Random thoughts on productive discourse

I have a lot of issues with the way we “do church” in America. I think we do a few things right, but I think we’ve done off the rails spectacularly in many other ways.

But the biggest problem is that we don’t seem to be able to talk about it constructively. It is difficult to be opinionated and yet gracious. Be non-judgmental and you’ll be accused of being “soft on sin.” Try to think deeply about topics and you’ll be accused of doing too much fancy thinking.

I am dedicated to learning the truth, and I believe that all truth is God’s truth. I also believe that truth is found in Scripture and in the cosmos that He created. When those come into apparent conflict, how can we resolve it productively — or at least disagree with respect?

Many people strong hold to an ideology without even realizing it. Or they insist it’s Just the Way Things Are. Most young-earth creationists are this way, and it makes any discourse very difficult.

What can we do to improve?

  • Have respect for other points of view.
  • Be aware that you hold to an interpretation of Scripture, and it may not be correct.
  • Separate major issues from minor issues.
  • Argue respectfully.
  • Respond to an argument on its merits and don’t just dismiss it because “you clearly don’t know the Scripture well enough.”
  • Love.

A tale of four congregations

This is a comparison of four churches we have attended. I want to stress that all four are specific churches (which I am not going to name) and are not intended to be archetypes. All four are truly seeking God’s path, but have very different ways of going about it.

  • Startup
  • MiniMegachurch
  • Organic
  • Liturgical

The Startup church was wonderful; its distinctives and culture resonated with us. It stressed dynamic and semi-autonomous small groups. It stressed discipleship. It stressed growth by church planting. It put a lot of importance on child ministry. We enjoyed true fellowship and found people which whom we could do life together.

The MiniMegachurch has succumbed to the “businessification” of the American church. Its early distinctives and culture have been mostly swallowed up by a cult of personality. The senior pastor is now the CEO, and his vision and priorities are what set the culture and tone. He is the Authority. The sermon is now the pinnacle of every service. The services are very tech-heavy and performance-oriented. Worship is no longer an end in itself; it must now support the sermon, so it has turned into mere manipulation. Small groups, while encouraged, are important only in serving the overall agenda. The church has grown quickly, and there are many new or immature believers. Therefore, the sermon is generally about what the individual must to do improve. Guilt seems to be the prime motivator. Growing at any cost has replaced discipleship.

The Organic church is very small and seems to be made up mostly of people who have been injured elsewhere.  They do things in a fairly non-traditional way; but they have not yet decided who they are. They don’t seem to have clear principles,  distinctives or culture.

The Liturgical church is surprisingly warm and inviting. The service is fairly formal, yet has a balance of reverence and playfulness. At the end of the service, all of the children join in the final songs. Their dancing and simply joy brings a wonderful reminder that we all must approach God as children.  The messages are clearly to the community as a whole. The priests are there to serve the community as we all do the liturgy together. At the end, one of the priests holds the Scriptures in the air, walking down the aisle — again, the image being that are all focused on God, our Savior, and the Scriptures; and not the priest himself.

As you can probably tell, I am finding myself consistently drawn to the Liturgical church. There are a few reasons: They have clear principles, distinctives and culture. They clearly delineate what are core Christian beliefs and what are their own traditions. The priests see themselves as servants of the community, and not as Authority. Therefore they are not threatened by differences. They do not feel the need to micromanage individuals or groups within the church. They know where they have been, and they know where they are going. The people there seem to be going somewhere deliberately rather than running from something else.

What is an ideology ?

Ideologies are at the heart of our deepest debates: political and religious. But we rarely face them head on; we dance around them and often pretend they don’t exist. Many of us don’t know what they are or that we have one.

Whether we realize it or not, everyone has an ideology; they are not necessarily bad things. According to Merriam-Webster, here are the applicable definitions of this word.

ideology, noun

  1. a systematic body of concepts especially about human life or culture
  2. a manner or the content of thinking characteristic of an individual, group, or culture
  3. the integrated assertions, theories and aims that constitute a sociopolitical program

We all have a systematic body of concepts (number 1) and a manner of thinking (number 2). When I say “ideology” for the rest of this post I am referring to number 3.

The dangers of this type of ideology are

  • collectivist thinking
  • traditionalist thinking
  • grab-bag of unthinking

Collectivist thinking

Here I am defining collectivism as “emphasis on collective rather than individual action or identity.” This type of thinking is at the core of racism, bigotry, and stereotypes in general. Since certain attributes are generally true of a group, we assume that all attributes are true of all members of that group.

For example: Many black youth wear hoodies. Some black youth are violent. Therefore, a black youth wearing a hoodie is probably violent. This type of thinking conveniently ignores other facts such as: Many youth in general wear hoodies. Marc Zuckerberg wears a hoodie.

Traditionalist thinking

I define traditionalist thinking as “we’ve thought this way for a long time; how could so many past generations have been wrong?”

I see this argument a lot in the gay rights debate — How could the church have been wrong for 2000+ years? This nicely insulates us from having to think too deeply about the issue. However, this begs the question: How long is it okay to be wrong? 1000 years? 500? If we are wrong, it shouldn’t matter how long we were wrong.

Grab-bag of unthinking

Our ideologies tend to be a grab-bag of beliefs, assumptions, and assertions that often go unexamined.

A tool that has helped me in sorting through the grab-bag that an ideology represents is to separate out its elements into:

  • Principles
  • Practices
  • Tools

Principles are core beliefs, laws, doctrines or assumptions. They underlie everything and should change very seldom. For example, Yeshua said: “ ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.” These are clearly principles.

Practices are the way we interpret and apply those principles. These will change periodically, but should always be consistent with the principles. Change may occur because of new information that we learn, cultural shifts, and so on. Paul’s letters in the New Testament contain a lot of discussion of practices, which is why we try to categorize them into descriptive and prescriptive — that is, how things were done then vs. how we should do them now.

Tools are even more subject to change; we use them or discard them based strictly on their usefulness. I would put Bible translations in this category. (At the risk of antagonizing the “KJV only” crowd, I would posit that their error is in turning a tool (the KJV translation) into a principle.)

What are our ideologies?

In my next post I will try to separate out the ideologies that America is struggling with, especially the Christian Church in America.

Script vs. liturgy

My family has recently begun visiting an Anglican gathering — a very new and different experience for us. I’m still wrestling through liturgy and ritual, and the appropriate place for it in the Church. On the one hand, ritual is everywhere — our morning routines, business meetings, social gatherings. Ritual gives us structure — a baseline that we can then use to branch out of. It’s much like Jazz — it cannot be random, otherwise it would be chaos and cacophony. Instead it has a basic structure that allows the musicians to try variations. Individuality comes out — yet in harmony with the group.

On the other extreme is lip-syncing — you are just playing a part and are making no contribution to the music in any way.

So which is liturgy? Some people certainly see it as dead ritual. But I am also seeing how a “contemporary” church service can become dead ritual. Worse, it becomes manipulative and false. The choice of songs just before the sermon about tithing? Scripted. That emotional music that plays over the final heartfelt plea of the preacher? Scripted.

With a true liturgy, we are all — leaders and congregation — focused on the words and meaning. We are having a shared experience, not passively consuming. Any emotions I feel are my own, they are genuine.

And we need a church that is genuine.

The rise of the dones

I read this post with a growing feeling of “This is me!” My current church — like many others — has become scripted and manipulative.

It isn’t deliberate. It’s the result of a thousand small choices combined with a few basic philosophies. For example: The “everything is in support of the sermon” philosophy. Everything from the choice of music to the emotional plea at the end is to hammer home how important it is to take this sermon seriously and to repent and change our ways this week. And then next week it’s a different thing we are doing wrong. I’m sure it’s well-intentioned, but it’s exhausting.

It also contributes to a very passive “The senior pastor preaches, we listen” mentality. Our pastor occasionally says, “This is a dialogue!” — but all it means is he wants an “Amen!” at the right time. Would he welcome the clarification of a point or someone questioning his conclusion? Unthinkable.

I don’t mean to bash the senior pastor. He is under a lot of pressure. He’s basically the CEO of a business. And businesses tend to be concerned about the bottom line. Not necessarily profits, but vision statements and alignment and staff meetings.

The church should be a family, not a business. And that’s why we’re leaving.

Forgetting

I watched Click (the Adam Sandler movie) a few years ago and it immediately struck me as a powerful picture  of depression. I’m going from memory, so I may have a few things wrong. SEMI-ACCURATE SPOILERS AHEAD!

The basic story line is that Michael (Adam’s character) wishes for a way to skip through the boring bits of life and get on to the next exciting thing. This being a fantasy, he encounters a magic salesman who provides him with a remote control that he can use to fast-forward real life whenever he likes. What he doesn’t expect is that he would lose control of it and suddenly end up 20 years in the future at his daughter’s wedding. Stunned, he tries to reconnect with his family and finds that they are all estranged from him.

He finds the salesman who sold him the remote and demands an explanation. The magical salesman explains that during the fast-forward process, you are sort of running on “automatic.” He shows Michael how to “flashback” to the last time he spoke to his daughter. Michael watches as she visits him at work; she clearly wants to speak with him about something important.  His “automatic” self just mutters and keeps working. She leaves, crying.

“Talk to her!” Michael tells his auto-self.

“I don’t remember any of this!” he tells the magical salesman, who just shakes his head and says, “Of course you don’t.”

Sometime around 2009, I was on the road to recovery, and I started feeling normal again. I was happy (or happier) and ready to get on with life. My wife was pleased that I was better, but had been suffering as much — or more — as I, and wanted to talk about what had happened.

But every time she brought up a time where I had responded roughly or had said something hurtful — I simply did not remember it. It was difficult to get closure, and it took some time for us to work through the pain and rebuild the trust that had been lost.

One thing I will never forget: How she stood by me.

10% Happier

Last week I started reading 10% Happier by Dan Harris. It’s a good read, and I find myself identifying with his thought process and journey. I also have no interest in becoming a Buddhist (though he doesn’t either, at least at this point in the book). It’s giving me hope that a “normal person” can quiet the voices and find peace. I also am finding it frustrating that I have never heard such practical advice in mainstream Christian churches. It’s always, “Just pray and read your Bible more.”

Peace in the shower

During the “long dark” of my severe depression, one of the only ways I could find a measure of peace was to sit (literally sit) in the shower. I would let the water pour straight down on my head and plug my ears. It sounded like rain on a wooden roof. I would sit like this for 10+ minutes until the panic and fear subsided enough to face the day.