Thanks for the Award, Community!

Two speeches about church and social media

Forgive me blogosphere, I have sinned. It’s been 3 weeks since my last post.

Real life gets in the way of blogging, just as blogging gets in the way of real life. It’s a balancing act and honestly I needed time to refocus after all the Beth Moore attention this past week.

Anyway…………………………some acclaim came our way while I was gone.

We won the Distinguished Young Alumni Award from my alma mater Boston University School of Theology. Woohoo!

I say “we” because I wouldn’t write for no one to read, to speak into a void where nothing would respond. If it wasn’t for the comments and feedback from my readership, the posts would be boring and out-of-sync with the world around me. If you notice, often I refer to HackingChristianity as “we” not “I” because of the symbiotic relationship we have. And it was heavily the work on this blog and my work on social media that led to this award.

So thank you! And congratulations! But from the bottom of my heart, thank you.

So you can share in the experience, at the Seminary I had two speaking engagements. I’ve published below both speeches so you can read through them. There’s some personal stuff that I haven’t shared publically on the blog so you may be enriched by reading it.

The first is a panel discussion called “three challenges for the next decade.” Each panelist was to choose three challenges in our next decade and describe them. I chose:

  1. How to be an incarnational church in the digital age.
  2. How to be the church in a world that is fully customizable and without dissonance. (Concise discussion of the echo chamber that I write about a lot)
  3. How to develop a broader understanding of what it means to be United in the UMC.

The second is a Constructive Theology Class discussion where I was brought in to talk about doing theological reflection in blog form. I have three suggestions for blogging:

  1. Write about your passion, someone else has it too.
  2. Digital interactions absolutely have real-world ramifications.
  3. Respond to your context and it will respond to you.



Three Challenges for the Next Decade

There are 100 better challenges than these for the Church. Challenges of alleviating poverty, tending to the sick, advocating for those in prison, reconciling our past abuses and current failures, and evolving the Christian message to a different society than it began in. So these are the challenges after those that pertain to my particular interests.
The one hundred and first challenge is how to be an incarnational church in the digital age.

  • When I was in college, I was going to miss a communion sunday because I was flying. The pastor gave me a “communion to go” kit, with a shotglass of blessed grape juice and one of those fantastic-tasting wafers, and instructions to take it at exactly 11:40am so that I would be connected with my faith community. Now I fell asleep on the plane and forgot but the point was that that church considered the Body of Christ to extend beyond the gathered community and into 30,000 feet into the air.
  • Today the internet has extended this consideration to figure out how to be the Church in an increasingly digital world, separated by thousands of miles but able to communicate in a second. Our community is now found online, we ask our facebook people for references of places to eat and hairdressers, we get daily bible studies by email, we keep connected by our smartphones so we don’t miss a groupon or deal. Our eyes and ears and an increasing percentage of our existance is online, and the question is how does the Body of Christ respond.
  • There are creative churchy challenges: How do you do communion over the internet? Can you baptize someone over Skype? These are the logistical and liturgical questions. Then there are the theoretical questions that seminarians are best to respond: what does the Incarnation mean to a person who does not physically participate in a church community but connects online? What kind of church exists online where those who are poor and illiterate cannot participate and are not seen? What hybrid solutions might work in the interim?
  • This is an important challenge because the margins and the minority groups in our societies increasingly turn online. In my rural Oklahoma town, marginalized youth find support less from their peers and more online, less from their churches and more on religion forums. If we are to truly be the church of the margins and the middle, we need to further engage what it means to be the Incarnation of Christ for the world online.

The one hundred and second challenge is how to be the church in a world that is fully customizable and without dissonance.

  • This is related to the first one but a separate issue that I tend to obsess over. As technology marches on, our world, more than ever before, can be made into an echo-chamber where we only hear voices we align with. We can choose to watch Fox News or MSNBC, read the Wall Street Journal or the New Yorker, read daily bible reflections by Bishop Spong or Al Mohler, listen to NPR or Talk Radio.  There’s even religious search engines like Jewgle that returns only Orthodox Jewish results, or SeekFind that return only conservative Christian results.
  • We customize all of our media experience so that we don’t have to listen to dissonant voices and when we do, it is in a framework to our liking. More than just the media, in his book The Big Sort, Bill Bishop notes that people move into neighborhoods where they see likeminded people and form landslide counties where political votes become one-sided, increasing 300% since the 1970s. We increasingly live, experience, and surround ourselves with media that reinforces our beliefs rather than challenges them.
  • The question is an evangelistic one: how do we preach Christ, a dissonant voice that challenges our comfortable spheres, in a way that breaks through these customizable existences?  In Scripture, Jesus was invited into Pharisees home and threw down with them, challenged by scribes on the street who disagreed with his message or methods, and was present at the well when the woman came to get a drink. Today, the only Christ you hear is often mediated through your choice of a church or a TV show or a podcast or a blog that you already agree with. Indeed, often the only understanding of Christ that is mentioned is one that, oddly enough, matches your beliefs. Hmm.
  • How does the church find the avenues into these increasingly rigid spheres? Do we water down Christ to make him palpatable? Do we focus on Christ’s promises of personal transformation or calls to social transformation? And least but perhaps most of all, how do we ensure our churches do not become increasingly stratified, each serving only a particular slice. Or is that the only way forward is to take down the big tent churches and cater only to particular persuasions? If people live and get their news from the echo chamber, does Christian evangelism have to replicate those lifestyles to break through? Do we need SUV-driving materialistic suburban whites to get into the grooves of “those” people, or in doing so do we emulate our ghettoized cultures rather than critique them. I don’t know…that’s why it is a challenge.
  • I just worry how many generations it will take until the human psyche can no longer handle dissonance and social groups can no longer navigate conflict, and how the church can respond.

The one hundred and third challenge is specific to the United Methodist Church and it is to develop a broader understanding of what it means to be United.

  • I have a clergy friend in Oklahoma and we call our relationship “The Spectrum”. We went to polar opposite seminaries, hold polar opposite theologies and ecclesiologies, and yet we both deeply consider ourselves and the other to be Methodist. We joke that we were not ordained the same year because the altar could not handle the spectrum exhibited at one time.
  • If you take our relationship as a microcosm of the entirety of the United Methodist Church, our primary point of tension comes over the hot button issues yes but it’s not really about the issues themselves. It’s about what we consider our church to be. For her, being United means we have a uniformity of Doctrine and everyone follows it the same, whether we are in Africa or in America. For me, being United means having a uniform mission but a variety of expressions based on our contexts.  If our doctrine and polity allowed for a diversity of expression but uniformity of mission, the church could better adapt to a multicultural and global world.
  • The constant criticism is that if we have plurality of doctrine then we become the Untied Methodist Church, one that has ecclesial anarchy and cannot possibly function as the body of Christ. I disagree. As 1 Corinthians 12 says, “we are many parts but one body.”
  • One personal recollection. In 2005 I was in our United Methodist History class and the question came up “does anyone think the UMC will not eventually schism.” I remember and I may be wrong but I remember being the only person dumb enough to say I did not think we would split. Every four years on the hot topic issues when our church votes to change or retain our church doctrine, we are divided 45/55. One these topics, one could see us as two churches. But I don’t think 2 churches is the answer, as both churches will continue to have underage abortions, gay children, and pluralities of opinions on important topics.
  • Perhaps my answer in History class was not naive idealism but hope. I fully believe in my heart and in my head, that one of the best contributions that our Methodist church can do to a culture that is increasingly partisan and polarized is to model what unity of mission and diversity of expression looks like.  It will take some changes to our doctrine and it will take a committed laity to reign in the schizmatics and the bailers.
  • Thankfully, Boston University has made a lot of headway in that. Phil Wogaman has advocated for a unity in diversity approach at various General Conferences, and Tiffany Steinwert did her dissertation on this topic in 2009. So there’s a lot of work being put into research and rhetoric but more works needs to be done at the local level so that more churches see themselves as United even if our practices and expressions of our faith lie on a broader spectrum than they are comfortable with.

In conclusion, these are three similar challenges. (1) What does it mean to be the Body of Christ in digital spheres, (2) what does it mean to introduce dissonance into customizable digital spheres, and (3) what role might the United Methodist Church in particular to embody what dissonance can achieve, what unity in diversity might be able to handle.

I think that if we fully question and embrace these three interconnected challenges, we will place the Church in a more relevant and vital part of the human condition and be better able to respond to those first one hundred challenges. Thank you for your attention.

Blogging as Theological Reflection

I’ve sat in this room many times during my time in seminary. Oftentimes I felt myself wonder “how on earth is Karl Barth preachable? How will I fit the Process Theology worldview in a 30 minute bible study? Will my congregation or classroom care about about Neville’s definition of Revelation?” I admit I took a pragmatic approach to my seminary education, retaining only what I thought would be valuable and learning enough about the rest to pass the class. Some of you may be in the same boat.
I don’t have a definition of “What is theology” for you. I do have a pragmatic understanding of how theology works. Theology responds to the perplexities of life that overwhelm us intellectually, emotionally, relationally, and spiritually.  This is not done systematically. People create pedestrian theologies, ones that are not systematic or well-rounded but a response to the stimuli, the education, and the events in one’s life. We create theology out of our experience and what we focus on.
I think increasingly the world that we most need response to is the digital one, as it takes more and more of our eyes and minds time. If you’ve ever updated your facebook status in the bathroom, you know what I mean. And for that reason, since 2002 I’ve dedicated a lot of spare time and brainwidth on figuring out how to best interact with this digital world. And the result is my blog Hacking Christianity and intentional interactions in social media.
I have a couple of examples of where theology meets life.
  • The particular joy of blogging about theological and ecclesial topics is that you find you are not alone. Blogs are a niche form of expression and theological engagement with a particular slice of society. My blog is called Hacking Christianity because I’m a nerd and I think there might be more than one nerd who likes geeky topics and theology out there. If I was a dancer, I would be called “John’s head on a plate” or a cooking blog titled “just add Lot’s wife” or if you were a baseball player, it could be “third base with Noah” or something (that’s biblically accurate, by the way). The point is there’s value in writing about what excites you and drawing in others into that excitement. I’ve gotten to know some serious nerds. One guy does worship services at ComicCon and Anime conventions. One guy is writing a book on the Theology of Zelda (a video game) and got me a chapter in it. The Methodist polity nerds coalesce together over the controversial topics. Write about your passion, and then theological reflection comes much easier because you are not doing it in isolation.
  • Second is be careful because theological engagement online overflows into real life. A few years back I had a person look up my name and call my church and leave a threatening message on my church answering machine when they disagreed with a blog post. Really weirded out my internet illiterate church secretary. Another time a 16yo youth emailed me asking if I knew of any pastors she could talk to. She was a lesbian and had literally no one in her town to talk to without condemnation. Her town ended up being close by and we were able to connect and find hope for her.  While most blogging can seem vain or fluffy, and no one cares what you ate for breakfast on Twitter, it can yield real-life impact if you are consistant and accessible in your persona.
  • The reason I’m here today is because two weeks ago I wrote a blog post on Beth Moore, who is a teacher of women mostly in the Southern Baptist tradition. I had identified a particular issue in my Bible Belt Methodism which was that all the women’s groups were watching Beth Moore, who has a Baptist theology and a less-than-academic bible criticism, but a stellar presence and compelling story. I felt there was something wrong there but I am not a woman and did not know how it felt to be a woman in these groups, so I put out the question and six women responded who had that experience and would write about it. I collected them, added some of my own obnoxious commentary, and boom it was read and distributed three times more than anything else I had written. I had my own blog post sent to me, without my name on it, and the person said “this sounds like something you should read.” There was a need in my bible belt community and in the United Methodist Church to theologically reflect on what was being taught in our Sunday Schools and if it was appropriate, and I’ve had pastors email and thank me for giving them the excuse to start the conversation in their parish. By addressing a theological concern in a holistic way, I opened the door for many many churches to be able to start that conversation.

So if you are now fully awake and want the short version:

  1. Write about your passion, someone else has it too.
  2. Digital interactions absolutely have real-world ramifications.
  3. Respond to your context and it will respond to you.

So start writing. Put your voice out there.

My closing bit of wisdom is from the Theologian Spiderman, actually his uncle. “With great power comes great responsibility.” By having a seminary education, even if you are just a functional listener like me, you will know just enough to be dangerous with your words, and helpful or harmful with your engagement of criticism. Use your words wisely and with great discernment, and the benefits will be great. Thank you.

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