Monday, June 23, 2014

The Problem Is in the Pew

Last week I wrote that the reason many people leave church—well, a key reason—is that preachers are not giving them a reason to stay. That is, preachers are too boring, too judgmental, too irrelevant, and too pragmatic (by which I meant to insinuate they are too focused on offering advice and not enough on lovely mysteries). In general, people leave when what they hear from the pulpit doesn’t make them put on crash helmets and strap themselves in the pew.

So that was harsh. Perhaps a bit too sweeping.

This week I will blame the current malaise in churchgoing on the churchgoers themselves. People today, by and large, just don’t know how to do any of the things we used to expect of churchgoers. In particular, when they get to church, they can neither hear nor understand. Worship doesn’t translate into anything that makes sense.

I’ve suspected this for a long time. When I was studying communication theory in grad school, I became aware of the work of Walter Ong. He belonged to a small school of scholars who insisted that the development of widespread literacy changed what and how people knew things. Before literacy you knew only what you remembered; after literacy you could learn new things from books. Before literacy, churches taught the basics with drama, art, song, pilgrimages, icons, and so on. The kinds of media that worked for oral people also profoundly shaped what their “faith” was. After literacy, in large parts of Europe, these methods of transmitting and defining faith gave way to linear, rationalistic definitions of the content of faith, as found in books and tracts. That rationality and content rich data, in turn, came to define what was essential about literate faith. In my book, Not Sure I outline this process at some length. And I suggest that in our new, post-literate era, we need as preachers to recover many of the pre-literate strategies the church used to transmit and share the faith. These methods are many, creative, can be lots of fun, but also require way more work and imagination and honing and preparation than most preachers are used to. In fact, if I look at my own preaching, I know that it often falls short of the ideals I have in my head for it.

So now I’ve read another book, by a scholar who owes a large debt of gratitude to Ong, to Marshall McLuhan and his disciples, and also to modern neuroscience. His name is Nicholas Carr, author of The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains. This is not a religious book, but consider its closing words of the last chapter before Carr’s  epilogue. He begins by quoting Martin Heidegger, who observed that the technological revolution could “so captivate, bewitch, dazzle, and beguile man that calculative thinking may someday come to be accepted and practiced as the only way of thinking.” He adds that, the frenziedness of technology threatens to “entrench itself everywhere.” To which Carr adds a secular “Amen,” stating, “We are welcoming the frenziedness into our souls.”

It is the frenziedness of our souls that is keeping people out of church. Worse, if we think by offering an unfrenzied hour we might help people calm down, the real news is that people are addicted to that frenziedness, and won’t give it up to go to church. Put differently, people are staying away from church because they don’t know how to do faith, or mystery, or awe, or worship anymore and are too distracted even to consider it. Their brains are no longer equipped, and all the great preaching in the world won’t bring them back in. In his only other quote of scripture, Carr compares modern technology to the idols of Pslam 115, and modern Netizans to their worshippers:

They have mouths, but the speak not;
Eyes have they, but they see not;
They have hears, but they hear not . . .
They that make them are like unto them;
So is every one that trusteth in them.

What is the basis for the frenziedness that Heidegger warns against, according to Carr? Well, you have to read the book to get the nuanced, carefully annotated, and compelling case Carr makes. But some key factors are these. The internet is designed to make us consume as many different pages as possible, all in the service of showing us more ads. It is made for scanning, cherry picking information, and moving on to something else. This overloads our short-term memory to such a degree that we are unable to remember much, in detail, of what we have read. This sort of reading also breaks up narrative, and invites superficial reading. This in turn develops a whole set of neural changes in our brains that in turn also make reading deeply more difficult. The time we spend on the internet detracts from the time required to develop similar deeply practiced and active neural pathways (we’re talking actual cell changes here) that allow for deep reading, creative thinking, deep empathy, contemplation, imagination, and so on. My take away is that the internet and all other forms of contemporary media have so changed our brains that we generally can't do religion, or faith, or worship, or awe, or contemplation anymore.

Look, the bottom line is that you have to read the book to get the whole argument. I find it compelling because of the massive amount of clinical evidence Carr marshals from many science labs and experiments to make his case. I find it compelling because, as I said in my own book, I’ve believed for a long time that consumption of even a small amount of contemporary media makes it much harder to read deeply and contemplate what you’ve read as well. I find Carr compelling because in his own mea culpa about his reading and study habits he describes how his own reading has suffered from being too plugged in. I know what he’s talking about.

But what it means—I’m drawing from several sources now, and not just Carr—is that people have incredibly short attention spans. They thrive, emotionally, on fractured and shallow stimuli bombarding them; but they are averse to sitting down, paying careful attention, and then considering what they have heard—Daniel Kahneman’s “slow thinking.” They are adept at following only the simplest narratives, and are unable to recognize the several levels of meaning you will find in all great literature, much less contemplate those meanings. They believe all but won’t commit to learning anything. They can’t study. They can’t remember. They know how to use the Internet as an adjunct to memory and study, but no longer think creatively in the deeply linear and rational ways that are the basis not only of science, but also of 99% of contemporary theology, catechism, and church law. In one of his summaries, Carr states that, “It would not be rash to suggest that as the Net reroutes our vital paths and diminishes our capacity for contemplation, it is altering the depth of our emotions as well as our thoughts.” That can’t be good for church as usual.

So what is the answer? Although Carr warns against thinking that the methods used in the preliterate oral cultures of our ancestors provide the answers for teaching today’s post-deep-literate  people, I do think the “psychodynamics of orality,” provide many helpful clues for how we might reframe the gospel so that those who are deaf to traditional Enlightenment means can hear it, or parts of it, again. Use of rhyme, rhythm, visuals, pilgrimages, relics, space, memorizing a few key sources, drama, music, and so on could help preachers craft sermons and services that at least have a chance with today’s new audience. But, ironically, the sort of preachers who could do this need to spend far more time imagining and creating sermons than most of them have—and they need to be personally free of the Net’s siren song to even imagine such things.

This much is sure. We need a lot of discussion and creative thinking in this area if we’re going to speak the good news in a language—Netspeak, let’s call it; or The Shallows—that a majority of today’s people can understand. We need to rethink how we do worship—keeping in mind that one formula will not satisfy every audience niche. And we will need, in view of the general decrease in ability to contemplate deep mystery and complicated truth—we will need to rethink what comprises the essentials of the faith. Probably not the ordo salutis. Maybe the command to love God and neighbor, the story of Jesus, and the words of the Lord’s Prayer are about as much as we will be able to reliably get across.

Which would be an accomplishment, because even now, I’m sure there are many, many tens of millions of people in North America who probably can not explain even two out of these three.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

The Problem Is in the Pulpit

I’ve been thinking a lot about denominations lately. I’m a switcher, a pastor who has moved from leadership in an Evangelical church to a Mainline church. One of the first things I noticed in making the switch was that while the local theology in the last two congregations I served is very different, the denominational woes are exactly the same. Both denominations are struggling with significant decreases in giving and widespread boredom with and distrust of large institutions. Both denominations are losing members—albeit they are at different points in the process. Both denominations are promising more help for local congregations, but are basically not delivering, as their agencies just can’t get out of the PR and fundraising modes. Both denominations are spending lots of internal time and resources on major institutional restructuring. Both denominations are seeing an exodus of young members.

In the Christian Reformed Church I used to belong to, they are wondering whether or not “denominational culture,” is a key factor behind the malaise. Maybe. In the United Church, the new structural plan, which would save the National Office, but do away with Presbyteries (local groups of churches) and conferences (larger groups of local churches), seems to suggest that the problem is that local members don’t care about neighbouring churches. That might be right, but it is hard to understand, then, why those same members would care about the national church.

In the end, however, I doubt very much that membership malaise and decline have much to do with denominational culture or structure. Don’t get me wrong. I’d love to have top-notch culture and structure. The thing is, as helpful as these realities are in a healthy church, they are not the root causes of membership loss and malaise.

What is?

Well, the bottom line, I think, is that the problem is with local churches and leadership. The heart of the worship service (or, at least, one of its key foci), the sermon, is not giving people a reason to stay. And naturally, if that is the case, giving and attendance drops and interest in far away national offices or agencies isn’t going to light any fires either.

I don’t want to be too hard on preachers. But honestly, if there is one complaint I hear over and over again from my friends who are thinking of not going to church, or who have stopped—and I have many of them—it is that they are mad about the preaching. It is too judgmental. It is too pragmatic, as if the sermons were lifted out of the self-help section of the bookstore. It is, especially, boring and irrelevant. It doesn’t get people to strap on their seat belts or put on crash helmets.

Now, we might respond to such a charge defensively. I have responded that way myself, when people have stopped going to my church. Or, we might say that the problem is not with the preacher—but with the gospel. People just don’t buy it anymore, and the siren songs of the weekend away, or the materialistic lifestyle, or Twitter and Facebook are just too compelling to invest in sermons anymore. We can come up with a hundred and one reasons to deflect the blame away from preachers. And the hard truth here is that the problem is complex, and there are some very good preachers who still struggle with the malaise out there, and we can all think of people who left church for different reasons—lack of community, perhaps; or the widespread perception that churches are anti-gay, or anti-women, or anti-science. And many are.

However, I believe that our preaching is a big part of the problem. As pastors, we don’t work at it hard enough. We don’t pay enough attention to how we speak, to the rhetoric of persuasion, or the poetry of words. We don’t pay enough attention to what our parishioners are really wondering about in the dark of the night or when the bills come due. We are too comfortable with the status quo. We offer one meal after another of beans and rice and no one can remember what we said two weeks on. We preach out of dry barrels of sixteenth century doctrinal concerns like infant baptism or how the atonement works rather than to the crises of our era. I do it too. And this is what I lie awake thinking about at night. This is what forces me to spend more and more time preparing messages rather than less and less.

It may be that we are entering into an era where things are so good, for so many, that the gospel seems quaint and old fashioned. We may well enter an era where one of the crises of our day—global warming, poverty, religious fanaticism, racism, terrorism—so overwhelms us that people come back to church in droves, looking for the faith, hope and love to get them through. But for now, people are hanging up their church hats and leaving in droves. And not missing church at all. Especially not the sermons. And if nothing else, that should suggest that our preaching the same old stuff isn’t doing the trick.

We need to talk about this. What’s the problem? Denial? Are our preacher egos too sensitive to get honest about how we’re doing? Does the preaching ministry fail to attract the brightest and the best, like it did 100 years ago? Too much Greek (or too little?) Too much seminary (or too little?) Too much distraction from social media and the internet to concentrate on real writing?

Maybe all the above. But until our local churches are firing on all cylinders, especially from the pulpit, the whole debate about what to do with denominational structures is very much beside the point.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Dream Books and Others Littering My Livingroom

I’ve compiled a summer reading list based on books I’ve found lying around my living room—you know, the ones that you just can’t get rid of, that stick in your craw, that you think you might read later, or that you love to come back to, again and again. Here they are:

So first—Coffee table books about dreams that are unlikely to come to pass. For me, this is a large pile of books about houses. I can remember designing houses, over and over again, ruler and eraser in hand, as a grade school child. Even now, I sometimes wonder if I missed my calling. I would love to design and build that one, perfect house of my dreams.

Unfortunately, living in Toronto, there simply are no lots close enough to transit to make building such a house from scratch a real possibility. But still, I imagine. My favorite house book is Susan Susanka’s The Not So Big House: A Blueprint for the Way We Really Live (Newton, CT: The Tauton House, 1998). Susanka suggests that many of us have houses full of space we don’t really need (a two-story entrance way, perhaps; or a fourth bedroom) and missing spaces we could really use (a cozy away room, perhaps, or a boot room). She urges us to consider how to make space do double duty, and then suggests the use of beautiful materials and design features that make this possible. A slew of follow up books by Susanka on themes like renovations are also very good.

My second book about house dreams that are unlikely to come to pass is entitled, More Straw Bale Building: A Complete Guide to Designing and Building with Straw (Gabriola Island, BC: New Society Publishers, 2005). I love the idea of building with straw, especially since it is a completely renewable building material that goes very easy on Mother Earth. It is also long-lasting, safe, relatively inexpensive, and can be molded into all sorts of interesting shapes, finishes, and interior nooks and crannies. I wouldn’t be surprised if straw bales are an essential part of home-building in the near future.

Second—books about dreams that still have a chance. I’d love to sail all over (if not around) the world. I really started thinking about this as a life goal years ago when our family read, aloud and together, Tom Neale’s All in the Same Boat: Living Aboard and Cruising (Toronto: McGraw-Hill, 1997). The book told the story of a Canadian family that built their own boat, and then sailed it around the world. Next, a few years ago, my son signed up as crew on a 30-foot sailboat that crossed the Atlantic. He loved the experience—the stars at night, the dolphins racing along beside, the solitude of taking the night watch and the camaraderie of a small crew that gets along. And then there were the places he went: Îles-de-la-Madeleine, the Azores, and Portugal.

So I bought a stack of books about sailing. I’ve spent many hours reading, daydreaming, and putting numbers to the back of a napkin imagining how Irene and I could spend five or ten years sailing as an early retirement lifestyle. My favorite among these books is Evans, Manley and Smith’s The Sailing Bible (Buffalo: Firefly Books, 2009). The ideal scenario is Irene and I spending six months in the Mediterranean Sea with our grandson Taps as assistant to the assistant captain.

Third—books by authors I’ve loved in the past, but can’t get into now. I read Les Miserables once a year for over twenty years after first reading it in college. I still dip into it from time to time. It was my one literary compulsion. My unabridged version, probably the third that I’ve owned, is held together by duct tape, all 1400 pages of it. In view of my delight in Les Miz, I though I’d love Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame too. I bought it years and years ago, but it sits on the shelf in my living room, mostly unread. I’ve tried. I’ve made it a hundred or so pages in. But somehow, it just doesn’t grab me. Not sure why. But it isn’t Jean Valjean.

I’ve also reread—albeit only twice—Barry Unsworth’s Morality Play. I loved the novel, in part, because I’ve always been interested in how illiterate people learned about Christianity, and these morality plays are part of the story. But Morality Play is also a mystery, and a good one at that. Lots of medieval color and a surprising number of plot turns make it a page-turner. I picked up Unsworth’s The Ruby in Her Navel a few years later, expecting much the same. It is also set in medieval times, although in far more exotic Sicily. It is also full of mystery and plot turns. I did actually get through this novel—but I had to work at it. Again, I’m not sure why it didn’t sing. Maybe, it just isn’t as good a novel as Morality Play. Or it might be because it was just too complicated.

Four—novels about ministers. In particular, I have a thing for novels about ministers either finding their faith or losing their faith, and have a shelf-full of them at work. My favorite in the former category is Grace Irwin’s Andrew Connington (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966). It’s a mid-century “Christian” novel, of no great literary merit. It is however, a good story simply written. Set just after WWI, Irwin tells the story of a gifted man who is drawn to the United Church ministry because of the opportunity it affords him to do social work. At seminary, even though he doesn’t believe, students drawn to Liberal Christianity repulse him. The problem appears to be that they are not as intellectually rigorous as the old conservative scholars Connington is strangely drawn to. Connington’s lack of faith is ultimately challenged by the work he does in a large Toronto congregation. The communion service during which it all comes together for him is perfect melodrama—and maybe something more. This hard-to-find novel is also a fascinating portrait of the upper-middle-class Toronto church scene when Toronto was still Hog Town.

As for ministers who lose their faith, my favorite is Harold Frederic’s The Damnation of Theron Ware (Cambridge: Belknap Press, Harvard, 1960). Originally published in 1896, the novel chronicles the sometimes hilarious and at other times tragic life of a Methodist Minister. He begins his ministry as a gifted speaker without much by way of formal theological training. Among other things, he soon encounters Catholics, historical criticism, beautiful women, and lousy trustees. I won’t say, exactly, what happens to his faith, but it makes for a great read that resonated with me. While I hope I am never as naive as Theron Ware always is, his personal struggle to “get it right,” in a world full of contrary opinions is actually quite moving.

One non-novel about finding and losing faith deserves mention here. It’s a dense but insightful theology book by Richard Kearney, Anatheism: Returning to God After God (New York: Columbia U Press, 2009). Kearney asks, “What might the faith of someone who comes back, look like?” Richard Kearney tries his hand at describing such a faith, especially perhaps for Christians who have struggled with questions of theodicy. I was challenged by every chapter, and am still mulling over what his take might have to do with my faith.

Five, two of the best books I’ve read since last summer. I’ll pick both a fiction and non-fiction book. On the fiction side, the best book I’ve read—a page-turner with substance—is probably Joseph Boyden’s The Orenda (London: Oneworld Pub, 2013). This novel won the CBC’s Canada Reads contest (irritatingly hosted by faux-culture-critic Jian Ghomeshi) this year, but only by a whisker over the Margaret Atwood’s The Year of the Flood, book two in the Maddaddam trilogy (which I also loved). The Orenda is a heart-wrenching novel about the Jesuit mission to the Huron Indians in the early 17th century. None of the players—Hurons, French, Iroquois, come out of this looking very good. I wonder a lot about the historical accuracy of some of the religious, cultural, and war episodes. But overall, this is a novel that looks hard truths about human nature and Canadian history straight in the eye. I’m going to read The Inconvenient Indian by Thomas King as a corrective to some of The Orenda’s excesses, this summer.

The best non-fiction book I’ve read this past year has to be Inside Scientology: The Story of America’s Most Secretive Religion (New York: Houghton, Mifflin, Harcourt, 2011) by Janet Reitman. I was at turns shocked, dismayed, and angry as I read this account of what makes Scientology click. The book also serves to remind us that most people join faith communities not because they are convinced by the truth of that religion’s claims, but because they find community among its adherents. This is a critical reality that people of all faiths need to fit into their thinking about church or temple if they are to live with spiritual wisdom in today’s world.

So that’s it. Maybe there’s something for you in this list? Or a book I ought to add to my reading list? Let me know!