looks at developments and trends in how words are used. I got to know Nathan at the Calvin seminar on writing that I participated in this past summer, and I've appreciated his astute observations on all things literary and linguistic, from etymologies to neologisms. (Yes, I'm an editorial book publishing geek.)

Nathan's latest column looks at John Walston's new The Buzzword Dictionary, and he identifies the best and the worst of the new buzzwords being used today:


Faulty-tasking: Making mistakes because of multitasking. A handy word for what to call it when you accidentally send a personal e-mail to your boss and a business memo to your wife because you were writing both at once while also instant messaging, checking your fantasy football team and talking on the phone.

Boiling the ocean: This phrase was reportedly offered by comedian Will Rogers as a solution for defeating German U-boats. Today, "boiling the ocean" has come to mean an endless and pointless task.

DRIB: "Don't read if busy." This just about guarantees an instant delete if it shows up in the subject line. But it would save all of us a lot of precious time if more people used it.

Loop mail: That mountain of e-mails of which you are not the direct recipient, but on which you get "copied" just to "keep you in the loop." A handy term for e-mail that should come labeled "DRIB."

Taffy task: A job that should take only five minutes, but is stretched out to cover the entire day. Common on Fridays.

Percussive maintenance: Who among us isn't a skilled technician when it comes to the art of banging on something to try to get it working again?


Knowledge transfer: This means teaching someone how to do your job before you leave. But you're a person, not a computer hard drive.

Interdependent partnering: Is there any other kind?

Directionally correct: Replace with "we think we're on the right track."

Non-concur: to disagree. It's just chickening out to say, "I don't non-concur."

Double-click: Metaphorically, to take a second or deeper look: "Let's double-click on this issue for a few minutes." Good term for a computer mouse, bad term for a discussion.

Reskilling: What ordinary human beings call "re-training."

Terrestrial radio: What used to be called just "radio" before satellite radio and podcasts.

Geek handshake: Introducing yourself to a new co-worker by e-mail or text message instead of walking 10 feet to her cubicle. The term is fine, but the practice has got to stop.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

A twentysomething's life in suburbia

My coworker Ann Swindell has a new article at Relevant called "Dishwasher Blues." Ann is a recent Wheaton College grad and newlywed reflecting on the standard of living and expectations in suburbia. She recounts this dialogue with a woman from her church:

“Oh, I remember those days. Now that I live in a house, I absolutely hate my life whenever I’m anywhere that doesn’t have a built-in washer and dryer. Or a dishwasher, for that matter. You do have a dishwasher, don’t you?”

I put on my best fake smile and shook my head. “Nope. You’re looking at the dishwasher.”

The woman from church started to giggle. “Oh, you’re just too funny! You—the dishwasher—ha!” She stopped laughing abruptly, her face becoming much too serious for the topic of conversation. “I am sorry about that, though. I hope you do get those necessities soon—life is just a drag without them!”

Ann reflects, "
Living in a suburb in which every third woman who walks into our store has a diamond bigger than a dime on her left hand is overwhelming. Michael and I may not be rich by suburban Chicago standards, but we’re living—as far as we’re concerned—rather well: our own one-bedroom apartment, a running car, the ability to pay our bills on time … why shouldn’t we be happy?"

One comment posted at the article says,
"Also newlyweds, also no washer/dryer/dishwasher, plus no car. We have each other and God. What more could we need?" It's difficult at times to keep perspective when her neighbors assume that certain appliances are "necessities," but Ann's article provides a healthy reality check and is a good model of what author Lisa McMinn would call the contented soul. So whenever we're tempted to keep up with the Joneses, remember Tim Stafford's encouragement: "Never mind the Joneses!"

Update: Ann just mentioned to me that she has two other articles at Relevant: "Five Commandments About Money," and "Spare Keys," where she tells the story of what happened when she loaned her car to a complete stranger. A great example of Christian generosity, hospitality, risk-taking and trust.