Monday, May 15, 2017

The Modern Crisis for Churches . . . And What LPCC Will Do About It.


  In this post, I’ll explain why, if we don’t make some changes over at my church, it will die. 

Before I do so, however, I should paint, in a few broad brushstrokes, the world’s larger religious picture, as context. All the big world religions are growing. Islam, the world’s number two religion by size, is growing fastest, because it has the largest birthrate. Islam will equal Christianity in size within thirty or forty years. 

Christianity is growing too, though not 
Art Show Weekend at LPC
as quickly, due to a lower birthrate. One large unknown that might impact this picture is China. Christianity is growing rapidly there—perhaps exponentially. This could eventually add significantly to Christianity’s world numbers.

One important thing to note about both Christianity and Islam is that while both are growing in absolute terms, their inner makeup is also changing. Three types of Christianity are growing in the world. First, Pentecostalism that emphasizes healing, ecstatic worship, and the presence of the Holy Spirit. Second, and overlapping Pentecostalism to some degree, is the “health and wealth” brand of Christianity. It promises earthly riches and rewards to the faithful—especially the generous faithful. Both of these types of Christianity also have traction in the United States, and to a lesser degree, in Canada. Third, Christianity that mixes elements of African religions are declaring independence from World denominations. 

Meanwhile, Islam is being reshaped by its encounter with Western culture, especially through mass media. Partly as a result, Islam is fracturing into new movements less dependent on traditional authority. This includes a significant Fundamentalist backlash in Islam, as well as more secularizing tendencies. At the same time, nearly all Muslims are deeply and negatively impressed by American support for Israeli Zionism, and especially the occupation of the West Bank and the siege of Gaza. Islamic hostility to Israeli policy and American support for such policy goes a long way to explaining the feeling we all have that there is a great deal of tension between Islamic and Christian peoples in today’s world.

In contrast to most of the world, however, in North America and Europe, religion—and especially Christianity—is in crisis. Fewer and fewer people are going to church in these places, even when those people self-identify as Christian; furthermore, the decline has been more pronounced among Mainline Christians than Evangelical Christians. 

In Canada, more people avoid church than go. Canadian sociologist Reginald Bibby notes that thirty years ago forty-five percent of Canadians claimed to be religiously committed and active. That’s down to thirty percent today—less than one in three Canadians. What’s more, probably not more than fifteen or twenty percent of Canadians can be found in church on any given Sunday. Most religious “nones,” are not militant atheists. Instead, even though many will claim to be nominally Christian, they really haven’t given religion much thought, or drifted away from participation. What’s more, the younger you are, the more likely you are to belong to the “nones.”

So there you have it, a snapshot of where we’re at in Canada. Lawrence Park Community Church has not been immune from these trends. We’re located in an upper middle class neighborhood on Bayview across from Sunnybrook hospital. In the fifties and sixties we were a thriving congregation where as many as three hundred met weekly. 
Children listening to youth band "Pancake Lunch"
play Buffy Ste. Marie's "Universal Soldier."

These days, Lawrence Park averages about 100 weekly. My guess is that more than half of our members attend, on average, every third week or so. We have an active Sunday School and Youth Group.

Lawrence Park isn’t a stuffy church. No smells or bells or ancient prayers. Our near-professional choir, which includes paid section heads, sings every Sunday. We mostly hew to classical church music, but regularly mix it up with Jazz, secular rock and roll, and Broadway standards. This month we’re doing four weeks of all-Canadian music, from Buffy Ste. Marie to Leonard Cohen to celebrate Canada’s 150th anniversary. We’ve come in costumes to a sanctuary decorated as the Emerald City in the Wizard of Oz, had famous Canadians like Paul Henderson speak as guests, and sprinkled our pulpit with a fair showing of Jewish and Muslim speakers on topics like Sports in modern culture or how social media is reshaping Canada. We sponsor refugee families and raise tons of money for local and international charities. People come early, stay late, and take their coffees into the sanctuary. Our motto is, “United, Unlimited, Unorthodox.” 

Still, a Toronto marketing guru recently explained to us that if present trends continue and if we don’t make changes it is very likely that within twenty or so years Lawrence Park Community Church will die. 

But why? Why is Christianity in decline in the West? Why do fewer and fewer people go to fun and relevant churches like Lawrence Park Community Church?

In what follows, I’m going to focus on two basic kinds of issues that contemporary Christianity faces, especially in the West. One set of issues is more philosophical or ideological and the other set is more practical. And finally, I’ll say a word about the changes I hope we make at Lawrence Park to face up to these issues.

So first the ideological issues. In the secular West, there has been a society-wide switch from a modern outlook to a postmodern outlook. A thousand academic books, including my own Not Sure, have been written about this switch. Trying to sum it up in a word is treacherous. But the story goes something like this. 

Once upon a time people believed in science and progress. They believed in institutions and trusted people—mostly men—in authority. People experienced the postwar years as a boom time where they did better than their parents and exceeded their own expectations for themselves. The fifties and sixties were a consumer paradise of unexpected riches, of V8’s and bungalows, of Disney or cross country vacations, of near-universal university education and longer, healthier lives. Life was mostly good.

But some very ominous shadows clouded this post-war paradise. There was the memory of the holocaust and a fear of the human potential for evil. The Cold War confronted everyone with the possibility of nuclear holocaust. Vietnam and Watergate poisoned trust in politics. Between Elvis’ pelvis, hippies, tuning in and dropping out, long-held sexual or cultural mores came under sustained attack. Along the way there were several severe economic downturns too, along with growing alarm about urban crime, racism—or, as the case might be—civil rights; assassinations of leaders like Kennedy and King, and unending bad news on the environmental horizon. 

Over time, though people rarely remarked on it, the optimism, the belief in progress, the trust of science and authority that had marked North American life through the eighties was quietly unravelling. New cultural and spiritual trends marked our life together.

The first was a growing mistrust of authority. Polls began to note that the trustworthiness of religious ministers, politicians, lawyers, and captains of industry was plummeting. From Watergate, to the Sponsorship scandal; from Vietnam’s fake body counts to the residential school genocide of First Nation culture, from Canadian Aimee Lee Semple’s many bizarre scandals to Jimmy Swaggert’s or Jimmy Baker’s sexual escapades people had ample reason to distrust their leaders. 

Similarly, institutions came under suspicion, especially if they were large and powerful. Institutions, after all, had given us residential schools and depressions and pollution and wars and racism. They were impersonal and unresponsive to our needs. They gave us planned obsolescence and bureaucratic insensitivity. This distrust was perhaps best summed up in the words of Pink Floyd’s famous song from its album “Another Brick in the Wall.”

We don't need no education 
We don't need no thought control
No dark sarcasm in the classroom
Teachers leave them kids alone
All in all it's just another brick in the wall

The problem here is that distrust in institutions and the power they wield in our lives is very hard to act on. What are you going to do? Not send your kids to school? Not be a Canadian citizen? Stop banking? Ditch OHIP? In fact, the one institution that people had little problem blaming and they could leave in large numbers was the church. And, expressing their new doubts about all leaders and institutions, people took the easy step of leaving the church, in droves.

A third feature of the shift from modern to postmodern attitudes is the growth of what I’ll call radical perspectivalism. The word of the year, in 2016, according to Oxford Dictionary, is post-truth. Nobody seems to care, anymore, what the fact checkers say. 

Now, instead of belief in god or progress or democracy, people tend to believe in anything but, with little or no reason for such far out beliefs than their prejudices. Creation out of nothing five thousand years ago? Global warming denial? Vaccines cause autism? Obama isn’t an American? It is all good. Modern people are spiritual—that is, they will believe in any touchy-feely spiritual intuition—but they are not religious. That is, they won’t let any tradition or scholar or church leader tell them anything about what really matters.

Add these trends together—suspicion of authority, including clergy; suspicion of institutions, especially felt by churches; and radical perspectivism, where everyone’s brand of post-truth is as good as what experts think—add this all together and you get a perfect storm for the churches. 

Now interestingly, all this hits mainline liberal churches much harder than it does conservative evangelical ones. People tend to say that this is because conservative doctrine makes more sense, is better grounded, than liberal theology. I’d argue, however, that conservative churches tend to do better than liberal ones because many people, upset or concerned by postmodern trends—often without understanding them—experience conservative churches as a refuge from postmodern trends. Liberal churches, on the other hand, have a much more nuanced view of both modernism and postmodernism—neither rejecting nor accepting either option whole, but engaging both. For a significant subset of the population, that sort of thoughtful engagement is exactly what they don’t want.

Furthermore, conservative churches have done better than liberal ones because they are willing to exercise a number of social and spiritual sanctions against those considering leaving. From shunning those who dare think on their own, to threatening the wayward with hell, conservative churches have the ability to call on what I see as unpalatable, but very effective means for keeping people on the straight-and-narrow.

I said earlier that there were a number of more philosophical or ideological issues facing the church, but there was another set that was more practical. Let me quickly run through those.

First, mainline churches, and especially the United Church, was ahead of the curve, compared to most of society, on cutting edge issues of sexual identity and practice. One very practical reason that the United Church lost so many members in the eighties was because it was one of the first important Canadian institutions to drop traditional condemnation of homosexual practice, and in fact, embrace nontraditional sexual mores. Ahead of the culture on this, and willing in a postmodern way to question old authority, many, many shocked people left the United Church. And by the time society largely had changed its own mind on homosexuality, society was ironically too busy painting all churches as hypocritical and judgmental on sexual issues to remember that it was not so in the United Church. 

Second, the unprecedented wealth of Western society, by historical standards, is a practical problem for Christianity. Suspicion of wealth is writ in Jewish and Christian genes. Writers of scripture have always guessed that too much wealth made people think they didn’t need God. Remember the prophet Amos, who is typical? "Hear this word, you cows of Bashan on Mount Samaria, you women who oppress the poor and crush the needy and say to your husbands, ‘Bring us some drinks!’" Now, ironically, I would argue that thinking you need God to succeed in a harsh world is not actually a good reason for believing in God. Still, there is more faith in foxholes than in Yorkdale Malls, and when people are drinking and dancing, they have never ever been prone to religion. 

        Thirdthere has been a steep decline in deep word literacy. For a large number of reasons, people don’t read as much, as deeply, with as much understanding as they did only fifty years ago. I carefully examine the history of this phenomenon in my book, Not Sure. As a result of a loss of deep literacy the reasoned discourse that is so important for making judgements about institutions and the deeper threads of culture—this sort of rationality has all but evaporated except for an educated elite. The evaporation of this sort of rationality means that more and more people are willing to believe whatever preposterous things their religious or political leaders, or their intuitions and prejudices tell them. Loss of deep word literacy is a requirement for living in a post-truth society.

Fourth, our school system, over the past two-hundred years, modelled itself on the church. Schools were places where wise leaders poured knowledge and facts into the waiting receptacles of their students—like pastors and priests did with their congregations. The emphasis on status quo thinking, authority figures, and institutions was very modern in both school and church. 

However, the whole point of school, ultimately, is to graduate. And so the church model for school has come back to bite the church. These days, once youth get to the end of high school, or grad school, even if they love church, they tend to assume it is time to graduate—be confirmed—and leave. 

Other historical—indeed ancient—models for church that stress community, doing good for neighbours, and mutual support and encouragement have been forgotten in the mists of time. Remember, for example, that the church described in Acts didn’t meet so that a pastor could pour truth into empty vessels sitting in pews—no, they met every day to break bread together and to share with each other as each had need. These ancient models for church might well have more traction in a postmodern society than our traditional models.

Finally, although it is easy to miss this, it is probably as important a factor as any other. Life today, for all the material plenty many of us enjoy, life is often experienced as way too complicated and full of pressure. We work on our backhands, we are stuck in traffic, we don’t have enough time at home, we have to take kids to hockey or soccer practice, modern media keeps us tied to work twenty-four/seven, both parents work so time alone with family at home is a premium. What’s more, the two best times for doing church are in competition with other family survival activities. After work—church committee time—we’re stuck in traffic trying to get home to spend a bit of time with spouse or kids; and Sunday mornings, if we’re not into house league hockey, are one of the only times both parents can be home with the kids or truly away from work. So why leave home to sit in a school-like setting? 

So what will we do at Lawrence Park Community Church to deal with these trends? I’m pushing two initiatives. The first recognizes that what we do now is working pretty well for older folks still comfortable with the folkways of modernism. Our worship is both relaxed, but in terms of quality, sort of highbrow. I think we should admit that culture is fractured, and so go after specific segments rather than try to please everyone. I think we need to focus on the highbrow, educated, and well-healed crowd we already have on Sunday mornings.

     My vision is for a Sunday morning service that: 

     1. Always has a guest musician, one that usually does high quality music in a non-traditional church genre, such as jazz, folk, world music, and so on; 


     2. Regularly makes liturgical dance as part of our services. Such dance is done not only to music, but to the themes of that Sunday’s worship. It is inspiring, beautiful, and emotionally rich;

     3. Makes a concerted effort to bring more two- and three-dimensional art into our worship space, for short rotating “shows” in the sanctuary. The art should engage culture and spirituality;

     5. Includes drama. A church troupe can act out parts of the morning’s themes on a monthly basis and provide a rich multi-generational activity opportunity;
includes a high-quality children and/or youth choir that is a destination for parents who want their kids to learn to sing under the direction of a pro.

Why might this work? Because in a city of 6 or 7 million, for example, a subgroup usually called “cultural creatives” probably represents about 10% of the population. At LPCC we’d like 1% of that ten percent, or perhaps 6,000 people, to at least consider visiting sometime to see whether our combination of various high arts and thoughtful reflection on meaning is for them. Note, by the way, that this model for church breaks out of the church-as-school mode. It doesn’t trade on the value of church as authority so much as the value of church as a window on mystery and meaning. 

But it is my second proposal that is most radical and most important if Lawrence Park Community Church is going to thrive in our new cultural context.

I propose that Lawrence Park Community Church start a second worshipping community within our congregation, one that offers a real choice to the broader community with respect to how they might worship. 

This second worshipping community is designed to engage a younger demographic: parents with small children, teens, and young adults. This community will meet in a service designed around socializing before and after supper. The evening might look like this: 

1. At six pm on Sunday night, people gather for coffee, healthy cold drinks, and snacks.

2. At six-thirty everyone sits down for a meal. A healthy, catered, buffet is on offer for all.

3. By seven pm, those who wish may move to the sanctuary for a half hour of worship. Music is contemporary and secular, with spiritual themes, professionally played. The pastor offers a brief seven-minute meditation; a prayer, and then it’s over. Meanwhile . . . 

4. At six pm, as people gather to socialize, babysitting is available for children aged 0 to 4. Babysitting remains available until everyone is gone, perhaps nine pm. This offers parents a break from family responsibilities to be with people their own age. If parents prefer, of course, they can take these tots to supper with them.

5. At six pm, structured play and sport activities are also available for older children and young teens. A coffee shop lounge is available for older teens. 

6. At seven, after supper, Sunday story time for kids through grade 5 goes for half an hour. There isn’t a youth program for older kids, as we would like them to attend the brief time of worship. It—the music and the message--relates to them.

7. After worship, Babysitting continues so adults can choose, if they like, to sit in on a movie discussion or a book club. Youth will meet for sports and socializing on a varied schedule—dodgeball, basketball, maybe drama or choir practice.

8. The structured activities end at 8:30, and people have another half hour to mingle, have refreshments, including a glass of wine if desired, and pick up their kids from nursery.

This sort of plan would allow those returning from skiing or the cottage to get a meal, worship, and bring the family home well fed and ready for bed without further cooking or chaos at home. It would provide young parents with three hours of not having to worry about their youngest children if they so choose. It’s a free meal and socializing for young professionals. And it would build meaningful spiritual community in a lonely city, at the one time in the week when more people have little to do compared to any other time—all without having to fight traffic. 

     One more thing needs to be said. These proposals also reflect the fact that LPCC is a liberal church. It sometimes seems like nativist, reactionary, simplistic, fear-based, moralistic attitudes to all that is going on in the world are on the rise. We refuse to follow that route. We embrace a liberal theology that emphasizes following Jesus over trying to explain what really happened during Holy Week. We wonder about God instead of trying to put him (or her!) in a box where we can command God to do what we want. We shy away from letting yesteryear's moral benchmarks define what we must be today. Following Jesus also requires more than personal morality; it requires pursuit of social justice, inclusivity based on neighbourliness, and having a heart for the least and the last.

At least, that’s what I’m thinking, right now. It will be different and a great risk, for sure. But doing the same thing over and over has already proven to be a great and unwise risk, anyway. And that is how I hope LPCC will face up to the modern crisis in religion.

Monday, April 24, 2017

A Parable About Spiritual but Not Religious.


      Lazarus owns a 1999 Dodge Neon, a car with a bit of Y2K disaster built right into its glovebox.

      Lazarus’ Neon, by popular acclaim one of that year’s “Ten Worst Cars,” is by now very rusty. Its leaky oil pan stains the driveway. The wheels are out of alignment. It doesn’t have any get up and go. Foam stuffing is coming out of the seats.

     
The infamous 1999 Neon
 One day, when the brakes feel especially spongy, Lazarus decides he has to take his Neon to the Nazareth Auto Repair shop. In a moment of carefree optimism Lazarus even asks the mechanics to give the car a tuneup. It has been a long time since the car has had a tune up—forever, in fact. Some car owners are like that.


      So the Nazareth mechanics go to work. They discover that the compression is way down in two cylinders. The spark plugs are still original equipment. The brakes need new rotors and discs all around.

      In fact, the Nazareth Auto Repair mechanics finally tell Lazarus that the car isn’t worth tuning up. It needs a resurrection. Repairs will cost at least 4,000 dollars and that wouldn’t even cover the upholstery or rust. The Nazareth mechanics advise Lazarus to buy another car, instead. They actually have a good used Aura on their lot.

      So Lazarus goes home to consider his options. He decides that he doesn’t trust the Nazareth mechanics. Never has, really. You see, he actually only trusts how he feels about cars—just as many of us only trust our feelings about spirituality. In fact, Lazarus trusts his feelings more than he trusts the Nazareth Auto Repair shop’s expertise. And that is how it is with most people today when they think of religion, too.

      That is how it is for the church. When it comes to faith—whether rusty or none at all—people tend to trust their intuitions, feelings, and whatever they last read on the Internet more than they trust the church as a religious institution.

      Of course, Lazarus’ story is a parable. I’m exaggerating when I say that people only trust their feelings when it comes to spirituality. I actually know some very thoughtful people who pursue personal spirituality vigorously. They’ve studied the great religious prophets like Martin Luther and Martin Luther King and maybe have even read the Upanishads or the Koran. They meditate according to some Eastern discipline or another. They devote time and intellect to their spirituality.

      But usually, when people say that they are spiritual but not religious, they make the claim based on their feelings and intuitions.

      This is especially so, I think, for one key reason. We live in an era when most of us—whether we go to church or not—most of us are very skeptical of all institutions. We don’t trust government institutions that go to war because we know that once upon a time they did not find weapons of mass destruction. And they tax us too much, we think. They can’t build the subways or transit or run Hydro (the electric utility) the way such things ought to be run.

      People are skeptical about institutions. Classrooms are too crowded. Persons of Colour end up being carded or languishing in jail more than White folks. Banks push their own investment instruments rather than the best ones, and then charge too much for doing so. Oh, and they charge a million user fees. Millennials can’t find the jobs they trained for and when they do find one it’s merely a “gig” rather than a career.

      People are skeptical about institutions. They don’t like them and don’t trust them. So what are they supposed to do? Mostly, we cannot quit the institutions that are part of our daily lives. We can’t take our money out of the bank and put it under a bed and then buy stuff on Amazon. We can’t quit taking cars on government roads or public transit to work. We can’t stop being citizens of Canada or of the US—national free agents. Most institutions, whether we love them or hate them can’t be avoided.

      So, to express their anti-institutional angst, one thing that many people do, often unconsciously, is leave those few institutions they can choose to leave. Like the church. People reject Nazareth Motors because it satisfies their longing to thumb their noses at an institution, any institution.

      This frustrates me. On the one hand, I get it. Churches have, through history (and like banks and governments and militaries through the ages) done some very stupid, very bad stuff. Fought for Constantine. Went on crusades. Persecuted Jews. Participated in the Residential Schools cultural genocide.

      I get it. You can’t quit being a citizen of a country that sometimes does very bad things, but you can quit being party to this ancient institution called the church that did so much wrong. 

      But the church doesn't always fail. At its best, the church has done some pretty incredible things. I like the story in Acts chapter six.The newborn church faced a problem. You see, idealists that they were, they had gotten into the habit of selling everything they had and sharing the cash with each as each had need. Not a system guaranteed to work for very long, but they did it with the best of intentions.
Worship at Lawrence Park Community Church


      Except that some members of the church were overlooked in the distribution of the food. The early church did right by its Jewish members, but not by its non-Jewish gentile members. The Jewish members were well looked after, but the Greek-speaking widows went hungry.

      To resolve this problem, the church organized itself, as institutions do. It organized itself religiously, in fact. It selected several men to make sure that money was shared fairly. And the amazing thing was that the church selected—we can tell by the names we read—the church selected only Greek-speaking men, the children of those hungry Greek-speaking women, to take over all the financial leadership of the church, for both Jews and Greeks.

      Amazing. For us, it would be like putting only people with the biggest mortgages on the boards of banks. Like putting only homeless people on Toronto’s City Council. Like only allowing only First Nations people to work for the Department of Indigenous and Northern Affairs. Very idealistic. Irregular. Perhaps unworkable.

      And yet this sort of risky, selfless, upside-down behaviour is actually what organized institutional religion, at its best, is all about. Churches are a time, a place and an opportunity for spiritual people to join hands with other spiritual people, learn together, and work together for the good of all humanity, even if at great personal cost. It is risky, because as is the case with all human institutions, churches sometimes fail. But it is necessary, because when people try to work out what it is to follow Jesus together, the potential good multiplies exponentially.

      So, for example, my church brings refugees to Canada, even when we know that it will cost us in time, big time, when they finally arrive. We contribute generously to fund a children’s summer camp even though we don’t personally know the impoverished kids who go there. We encourage our City Councillors and MPs to keep working for the least and the last even if it means more taxes. We insist together that our planet is a temple and we will do what it takes, politically and personally to keep it beautiful, even if it is only our grandchildren, rather than ourselves, who will benefit. We inspire our bankers to work for shareholder profit and the common good—and they try. We remind each other that racism isn’t just a matter of personal prejudice, but a matter of systems that wed prejudice to power, systems that mostly white folks benefit from.

      Our denomination has done some pretty awesome things too. The United Church of Canada, at great cost to itself, was the first major Canadian institution of any stripe to call for equal rights for gay people. As a denomination, we keep raising the ire of corporations and politicians, and even some of our members by demanding social justice for Palestinians, refugees, the poor, and the environment—among a hundred other causes.

      Spirituality can be great. It is an inescapable human need, like exercise or food. But religion can be great too. Religious institutions unleash the hopeful power of spirituality to change minds and other institutions and even whole cultures and planets. Spirituality with religion is more than merely a feeling or intuition. Religion at its best is the potential we all share to become both more deeply human, more like Christ or the Buddha, and more connected to each other and the divine--not solely for private benefit, but for the good of all people.

      I am still bothered by the long history of institutional failures on the part of the church, even though I can point to many successes as well. Failure is what humans do. Still, there are some problems that we need to join hands to overcome, even if we have failed in the past. So let’s try again. Let’s join spirituality to religion and give it a go.

      The truth is, we all begin to sag, and rust, and slow down when we try to do spirituality merely as an intuition or gut feeling. It is hard to keep a private spirituality firing on all cylinders. So what we all really need, to do spirituality right, to keep it in good repair, is check in at the Nazarene Repair shop, to tune it up. Regularly. While keeping an eye on each other to make sure we do it better!

Monday, April 3, 2017

Preaching Matters. But . . .


I have always thought of myself—certainly with more than a little presumption—as a better than average preacher. Perhaps every preacher thinks so. 

But I’ve also studied preaching. I did it from a non-religious point of view, focussing on how preaching persuades, for my Ph.D. work. I’ve taught homiletics to aspiring preachers. And I’ve studied—again, mostly in non-religious settings—how contemporary media has changed both people’s ability to listen and read. 

         Along the way, as a minister, I’ve wondered long and hard about what attracts people to one church rather than another. Sometimes the reasons have little to do with “how good” a church is—however you define “good.” Lots of churches, for example, are tribal. People belong to them because “their people” belong. This is often true of immigrant churches and of ethnic churches in particular, though it may have to do with social standing and belonging to the right club. Sometimes—more often than you would think—people go to church out of long habit, and it is enough that there is one very close to them. That decides it. In my years as a minister, I’ve met people who go to one church or another because of architecture, because of a friend, because of the music, or because it has a great Sunday School for their children.

A few people choose their church for theological reasons. They want (for example) a really liberal church. Or a fire-breathing Primitive Baptist church that does revivals. Not many, but a few!

Put aside all these reasons for choosing a church, there are still two matters that count more than almost any other. First, people will make a judgement, upon visiting, about whether or not there is a community in that church that will fit them. A few weeks ago, for example, after attending my congregation a few times, a youngish millennial couple asked me how many other couples their age attended regularly. I gave an honest answer and have not seen them since. And, of course, people looking for community will stay if the community they find truly embraces them. 

Second, getting back to preaching, I realize more and more that over time people will make a judgement about where to go to church based on the preaching. If a church wants to maintain its size or grow it will need a preacher who connects on a very regular basis. The room for so-so preaching has shrunk, a lot. People want a preacher who will have them holding their breath to see how “it” turns out. Someone who can make them laugh at themselves. Someone who has something to say that is rooted in the heart of the gospel but that resonates with lived experience. Something more than self-help. Someone who is compelling but doesn’t nag. Someone who says the mystery in a way they feel it. Someone who connects with their fear and hopes.

So, though I like to think of myself as that preacher, as I enter my final season as a preacher, I have begun, in spite of what I’ve said so far, to question how much of a difference I can make as a preacher.

Let me explain the reasons why. Although they are informed by my studies, what I’m sharing now is my gut feeling about these things. I’m interested in what others may think.

First, it is harder to make an impression as a preacher because audiences don’t listen anymore with the same skill and attention that they used to. Once upon a time preachers created sermons in the image of the essay or book. This worked, because people tended to read a lot. They were deft at figuring out linear, rational, ordered arguments. 
But these sort of sermons work with a smaller and smaller demographic. Partly this is because attention spans are way shorter than they used to be. If you are not sure this is the case, check out the literature. It takes a lot more skill to gain the attention or your audience, keep it, and engage it than it used to.

Second, people also have a harder time attending to sermons because the most common model for sermons a generation ago was the book, but it isn’t anymore. Books—and good essays—are linear. They build their case cumulatively and rationally. They use reason and narrative. And when people used to listen to sermons, they listened with the ears of readers.

But people do not read as much as they used to. They find it difficult to attend to sustained narrative. The books they do read—just check out how many there are in any bookstore—are often self-help books that are long lists of “to do’s.” Books are far more fractured and less narratively sensible than they used to be. If narrative preaching is a partial answer to this reality, it has to be the sort of narrative that non-readers used to be able to listen to—legends, sagas, parables and so on. Walter Ong’s description of the psychodynamics of orality helps me here, but challenges me too. It’s hard.

Third, I’ve also become less sure of myself as a preacher because I’ve become acutely aware of my own uncertainties and waffling. I live with ambiguity when it comes to what and how to preach. I used to be able to count on people being interested in the truth of dogmas, for example, and spent time trying to get those dogmas across. But I’m done with dogma myself, so it doesn’t make for great preaching fodder anymore.

Fourth, I’ve become less sure of myself as a preacher because I know that my status—perhaps role is a better word—as preacher has changed over the years. I cannot rely, any longer, on being listened to because, well, I’m a preacher and I know. People don’t sit down convinced that they need to listen; they sit down to decide whether or not they will listen. People don't come to church believing that they are empty vessels that just need to be filled.

What to do about this? Well, I take longer to write than I used to. I pay more attention to how sagas and legends were told in an era before people read. I count on my current audience’s high level of literate education than I used to, so I can be forgiven a bit more. I try new things: preaching secular texts and songs, using drama, interactive exercises. But I’m an amateur at much of this, unsure of how to embrace it and make it work.


The bottom line? Preaching is harder than ever. There is no excuse for business as usual. We have to take risks. We have to speak to what people are really wondering about. And we have to keep on trying.

Monday, March 6, 2017

Lent in the Time of Trump


I would like to read a poem by Margaret Avison. If you are of a certain age, you studied it in a Can Lit class. Listen. You can follow along via the insert in your bulletin.

For everyone
The swimmer's moment at the whirlpool comes,
But many at that moment will not say
"This is the whirlpool, then."

By their refusal they are saved
From the black pit, and also from contesting
The deadly rapids, and emerging in
The mysterious, and more ample, further waters.

And so their bland-blank faces turn and turn
Pale and forever on the rim of suction
They will not recognize.

Of those who dare the knowledge
Many are whirled into the ominous centre
That, gaping vertical, seals up
For them an eternal boon of privacy,
So that we turn away from their defeat
With a despair, not for their deaths, but for
Ourselves, who cannot penetrate their secret
Nor even guess at the anonymous breadth
Where one or two have won:
(The silver reaches of the estuary).
From: Winter Sun. Toronto: UofT Press. 1962

The “swimmer’s moment,” is a decision point. Such moments might find you on a cliff in Killbear Provincial Park, thirty feet above the water, where you decide, “No, I’m not going to jump after all.” Or, perhaps, more seriously for example, our swimmer’s moment might come to us that day we must decide to either confront an elderly parent about her need to give up her driver’s license, or not.

And naturally, we are anxious about such decision points. We might belly flop. Mom might be very angry and write us out of the will. Fearing trouble, we might choose not to choose, turn our bland-blank faces away from the whirlpool and live forever on the rim of suction, never daring. A grey life.

Avison says, however, that some people do dare, and so win, “The silver reaches of the estuary.”

An estuary is where the river’s fresh water meets the sea. Estuaries, like Chesapeake Bay or the Amazon Delta, are incredibly rich areas of biodiversity. Estuaries are life. The “silver reaches of the estuary” conjures up images of cottages, crabbing, and late evening bonfires on shore. A good, joyous life.

In our text from Hebrews, you could think of Jesus’ decision to set his face for Jerusalem as his swimmer’s moment.

Jesus could have chosen otherwise. He could have turned around and walked with bland-blank face back to Galilee. He might have chosen to take up carpentry, again. But for the joy set before him, for the sake of the silver reaches of his estuary, he dived in and saw his Lenten journey to its end on a cross.

It is hard to know, two thousand years later, what exact joy Jesus aimed for. He spoke of rising from the dead. He almost certainly wanted to demonstrate the power of turning the other cheek, of changing the world through passive resistance.

But whatever exactly would give Jesus the greatest joy, he would achieve incredible things for humanity only at great cost to himself. He was abandoned, whipped, and crucified—because he decided.

In our text Jesus’ story is told so that we will do likewise. The author of Hebrews writes in chapter 12, “let us also lay aside every weight and . . . run with perseverance the race that is set before us,” and then in verse 12, he concludes by saying: Therefore for the joy also set before you, “lift your drooping hands and strengthen your weak knees, and make straight paths for your feet . . .” Just do it.

And we must, for we live in dangerous times.

I’ve just read Thomas Friedman’s new book, Thank You for Being Late. In it the New York Times columnist describes about 101 crises facing the human race. Economic dislocation. Climate change. Failed states. Desertification. Refugees. Terrorism. Overpopulation. Racism. Ineffective schools. Friedman paints a bleak picture of the world facing its cosmic swimmer’s moment, a world he believes our children and grandchildren will suffer in, unless we act, now.

Perhaps, at this point in the sermon, I should describe some of these crises at greater length. They are, after all, living as we do in our Western bubble of ease, hard for us to see. But I won’t, for now. After all, I know you feel the unease and uncertainty that runs without ceasing, like a long-distance marathoner, under the skin of our culture. This very real unease is partly, at least, what is fueling the Trump and alt-right phenomena of our era, the siege mentality that is so much a part of life today. The crises of our day loom over us like Mount Vesuvius over ancient Pompey. Now is our swimmer’s moment.

Will we act? Or will we live in denial, turning away from the whirlpool? And just what is the joy set before us? A safe, just, meaningful future for our children and grandchildren?

If we do act, there are no guarantees. The deadly rapids are a black pit, says Avison. There is no emergency “stop” button for saving the world from impending tragedy. I suppose acting starts with helping force national spending priorities to avert or mitigate the effects of climate change and habitat destruction and failed states; it continues with our choices at work—what we invest in, who we hire, what strategic goals we choose for our companies. Acting now involves what we buy, how we eat, our politics and our conversation at parties and our willingness to generously support organizations tackling some of our society’s deepest fears.

It’s like Jesus heading for Jerusalem, that final time. We must dive in to achieve the silver reaches of the estuary. It takes courage and faith in order to achieve the joy set before us. But turning away is so tempting.

It’s like this. At the turn of the last century, Blondin was a great French tightrope walker. Once, before ten thousand screaming fans, Blondin inched his way from the Canadian side to the American side of the Falls, above the roaring whirlpool in the Niagara River. As he stepped off his tightrope, his fans chanted his name, "Blondin, Blondin, Blondin."

So Blondin raised his hand. He said, "I am going back across the Falls on my tightrope, but this time I will carry someone on my shoulders.  Do you believe me?

The crowd called back, "We believe!  We believe!"

Blondin silenced them again and asked, "Who will be that person?"

And now the crowd was silent. You see, this was their swimmer’s moment at the whirlpool below. At last, one man climbed onto Blondin's shoulders and was carried back across the rope to the other side of the whirlpool, winning the silver reaches of the Canadian side. One man faced his swimmer’s moment and succeeded—but now the crowd really believed and many clamored for their chance to cross.

My dream, for everyone here, for my grandchildren, is that for the sake of the joy set before us, we will, at our society’s swimmer’s moment, choose as Jesus chose.

Jesus—God with us, in a lovely, mysterious way—joined us in life’s struggle to demonstrate to us that we can satisfy our deepest longings and the world’s greatest needs in spite of great risks and dangers. We can act now to emerge in those mysterious and more ample, further waters. We can climb on each other’s shoulders and, step by step, reach the silver reaches of the estuary, the joy set before us.

Monday, February 20, 2017

The Best of What I Read in 2016


            I keep lists: of ancestors, of sermons I’ve preached, of places I’ve been to, and of books I’ve read. I am not sure why lists appeal to me, but when the time comes to reminisce they are handy for jogging my memory. I track my books on Goodreads.com. And so, without further ado, here are the books I read in 2016 that I don’t want to forget.

            Where We Came From: My ongoing fascination with human evolution was enriched by Svante Pääbo’s Neanderthal Man: In Search of Lost Genomes. Pääbo’s book is a memoir about how he fell in love with genomics, and how his team eventually became the first to sequence the Neanderthal and Denosivan genomes. While the book does get a bit technical from time to time, Pääbo is able, for the most part, to describe the science in terms understandable to lay people.
The inside look at the politics of science is a reminder that Washington and Ottawa are not the only places to find politics. The book feels, in some ways, like a road trip where you know the destination and can’t wait to get there. Hands down, the best science book I’ve read in years—and I’ve read quite a few.

            Science Fiction! Several of my favorite books were science fiction. Two African American women writers were my hands down favorites. The first was N. K. Jemisin, who wrote, The Fifth Season trilogy. The first book in the trilogy is The Broken Earth. Her books encouraged me, as a reader, to reconsider systemic racism and personal prejudice by making the point of contention not skin color, but unique but not widely-shared human gifts and skills. The turns of plot are both surprising and believable, the Earth Jemisin creates is detailed and exotic, and the key characters are well-developed.

            The other author—perhaps the best I read all year—was Nnedi Okorafor. Her novella Binti reminded me, a bit, of Margaret Atwood at her best as a stylist—as when Atwood’s poetic chops spill over into her prose. Okorafor’s writing is also near-poetic and subtly engages all of the reader’s senses with compelling descriptions of characters, their looks, their smells, and their families. I’m looking forward to reading the Novella’s full-length follow up, which was published in late January, 2017.

            Modern Media Tech and Its Casualties. My PHD was in Speech Communication, and during those studies I became fascinated with how different speech, reading and writing arts and technologies demand different kinds of intellectual equipment. People in oral societies with low literacy develop fascinating ways of communicating via spoken word and other media that are quite different from societies where books are front and centre. High literate societies, on the other hand, are very different than those where screens predominate. I explore this in my own book, Not Sure.        
            Adam Gazzaley’s The Distracted Mind: Ancient Brains in a High-Tech World is pure gold for parents, teachers, preachers, and university students who want to understand what is going on in their brains, and the brains of their wired audiences. I found the book’s structure—one half given over to neuroscience, and the other half to explaining its consequences—a bit off-putting. And the book is dense. But the effort it took to read was richly rewarded with deepened understanding of a technological change that is still sweeping over us. A good companion to Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and Slow and a look under the brain’s hood for those who want to understand why it is that we entertain ourselves to death.

            Behind the Trump Phenomenon: Two books that provided very helpful background for understanding Trump’s victory and white Evangelical Christian support for him were Nancy Isenberg’s White Trash: The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America and Robert Jones' The End of White Christian America. Isenberg focusses on how America was built on the backs of poor immigrants such as indentured servants, jail parolees, as well as slaves. She traces out the generational poverty of this sort of deep-family-history, and it isn’t pretty. Jones shows how the structures of Christian religion, both mainline and conservative, have often worked against racial justice, inclusiveness, and an honest appraisal of why things are the way they are.


            Memoirs: When Breath Becomes Air is a memoir of the author’s long illness with cancer, up to just before his death. Paul Kalanithi is a neurosurgeon struggling to finish his residency and keep his marriage afloat. He’s a good man and his story, as sad as it ends, is also inspiring. I was fascinated by the role religion played in his life, even though he doesn’t dwell on it. With several doctors in my own extended family, the description of the grind Paul had to go through as a resident was sobering and sad. But I came to love this man, even if only from a great distance.
            Stefan Hertmans wrote an inventive memoir about his grandfather titled War and Turpentine. I was impressed and often moved by the way Hertman’s described the social and familial traps his grandfather had to navigate. The grandfather’s diary of his time as a soldier in Flanders Fields serves as the non-fiction basis for this book. But Hertman then adds his own fictional gloss to the story in order to make a truer portrait rise and shine. The aching pains from long ago that marked his grandfather’s life is given great prominence here, and encourages all readers to be sensitive to the hurts they or others struggle with too. The book includes some very compelling descriptions of First World War battles, as well.

            Written in English: As an old English major, I’ve always been fascinated by the history of English—and by extension, the evolution of language. John McWhorter’s Our Magnificent Bastard Tongue: The Untold History of English focusses on the impact of Celtic and Norse grammars on English grammar, and the reasons why this sort of influence is often missed in “history of languages.” I know. It is hard to imagine that this might be scintillating. But it is! Language is a window on so much more. His takedown of the Sapir Whorff hypothesis is marvelous. His speculation that Phoenician traders may be the source of up to a third of proto Germanic words that are not Indo-European is really fascinating.

            Fiction: I read many novels that were not sci-fi, but my favorite was Julian Barnes’ The Sense of an Ending. This slim work is part mystery, part gripping yarn, and part parable. The protagonist, Tony, reflects on what he has made of his rather empty life. I resonated with his doubts and disappointments. The ending, though, is a big surprise, one that Barnes has carefully laid the groundwork for so that it is also totally believable.

            Theology: As a minister and theologian, I’ve read (a nearly) countless number of books about the meaning of life and basic theological questions like, “Is there a god?” and “if so (or not) so what?” The best of a dozen I read this past year—if not in style, then in terms of offering a helpful overview of more liberal perspectives—was David Ray Griffen’s God Exists but Gawd Does Not.
             This is a book about Process Theology, deeply rooted in the work of Alfred North Whitehead. Griffen describes the “Gawd,” of classical theism, as one who sits on a throne and interferes in the world on behalf of some but not others. He contrasts this concept of Gawd to Process Theology’s God. He nailed much of what eventually made me uncomfortable with the sort of God that I was raised with. His explanation of the Process alternative, however, was less compelling.

            New Amsterdam Dutch: I couldn’t put Russell Shorto’s The Island at the Centre of the World: The Epic Story of Dutch Manhattan and the Forgotten Colony that Shaped America down. A great deal of American political and social culture is partly rooted in how the Dutch set the table at Manhattan. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Bill of Rights; from pluralism to religious freedom, the Dutch experiment in New York informed the nascent American psyche, and sometimes for the better. I read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton a few months later, and I couldn’t help but note how often Shorto’s book shed light on Chernow’s.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Insurgent Advice for Pastors (Parishioners Welcome to Listen In)


            We all know that ministers are supposed to be great preachers, Bible scholars, and culture critics. They should have a rich interior life, great emotional intelligence, and manage time effectively. And so on.

            But there’s more. Stuff they don’t necessarily talk much about in seminary. So, what follows is my insurgent advice for young pastors. Take it with a grain of salt, since my experience may not be universally applicable. Still, this is the sort of stuff I would talk about if I were invited to a seminary ministry class. And, from another angle, it is the sort of insight that parishioners can use to support and encourage their pastor.

            One: Friends. For reasons I’ve never fully grasped, I find that ministers rarely make good friends with other ministers in their community. Partly, this is my fault. If making new friends isn’t my priority, it won’t happen. If I won’t brave time in traffic to get to the coffee shop, it won’t happen. If I don’t pick up the phone and ask about stopping by, I won’t. And if my internal theological or professional “weigh and evaluate,” apparatus is too finely tuned, I’ll be too judgmental.
            Still, even when I try to overcome these personal challenges and I do meet other ministers I rarely find my interest reciprocated. Maybe I’m just hard to like, but, from my conversations with fellow ministers I know in other contexts, I sense this reticence to connect is widespread. I think part of it is rooted in the temptation we all have to brag about how things are going rather than get real—and bragging is irritating.
            Ultimately, however, no man or woman is an island. We all need friends. So, if it isn’t going to be other ministers, it still needs to be someone else. Find friends! They are one of life’s greatest pleasures.

What does it take?
            Two: Loose ends. They are both unavoidable and precious. Unavoidable because you may have as many as two or three hundred “bosses” in your congregation, parishioners who feel strongly about “their” church and how it is going. They see you as many things—but also as their employee. So, that comes with lots of expectations. Your email box will fill up with their advice, queries, and complaints. They will corner you in the hallway to fret and direct and complain about everything from youth ministry to janitors to music selection. It adds up to a lot of emails that need to be answered, promises that need to be kept, serious concerns that must be addressed, and phone calls to make. Loose ends. Tough stuff.
            But loose ends are precious too, because each one—every email waiting for an answer, every expectation laid upon you in person, every appointment you need to make or keep—every loose end is a great opportunity. When you tie up loose ends you connect, you show yourself to be a caring minister, and you create trust. Tying up loose ends makes you real to other people, helps you laugh or weep with them, embrace or nudge. Loose ends are precious because they are a raw material ministry provides for connecting you more deeply with parishioners.
            So, tabulate those loose ends. Keep “to do,” lists. Answer every email religiously (spiritually?). Stay organized. Connect.

            Three: Anxiety is a fact of life in ministry. I used to handle anxiety easily, but it gets tougher and tougher as I get older—a pattern I’m seeing over and over among colleagues.  I’m not sure why. For me, it’s partly my nature. It is that unending sense that there is always more I could do (see two, above and four, below). And I’m anxious because of the ever-increasing complexity of the job itself. To make matters worse, fewer and fewer people are going to church. Success in growing churches is rare. But expectations for ministers remain high.
            What can I say? Most interesting jobs are more complex than they used to be. Most interesting jobs are never done.
            The thing is, all of us need to take anxiety seriously. Don’t drink too much. Don’t take it out on others. Face anxiety straight up without blaming others. Get counselling if your anxiety is extreme. Practice prayer or mindfulness meditation or a hobby or sports or long walks or best of all, all of these things, because they do give relief. Confide in your partner or a friend who will listen. Read up on anxiety. Get to know all about your enemy. Tackle it. If you don’t, your anxiety will stop being a helpful goad encouraging you to do what really matters, and will start being a corrosive force that saps your life of pleasure.

            Four: Relax. Even though the Bible loudly promotes the idea of Sabbath, too many ministers find it really hard to take time off. There are those loose ends I mentioned in two, above. And anxiety can sometimes fuel increasingly less productive attempts to get on top of things—attempts that take more and more time and that become a vicious cycle. What happens, eventually, if you don’t take enough time for yourself, is that you start spinning your wheels. Your time at work becomes less productive. You play Solitaire to avoid difficult tasks. Resentment about being busy builds. Things slide.
            So, take time off: every day, every week, and every year. Walk the dog. Pick up a novel. Visit friends. Play a game of Scrabble. It takes discipline and self-understanding to get the balance right and to stay organized enough to leave time for yourself. If you don’t try, however, you are not going to make it as a minister, because you will burn out—and probably with lots of unfair resentment to spare.

            Five: Flexibility. Ministry isn’t unique. Lots of jobs come with huge responsibilities, stress, potential conflict, anxiety, and high expectations. But ministry is very special too. We usually have a great deal of flexibility in how we structure our days and lives. We’re not expected to clock in or out. We can arrange, on almost any day, to either golf with a friend or be home when the kids return from school. We need to recognize that flexibility, exploit and enjoy it. It is one of the things I most love about my job.
            So, don’t complain about the unreal expectations placed on us ministers unless you also own up to some of our great benefits. And perhaps most important, be disciplined about both taking advantage of your flexibility, and about not using it to waste your time.

            Six: Don’t show contempteven in private. If there is one quality in a minister that, from my perspective and experience at least, suggests failure, it is a penchant for complaining about your parishioners or refusing to hold them in high regard or even attacking them publically from the pulpit.
            People catch on when you don’t hold them in high esteem. You can’t hide contempt for long. People have a sixth sense for it, even if you think you’re putting on a great show. Don’t be condescending. Don’t mock in private. Don’t disparage parishioners to staff or other parishioners. This is just really, really dumb. Not only is showing contempt hypocritical, given scripture’s own values, you will eventually pay for your contempt with your own happiness and probably even your career.  

            Seven. Congratulate. This is a corollary to “don’t show contempt.” Churches thrive on success, gratitude, and volunteerism. So, congratulate members or committees or leaders whenever there is a reason to do so, even if the reason is weak! A steady stream of congratulations from the minister sets the mood for all congregational interaction. Congratulations create positive vibes. Saying “thanks,” makes people happy and encourages them to volunteer again. Every church needs to be a place where people are happy to leave with a job to do, and the expectation that they will be thanked helps make it so.

            Eight: Moving on. Leaving your current charge can relieve some stresses. You get out from under a lot of loose ends. You don’t have to repair those difficult relations that mark every ministry stop. You can skimp on sermon preparation by starting out with oldies but goodies in your barrel.
            But moving also creates great stress—just check out one of those web pages that lists the most stressful activities people regularly engage in. Moving is right up there with things like death in the family and marital breakdown. What’s more, many ministerial moves are to distant cities where you may not have friends or family and the support they offer.
            Moving is hard on kids too—though you never really know how hard till they tell you about it twenty years later. And ultimately, honeymoons in new churches only last a few months, and then it will be back to all the usual challenges, stresses, and strains. So, before you move, think twice—because moves are about you and your family’s long-term health as much as they are about the congregation’s.

            Nine: Exegesis. Exegeting a difficult text to within an inch of its life, as if this is what matters most about preaching, is just wrong. It isn’t the sitz in leben or unique use of the aorist that matters most about texts, at least week in and out. No. What congregations really need to hear about are the big themes of scripture, the core story, and how that stuff still makes a difference today. Instead of focusing on exegeting difficult texts, ministers would be way further ahead by paying attention to the art of actually getting people people hear the old, old story with new ears and interest. Spend your time on that.

            Ten: God’s gift to ministry. It isn’t me and it isn’t you. We all have weaknesses that, even if we recognize them and work hard on them, we are never going to totally overcome. We cannot be equally skilled at every aspect of our jobs. People will recognize our weaknesses even when we don’t, and they will likely grumble and complain too. If we expect or need 100% positive feedback about everything we do, we will all be unhappy campers.
           So, I try to keep two things in mind. First, I never stop trying to do better, because I have not yet arrived and with time I could do better. But second, along the way, I’ve tried to admit my weaknesses and ask for help—either for training to overcome my weaknesses or for other people to step in and do what I find most difficult. The alternative is us to live in a make-belief world with make-belief accomplishments.