Archive for the ‘Church’ Category

Cream of Wheat in a Pop Tart Culture

Tuesday, October 19th, 2010

My wife worked for a major advertising firm in Chicago and one of their clients was Cream of Wheat.  In the face of a culture that was increasingly given to things that were sticky, sweet, and easily prepared — like Pop Tarts — the folks at Cream of Wheat struggled to market their product.

In working with the firm it became clear that one of the challenges they faced was that they were trying to sell Cream of Wheat — instead of selling its experience or its benefits.  What finally worked for them was a campaign that promised warm, happy tummies.

I haven’t eaten Cream of Wheat in a while — but today, of course, the problem with the old product would be that it contains too many carbs.  And that underlines the nature of the challenge that churches face.  How do you convince people that the experience is good for them?  After all, it’s Cream of Wheat in Pop Tart culture.  Some observations:

One, sell the results, not the experience.  There is nothing intrinsically attractive about the activity of attending church: getting out of bed on Sunday morning, sacrificing time over coffee, gathering with people you see once a week, or making nice with people you see rarely — none of that is a lot of fun.

The results, on the other hand, are a different matter.  At church you should see God, find hope, nurture strength, gather wisdom, and find friends on the same journey.  That’s worth selling.  Church?  Not so much.

Two, make sure the product really does those things.  The problem for Cream of Wheat today is the carbs — people want warm little tummies, not warm bulging tummies and clogged arteries.  Church has the same problem.  People do God, they aren’t interested in doing bureaucracy, politics, or church for the sake of church.  Far too many churches fail to deliver the experience of God, content with arguing that church in and of itself is a good thing.  It isn’t, actually.  Church without God isn’t worth doing at all, in fact.

None of this means that a Pop Tart culture will connect with your message.  It’s hard to underestimate the attraction to something sticky, sweet, and easy.  But there is clarity to be had in naming the thing that should compete for people’s attention.  It’s not a box of carbs.  It’s an encounter with God.

Family Values? Not so much.

Tuesday, October 5th, 2010

The September issue of the Harvard Business Review offers statistical confirmation of something that mothers have known for a long time.  Having children does them no good in the work world.

According to Amanda K. Baumle at the University of Houston, who analyzed the 2000 Census “Having children tends to result in higher wages for men, whether they’re straight or gay, married or partnered…Most mothers make less than childless women.” And “Only lesbians get a salary bump from having kids.”  What is her explanation?  Baumle theorizes that, “In employers’ stereotypical view, lesbians maintain a work trajectory after having children that is more like that of a childless woman or a man.  Meanwhile, employers’ perception of straight women’s competence drops when they have children.”  (HBR vol. 88.9: 26)

I am sure she is right.  What is more distressing is to know that this trend is not just characteristic of business practice, it is characteristic of the church’s practice as well.  Have a baby and you will hear bishops and Commissions on Ministry castigate ordained mothers for working their responsibilities for the nurture and care of their children into their work schedules or they will privately shake their heads and argue that for mothers who are ordained, their ministries are just a hobby.  And, it doesn’t amount to harmless prejudice.  Judgments of this kind come with very real strictures on the positions available to women and the support their bishops will give them.  There might be as many or more women in seminaries around the country, but the stained glass ceiling is still firmly in place as far as ordained mothers are concerned.

What’s wrong with this attitude?  Put it this way — the church may lionize the American family, but it doesn’t make room for mothers to have a ministry (apart from the tea and crumpets circuit) and, as a result, it models behavior that is no different from the world in which the church supposedly witnesses to the importance of the family.

Is it little wonder that “The Boys in Black,” aka “The Girls Have Cooties Club,” still reign supreme in many parts of the church?  Hardly.

You can change structures and formal cultures all you want, but when prejudices of this kind exclude a group — in this case, ordained mothers — from active service, the informal dynamics will always trump the formal changes.  Moms will be ordained, but they won’t find jobs or the jobs they are given are perceived as soft assignments — religious education, family ministry, pastoral care.  I have even heard rectors (senior pastors) introduce the male staff with whom they work by their titles, only to introduce the ordained women on their staff by their first names.

In such circumstances the formal changes in the rules surrounding the ordination of women actually dampen the pressure for real change, giving the impression that the problems have been fixed and giving ecclesiastical leaders a means of excusing themselves by allowing them to point to trends in ordination to excuse the situation (or at least absolve themselves of the dealing with the deeper issues).

I wrote a book almost fifteen years ago on the struggles that women face in ordained life called A Still Small Voice that distinguished between formal and informal cultures and in that book I argued that informal cultures are infinitely more powerful than the formal structures.  That was true then, it’s true now.  I expected the book to be out of print and irrelevant by now.

Sadly, it is neither out of print, nor irrelevant. Commissions on Ministry persist in asking women who have small children how they expect to be able to manage the demands of family and the demands of ministry.  They never ask that question of men who have small children.  Women get asked by the church hierarchy to work for free because, “Your husband makes a lot of money and you don’t need to be paid.”

Meanwhile, in the offices of dioceses, presbyteries, annual conferences and other places where groups of men sit and determine who should be ordained, they lament that the church is the last place where family values are protected and upheld.  But is it, if we fail to model an appreciation for the importance of nurturing our children?

Just because you can does not mean you should

Sunday, October 3rd, 2010

Over the years relatives have shared church bulletins with us, thinking that we might find what the churches are doing of interest.  That’s understandable, considerate, and sometimes we do find them interesting.  There are other times when they are just crazy-making.

For example, my wife’s parents sent us a bulletin from their church in Exeter, New Hampshire announcing a new fall film festival.  The subject matter?

“Fresh”….according to the bulletin “Fresh” celebrates the farmers, thinkers and business people across America who are re-inventing our food system….Forging healthier, sustainable alternatives, they offer a practical vision for a future of our food and planet.”

“Botany of Desire” is the second film on offer and “presents case studies that mirror five types of human desires that are reflected in the way we selectively grow, breed, and genetically engineer our plants.  The apple reflects the desire of sweetness, the tulip beauty, marijuana intoxication and the potato control.”

Finally, the fall series concludes with a film devoted to the “Natural History of the Chicken.”  The bulletin reads: “Most people best know the chicken from their dinner plates — whether as thigh, wing or drumstick.  Consumers barely pause a moment to consider the bird’s many virtues.”  In response, the film promises to expand “the frontiers of popular awareness and delightfully reveals that this small, common and seemingly simple animal is as complex and grand as any of Earth’s creatures.”

Well, isn’t that special.  Just reading this bulletin made me want chicken potpie.  But I wasn’t looking for a plane ticket to New Hampshire.

Why not?

First — this has nothing to do with the mission of the church.  The purpose of the church is to form Christians.  Its mission is not about improving the reputation of the chicken.

And far from advancing the work of the church programming of this kind trivializes its role rendering it the one place where you can have grave, serious, unfocused conversations about anything, but its mission.

It also completely confuses people who might be asking themselves why they should go to church.  It’s true, based on what I have heard in pulpits around the country, it is not clear that clergy know anything.  But presumably, they were taught something about biblical studies, systematic and historical theology, church history, spiritual formation, and pastoral care.  Why would I waste my time learning about farming, botany, and chickens from the church?  When clergy offer up programs of this kind what I hear is this:  “We don’t know why we are here.  We aren’t interested in talking about what you would think we talk about.  So, we thought we would talk about chickens.”

But there is something more profoundly amiss here.  People once died to be Christians and own the name of Jesus.  They still do in many parts of the world.  Is our grasp of the faith and its significance so feeble that we are prepared to turn the church into little more than a curator of quaint conversations?  Did the martyrs of the faith, past and present, die in order to make the world safe for conversations about chicken potpie?  If so, we should not be surprised to find that churches of this kind are attended by shrinking numbers of the aging alumni of Woodstock.

Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should.  Unless you just don’t have anything worth talking about anymore.  But remember…if that’s all we have left to offer as a church, then there isn’t anything here people couldn’t get more comfortably and pleasantly through Netflicks.

Here is the church, here is the steeple, open the doors and here is

Wednesday, September 29th, 2010

Not so many people.  Why?  In part, apparently, because we are doing an increasingly poor job of explaining to the people who come through the doors what it is that we believe, why it makes a difference, and how it differs from what others believe.

A recent Pew Research Center report concluded:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions. On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.  For a complete report, see:

Telling people why you believe what you believe and why it makes a difference does not need to be mean or abusive.  Presumably we all believe a few things deeply — certainly mature people who are guided by any principles at all do.  So why not believe something deeply if you are going to bother going to church?

The problem is, it’s a short distance from “bring your questions, we don’t believe in anything in particular” to “why bother going at all, if all I have are unanswerable questions and all you have is the tolerant ignorance to sit with me while I ask them?”  Why would I need that kind of church?  Companionship?  There are better ways of forging intimacy.  Tolerant space?  We should all be working for that in a country where freedom of speech and belief is paramount, why add another institution to the complexity.

The creeds and beliefs that are the hallmark of churches is the means by which spirituality gets traction in people’s lives.  They provide people with a common vocabulary and understanding of the God they follow, a shared approach to worship that lies at the heart of the spiritual pilgrimage on which they have embarked, and a means of communicating the faith they have embraced to others and across the generations.

But for that to be possible, people need to know what they believe.  A church where people know that need not be a church marked by unthinking dogmatism, nor do the people who attend need to subscribe in a rigid and uniform way to the faith a church of that kind professes.  And people with questions need not be banished.  The characterization of churches as believing or open as the only two alternatives available is unreal at best and a mean-spirited rhetorical device meant to crush only some convictions.

But once institutionalized agnosticism is privileged by that kind of language, it isn’t long before people rightly conclude that there really is no reason for going to church at all.

Healing church, hurtful church

Thursday, September 23rd, 2010

We had dinner with friends last night and we began talking about the emerging church phenomenon — the latest effort to re-boot the church by breaking ties with the long-established denominational structures that have dominated recent Christian history. In passing, one of our friends observed, “Well, I haven’t been hurt by the church, so I find it much harder to turn my back on the day to day reality that we identify as church.”

I was really jarred by the observation (though I didn’t say so), but that is precisely the point for a lot of people. Many — not all — but many who are ready to start over with church have been hurt by it.  So they are ready to tear the walls down, start over, or simply abandon it altogether.

And who could blame them?  Between the big-news-abuse and the small-world-cruelties, the institution that holds out hope to people in Jesus’ name is often the engine of just as much hurtful behavior, as it is healing touch.

The problem, of course, does not lie in the established structures themselves.  Oh, the structures have institutionalized some of the abusive behavior to be sure.  But over time, new structures, no matter how small, homegrown, or local in orientation will begin to manifest the same range of healing and hurtful behaviors.

“Wherever we go there we are.”

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.”

The fundamental difficulty in any reformation of institutions is that it is devoted to reforming the wrong thing.  That is why churches that are devoted to anything but God will fail and hurt us.  It is only God who can call the church’s behavior into question and the reformation starts with the people who attend it.


Lay people need to take responsibility to call their clergy to account for their behavior.

Clergy need to hold one another and their bishops accountable for their behavior.

And together, lay people and clergy need to insist on the primacy of worship and devotion.

That last one may seem a bit strange, but if God isn’t a living reality for a church that calls the people who attend them into a life of vulnerable service and care for one another and those around them, then the church will do what people do when they are left to their own devices:

They will hurt one another without repenting.

They will live out of their own brokenness and pride.

And over time the vanity on display in individual lives will grow large and take on a life of its own.

That’s not an easy assignment.  It is certainly harder than pushing the old thing over and starting all over.  And the fact that starting all over won’t change anything should be no source of comfort to the powers that be.  But healing follows on acknowledging hurts.

Do you know where your children are?

Monday, August 30th, 2010

“Do you know where your children are?”  Remember the public service announcement that was used in the ‘60s, 70s, and 80s?  It was used on television late at night and those who encouraged its use hoped that it would foster the observance of youth curfews and greater parental responsibility.

It might be time to ask Christian parents a similar spiritual question, “Do you know where your children are — spiritually?”

I am not suggesting for a minute that we can control the spiritual choices our children make.  Nor am I suggesting that you are a bad parent if your children are not Christians.  There are a variety of influences that bear on our children’s lives; and their choices are their choices.

But that is not the same thing as indifference.  And an increasing number of Christian parents are, quite simply indifferent to the spiritual choices their children make.  “Oh, it would be nice if they became Christians,” or “We would be pleased if they did,” are the sorts of things that I hear with increasing frequency.

But when push comes to shove, parents often take the path of least resistance in acquainting their children with their faith.

“Can’t confirmation be done earlier?”

“Do I need to insist that they attend church after the age of 12 or 13?”

“Why should I teach Sunday school?”

These are questions prompted by gentle capitulation.  And if we wonder why our children are unimpressed with our faith, we need look no further than the answer we might give to being asked, “Do you know where your children are?”

In the end, your children will reflect the faith and passion that marks your own life.  So the prior question might be this:

“It’s eleven o’clock, where are you in your Christian faith?”

Politics and the Pulpit

Sunday, May 23rd, 2010

I don’t often comment on political issues in public. Most political debates are complicated enough that they do not yield to easy answers; and the right answer or best one is rarely represented by one political point of view. Subtlety is also the first victim of most debates. So there are wise, thoughtful people on both sides of most debates who have something to offer.

Commenting from the pulpit or in public in ways that seemingly aligns the voice of God with a political party only succeeds in adding to the over-simplification and often mean-spirited debate that already characterizes the world in which we live. Commenting publicly on my political views would also alienate those to whom I would rather speak about spiritual matters.

By contrast, clergy who devote most of their time to political commentary rarely add anything of value to the public conversation and they run the risk of losing any recognizable elements of the gospel in the process. It is no surprise that at varying times in its history the Episcopal Church has been characterized as one or the other political party at-prayer. There are clergy whose experience of God is not recognizably different from most political platforms, except (perhaps) a faint hint of self-righteous indignation.

I will say this, however: The gospel speaks to our public debates in ways that almost always gores everyone’s political ox. Christians, if they are truly sold out to God, will always be somewhat uneasy with the world around them, wary of any claim made by human institutions, and ever critical of their behavior.

That conviction need not lead to ingratitude for the places where we grew up and were nurtured. Nor do we need to shovel dirt on our shared history and citizenship. It simply means that — like all good gifts in life —- we should never forget the Giver, nor mistake the gift for the Giver.

Christians cannot escape politics, but they should not allow their faith to be co-opted by their politics. In the tension between the several citizenships that claim our time and energy, the one that trumps them all is our citizenship in the Kingdom of God.

For those of you are not clergy, ask yourself, “Do you want a priest or bishop who is most concerned with the church as an institution? A Democrat or Republican? Or do you want a bishop or priest who is first and foremost of disciple of Jesus Christ?

Very few people are genuinely interested in the first kind of priest. Democrats and Republicans are available in abundance and you can hear them without going to church. The last might just make a difference.


Tuesday, May 18th, 2010

I am not posting this as an implied criticism of anyone’s approach to worship. Apart from being hilarious, however, it is a cautionary tale that suggests worship should always be worship….

What the Church is Called to Be

Tuesday, April 6th, 2010

The Gospel of John describes the church as a visible unity, manifesting the glory of God. Doxa or glory in the Greek has as its parallel in the Hebrew, the word kabod, which means “weight” or “heaviness.” To manifest the weight, the heaviness, the presence of God is no small charge. The weightiness of God’s glory can be too easily identified with the grandiose, where human pretension and true pettiness obscures everything, but our vanity, when, in fact, the doxa, the kabod of God is felt in efforts both large and small.

William Willamon writes:

In the church where [I] was raised, Dorothy was a perpetual member of the third grade church school class. Every child in the church knew that, when you arrived at the third grade in the primary division of the Buncombe Street Church Sunday School, Dorothy would be in your class. She had even been in the class when some of our parents were in the third grade. Dorothy was in charge of handing out pencils, checking names in the roll book, and taking up the pencils. We thought she was the teacher’s assistant. It was much later, when we were nearly all grown up and adult, that the world told us that Dorothy was someone with Down syndrome. When Dorothy died, in her early fifties — a spectacularly long life for someone with Down syndrome — the whole church turned out for her funeral. No one mentioned that Dorothy was . . . afflicted. Many testified to how fortunate they had been to know her.

At the end of an era in which the church has identified so closely with our own culture, it may be time — indeed, past time — for the church to consider the implications of John’s message anew. It is not the passing glory of our own visions, but the enduring glory of God that the world needs. And there is nothing in our dreams that can give the kind of ultimate unity to the diverse mix gathered at commencement ceremonies that can substitute for the one who, in the words of John, was “In the beginning.”

The Problems and Promise of Modern Mysticism

Sunday, March 28th, 2010

In a fine and thought-provoking essay Ross Douthat sketches the challenge of what he describes as “Mass Market Epiphany” — the tendency of an ever-larger number of Americans to claim mystical experiences of God in what is, on every other account, an increasingly materialistic culture (cf. my earlier blog on Big “M” Materialism). Douthat describes at length the tensions in democratizing a phenomenon to which everyone might aspire, but which can also be tamed and taken for granted.

Relying on Luke Timothy Johnson, Douthat notes that the church has failed to respond to this trend thanks to its own surrender to our materialistic culture — the net result being a church which, in its conservative forms preaches culture wars and in its liberal forms lionizes social justice. I think that Douthat and Johnson are right — to a point. But more has to be said.

Conservative and liberal expressions of Christian faith are not simply the product of materialism, they are forms of functional atheism — the substitution of religious ideologies for a relationship with God. Conservative impulses can reinforce the quest for right understanding and liberal ones can bolster the need to work for justice. But in the absence of a relationship with God, both become the hardened substitutes for that relationship. That is why we live in a balkanized and polarized church cultures in which no one — left or right — can hear without categorical condemnations.

God judges us all, finds us wanting, and offers us grace anyway. When humility before God disappears from the equation (even if named and invoked), then ideology becomes all-important and zero-sum spirituality takes its place. Left or right, politically correct and theologically orthodox, we are all given to the perverse, if unspoken conviction, “I can’t go to heaven unless you go to hell.” Hell might differ on the right and the left — the heterodox in one, capitalists in the other — but the passion to gate-keep is all the rage for people who, in the absence of God, worship their own way of construing the Christian faith.

Both are versions of Christianity without staying power, because in the absence of God, they are both just divinized political agendas.

That could be why in the dying heat of the debate between aging baby boomers — which is always the bitterest stage of such debates — our children are looking elsewhere for spiritual guidance. The transcendent is missing from mainline churches. What is on offer everywhere you look is just politics.

You would think that those of us who are closer to meeting God, would give that relationship more of our attention.

Ross Duthat’s editorial may be found at:

Luke Timothy Johnson’s article, which appeared in Commonweal may be found at: