September 19, 2018

The Bittersweet-ness of the Internet

My relationship with social media is bittersweet. Whether Twitter or Facebook, the beauty of these platforms is that they provide immediate connection to each other in ways previously unattainable. My bitterness is rooted in the same principle: the spontaneity of it all.

I don't consider myself a good debater or witty. I like to reflect and consider things before I engage. Yet, social media impresses upon us this idea of immediate response to each other, to news, to moments of import in culture.

I know I'm not alone in this. I've spoken to a number of people who reflect on the same thing. "I'm not quick enough for Twitter." "I don't want to argue with people on Facebook." This is why so many of us love Instagram. It's just images! Maybe our brains process appreciation of images faster than ideas. And after all, as the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Images are subjective.

Ideas were central when the Internet was young (here comes the old man rant). I have a tattoo on my right arm that represents a set of relationships formed only through the exchange of ideas on blogs in the early 00's. Through those blogs we met, shared stories of the burgeoning faith communities we were making in our neighborhoods and cities. Through this thing called the Internet, lifelong bonds were formed.

That kind of exchange and connection seems less frequent now. Something shifted with the creation of little buttons in the shape of hands and hearts we've grown accustom to clicking away our affirmation rather than typing out an exchange. (I wonder if the onset of "likes" has diluted our digital capacity for thoughtful engagement.)

But what would happen if you and I stopped worrying about being the first or the smartest ... or whatever it is that we become self-conscious about regarding social media? What if instead we viewed this digital landscape as nothing more than a tool for communication?

Who would you communicate with?

When I decided to create my own podcast, I decided I was going to create something that I imagined maybe 20 people would like. I knew all of them by name. I made it for them, anticipating that possibly 5 of them would really love it. I wasn't concerned with anyone else but them. It didn't have to be perfect. It just had to be something that those few people–whom I knew–would enjoy. I don't go out of my way to look at stats. I'm happy when I hear affirmation from those few people. That's the statistic that matters to me. If you don't like my podcast or the stuff I write on my blog, I want you to know something: I love you but I don't care. This is what I choose to make and I'm happy to sit at my little corner of the Internet until someone that digs this comes along. Until then, I'm good! I have chosen not to worry about what anyone else thinks about what I create.

To this day, that is how kids in the punk rock scenes across the world make music. It's far from flawless but it's made with love for people they love. I think this is what Seth Godin calls a "minimum viable audience." Paul Jarvis, a writer, designer and software creator, recently shared about this concept in his newsletter. Whatever it is–whatever you really want to make or say or offer the world, start by making it for you and your friends. You don't have to be witty or a great debater. Social media does not have to be about the approval of strangers. Rather, it can simply be a tool used to give away something you made with love. You just have to be you. That's all we want! You and whatever you make with and for your friends with love.

Photo by Robin Worrall on Unsplash

September 18, 2018

September 16, 2018

Teaching on Preaching

On Friday night, I taught a class on preaching. So much of what I covered comes from what I've learned from experiencing different traditions before becoming an Episcopalian. It's also worth noting that I had Episcopalians teaching me how to use our prayer book and lectionary long before I ever entered an Episcopal church (Thanks, Mike, Laurel and Gary!). I thought I'd jot down some thoughts on my key points from Friday night along with some backstory to how I got there ...

Many years ago, I became disenchanted with the evangelical practice of the sermon series. I had spent a number of years with Calvary Chapel, a network of nondenominational evangelical churches that tended to approach sermons as a platform for teaching the Bible. Verse by verse, chapter by chapter working their way through the Bible from Genesis to Revelation week after week. This made sense to me. The biblical literacy in the congregations I was exposed to was incredibly high, which I view as a positive.

Yet, as the influence of mega-churches such as Willow Creek and Saddleback grew, a particular approach to the sermon series grew popular. More and more pastors I knew approached the sermon as a growth tactic. The sermon itself was marketed in order to draw newcomers to church. Some preachers approached this with self-help themes. Others used pop-culture references. Still others used a "shock and awe" approach using series titles that would hopefully shock, surprise or leave people curious enough to attend the church. This approach bugs me. To do it well, requires a high level of creativity (which is honestly rare, which means it is often done poorly both in delivery and theologically). Even when done well, it often feels gimmicky and deceptive.

This is not a wholesale criticism of the sermon series. In fact, some series are devised as pastoral, addressing whatever our culture (more broadly within popular culture or within a congregation) is facing that requires a few weeks to work through. When approached in this manner, it can be beautiful. In fact, church planter Kevin Lum of The Table Church in Washington, DC has taken this approach year after year in a way I have always admired.

Pulpit v. Table
The Episcopal tradition takes a different approach and it was this approach that drew me towards becoming an Episcopalian. For starters, in most Episcopal congregations on any Sunday morning you can be certain that the gravity of the service is around the Eucharist table, not the pulpit. This is significantly different than many reformed and evangelical traditions where the sermon is the central point of the service. I was drawn to this because it demonstrated a central value in what it means to be the church: it is not disparate people fixated on an individual, it is a community gathering around a common meal where each participates equally. With this in mind, I have attempted to ask myself whether my preaching prepares people to come to the table; does whatever I am preaching on bring us back to the upper room and prepare us for the work Jesus has given us?

Harmony, not Melody
Another distinction for Episcopal preaching, is the lectionary. We read a lot of Scripture together on Sunday mornings. Across the Old Testament and New Testament. It is a practice in some evangelical traditions to take particular passages out of context. I was drawn to a tradition that was reading whole swaths of Scripture together before a sermon was preached, providing a controlsmall as it may be, on a preacher's agenda.

Side note: I say some evangelicals because not all evangelical preachers take part in twisting a verse to mean something that suits them and has nothing to do with the remaining passage. It was evangelical pastors that taught me to read and then teach Scripture by reading whole chapters and even whole books of the Bible before considering what a few sentences mean (Thanks, Pastor Raymond and Pastor David!).

In my observation, the lectionary took this a step further.

The lectionary assumes that all of the books we have in the canon, while not necessarily singing the same melody, harmonize with each other. That is to say they point in the same direction. Too often, Episcopalians are painfully biblically illiterate. This reality shocked me when I entered this tribe. This surprised me because I viewed the lectionary as a tool for teaching Scripture in a holistic way. And I've continued to take this viewpoint in preaching over the last 6 years of being an Episcopalian.

To take this "harmony" approach, I start with reading the Gospel passage for a given Sunday and then read the other readings in light of the Gospel. I look for threads and attempt to discern what the architects of our lectionary considered all of these passages to have in common. Sometimes it is obvious, sometimes it is not, nonetheless, I believe it is central that the life and teachings of Jesus inform how we read and understand the scope of Scripture.

This concept of "harmony" is important to me for another reason. Too often in my experience, when evangelical apologists attempt to defend an inerrant view of Scripture, it depends on people overlooking a whole bunch of inconsistencies. People are not stupid and we shouldn't treat them as such. The Bible has been written by a variety of authors in different eras and locations. Of course there will be details that appear to contradict each other! I always felt these apologists to be ineffective and pandering. And, yet, the lectionary has challenged me to ruminate on various passages throughout the Christian calendar pondering how these books "sing" together with Jesus' message we find in the Gospels.

Which brings me to my last principle for preaching.

Preaching through Prayer
If the Episcopal Church is anything, it's a tribe of praying people. Our shared life is shaped by prayer and the approach to preaching should be no different in my mind. My practice has been to read first the Gospel and then the other readings for a forthcoming Sunday as early in the week as I can–typically, on Monday. Throughout the week, I reflect on the passages in prayer, jotting down notes as I go. What inevitably happens is that these readings change how I approach any number of circumstances throughout the week. Sometimes I will reconsider how to handle a situation in the moment or find myself reflecting on something that has happened during the week in light of what I've read. It is a form of conversation with God that ends up shaping the sermon that is prepared by week end. This, I find, to be critical because the point of a sermon is to pique curiosity, interest and an awareness that these ancient words can breathe new life into our daily lives. We do the work of helping listeners find their story within God's Story by demonstrating it in our own. Certainly, the sermon is not an opportunity to air our dirty laundry or boast of our brilliance. Yet, we need to be able to find ourselves in the Story with humility–recognizing that we are the same journey as those listening and confidence–reminding ourselves and those listening that God of our foremothers and forefathers still speaks to us today.

I'd love to read about your preaching preparation process (if you have one) and thoughts on mine (if you have some).

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

September 15, 2018

Weekend Listening: Buke and Gase - Pink Boots

YouTube | Spotify
Buke and Gase are making music again and that makes me happy! They've released two tracks from their forthcoming album that stick to quirky and beautiful sound they've crafted for years now. My favorite of the two is "Pink Boots" and it has the strangest video to go along with it:

Other Buke & Gase shares:
Weekend Listening: Buke and Gase - Typo

And mentions in:

September 12, 2018

Spectacle, Growth and Asking Questions

In the latest episode of A New Thing, two questions were hinted at in our conversation that I've continued to think about.

The first was starting new churches really require sensationalism, a spectacle? The other question was is starting a church really about scale and growth–creating a "thing"? Or is it about people, a community?

Catherine asked the first, effectively. And Rasheen asked the second.

I think it’s important for those of us that are “professional Christians" to consider these two questions were posed by lay leaders in the Church. Could these questions be reflective of others that fill seats and pews on Sunday morning?

Here's where I'm going with this: I wonder if sometimes the spectacle fashioned by new congregations exposes the lack of engagement in the gospel; which is scandalous itself. Why would we need to fabricate drama if we truly sought to to preach, teach, pray and live out something as disruptive as, oh, say the Sermon on the Mount, for example?

Secondly, I wonder if our obsession with growth or "success" exposes the absence of true analysis and strategy for sustainability along with a human craving for more. I'm referencing three potential scenarios which can be distracting:

1) A planter, or sponsor of a plant, is unwilling to do the work of crunching the numbers, studying the data and figuring out what it really takes to achieve sustainability in your context, so you slap numbers around without any data knowing full well you don't intend to be accountable to that or

2) You've done that study but really just don't want to work that hard to achieve that, or

3) You've done that study but want more and are therefore not transparent with what it takes to do create a sustainable community ... because it's not a community for you, it's a platform.

Thinking "out loud" here. Would love to know your thoughts. And go listen to the episode.