Monday, April 12, 2010

Back to Eden

Last week, I spent a few days back at Eden Seminary for their spring convocation. No longer eligible for their Herbster alumni event, I wasn't made to be in such a rush to make it there for that program. And that turned out to be a good thing, because a funeral came up for Monday morning, the day after Easter. Needless to say, by the time I got to St. Louis Monday evening, I was pretty beat.

My spirits perked up once I met up with friends at Schlafly Bottleworks for a late dinner, followed by some frozen custard at Ted Drewe's. Ah, St. Louis. How I missed you.

The opening worship at convocation featured Dr. Steve Patterson, professor of New Testament, as the preacher. In part, he introduced the event's theme, "Church Next." But more than that, he preached on how life in Christ is always continuing no matter what sort of state the church is in: "Life in Christ: always ending, always beginning, always incomplete." Dr. Patterson is leaving at the end of this school year to take a new position at Willamette University in Salem, Oregon. His book The God of Jesus remains one of the most influential to me in terms of how I read the Gospels and how I read and interpret who Jesus is. The one who follows him will have some incredibly huge shoes to fill.

As mentioned, convocation's theme was "Church Next," featuring speakers Phyllis Tickle and Diana Butler Bass, both of whom have written extensively about the past and future of the church.

Tickle was with us on Tuesday, and sort of set up the situation that the church faces these days. She began by noting, "Every 500 years or so, the church has a big rummage sale." In other words, there is a huge shift that affects the church every 500 years: 500 years ago was the Reformation, 1000 years ago was the Great Schism, 1500 years ago was the fall of the Roman Empire, and on it goes. In the midst of this, Tickle shared that these were not just church events...these were larger cultural events that included shifts in politics and economics that had implications for the church as well. During the Reformation, for instance, we didn't just get Martin Luther and Protestantism (and Tickle would argue that Protestantism was one byproduct of this bigger cultural thing and not its end purpose). Around that time came the printing press, which greatly impacted literacy, book distribution, and mass media.

Tickle refers to the latest cultural shift as the Great Emergence, which is marked in part by an explosion of information technology. In the midst of this shift, new models of church have emerged in response. At that point, she very briefly denoted these new models and movements: emerging, emergent, missional, neo-monastic, etc. For my own part, I wish she'd have explained each of these for the audience. During the Q&A, one person stood up asking where the women authors and leaders of this movement are, mistaking it for "another male-dominated hierarchy." Tickle did at that point clarify that this is far from being the case (especially the hierarchy part), but I think a brief explanation of emergence movements might have avoided that. Then again, some people are going to be angry regardless.

That evening, I crashed the convocation banquet (don't tell anyone!), which was held at one of my former field education sites. It was nice to make that connection, even though my time there was certainly a mixed bag. Among the speakers was Rev. Geoffrey Black, new UCC General Minister and President. The main purpose of the evening was to celebrate the completion of an $18 million gift made to the seminary from the Deaconess Foundation. It was a pretty good evening for being completely free.

Diana Butler Bass was with us the second day. She spent some time with the phrase, "spiritual but not religious," clarifying what those terms generally mean to people in this day and age. "Religion" connotes something institutional and conventional with dogma and budgets, while "spiritual" is something more personal and transcendent. Bass cast the "spiritual" term in the most positive of lights, as I think the term is often used by people in much more gooey, non-committal ways.

Bass used these terms along with some poll data to illustrate that Americans' affiliation with what she termed "conventional religion" is changing: less and less people are identifying with institutional forms of faith, but as many people as ever believe in God.

First off, she said, "it's not the mainlines' fault." People like to blame the mainlines since they're the ones that are especially hurting. Instead, Bass shared that a change in the overall culture has as much to do with this, if not more, as what churches are or aren't doing.

Second, she shared a great analogy about phone booths. There used to be over a million phone booths in the U.S., but that number has declined to over 600,000. But nobody is panicking and saying, "Nobody is communicating! What do we do?" It's just that we have so many new forms of communication such as cellphones and other portable products that we're using instead. Just because less people are identifying with conventional forms of faith, it doesn't mean less people are interested in or devoted to spiritual concerns. This interest and devotion is just manifesting in different ways now.

Along with this official stuff, there was time spent with friends, taking in some familiar St. Louis spots, and worrying about Coffeeson. Coffeewife called on Tuesday to say that he was running a fever, and by that evening they were in the emergency room. As it turns out, it was an ear infection coupled with allergies. He's actually had a rough couple weeks. So part of my time was spent feeling helpless that I was 500 miles away while all this was going on. Fortunately, he was starting to do better on Wednesday. Still, I was glad to get home to help take care of him.

All in all, a good trip.