Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Eve of All Saints/Reformation Day

My Facebook status this morning: Al is wondering why churches have "Harvest Fests" when they could have Eve of All Saints or Reformation Day parties instead. Dress up as your favorite saint/reformer.

A comment on my Wall from Caryn Rivadeneira: "Good point about the saints/reformers. You could even add a spooky flair by dressing as your favorite martyr."

Oooh! That has all sorts of potential. You could have people who were crucified upside down, burned at the stake, beheaded . . . I just glanced on Wikipedia to look up how various martyrs were killed, and then it struck me that that's a little morbid, that these were real people who died for the faith, and I shouldn't be trivializing it.

I'm somewhat ambivalent about cultural practices surrounding Halloween. I'm not an extreme conservative type that thinks that Christians should all boycott Halloween, but I'm not enthused about the general creepiness of the occasion, or the sexualization of Halloween costumes, or the commercialization and candification. Our kids are young enough to still have cute/innocent costumes (like puppies and Care Bears), but Josiah is now getting old enough to be something more dramatic, like Obi-Wan Kenobi.

From a community involvement standpoint, I think trick-or-treating is still one of the best ways that suburban Christians can interact with and get to know neighbors. When else do we have occasion to actually go to someone's door uninvited? Of course, if you don't have young kids, it might be a little creepy for you to go door-to-door. But then you can stay home and hand out treats and greet neighbors that come by. And handing out treats can actually be a form of Christian hospitality and welcome.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Down Syndrome Awareness Month

October is Down Syndrome Awareness Month, and of course I forgot to mention it until the end of the month. Our two-and-a-half-year-old son, Elijah, has Down syndrome, and over the last few years we've been learning lots about Down syndrome. Basically the most important thing we've learned is that it's really not that scary or that big a deal. (See Ellen's post on Elijah's first birthday, and my Father's Day article for While Elijah has developmental delays and takes longer to do things, he's an active, healthy, happy kid, he loves Blue's Clues just like his older brother (and now points and says "ooo" when he sees a clue), and he has a good working vocabulary of signs so he can communicate with us and let us know what he wants.

Here's some info from the National Down Syndrome Society:

Did you know...

One in every 733 babies born in the U.S. has Down syndrome. The life expectancy of people with Down syndrome has increased dramatically in recent decades - from 25 in 1983 to 56 today. In that same span of time, advancements in education, research and advocacy have had a tremendous impact on the opportunities that individuals with Down syndrome have to live healthy and fulfilling lives. Today, many people with Down syndrome:

  • Attend neighborhood schools and learn in typical classes alongside their peers without disabilities.
  • Graduate from high school and go to college.
  • Comprise a vibrant part of the American workforce.
  • Actively participate in the social and recreational aspects of their communities.
  • Live independently, make their own choices, and advocate for their rights.
I'm very grateful that today we have access to all sorts of early intervention programs and therapists, and that society is generally much more enlightened and people have better awareness and understanding of disability issues. It really was a different world just a few decades ago. If you've read The Memory Keeper's Daughter, you have a sense of what life was like for people with Down syndrome not that long ago, when they were frequently institutionalized and it was assumed that they could never live or function in society. Vanity Fair recently had a fascinating article about how playwright Arthur Miller (author of Death of a Salesman and The Crucible) essentially denied the existence of his son Daniel because of Daniel's Down syndrome. Interestingly, after Daniel's birth, Miller's career never reached the heights of his earlier signature work - perhaps because in never accepting Daniel's Down syndrome, he was cutting himself off from the greatest dramas that could have been written.

A few months back Newsweek columnist George Will wrote about his son who has Down syndrome and how increased prenatal testing means that many people with genetic "abnormalities" like his son (and mine) will be terminated before birth. He mentioned that something like 85% of prenatal diagnoses of Down syndrome are aborted (I've heard 90%). While prenatal testing can be a helpful tool that can let parents prepare for challenging circumstances, in too many cases it is automatically assumed that such a life is not worth living, and babies are aborted just because they have an extra chromosome, not because of any life-threatening condition to the baby or the mother.

So part of Down Syndrome Awareness Month is helping people know that a diagnosis of Down syndrome should not be an automatic reason to terminate a pregnancy. There are actually a good number of parents willing and waiting to adopt a baby with Down syndrome. If you or someone you know is pregnant and gets a prenatal diagnosis of Down syndrome, please bring the baby to term. Don't abort the baby because you think you can't take care of him or her. Whether you raise the child yourself or someone else adopts him or her, a life with Down syndrome is still a life that is fully human, fully created in the image of God, with full personhood and identity.

I've recently started doing some reading in the fields of disability studies and theology of disability, and I may blog about this further at some point. In the meantime, let me link to some interesting resources:

If People with Down Syndrome Ruled the World
The Body of Christ has Down’s Syndrome: Theological reflections on vulnerability, disability, and graceful communities
Encountering the Disabled God
Disabled Christianity blog
Theology and Down Syndrome: Reimagining Disability in Late Modernity by Amos Yong

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Commercial impact

Yesterday evening at the grocery store, Josiah was helping us shop. We told him that we needed raisins and pointed him to the raisin shelf. He glanced at the various options, selected a Sun-Maid raisins package to put in the cart, and said almost to himself, "Sun-Maid is proud to sponsor PBS Kids."

Aaauggghhh! Even supposedly non-commercial PBS is indoctrinating our five-year-old into corporate brand recognition and identity. He already makes a consumer choice to prefer Sun-Maid over other brands simply because they sponsor shows on PBS Kids. Sigh. Well, at least it's a healthy choice. Could be worse, I guess. At least he's not saying, "Budweiser is a proud sponsor of Sesame Street."

Ellen and I don't watch much TV, and one reason is that we don't want to put up with the commercials. If we follow a show, like Lost or Alias, we prefer to get the DVDs and watch them straight through, without commercial interruption. The only exception is Heroes. Sometimes we watch it live and mute the commercials; other times we tape it and watch it later, fast-forwarding through the commercials. It's disturbing how the ads tout their products as essential to human happiness and fulfillment - like anyone really needs a cell phone MP3 player or a luxury car that parks itself.

And sadly, product placement within the shows themselves makes advertising even more unavoidable. On Heroes, Claire's new car happened to be a Nissan, with the logo prominently visible (and was promptly followed up at the break with a Nissan commercial to reinforce it, in case you missed it in the show). New character Elle (played by Kristen Bell of Veronica Mars fame) holds her cell phone in such a way that the Sprint logo is clearly seen.

Cynical Gen Xers that we are, sometimes we will bust out laughing at the absurdity of the commercial messages. Like the one saying that you can get exclusive preview clips of Heroes sent to your phone - it's a commercial to get you to download more commercials! Or the Target ad that talks about how a percentage of your purchases goes back to community philanthropy - it's pitching shopping as virtuous and charitable. Help the community by buying more stuff! Feel good about your consumerism, because some tiny percentage is being donated to help people! Sad, really. Commercial messaging is so much the air we breathe in our consumer culture. We can do our best to unplug and avoid it all, but it's everywhere.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Robert Wuthnow's After the Baby Boomers

The latest issue of Christian Century has a review (by Brian McLaren) of sociologist Robert Wuthnow's new book After the Baby Boomers: How Twenty- and Thirty-Somethings Are Shaping the Future of American Religion. Here are some statistics and snippets from the review:

- "Young adults are marrying later, having fewer children and having them later, moving more often, going to college in higher numbers, living with more immigrant neighbors and therefore more ethnic and religious diversity, and living in the suburbs even more than their baby boomer parents." [The suburban note is interesting to me, as often we imagine that twentysomethings are all hanging out in the cities a la Friends, but sheer demographics of suburban majorities seem to bear out that young adults are likewise gravitating toward the suburbs. And the juxtaposition with immigrant neighbors is not a contradiction, as suburbia continues to diversify.]

- Wuthnow says, "The net result is fewer young adults contributing to the activities of local congregations or receiving support from these congregations."

- Being married or unmarried has a stronger effect on church attendance than anything else.

- The average adult age of mainline congregations is 52, and for evangelical congregations, it's 48. Both mainliners and evangelicals are losing young adults. The only groups for whom young adult retention has remained stable are Catholics, Jews and black Protestants.

- In 1970 the ratio of mainliners to evangelicals was five to four. In 2000 it was two to three.

- The more recent evangelical growth comes from Roman Catholics becoming evangelical - 9 percent of younger evangelicals were raised Catholic (compared to 4 percent in 1970).

- 46 percent of people in their early 40s attend church weekly, while only 29 percent of twentysomethings do.

- The proportion who talk about religion with their friends is highest among young adults in their twenties (despite higher percentages of being uninvolved with a church).

- Rates of orthodoxy are higher for those with a college education than for those without.

- About 38 percent of younger adults lean conservative religiously (with 20 percent being "staunchly conservative"), while 56 percent lean liberal religiously.

- 56 percent of young religious conservatives attend church weekly, while only 14 percent of young religious liberals do.

- Evangelicals are 1.7 times more likely to be "unwelcoming toward Asians and Hispanics" than nonevangelicals. "Evangelicals are a more likely source of mobilized resistance against newcomers than any other religious group."

One of McLaren's conclusions from Wuthnow's data is that "we should increase dialogue between church leaders and people working with young adults in Christian colleges and in ministries on secular college campuses. These are people who rub elbows with young adults day to day, and they have a lot of good advice to offer local churches, but hardly anybody asks."

From my location as an editor at InterVarsity Press, one of the best ways that the church can access the expertise of parachurch campus ministry leaders is through books they have written. A number of upcoming books are written by InterVarsity staff: Don Everts's One Guy's Head series of postmodern apologetics books, I Once Was Lost by Don Everts and Doug Schaupp about what they've learned about postmodern evangelism from two thousand recent converts, and narrative book True Story and companion giveaway booklet Based on a True Story by James Choung, who offers a fresh presentation of the gospel that's far more holistic, missional and justice-oriented than traditional summaries. (See this YouTube video for a three-minute version of his approach.) All of these are good resources to help the local church can understand today's twentysomethings and thirtysomethings and contextualize ministries in ways that resonate better with them.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

The Year of Living Biblically

Last night I finished reading The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally as Possible, by A. J. Jacobs. I'd read Jacobs's previous book, The Know-It-All: One Man's Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World, about his journey reading all the way through the Encyclopedia Brittanica. I thoroughly enjoyed The Know-It-All as a fascinating, geeky read, ideal for book geeks who enjoy spouting off random trivia. Both books also double as contemporary real-time memoirs, as you follow Jacobs through his year and get an inside look into his very amusing life.

The Year of Living Biblically is particularly interesting because Jacobs is a nonpracticing secular Jew. He has a vague sense of wanting to connect with his heritage but doesn't really believe in all the God stuff. But he reads through the Bible, makes a list of all the commands (both Old and New Testaments) and does his best to live them out over the course of a year. He grows out his beard, writes commandments on his doorframes, learns to pray and observe the Sabbath. His quest takes him on some journeys to visit communities that also hold strictly to the Bible, such as the Amish, Jerry Falwell's church, snake handlers and the remnant of Samaritans living in Israel.

While in Jerusalem, Jacobs finds himself on a busy street where he's encountering Hasidic Jews, hearing an Ave Maria as well as a Muslim call to prayer. And it occurs to him that his humble quest to live biblically is an entirely autonomous, individualistic enterprise. He feels utterly alone in his attempts to follow the commandments, precisely because he is not anchored in any faith community.

This made me think that the Christian life is not merely about privatized, pietistic attempts to live godly lives. Not that personal holiness is unimportant. But certainly the Christian life is meant to be embodied in community, that Christian living can only really be done with the support of fellow brothers and sisters on the journey. We are the people of God, not merely individuals of God.

At the end of his year, Jacobs is still unconvinced. But he is somehow more attuned to the possibility of the divine, and he has moments of encountering transcendence. His prayers have shown him the importance of thanksgiving, and his life is more virtuous. So his exercise has not been unfruitful, even if it is incomplete. I hope he continues on his spiritual journey, and that he really comes to know the God he has been praying to.

Monday, October 15, 2007

Desiring less

My favorite quote on the topic of simplicity is from G. K. Chesterton: “There are two ways to get enough: one is to continue to accumulate more and more. The other is to desire less.”

I first came across this quote during grad school while reading Richard Foster's lesser-known-but-still-classic book Freedom of Simplicity. It was a life-organizing principle for me then, and I try to come back to this notion of desiring less whenever I find myself wanting things I don't really need.

The other concept that helps me corral my acquisitiveness and materialism is the simple idea that we don't need to own something to enjoy it. I don't recall now when this first hit me, or if I came across it in a book or heard it in a sermon or something. But it rang true to me when I realized that I would purchase something and immediately have a sense of buyer's remorse - okay, I own it. Big whoop. Now what? In fact, it's a cultural lie that we need to own something to enjoy it.

My problem is that personality-wise, I'm a collector. When I was a kid, I collected coins, stamps, stickers, buttons, baseball cards, comic books, postcards, matchbooks, patches, pencils, keychains, magnets, rocks, shells, pop cans, action figures, Transformers . . . it never ended. Not surprisingly, my room was a mess. Over the years, I've found myself winnowing my collections down and limiting myself to certain things and not others. I'm currently maintaining a few ongoing collections (autographed IVP books, US Mint proof sets, Olympic pins, Justice League comics) and forgetting about the rest. In other words, I've been trying to practice the spiritual discipline of desiring less.

Of course, even when I try to desire less, stuff keeps on showing up, like T-shirts or coffee mugs from conferences. How many coffee mugs do any of us need, really? At least when we desire less, it's easier to let stuff go.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007

From church competition to church collaboration

I had a good weekend in Minnesota at my alma mater's Homecoming. Got to see some old friends that I haven't seen for five or ten years or so, wandered around campus and looked at the new buildings and facilities. (When looking in some of the new housing units, I told current students, "Back in my day, we didn't have dishwashers! We had to wash our dishes by hand! And we didn't have pre-installed microwaves in the kitchens - we had to bring our own!" and so on.) My talk went well; I basically crammed an hour-and-a-half-long workshop into about 45 minutes. But people seemed to appreciate the whirlwind tour; a number of students came up to me afterward to thank me for the presentation, and a few asked me to sign copies of books. Kind of funny, because I remember when I was an undergrad there, I did the same thing with guest speakers sometimes.

Drove back to Chicagoland Saturday so I could continue guest teaching an adult education class Sunday morning. This week's topic was suburban church ministry, especially the tension between being contextualized and being countercultural. The class got into a discussion of church calling and "brand identity," what makes a church distinctive in a particular community to distinguish it from other area churches. Just as every radio station and TV channel tends to draw certain kinds of listeners or viewers, every church tends to attract certain kinds of people and not others. (The MTV show Beavis and Butthead was a "signature show" that not only attracted MTV's core demographic of males 18-25, it also repelled virtually everybody else, with the effect of purifying its audience for its advertisers.) Few churches, in actual practice, can really be all things to all people - but all churches can be some things to some people. So the challenge is in each church figuring out what they as a congregation are called in particular to be and do.

This led to a discussion of church competition, since in a suburban environment, the default setting is for people to shop for churches just as they shop for everything else. And it seems that churches compete with each other to have distinctive ministries. If I were to rewrite chapter 8 of my book today, I might revise it to frame this discussion less in terms of church competition and more in terms of church collaboration. Every individual local church needs to collaborate with other local churches because no one church can reach everybody in their community. But all the various churches working together can reach more people and more kinds of people than any one church can on their own.

At my college's Homecoming, one alum gave a presentation about what is going on in Rochester, Minnesota. A group of about twenty-five evangelical churches have gotten together as Team Rochester to work collaboratively. They do things like CareFest, a service project day where some 1700+ volunteers from all the churches combine to do practical service work around Rochester, painting public schools, helping with building and rehab projects for the park district and other community institutions. It's an amazing witness to the city of Rochester that could not have been done by one church on its own, but can be done with all of the churches working together, each contributing various gifts and emphases.

Too often we only apply 1 Corinthians 12 on an individual basis - each individual Christian is a part of the body, an eye, an ear, a hand, etc. But I think this applies on a congregational basis as well. The body of Christ is made up of many local congregations, each of which has their own distinctive callings and giftedness. And the more that churches get to know the other churches in their area, the less they'll think of one another in terms of "the competition" and instead they'll see how they can collaborate together to minister to and reach the whole community.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

Back to college

I'm headed to Minnesota this weekend to go back to my undergraduate alma mater, Crossroads College. I've been invited to be one of the speakers for their Homecoming events. I graduated in the class of '94 and started there (at what was then named Minnesota Bible College) as a freshman in the fall of 1990, seventeen years ago. Which means that the current freshman class were just toddlers when I was starting college. That's a little freaky. Of course, another alum on the program graduated in the class of '49. So she was in college two dozen years before I was born.

It's been a while since I've been back, and I'm looking forward to seeing old friends. Being in Illinois, I'm a little out of the loop in keeping up with news of what's going on in Minnesota, since I don't get back there much anymore. A lot of my former professors have retired or moved on, but I hope to see at least a few familiar faces. I owe a lot of my faith and spiritual journey to Crossroads alumni, from a youth pastor who took me under his wing and showed me what it meant to be a Christian, to the pastor who baptized me and later officiated at my wedding. Not to mention all the faculty and classmates that helped me grapple with theological questions and personal crises in late night talks at two or three in the morning.

Many of my old classmates are now pastors or in some other form of church ministry. And that's an alternate life for me, the road not taken. I was a pastoral leadership major (along with a major in biblical studies & theology) and I appreciated the program very much. I was geeky enough to really enjoy second-year Greek and exegetical method (though Hebrew, not so much). But somewhere along the way I got a feeling that I could do church work if God really called me to it, but I didn't know that that was really what I was called to do. My original interest from high school was journalism and writing, and then I went through the common Christian college student phase of thinking that to really serve God I needed to be a pastor or missionary. It wasn't until the end of the college years that my eyes were opened to other possibilities, whether marketplace, parachurch or whatnot. So I was glad to be able to integrate my biblical/theological interests with my writing/publishing interests and get into Christian publishing.

So anyway, I'm deeply grateful for my undergrad education, especially how it trained me to think biblically, theologically and pastorally. I learned the importance of building a solid library (I graduated with over 200 IVP books on my shelves). And it's certainly shaped how I go about my own writing and editing. I'll occasionally get a thank-you note (especially for my Grieving a Suicide book) that mentions that they appreciate my perspective being "pastoral." Well, I think some of that comes from what I learned from my college days as a pastoral ministry major. And I'm glad that my current vocation allows me to help provide resources for students in the academy as well as ministry professionals in the church. It's my small way of giving back to all those who invested in me all those years ago.

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Straw poll answers, and branding intentionality

Okay, here are where these straws are from:
- a green straw: Starbucks
- a white straw with red and yellow stripes: McDonald's
- a red straw: Burger King
- a white straw with yellow stripes: Wendy's
- a black straw: Panera
- an orange straw with pink stripes: Dunkin' Donuts
- a blue straw: Culver's
- a white straw: Subway
When I used this exercise at the Willow Creek conference last week, since folks were from all over the country, some of the guesses were things like Whattaburger, Sonic, In-N-Out and Carl's Jr. Funny to hear regional variances. The one person who correctly identified the Culver's straw was from Wheaton, Illinois.

Several of these straws had the brand name and logo preprinted on the wrappers. Only a few chains had generic translucent straws with plain white wrappers - Chipotle, Boston Market, maybe Quiznos. Most restaurants had straws with color schemes that reinforced their brand identities.

It's scary to me how distinctive and intentional the branding is. If I say "little pink plastic spoon," you know it's from Baskin Robbins. If you see a yellow napkin, chances are you'll recognize it as being from Wendy's. Remember sporks from KFC?

I remember during grad school one of my media theory classes analyzed a Pepsi commercial featuring Cindy Crawford, and we noted that her white tank top, blue jeans shorts and red car reinforced the white, blue and red color scheme of the Pepsi can. That had to have been intentional (and was probably also a not-so-subtle appeal to American patriotism). Later on, Pepsi made their cans blue, in an attempt to claim blue as their brand identity the way that Coca-Cola has claimed red. (And though it is an urban legend that Coca-Cola created Santa Claus to reinforce their ubiquitous red and white look, Coca-Cola's advertising certainly helped popularize images of the red-and-white Santa.)