Monday, July 24, 2017

A Theory of Fandom

I was a Doctor Who fan before I realized it.

When I was in elementary school, a friend had some episodes on VHS recorded off of TV. He insisted that we sit down and watch while I was over one afternoon, and I recall that we watched them several more times after that.

The particular series focused on Meglos, an evil shape-shifting alien cactus who wanted to steal a powerful object called The Dodecahedron. There were also space pirates, who became lost in the TARDIS and I think were mostly there for comic relief.

At this point, Tom Baker was playing The Doctor, his signature scarf always draped around his neck. I was taken in by all of it: the blue box that was bigger on the inside, the strangeness of the bad guy, the flights through both time and space, the cool theme song. And eventually, I'd find, a hero who regenerates when he dies.

My friend had just enough episodes of this show for me to realize that eventually the Doctor changes. The show keeps going, just with a different actor playing the title character. I wasn't sure about this part at first, because I'd already taken to Baker and didn't know if I'd like the next person. At my young age, I had become privy to one of the most common issues that Doctor Who fans face: uncertainty that they'll like the new actor around whom their beloved franchise will rotate.

When the series was revived in 2005, I didn't immediately start watching. In fact, I didn't catch up with the show until Matt Smith had taken over, two Doctors later. But when my wife and I finally did begin with Christopher Eccleston's turn, I wasn't sure. This guy in a black leather jacket didn't bear much of a resemblance to Baker's long scarlet coat and colorful scarf. But eventually, I accepted him on his own terms and could appreciate what he brought to the role. We'd do it again with his three successors, making adjustments and recognizing the different personality quirks brought out by each.

So then a few weeks ago, the newest Doctor was announced. Even if you aren't a fan of the show, you might have heard about it:

Let's just say that the reaction to this has been mixed. Jodie Whittaker is the first woman to play the role in the show's 50+ year history. With such a long backlog of episodes, actors, and experiences behind us, this change has been seen as quite radical for a certain portion of the fanbase.

I'm developing a theory as to why something like this gets such a strong reaction, the same as when they made a Ghostbusters movie with an all-female cast, when Hermione was cast as a black woman in a Harry Potter play, and when other franchises have made changes that go in a bold new direction.

I mean besides misogyny and racism. Let's just go ahead and name those things because they definitely play a part in all this.

Think about how you reacted when your favorite band decided to try a new sound on their latest album. Or when, after a few years, your beloved show kills off a certain character. Or when your favorite comic book starts a strange new arc that doesn't seem at first to gel with what came before.

What happens is similar to how Whittaker has been received. It's not like what I grew up with. It's not like what I've come to know and expect and treasure from this artist/show/movie/whatever. Our earliest experiences with something tend to become the ones we love the most and, in many cases, the ones we insist they maintain.

Never mind that later changes may become access points for others to fall in love with it, too. Because after all, we loved it first when it was this other way, and new developments are a cheapening/broadening/destroying of the more authentic thing that I prefer. Objectively, it might not really be worse, but from the perspective of my memories formed during particular life stages, it's horrible.

When you connect with something at a certain point in its creative life, it doesn't seem to take very long for that connection to solidify and become what you believe it should always be.

(Christian readers, do you see how this happens in the church, by the way? Think about it.)

I for one am excited about the show's new direction. We've come a long way since Tom Baker battled a cactus, but I'm able to hold those loosely enough to love what's come after.

(Image via DeviantArt)

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Vintage CC: Tips on Church Visioning from "Weird Al" Yankovic

I wrote this post back in July 2014, and was inspired enough by one of "Weird Al" Yankovic's latest offerings to explore its implications for the church. Apparently this one struck enough of a nerve to make its way to the Christian Century blog, which was nice to see as well. The overall point of this post was to highlight one of the many ways we can be our own worst enemies in terms of trying to make difference the world, and I think it still holds up pretty well.

Everyone has music that helps mark their childhood. The artists that one hears during those formative years tend to stick with us, evoking memories when the oldies are played and, while not always the case, we may be likely to follow a few of these throughout their careers, no matter what sorts of turns their musical styles take.

Sometime in elementary school, I first heard "Weird Al" Yankovic's classic song "Eat It," a parody of Michael Jackson's "Beat It." A few years later, a friend lent me his copy of the album Even Worse, and I laughed so hard at some songs that I cried. That was all it took to make me a fan for life.

A few weeks ago, "Weird Al" released his latest album, Mandatory Fun. As I've mentioned, I've worried with recent albums that I wouldn't be as familiar with the songs he parodies, as I tend not to listen to mainstream radio nearly as much as I used to. Fortunately, this hasn't often been the case, and the songs he's chosen to skewer on Mandatory Fun are popular enough that even I who have been wandering off the musical beaten path for years was able to join in on the fun.

As he has done several times, "Weird Al" chose an older song to parody this time around, that being Crosby, Stills, and Nash's "Carry On," refashioning it as "Mission Statement."  The concept of this song is pretty simple: string together a bunch of the most common buzzwords and phrases used in the world of business, including "efficiently," "synergy," "trajectory," "philosophy," "maximize," and countless others. Here, take a listen:

The song, much like most companies' actual mission statements, sounds impressive until you realize it doesn't really say anything. It's just a bunch of jargon that may in some real way describe a business' plan or purpose, but isn't really all that connected to what individuals and teams are doing.

So, then, why would a business have a mission statement? Why would they bother to craft one, let alone hang it on posters and send it out on memos? There are any number of answers to that. For one, it makes people feel better about trying to name and communicate a group's purpose, whether anyone other than the task force that wrote it cares or not. For another, it's busywork; something that somebody can do and maybe feel productive. Or not. For still another, those who work on mission statements may earnestly be trying to describe what they see their company doing, or wish they would do. Getting individual employees to buy in to the particular descriptor is another task altogether.

Which brings me to the church. For at least as long as I've been in ministry--and, I sense, much longer than that--church consultants have advocated for the borrowing of concepts from the world of business, including the construction of a mission statement. Entire denominations do it, as do many local congregations. Look on most church websites, letterhead, bulletins, and wherever else, and many have adopted this practice in one form or another. And because we're the church, we have our own set of buzzwords and jargon that may appear: "community," "hospitality," "reach," "serve," "discipleship," and on the list goes.

(And maybe it'll mention Jesus. Or not.)

The last church I served had such a mission statement, which was fairly long. But here's the thing: when I would ask people what it said, nobody could tell me. It was printed on the bulletin cover every week, full of lots of great concepts and churchy words, but nobody paid it any attention. We even underwent a process to revise it to a single sentence and shared the new statement with the congregation in multiple ways. Honestly, this happened near the tail end of my time there, so I can't say for sure whether the new one is being used.

Where I am now, we have a lengthy mission statement that predates my pastorate by over a decade. It's even displayed on a lovely hand-carved wooden plaque. Do we use it? Does anyone pay it any mind? Not that I'm aware of. But it looks and sounds nice.

Churches should have a sense of direction and purpose, that I certainly wouldn't argue against. Unfortunately, too many churches' purposes in practice seem to be, simply, "Survive." This manifests in endless preoccupation over the scarcity--real or perceived--of money and members; the congregation turns inward to protect itself, negating the chance of ever improving upon the situation it worries about.

Does a church need a mission statement in order to change this sort of culture? In some contexts, perhaps. If presented right so as to effect buy-in from the congregation and subsequently hold itself accountable, this might be the right path for some. More often, however, a mission statement ends up being busywork that helps us feel like we're doing and saying something, with little follow-up after its creation other than having something new to put at the top of the newsletter.

What I have found to be more effective is cultural change from within via pockets of committed people doing something that they're passionate about. Do you have a handful of folks itching to go help with a Habitat for Humanity build? How could their participation help fuel a greater commitment to service around the church? Do you have some people wondering about the changing neighborhood and how to engage those moving in? What would their getting together for regular conversation about that produce? Is there a group that can see some of the deficiencies in technology and potential for greater engagement in those trends for the church? How could they be empowered for that work, and how might it catch on over time?

Church visioning begins with people, not buzzwords. Church culture changes via people who want to do something new getting others caught up in the excitement and possibility, not a statement about what you want to do.

In fact, coming up with a catchy, sound, astute statement loaded with pretty, purposeful-sounding words might be distracting. Crafting a mission statement provides the illusion of doing something without actually doing much at all.

What could we be doing instead?

Monday, July 17, 2017

Living Water

They started their reflection with a story about trout-fishing.

I was sitting in a small hotel conference room with around 40 fellow young clergy. The planners of this activity had set aside this time during the UCC's General Synod to invite this group to a time of worship and renewal before the bigger event really started. It featured a renewal of baptism with drops of water flung onto our heads from tree branches; an encouragement to remember who and Whose we are.

But not before we heard about trout fishing.

Rev. Emily C. Heath was our reflector for the afternoon. They shared an experience of visiting a bait shop to hear about the best places to find fish, during which they heard about living water vs. dead water. As it turns out, there are certain spots in rivers that are considered dead: nothing is moving, and there is no chance to find fish in those places. Contrast this with living water, where there is movement and thus there is life.

If you are in dead water, you won't find much that will sustain or invigorate you. But in living water, vitality and refreshment abounds.

I'd spent the week prior to this moment on the beach. This place in Florida is one of my terrains of the heart, to which I return either physically or through memory to be rejuvenated. I and my family spent this time in the living waters of the ocean, with their waves breaking on the sand; the sounds of their crashing a gentle echo in my ears.

We saw fishing boats all week. This water had plenty of life to share.

And it shared it with me. I stood on the shore, the sand collecting around my ankles while my children kicked and splashed and jumped. I watched the waters move and flow in, out, and across. I'd come to stand here after six months without a true break, at times wondering where certain parts of my life are headed, trying to keep other things afloat related to my sense of call and my own spirit.

I was tired. I'd been treading in dead water for a while. But even the thought that I'd soon be here kept me going.

My word for this week was "Kairos," which can mean "the right time," or "on God's time." This is to be contrasted with "Chronos," or chronological time where everything is scheduled, parsed out, urgent, and in its proper order. Chronos is our attempt to control time and, by extension, all that happens to us. Kairos is our giving ourselves to the moment and to allow things to unfold around and in us.

Whatever this living water had to give me this week, I would allow it to happen. Nothing pre-scheduled, save a day in the Harry Potter parks at Universal, and even that was largely unstructured. No planning what I would do upon returning home; no mental energy spent on issues I'd return to. Just God's time spent with these waves of replenishment.

So by the time I sat in that banquet room for worship, I'd already been immersed in living water. To have it framed that way only deepened my appreciation of the experience. It would continue as I walked along Baltimore's Inner Harbor and as I sweated out toxins searching for Edgar Allen Poe's grave. It continued as I refueled with drinking water and heard about the waters of God making all things glad per the designated theme of the conference.

As usual, I hadn't fully recognized my need for living water until I was standing in it, sprinkled by it, drenched in it, fulfilled by it. I finally found my way out of dead water into something new. And on God's time, I'll discover what that newness is.

Thursday, July 13, 2017

Book Review: Contemporary Churches by Louis F. Kavar

Those of us who grew up in Christian churches, no matter what denomination, were taught to understand that the church should be the center of our lives and activities: the hub. As attractive as that understanding of the local church may be, there has always been a fundamental flaw in this model of the church. As Christians, it is the teachings of Jesus and the way of life he modeled for us that should be the center of our lives and not an institution. Churches are places where we gather, learn, share faith, and celebrate our way of life and beliefs. But the institution is not a substitute for the experience of leading a spiritual life which is primarily informed by the teachings of Jesus and the experience of God in our midst. - Louis Kavar, Contemporary Churches

I would say that almost from my very first weeks in full-time pastoral ministry, I recognized that the church has a problem. In those earliest days I couldn't articulate what the problem was, but I knew that there was something about the way the church operates, something about the way it approaches what it does, something about what it understands itself to be, that is causing it to be in trouble without realizing it.

Over time, I'd find authors, speakers, blogs, and books to help give name to the slow-boiling crisis in which the church finds itself, chief among them being that many mainline churches think they can still operate as if they are the best or only game in town, religious or otherwise. It wonders why the old tricks that worked back when it was the center of society aren't as effective any more, and many don't even realize that that shift from the center to the periphery has taken and is taking place. In many places, our organizational structure and self-understanding is draining us, and we need a fresh approach rooted in our original purpose.

In his slim volume Contemporary Churches: Spiritual Transformation of Congregations, Louis Kavar names some of these problems manifested in mainline churches. He is a United Church of Christ pastor, so his experience is rooted in that tradition but easily translatable to similar denominations.

Kavar begins in the introduction by naming a few of the problems such churches are facing, singling out readiness to welcome new people, organizational structure, leadership, and the changing role of the church in American culture. He offers a brief overview of each as a setup to what comes after, giving enough background without belaboring any one point. He does spend a little more time on the church's cultural status, which contributes to the others in various ways. He also fleshes out each in subsequent chapters, so the reader is never left with a shallow understanding of what he means.

Kavar's chief concern is cultivating a shift in a church's understanding of who and what it is. He spends quite a bit of time exploring how many churches operate and approach their sense of purpose as an institution that must be maintained (and sometimes protected) and whose main function is to be a hub of activities and socialization around which people orient all available resources and free time. Some churches can get away with this, but an increasing amount cannot. What, then, do churches become instead given this changing reality, and what will such becoming ask them to change about themselves?

The answer is not a uniform, one-size-fits-all solution, which immediately differentiates this book from many contemporaries. What Kavar does suggest, is that churches understand themselves to be spiritual places that help people live lives of discipleship every day rather than bureaucracies whose main goal is the business of self-preservation. What does this look like? It depends. Kavar gives a handful of examples including one that changed its governing board practices to include a spiritual director who sits in on meetings and offers commentary. Another example is of a newly-merged congregation that spent most of its resources in programs and activities outside the building in efforts to engage its surrounding community.

In the final chapter, Kavar offers some general principles for the spiritual transformation of congregations. The common feature of each is that a sense of spiritual purpose informs everything a church does, where worship and prayer is a central factor in even the administrative side of its life rather than a token piece at the beginning.

I found Kavar's book to be a refreshing look at the hows and whys of a church rediscovering its identity as a place of spiritual empowerment rather than self-sustenance. It offers fresh ways to look at congregational revitalization that avoids proposing a static program that will purportedly work anywhere, instead sharing some basic tenets of what the church can be in a spiritually hungry culture that wonders whether it can still trust local congregations to be faithful guides on the journey. Kavar shows that indeed we still can, if we remember who we really are.

(I was asked to review this book by the Speakeasy blogging book review network, but ended up having to purchase my own copy. My opinions are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255.)