Monday, January 30, 2012

Content Conundrum?! - Part III

When does a contemporary style church become nothing more than an ecclesiastical expression of crowd-source marketing?  Maybe when...
  • Topics trump Text - Most evangelical pastors would agree that Biblical illiteracy is a major problem.  And yet, the proclivity of those same pastors is to decrease Biblical text and increase topical communication from the pulpit on Sunday mornings.  Why?  I routinely hear two rationales.  First, there is an a priori assumption that the "average Joe" in the pew can be profiled in the following way:  short attention span, does not want to be confused with a lot of Biblical words, needs a motivational-talk-sprinkled-with-a-little-Bible to get through another week, is probably superficial, and wants pragmatism not theology.  And secondly, Sunday morning has been re-purposed as a time of inspiration not discipleship (I despise this distinction yet hear it all the time.)  Here are some abbreviated responses to these rationales: 
    • Relevancy does not necessarily equal "dumbing down."
    • "Average Joe" wants to understand the Bible and its application to his life.  Teach it.
    • Pragmatism should flow out of not replace theology.
    • Sunday mornings = content + creativity + inspiration.
    • Discipleship venues = content + creativity + inspiration. 
    • End the dichotomy.  Sunday worship can employ a strong element of discipleship and people can get Saved in a small group (and vice versa)!
  • Surveys misplace authority - On the one hand, surveys can provide helpful input with regard to parking lot issues, cleanliness of restrooms, attentiveness of staff, feedback on socials, suggestions for the website, or other community life concerns.  On the other hand, surveys, when used as a kind of crowd-source, marketing tool with regard to doctrine, liturgy, or mission, implicitly convey that an individual's predilections on such matters are somehow authoritative. The sacred content of these matters should be anchored in and protected by Biblical witness and orthodoxy.  If not, doctrinal and missional drift become not only normative but rationalized under the guise of being "seeker sensitive."      
  • Consumerism invades ecclesiology - There is a real tension that exists here.  Churches need to be diligently drawing people into worship and keeping them in community.  And yet those people cannot be viewed or treated like mere consumers.  Let me address this issue with seven simple statements:  
    • Churches should strive to be radically hospitable.
    • Hospitality, though, gracefully introduces new people to a community's traditions, semantics, beliefs, symbols, and rhythms as opposed to modifying them.
    • Excessive personal comfort thwarts spiritual maturity.  Challenge people.
    • Serious followers of Jesus laugh and have fun.
    • Styes vary. Standards don't.
    • Christ-centered praise can be led in a variety of music genres.  Avoid exhibitionism.
    • Pastoral leadership should love people where they are found and refuse to allow them to remain there.  
  • Prayer is undervalued - Contemporary models of ecclesiology are notorious for creating a utilitarian culture of prayer as opposed to an environment of prayerfulness.  Quick, perfunctory prayers are offered in worship, before meals, at civic events, before bed, in staff meetings, and at other community events.  But the cultivation of a praying soul, both corporately and individually, that includes lingering, practicing the presence of God, giving birth to vision, restoring hope, bringing healing, and basking in the mystery and beauty of God, is a neglected practice. Churches that create space and time for people to prayerfully marinate in the presence of God tend to understand the intangible benefits of such a practice.  Those that do not are prone to miss strategic moments of divine guidance, encouragement, and intervention that simply cannot be humanly scripted into a Five Year Plan.

To be continued (Part IV - Final)...

Ex nihilo,

R.J. Rhoden

    Friday, January 20, 2012

    Content Conundrum?! - Part II

    How does a content conundrum impact the Church?

    Simply put, content is central to Discipleship.  Whether it is impartation or doing, both are dependent upon good, accurate content.  Consequently, the Church, steadfast in Jesus' command to "make disciples," is deeply affected by our culture's crisis and forces the asking of some strategic questions.  What are innovative delivery models in the 21st century for imparting content?  Do we need to "dumb down" Christian teaching and praxis for Today's worshippers due to a perception of disinterest?  How can the communication of in depth content be done in an inspiring, engaging manor without becoming gimmicky?  When does a contemporary driven church become nothing more than an ecclesiastical expression of crowd-source marketing?  Or, when does a traditional church become strictly a well preserved time capsule functioning as a silo of nostalgia in a changing world?  Typically, a church's answers to these questions create the gap between old and new expressions of liturgy and mission.

    It is easy to ask the questions, but the real work is in the answers.  The primary challenge is that proposed solutions can have a dimension of downside and are not always translatable in all contexts.  While I humbly acknowledge that this article will not provide a panacea for the above questions, it is an effort to provide some practical take-aways.  In addition, the goal is to recommend new approaches that are applicable in a variety of church settings.  I want us to begin occupying common ground between old and new churches so that our efforts are contributing to gap reduction not expansion.  Feel free to interact and add your own suggestions as we Call for a rejiggering of discipleship in the Church.

    What are innovative delivery models in the 21st century for imparting content? (future blog posts will address the other questions)

    • Life-long Sunday School Participants:  Many churches have one or more well-established, Adult Sunday School classes and/or teachers that have been together for decades.  The demographics of these classes are commonly seasoned Christians who find the traditional, Sunday School, delivery model to be familiar, comfortable, informative, a source of community, and a sacred ritual in their Sabbath rhythm. So why force change?  Bless and celebrate the years of faithfulness and continue to create space for this expression of discipleship.  The understandably entrenched semantics, symbols, relationships, and rituals of these Believers are not only embedded in their Spirituality but fundamentally represent something good. 
    • Non-Engaged Participants:  This is the group that should be of primary interest to us and who represent an opportunity to experiment with a variety of delivery models.  Let's not assume that this coterie of lacking-systematic-discipleship people are necessarily disinterested in prioritizing time for intentional discipleship.  Let's instead assume that there is a foundational interest in consuming good content, and our task is to build upon it providing a one-size-does-not-fit-all menu for our Discipleship initiatives.  Here are some possibilities:
      • Semantics:  Words create feelings and attitudes in people, and the phrase "Adult Sunday School Electives" does not appear in Holy Scripture!  So enlist the help of wordsmiths.  I am drawn to designations like cohorts, modules, webinars, online learning communities, seminars, and/or forums.  These words connote learning, innovation, intellectual stimulation, and modern organizational structures.  They resonate with inquiring minds. 
      • Varied Delivery Models:  Weekend seminars, Distance Learning with a Monthly Discussion Group, Book Clubs, Weekly or Bi-Monthly Cohorts (can meet in a variety of places like businesses, coffee shops, homes, etc...), Menu of Modules, and much more.  Creative additions can be presented on a regular basis. 
      • Teaching Churches:  There is a difference between a hospital and a teaching hospital.  Both provide quality service, but in the teaching hospital the patient expects students to be present with the doctor during medical care.  We need churches who will establish a teaching environment and prioritize substantial resources to the mentorship of future church leaders.  Partnerships with schools like Valley Forge Christian College could prove to be a creative delivery model for discipling future Christian leaders. 
      • Tablets:  Go paperless!  Encourage the use of a tablet or smart phone.  Provide teaching notes, readings, and other sources electronically.  Most versions of the Bible are accessible online.  Utilizing modern tools integrates discipleship with everyday life which is the point! 
      • Tracks:  Design a variety of tracks ranging from 6 months to two years.  People tend to appreciate working toward a goal. Tracks can be thematic, topical, or developmental.
    Discipleship is energizing, creative, thoughtful, emotional, and life-changing.  We need to repent from guilt-ridden appeals for people to comply with obligatory attendance of non-inspiring, Sunday School formats.  God's Spirit will help us to discern how to impart a wholistic Christianity within the context of our cultural realities. To use a biblical allusion, let's pursue new wine skins for the 21st century without watering down the vintage wine that's been enjoyed for centuries.

    To be continued...

    Ex nihilo,

    R.J. Rhoden        

      Friday, January 13, 2012

      Content Conundrum?! - Part I

      How is it possible that the Information Age is producing a puzzling crisis related to of all things - content?  It is profoundly ironic that a society of people with such great access to information is simultaneously suffering from a lack of good, accurate content.  Why is this occurring?  Let's consider four contributing factors.

      First, our culture has become increasingly satisfied with relying upon headlines, a few lines of text, and/or sound bites as an acceptable supply of content needed to be informed.  I, like many of you, now consume most of my media electronically.  It's been years since I actually had a newspaper delivered to my front door.  As much as I love this "zeitgeist"method of downloading information, I am concerned by the kind of distance it creates between the full content of the article and the reader.  One must click on the headline (btw, only if it creatively captures the imagination) and chase the content in order for substantial text to appear.  This is rather dissimilar to holding a newspaper with a longer column of content readily available.  An unfortunate trifecta of our cultural need to receive information quickly, the ridiculous pace of our lives, and the presence of mere headlines in our glances is relegating content to skimpy bites of text.

      Secondly, the internet has diminished our ability to decipher between reliable, accurate, and/or authoritative information and that which is rogue.  The preponderance of bad information being spewed daily by self proclaimed pundits, who now have a delivery method that is unprecedented in terms of accessibility and audience, is overwhelming.  Who has time to sift through it all in search of accuracy? Or, an even bigger question, who do we now rely upon as being trustworthy to impart reliable data?  The internet has hyper-decentralized historically, acceptable standards of appropriate sources of insight.  Our culture no longer has a macro-intersection of unanimity as it relates to Source.

      Thirdly, the no-holds-barred, commodification of content has supplanted the old paradigm.  While it is true that information has been commoditized for centuries (books, newspapers, magazines, encyclopedias), it was done so with regard to quality and product differentiation.  The cyber approach to spewing information does so without a conscience and is available to the highest bidder.  Search engines, if utilized without filters, lead us on a path laden with land mines placed by those whose sole motivation is monetary profit.  

      And fourthly, fueling this forest fire, is our insistence that impatience is not only normative but an acceptable character flaw for the 21st century.  We flaunt our impatient ways like a badge of honor.  But here-in lies the problem.  It takes time to gather good information.  Short cuts are suspect.  The art of gathering requires us to read longer texts, listen thoroughly, research more often, ask questions, attend a variety of meetings, and/or spend more time reflecting on what we have heard.  It is tragic to be misinformed or misguided simply due to impatience.  Do we not realize that this is one of the areas in the content conundrum that is fully in our control? And yet we relinquish our freedom to be informed by choosing convenience and a hasty life style over substance.

      With this backdrop in place, Part II (coming soon) will address the impact on the Church and our focus theme of the "old and new Church."

      Ex nihilo,

      R.J. Rhoden

      Wednesday, January 4, 2012

      New Words. Old Music.

      It's time to write.

      I have spent the last year navigating some unanticipated turns in the road.  Maybe you can relate?  One of the outcomes from such a ride is the gift of pondering.  At times it feels like a curse but that is actually the deceptive work of our Adversary. God, in His love, created us with an arsenal of faculties intended for extensive use. And it is good.  To think or to ponder is a gift to us from Him.

      During this thoughtful season I have found myself pressing deeper into the mysterious complexities vis-a-vis "tensions" that exist for followers of Jesus.  Our orthodoxy, strangely enough, is anchored by entrenched theological assets that are fully dependent on the coexistence of opposites.  And yet they work.

      Consider. God is Father, Son, and Spirit.  Jesus is fully God and fully human.  The Kingdom of God is here and yet it has not fully arrived.  Scripture is God-inspired and written with human hand in time and space.  Mary was a pregnant virgin.  It seems that one cannot be theologically reflective and guided without openly embracing tensions.

      Why is this important?  I want to blog about a specific ecclesiological tension that seems to be dominating the Church-world.  Here is the question I am asking and inviting us to seek answers together:  How can the Church be new and old at the same time?  Both are essential, non-negotiable, and integral to a sustainable expression of the Body of Christ.  And yet, we tend to over function in an unbalanced drift to one or the other.  Even worse, we are prone to being critical of which ever side is opposite our comfort zone.

      So let's stop fighting and begin pondering how every aspect of our life in Christ can reflect the coexistence of the following:  old and new words, new and old music, old and new writings, new and old architecture, old and new proclamations, new and old prayers, old and new techniques, new and old traditions, old and new disciplines, new and old fashion styles, old and new generations, new and old liturgies, old and new creeds, new and old art, old and new prophecies, new and old translations, old and fill in the blank.

      Perhaps this new blog might serve to be a galvanizing and unifying instrument for us around this motif?  I need space to express my thoughts, ask questions, and listen. You might have need for this as well.  So let's begin.  Become a Follower if you feel so inclined or be a stealth reader.  In either case I welcome your comments, questions, and/or responses.

      Ex nihilo,

      R.J. Rhoden