Thursday, September 27, 2007

At Willow Creek, and a straw poll

I'm posting this from the Willow Creek Group Life Conference, where I just presented two back-to-back workshops on "Building Community in Suburbia." Things went well in both sessions, with some good interaction and discussion. One fellow mentioned to me how his church frames their ministry in terms of being good neighbors to the community, getting involved with the local fire department, park district, civic organizations and such. He said that this community involvement has been more fruitful than exhorting church members toward individualistic evangelistic witness. I think that's the power of the witnessing community. When churches and Christian communities are corporately involved in the life of their local neighborhood and municipality, that often speaks more loudly than anything we do as individual Christians. Not to discount the efficacy or importance of personal evangelism, but I think it's essential these days for churches to corporately invest in their local areas and seek the welfare of their suburbs.

One of the things I talked about was the importance of local geography and neighborhood, and a fellow mentioned to me that he knows a guy who's selling his multimillion-dollar house in order to buy a small condo and relocate closer to his church's ministry context. Which is a great example both of intentionality in neighborhood location and parish (to counter commuter culture) and also of downshifting one's lifestyle (to counter consumer culture).

It's interesting to be here at Willow Creek, because even though they're near me here in the Chicago suburbs, it's been a few years since I've visited. They in many ways have been the flagship church of all suburban churches. They do many things very well; indeed, much of their growth and success can be attributed not only to their creative and seeker-sensitive approaches, but to a more fundamental commitment to being incarnationally suburban in their ministry. And they are currently shifting away from an affinity-based ministry approach to a more geographic-locality-based ministry approach, learning from multi-site churches like Community Christian Church. (I affirm both approaches, since different churches and contexts usually require different things, but I applaud the geographic shift in emphasis.) I have some cautions about Willow and other suburban megachurches, as I've detailed in my book, but it's good to be here and see the national and global reach of their ministry.

At any rate, when I started writing this post (at a computer in their speakers' lounge), my main purpose was to give a quick straw poll. As in literal straws. Some time ago I realized that restaurants coordinate their straws to reinforce their overall brand identity. So this weekend Josiah and I went around to various restaurants to collect straws, which I used as an illustration in my workshops here. So, can you identify the sources of the following?
- a green straw
- a white straw with red and yellow stripes
- a red straw
- a white straw with yellow stripes
- a black straw
- an orange straw with pink stripes
- a blue straw
- a white straw

These are all from fast food or quick-casual restaurants in the Chicagoland area. Take your guesses! No prizes, but you can have the satisfaction of successfully identifying how much consumer culture and corporate branding has permeated even the details of restaurant straws.

Thursday, September 20, 2007

On speaking and writing, teaching and learning

I'm in the middle of a busy season - nine speaking engagements in six weeks. Six of those are the Sunday school class I'm guest teaching at Immanuel Presbyterian (which one of the class members blogged about). This past Sunday I also gave an hour-and-a-half presentation at Bethlehem Lutheran Church in St. Charles; it was kind of like giving three different sermons back to back. A bit tiring, but it went well. I don't know how professors teach three- or four-hour block classes! Then next week I'll be leading some workshops at the Willow Creek Group Life Conference. The week after that I'm headed to Minnesota to speak at Homecoming at my undergrad alma mater, Crossroads College. Whew! Plus I'm also scheduled to lead a morning devotion during a planning retreat next week.

They say that whenever you speak, you actually give three talks. There's the talk that you plan to give, the talk you actually give, and the talk you wish you had given. This was certainly the case at Bethlehem Lutheran. I came in with way more material than there was time for (always better to overprepare than underprepare, I think). So during small group processing times in the midst of the presentation, I was scribbling around my manuscript, slashing paragraphs, deciding what to cut and skip and highlight and whatnot. I was discombobulated enough at one point that I glossed over an entire page and then tried to go back later and catch some of it. It didn't flow great, but it was okay.

I tend to be a manuscript speaker. I generally write out all my comments ahead of time, word for word. Other speakers and preachers are able to speak from outlines or brief notes ("tell Jell-O story here"), but I can't do it. I'll adjust things on the fly as I speak, so I'm not entirely tied to the text, but unless I'm very familiar with the material, I can't speak without notes. The manuscript pages are my security blanket. That way, if I have a brain freeze and blank out, I can at least look down on the page and read something.

Writing and speaking are very different mediums, rhetorically. It doesn't work for me to cut and paste from my book chapters and try to turn them into talks. It tends to sound too abstract that way. I find it works better to look over my published material but then to open a new Word document and write a fresh talk around the content. Otherwise I'll use vocabulary and language that just don't sound right conversationally.

Blogging is a little different. My "blogging voice" tends to sound more like my conversational speaking voice, so I can occasionally cut and paste from a blog post and insert that material into a talk. But I can't cut and paste from a talk or a blog entry and try to put it into a book chapter. Writing for publication, for me at least, requires a different mindset and approach, and I'm a lot more careful about word choice and sentence structure and all that.

These days, authors are increasingly required to be public speakers. The more visible an author is, out speaking and whatnot, the more likely people will find the books. But many authors are not great public speakers, and many public speakers are not great writers. Though there's overlap, these worlds are very different. Compare this with music or theatre. For musicians and actors, public performance is a necessary component of their art. They give concerts, they have onstage personas. But writers, often introverts by nature, usually ply their craft in solitude (or at Starbucks), and what emerges from that creative context doesn't necessarily translate well to the conference platform.

At one point I was planning on pastoral ministry, so I've had my share of homiletics courses and sermon prep. I'm an extrovert, so I enjoy going out and speaking and interacting with people. And I learn a lot from these experiences; all of it helps refine my material and shape my thinking. But sometimes part of me wishes I could just mail my book out instead of talking. After all, in terms of sheer content delivery, talks are rather inefficient. I can only say so much in a half hour talk, and books can give a lot more analysis and depth. When I'm talking, I'll think to myself, here's the overview and the summary bullet points, but if you want the real scoop on all this, read chapter 3!

But I know that pedagogically, public speaking can do things that mere reading can't. I think in some ways it might be harder to construct a good class or workshop than to write an essay or article. When writing, I'm mostly just thinking about content and style. But a workshop or talk requires thinking through how people will be experiencing the material in real time. Is this too much? Too theoretical? Do I need an illustration here? Group discussion? An interactive activity? Sadly, it's easier to just deliver a lecture and be done with it than to really work through what would be good pedagogy. As one of my mentors mentioned to me, professors usually focus on their teaching and don't think enough about the students' actual learning. Because it's harder - there are a just a lot more variables and factors beyond the teacher's control.

So kudos to all teachers, professors, pastors and preachers out there - I recognize how difficult it is to do what you do! Thanks for your faithfulness in preparation and teaching day in and day out, preaching Sunday after Sunday, year after year. Those of us in the publishing world have a lot to learn from you.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini

Last night I finished reading A Thousand Splendid Suns by Khaled Hosseini, the author of The Kite Runner. It's a worthy follow-up, and I think it might have been even more haunting and captivating than his first novel. The book follows the intersecting lives of several women in Afghanistan throughout three decades of recent history. The narrative portrays the impact and brutality of war on local families and communities, and highlights the fact that inhumanity and cruelty often come not from outside enemies but from those closest to you. It's a tragic, heartbreaking story, and yet one laced with hope and redemption.

I won't give away too much of the plot, since it really must be experienced for yourself, but I will say that one discomfiting dimension of the book was that the novel describes events in contemporary history that I've lived through but have been largely ignorant of. As a kid, I vaguely remember hearing something about Soviet troops in Afghanistan but of course had no idea what any of that was about. Like most of us in the West, I only heard of the Taliban after 9/11. Hosseini's novel gives us a startling portrait of the on-the-ground lived realities of life in Afghanistan, particularly the plight of women.

It was disturbing to realize that some of the events described in the book (and lived out by countless Afghan citizens) took place as I was going to college and grad school, getting married and setting up my happy little suburban life - completely unaware of how people around the world were suffering. Several of the characters in the book are roughly the same age as me and my wife, according to the novel's timeline, and it strikes me that they and so many real-life people like them have endured far more trauma and faced more painful choices in their young lives than most of us in the West have encountered. This is the power of good literature, to help us understand and experience what we normally cannot even imagine.

Particularly interesting is the role of religion throughout the book, for good and for bad. I don't know if the author intended the book to be an "Islamic novel" the way we think of our contemporary "Christian novels," but the portrait of Islam in the book is quite realistic, demonstrating both its capacity for fundamentalism and oppression as well as its potential for transcendance and hope. Christian readers of this novel will find that certain plot points have deeply Christian implications and resonances. One particular instance of sacrificial love struck me as profoundly Christ-like, and I wonder if it could serve as an illustrative bridge to the gospel for Muslim or secular readers.

At any rate, this is a significant novel and a fine example of contemporary literary fiction that transcends time and culture. Out of its particulars, it speaks to universals of the human spirit, perseverance and love. It will break your heart, but I also hope that it will enlarge your heart and encourage you to pray for our troubled world.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Pitfalls of romanticizing worship

[It's been a busy week, and I haven't had much time for original blogging. So what follows below are some of my thoughts from an e-mail discussion a few months ago regarding the topic of worship and love and to what extent worship songs and services should image a love relationship between us and God.]

Let me chip in with an observation about my own ambivalence about love being the primary lens or metaphor for worship - not because it's unbiblical, but because most of us late-modern/postmodern North Americans view that love primarily through the notion of romantic love, not a more holistic, agapic, communal, cosmic, sacrificial love. It's usually filtered through the grid of individualistic romantic comedies and overly personalizes the worship experience into a "Jesus & me" experience, losing the corporate sense of the worshipping community. Hence the "Jesus as idealized perfect boyfriend" type worship ballads.

Yet another concern with romanticizing worship is that it's a relatively recent and particularly Western and North American construct. As I've argued in Singles at the Crossroads and was just reading in Thomas Cahill's Mysteries of the Middle Ages, the vast majority of human history did not have a romantic understanding of love - romantic love is a development of the late middle ages and then heightened by 18th-century Romanticism and then 20th-century Hollywood. So I resonate with Bob Webber's concerns [about romanticized worship songs]. Culturally, I think that when we Christianize romantic motifs in our worship, we often merely substitute one idolatry for another, rather than challenging the very validity of romantic love as a controlling narrative in our culture.

So if we are to recover a more biblical, contextually Jewish and Trinitarian Christian understanding of worship as expression of love, we need worship songs that more faithfully reflect love as it would have been understood historically by God's people. What was the Israelite understanding of love as lived and practiced in the OT and second temple Judaism? What was the Christian understanding of love as lived and practiced in the early church? It seems to me that their notion of love in worship was often wedded to care for the widow and orphan, welcoming the stranger and the alien, rescuing the abandoned, poor and marginalized. This is borne out in Isaiah and the minor prophets as well as Acts and patristic literature. In other words, love of neighbor was the primary understanding of love, not the romantic/erotic love of a lover. And if acceptable worship was understood in love terms, it was this larger corporate love of others, not an individualistic notion of romantic love.

I suppose this might be too broad a brush - Hosea of course uses the marital metaphor (with the emphasis on God's faithfulness in the face of human infidelity - how often do we have worship songs proclaim, "We have been unfaithful adulterers, O Lover of my soul"?). But of course there corporate Israel is the beloved, not isolated individuals. And bride of Christ language is also intended to be corporate.

I realize I'm addressing several topics at once - romanticism and individualism - which overlap and are often fused. And I suspect that depending on one's tradition and context, some churches tip too much toward rationalism while others veer too much toward romanticism, and likewise some emphasize individualism too much while others emphasize collectivism. So depending on your location, you'll have different dangers to beware of. I suppose much depends on local leadership being able to diagnose their own congregations' health. Mark Labberton, author of The Dangerous Act of Worship, mentioned to me that his church has pretty much replaced all "I, me, my" language with corporate "we, us, our" language in all their worship and liturgy. That's their way of resisting the radical individualism of their cultural context (Berkeley), and I suspect it also reduces overly romanticizing the worship experience.

Anyway, these discussions have been going on for centuries - if I recall correctly, John Wesley was concerned that his brother Charles was getting too romantic and sappy in his hymnody. So how can the church be contextual and countercultural in such a time as this? In an age of American Idol, should we resist solo performances? In an age of over-privatization, should we not do podcasts? I don't know. But there's obviously plenty for us here to think about for years to come.

Monday, September 10, 2007

"live sin the suburbs"

Yesterday morning I was guest teaching a Sunday school class at Immanuel Presbyterian Church, and I was amused by this typo in the bulletin:

"More than half of the population now live sin the suburbs."

Live sin the suburbs! I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it sounds dastardly.

This weekend seemed busier than usual. Saturday morning we went to the arboretum with our local Down syndrome network group. Ellen and I led worship Saturday evening, and after church we had a children's ministry kickoff time of food and games. Then Sunday morning I was with the good people at Immanuel, and in the afternoon our neighborhood association had its annual picnic with food and games. Rather exhausting and draining, all told. I was so wiped out that I kept falling asleep while reading Return of the Jedi with Josiah.

It occurred to me that this is part of the challenge of suburban life. It can be overly busy, leaving us frazzled and worn out. And we can be tempted to check out, to just say, forget it - never mind getting involved in the community or trying to connect with neighbors. It's too tiring. It's easier to forget the world and just live our own privatized lives in our isolated bubble. Even though I'm an extrovert on the Myers-Briggs, I've been feeling more introverted lately and feel like hiding from the world sometimes.

But I have to remind myself that it's good to be intentional to meet neighbors and work toward building community. A new family moved in across the street from us this past week, and I brought over a flyer inviting them to the association picnic. I was glad to see that they showed up, and their kids played with our kids. (There were three little boys at the picnic all named Alex. And Josiah's middle name is Alexander. Kind of funny. I wanted to yell, "Hey, Alex!" and see if they all turned around. But I didn't.) We re-met another family (we had met them briefly while trick-or-treating last year), and we got to know them a little, exchanged phone numbers and said we should set up a playdate sometime.

So even though it might have been easier to just stay home and nap, I'm glad we got to meet some of our neighbors. It's all part of living Christianly in the suburbs, I think.

Friday, September 07, 2007

The immerging church

In this post-denominational, post-Christendom, post-everything era, I think that there may well be a convergence between post-liberal mainliners and post-conservative evangelicals where folks continue to seek out that which was missing from their own traditions in other streams of Christianity. We see this in some of the ancient-future liturgical retrieval (as has motivated many in my own Anglican congregation), and it is also a marker of many in the emerging/Emergent church. I think it's fascinating that while evangelicalism continues to attract disaffected former Catholics and mainline Protestants, according to Diana Butler Bass in Christianity for the Rest of Us, there's also a parallel (though smaller) mainline renewal that has a lot of energy and growth coming from disaffected former evangelicals and fundamentalists.

At any rate, whatever camp folks are coming out of or into, all Christians would do well to be "immerging," as this WhirledView blog post puts it:
Fifty-plus years in the future, perhaps people won't care so much whether the early 21st Century church was emerging, or out of what, or into what. They probably will take note of what this generation grasped and failed to grasp.

What I care about more is the immerging church -- whether or not the church of our day is incarnational. More personally, it matters whether or not I am incarnational, as I seek to follow Jesus and serve his kingdom.

Essentially this is the model and charge of Christ, to set aside any sense of merit or entitlement, to humble ourselves, to go into all the world (not persuade the world to come into ours) with good news that we've tasted, not just read about or memorized or grown up knowing about.

. . . If the church is emerging, let us continually emergeas necessary from our safe spaces and enter into the world God created, in which God wants us to be light and indispensable flavor. And let us do so in a way that includes God's whole church, the one with Christ (not the West) at the center.

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

From an individualistic gospel to a global one

The gospel is bigger than individual conversion and salvation. This seems to be a recurring theme for me these days. One of the books I'm editing now that will come out in spring 2008 is called True Story: A Christianity Worth Believing In, by James Choung, in which the author uses a narrative story to explore whether Christianity really makes a difference in a world of global crises and oppression. Another one of my authors just e-mailed me to ask my take on how people's questions have shifted in recent decades. I responded that generally, various sources say that the basic question of modern (esp. post-WWII evangelicalism) was "Is it true?" whereas in the postmodern context the question has shifted to "Is it real?" or "Does it work?"

But maybe we're entering into a new era where the question is not so much about the gospel's truth or efficacy for an individual, but rather framed in terms of global healing and hope. I notice that Brian McLaren's forthcoming book, Everything Must Change, has the subtitle "Jesus, Global Crises, and a Revolution of Hope." I haven't read it yet, but it seems like it will be spinning out implications of the kingdom of God in global crises like AIDS and environmental issues. Perhaps a major shift is taking place from the more individualistic approach to the gospel (accept Jesus because it benefits you; follow Jesus because he'll make your life better; Jesus as vehicle for self-improvement) to the more communal approach of the '90s (join this community of fellow believers; you're not alone anymore) to a now more global approach (Jesus is healing the whole world, and we can be a part of it).

Of course, back in the '60s people were wrestling with global issues and civil rights and the Vietnam War and everything too. So maybe it's too simplistic to try to boil it down to neat categories. But I think there's certainly a shift in emphasis (especially in apologetic efficacy) from "Jesus is true for me and he can be true for you" to "Jesus is real, and he matters not just for you and me, but for the poor, the environment, the oppressed, the whole hurting world."