February 2014 Pop Culture Roundup

A lot of good stuff in February, so much that I couldn't limit it to five...

1. The first book that I was really looking forward to reading this year was Sara Miles' City of God, released at the beginning of the month. Her Take This Bread continues to influence me in various ways, so I greatly anticipated this latest offering. Loosely speaking, this is her account of Ash Wednesday 2012, where she and other Episcopalian colleagues interact with a neighborhood in the middle of San Francisco, distributing ashes. I say loosely, because the larger narrative is Miles' love of the neighborhood: her service and her prayers are intensely personal and genuine for this place because she really knows the people and the rhythms here. This serves as a cornerstone for her musings about what ministry in this or any neighborhood is like. The entire book is based on her ability to see God among the strange, quirky, and unconventional inhabitants of her city, and to point out how the divine is already among them. Would that anyone else engaging in ministry in other places began with that notion, too.

2. Coffeeson and I went to see The LEGO Movie the other week. Chris Pratt voices Emmet Brickowoski, an ordinary construction worker in a LEGO world governed/ruled by President Business (Will Ferrell). President Business places high value on uniformity, and accomplishes this by lulling the citizenry into blissful ignorance through popular media and overpriced coffee, maintained by strong encouragement to follow pre-issued instruction manuals (which recall the booklets that come with LEGO sets). Emmet eventually discovers the Master Builders--consisting of many familiar playset figures--who want people to have creative freedom and who want to thwart President Business' secret evil plans to establish permanent sameness. There is some overarching commentary on how society placates itself through consumerism, which could also be taken simply as encouragement to be creative and original, and a celebration of how these toys--for generations now--have allowed people to do just that.

Also, the movie had us singing this song. Like, a lot:

Okay. Before we go any further, I have to share that I set a goal for myself to listen to at least three new albums each week this year. So far I've been able to hold to it pretty well. January was a bit underwhelming when it came to selections; there was a lot that I found pretty forgettable or that just didn't grab me. February has made up for that in spades. So, a quick rundown:

3. On a whim, I clicked on some banner advertising a new album by a band called Young the Giant. The album, Mind Over Matter, took a few songs before I found myself just naturally getting into it. Their sound is a bit eclectic, incorporating elements of rock, pop, and a little electronic. So I decided to give their previous self-titled album a chance as well, which has less of the polish and I actually liked better. I'd suggest to anyone wanting to give them a try to listen to their first album before their last.

4. Galactic is on my shortlist of artists where I make it a point to check out every new offering of theirs. Unfortunately, I somehow missed that they released Carnivale Electricos back in 2012. On this album, they continued on in the New Orleans sound that they've exhibited on their last few offerings, this time with a much more upbeat, party-atmosphere sort of sound as if they want to provide a soundtrack for Mardi Gras. It has a lot of energy, and I'm sorry I didn't find it sooner.

5. A couple years ago, I heard "Bright Lights" by Gary Clark, Jr. on the radio. I remember thinking to myself that I should check out more of his stuff, as I was really captured by the stomp-rock sound he was putting forth on that song. Well, I sort of forgot to follow up on that. Lately, Clark has been showing up on some big stages like the Grammys and the halftime show for the NBA All Star Game, and thus I took this as my opportunity to finally get acquainted with his music. It didn't take long for his album Blak and Blu to hook me. At times it's that stomp rock a la The Black Keys, but elsewhere he's using more of an R&B sound. The guitar work on "When My Train Pulls In" just completely floored me. This is another fantastic album that I wish I'd heard before now.

6. The other week I heard a song on the radio by a band called Phantogram. The song was "Fall In Love" off of their newest album Voices. Phantogram is an electronica duo, and while such a sound can be hit-and-miss with me, I really wanted to hear more of their stuff. Not only did I listen to their entire album, but I found this NPR studio performance, and it pretty much sealed the deal:

7. And finally, we have pop-punk band Against Me!, which I heard about on music podcast Sound Opinions. Their newest album is Transgender Dysphoria Blues, so named because the lead singer recently went through a gender reassignment process. This album is largely about that process; often conveying her feelings related to the experience and how society views the trans* community. This is an incredibly powerful album, very high energy and passionate and musically sound.

I have to say that my Year-End Roundup this year may have to be jumbo-sized. I've heard so much incredible music already in 2014, and we're only two months in.

"This Dream of Peace" - A Prayer for Epiphany 7

Based on Matthew 5:38-48

In our most desolate inner places, you refresh us:
affirming our humanity,
naming us as beloved,
inviting us to wholeness.

In these times we are grateful,
safe in your company,
filled at your banquet table.

But even in our joy and in our healing, you insist that we turn and face
those who have cut us the deepest,
who have tried to rob us of self,
who have threatened our wholeness,
who barge into our memories
unwelcome and unwanted.

In these times we are angry,
incredulous at your insensitivity,
declaring that we will not be hurt again.

How will we pursue what you ask of us?

In response, you remind us of your strange nature,
where the sun's rays and drops of rain
fall indiscriminately upon us all,
as if grace also behaves this way.

You are audacious enough to suggest
that our healing is bound to theirs,
that you'd give to people from whom we ourselves would withhold,
that divine love has its own rules.

Only you are able to make space
for this dream of peace to become real.
Guard our hearts, open our minds,
and lead us by a spirit of hope.

Let's Look at Religious Affiliation Charts and Freak Out

It really should be no secret by now that American religion is going through interesting times…mostly decline in formal affiliation. This, of course, includes Christian church attendance.

Every once in a while, we need CHARTS to remind our friends and constituents of this fact, as they make everything seem official and factual and, if the need arises, scary. And so we've been privy to some bright new shiny CHARTS lately, used for one or more of the aforementioned purposes.

First up is one that Tony Jones recently shared from the Pew Research Center with a clickbait title with some analysis of what it means.

First, the CHART:

Jones focuses in on the huge amount of Millenials who consider themselves "unaffiliated" and calls the church to account for its failure to engage them effectively. Those who have been paying attention to such trends for the past decade or two would not be very surprised by this; neither is the criticism that the church can do better a new one.

But wait. There's another CHART we must see! This one was shared by Diana Butler Bass on her Facebook page:

What does this show us? Pretty much what I said above: this has been happening for a while. Not only that, but it's been happening across the board no matter one's age or sociopolitical affiliation.

But what does it mean? Shall we commence with the hand-wringing and airing of grievances? Sure, a lot of people love doing that. It's popular because we're pointing out the truth, man. But besides that, what are the takeaways here?

1. The population of the American church is getting older and shrinking. But you knew that, because CHARTS.

2. The future institutional church is going to look vastly different than its present and recent past incarnations. It'll be smaller, as noted. And if it wants to engage a new generation, it'll have to do some new things. Or reclaim certain old things. Or heck, let's just say it…

3. No blanket remedy exists to fix the "problem." Just saying things like MOAR POWERPOINT isn't going to help. What each individual church is going to need to do is read their context and respond in innovative, risky, missional (I know this word has fallen out of fashion, but I still like it) ways. I offer further commentary on this point here.

It's going to continue to be interesting, that's for sure. How each local church responds--and how each denomination helps their local churches respond--is going to be crucial.

Vintage CC: Things to Do to Ensure Short, Unhappy, and Ineffective Pastorates

I'll be celebrating the completion of my first year at my current pastorate next week. Not completely coincidentally, I've been thinking about this post from January 2011. A lot of these are from experience rather than observation. I'm glad I managed them well enough at my previous stop, and hope to keep doing so where I am now.

Approach your congregants as being in constant need of corralling and correcting, with no worthwhile ideas or opinions to speak of.

Constantly be jealous of all the wonderful things that your colleagues seem to be able to do in their churches, and grumble about how you'll never be able to do anything like that where you are.

Read and talk about making changes, but don't ever test the waters or put together a plan on how to do it.

Think of yourself as finally the pastor who's going to come in and show them how to do things the right way after decades and even centuries of getting it wrong.

Don't get too comfortable, and constantly have one foot out the door for when that better opportunity comes along.

Remain as aloof as possible from your congregation: never accept invitations to coffee or dinner, or to parties or baseball games. Remain in constant fear that such things lead directly to affairs or your exploitation of them.

Never celebrate the church's accomplishments. Only mention things that they need to change or fix, or that just seem hopeless.

As early as when you accept a new call, tell yourself that this is only temporary until you can start your "real" ministry someplace else.

Assume that all the cutting-edge things that you learned in seminary will immediately be embraced by your parishioners.

Always approach your people in terms of your needing to manage them and never consider the possibility that you may one day love them.

Think solely in terms of "me" and "them," never in terms of "us."

Operate under the assumption that you are the only one capable of fulfilling tasks; never entrust projects to other people.

Constantly decide that your time off can wait since there's still this list of things that you need to get done before you could consider a day off, vacation or continuing education event.

Bring back that awesome new program from that invigorating conference you attended, and force it into your context without laying groundwork or adapting it. Then when it doesn't work, blame the church for being rigid or complacent.

Take every piece of criticism--especially that which is offered constructively--personally. Bottle up your frustration, shrink away from taking a risk the next time, act out in a passive-aggressive manner, or mix it up to give yourself some variety. And never follow up with the person who offered it to begin with.

Keep pining for that wonderful church with perfect people, a full range of effective and well-organized programs, a bountiful salary and benefits package, and that fits your theology and ecclesiology exactly. Convince yourself that you'll find it if you just keep looking.

Search for a new pastorate at the first sign of resistance, boredom, frustration, or unmet expectations.

Assume that you're immune from everything on this list.

Small Sips Pays Tribute

First, this. Back around the time Philip Seymour Hoffman's movie Doubt came out, James Martin, SJ, who served as a theological consultant for the movie, wrote this piece about his experience of the actor/director:
When I asked Phil Hoffman about his directing style on “The Last Days of Judas Iscariot,” he readily agreed with the inherent strength of the parable—or, in his words, the personal anecdote—in its ability to communicate more than a strictly worded directive. 
“It’s the way I normally direct,” he said. “The anecdotes and stories spark a discussion with the actors and it starts a give-and-take about the character or the scene. And the more personal the better. If I can be open with my life, then the actors usually feel more comfortable expressing themselves through the work.” 
I asked if he ever felt the need to be more specific in his direction. “Sometimes you have to tell someone exactly what you want, but you can’t dictate,” he said. “You have to keep suggesting. Otherwise, the person becomes a sort of empty shell, and they end up performing in a way that’s not at all, well, spiritual.”
I found this very timely as I journey through my spiritual direction practicum, as PSH's directing style sounds a lot like what spiritual directors are meant to do: suggest, rather than dictate. Honor their individual style and story rather than try to force them into something that is going to look and feel inauthentic. It's a great insight for any vocation.

Also, this. Aaron Sorkin wrote about the actor's tragic death, and the never-ending struggle of addiction:
On breaks during rehearsals, we would sometimes slip outside our soundstage on the Paramount lot and get to swapping stories. It’s not unusual to have these mini-AA meetings — people like us are the only ones to whom tales of insanity don’t sound insane. “Yeah, I used to do that.” I told him I felt lucky because I’m squeamish and can’t handle needles. He told me to stay squeamish. And he said this: “If one of us dies of an overdose, probably 10 people who were about to won’t.” He meant that our deaths would make news and maybe scare someone clean. 
So it’s in that spirit that I’d like to say this: Phil Hoffman, this kind, decent, magnificent, thunderous actor, who was never outwardly “right” for any role but who completely dominated the real estate upon which every one of his characters walked, did not die from an overdose of heroin — he died from heroin. We should stop implying that if he’d just taken the proper amount then everything would have been fine.
I don't even pretend to know what addiction is like, at least to this degree. I recognize traits in my personality that would very easily lend themselves to becoming addicted to these types of substances, and I joke that I'm addicted to caffeine (which I probably really am), but to me heroin is on a totally other plane that is way outside my knowledge and experience.

So I'm grateful for articles like these that try to explain it, and hope, along with Sorkin, that those currently struggling with such dependencies really did receive this as a wake-up call to seek help.

And this, too. Jan reflects on the church's role in the face of addiction:
All of us would like to go to sleep and wake up happier or more content or less anxious or totally healed. I wish we who are addicted could stop eating and drinking our feelings. I wish we didn’t turn so quickly to pills or needles when we are emotionally hurt. 
But we like fast and easy fixes. And we don’t want to trouble others with our pain. And some people consider it more fun to deal with our pathologies pharmeceutically. It feels like “recreation” instead of hard work. 
But our souls cannot be healed with sugar or alcohol or narcotics or hallucinogens. The world cries out to be loved in spite of our brokenness. 
It kills me that the church has the reputation of being so judgmental and lame and irrelevant. Because the world could really use a worldwide community of people who unconditionally love each other and teach others how to love unconditionally.  If only.
Let's be clear about something here. A lot of us like to talk about how the church is not a country club, a political entity, a recreation center. It is also not a social services organization. It often does not have the mechanisms and resources in place to offer long-term assistance to people dealing with poverty, addiction, or mental illness. As much as some envision the type of church that can independently help people out of these sorts of problems, this is beyond the limits of what many congregations can do. This is a lesson that I've learned the hard way.

What the church can do instead is offer a spiritually supportive and safe space to people while partnering with other organizations better equipped to deal with these issues, which I think is what Jan is getting at. It must be clear about what it can and can't do both for itself and for those it's helping. But to begin with, it should be about the sort of unconditional love that she mentions, i.e., "We can do this but not this, and both are because we love you."

This, which is completely different. Georgia lawyer Jamie Casino made a Super Bowl commercial that only aired in his local market, but a lot of other people have seen it anyway. It has, as they say, gone viral:

I know, right?

Misc. Jan again, this time on admitting brokenness in the church. PeaceBang on breastfeeding in the church. Jamie on those times when the internet isn't fun. Obligatory link to something about the recent Bill Nye/Ken Ham creation debate.

The Ejector Ad Eight Years Later

Since I want to do a bit of reflection this year about where this blog has been in anticipation of its big tenth anniversary, I thought I'd recount one of its more notable moments.

Starting in 2003, my denomination, the United Church of Christ, began rolling out a new identity campaign known as God is Still Speaking. It was centered around the symbol of the comma, borrowing from a saying from comedienne Gracie Allen: "Never place a period where God has placed a comma." The idea behind the campaign was to position the UCC as a distinct, progressive place for people of faith wondering if there could truly be a welcoming, inclusive church for them.

As part of this campaign, the UCC produced three commercials. The first two, "Bouncer," and "Steeple," rolled out at about the same time, with the former in particular causing plenty of conversation and controversy along the way.

About a year after these first two commercials were released and after an appeal for money to help it along, a third ad entitled "Ejector" was introduced:

In a few places on social media, the UCC recently pointed out that it's been about eight years since this commercial first appeared.

That means it's also been about eight years since perhaps one of the most infamous moments in this blog's history.

Let me recap. Before the ad was revealed, Ron Buford (the chair behind the campaign at the time) gave a brief synopsis to the Sojourners website:
Many mainline churches see multimillion-dollar advertising campaigns as the latest evangelistic tool, but none hit the news like the “God is Still Speaking” campaign from the United Church of Christ—in part because major TV networks classified the ads as “advocacy” spots and rejected them. The first series, aired on cable networks, showed gruff bouncers turning away select worshippers at the church door—including racial minorities and gay and lesbian couples—followed by the text “Jesus didn’t turn people away. Neither do we.” The newest ads, launched in November, show “unwelcome” minorities being shot out of church by ejector seats, accompanied by the text, “Jesus didn’t reject people.”  
“These commercials are like modern parables,” campaign coordinator Ron Buford told Sojourners. “When people see these ads, they get it.” In fact, the ads won the Association of National Advertisers annual award for multicultural excellence. Buford is confident that future ads will build on this response, saying, “They will be funny, hard-hitting, and they will make the point.”
The bolded part was in the original, and I quoted it here before someone seemingly went back to remove it.

And that was the issue in a nutshell. Sojo printed that quote with the description, somebody passed it along to the UCC website's forums, and I quoted it here 1) thinking it was fair game since Buford was the original source, and 2) I didn't really think that the ad sounded like it would be appealing to people who'd experienced "ejection:"
I thought the bouncer ad worked because it spoke to people's experiences. This ad attempts to duplicate the communication of that experience, only, as Buford has said in other publications in a 'whimsical' way. A gay couple and a guy in a wheelchair being 'ejected' through the air is supposed to be the 'whimsical' part, but I doubt that anyone who has been ejected from a church in real life will see the ad and say, 'That's me!' Not while chuckling, anyway.  
This ad is making light of the ejectee's experience, while the bouncer ad was seeking to take it seriously. 
Why would the formerly churched laugh at this?
UCC watchblog UCCTruths (which appears to be defunct nowadays) got a hold of my post and quoted it nearly in full, and the UCC went into damage control mode. Among other things, they actually complained about the description of the commercial being out before they'd intended. That was probably around the time when the original Sojo article was changed, among other things.

It was far and away the most notoriety that this little space had ever received at the time. I hadn't wished to stir something up, as again I didn't know the ad's content was meant to be a secret, especially considering that the campaign's leader had given a description to a nationally-read website. Nevertheless, there was a great uptick in traffic and a lot of discussion here and elsewhere, including some questioning of my motives and who I was.

The culture of the denomination at that time as I experienced it was very divided. Not only did people react strongly one way or the other to this campaign, but around that time was General Synod 25 in Atlanta, complete with its vote in support of marriage equality. So this made for a very charged atmosphere around the UCC for a while. To supporters of what the UCC was doing, people who presented an alternative view were deemed "unloving critics." To dissenters, supporters were "UCC cheerleaders." From what I saw, the space for nuance between these poles was very small. So for a while, to those who supported the Ejector ad, let alone the campaign, I was an "unloving critic," at least by association if nothing else. Given the circumstances, the ad seemed to be open for critique and I wanted to give my thoughts. My opinion on the ad itself hasn't changed much, either. I think that the other two were more well-done and were better reflectors of people's experience.

I sometimes wonder whether there are still some hard feelings over this. It may be that Ron Buford and others who were involved don't even think about this incident any more, or if they do they may not even remember my little contribution to it. Even then, it was UCCTruths that bore the brunt of the pushback. I certainly wasn't a big fan of being painted as an anti-UCC zealot by some, nor did I appreciate the overall sense that I had that any and all criticism of this campaign got you labeled as such. I liked and still like the campaign as a whole…I just saw this commercial as a misstep in its overall goals.

I sometimes imagine sitting down with the former leaders of this campaign--over coffee, of course--and being all like, "Yeah, what was all that about, anyway?" I definitely could have handled some of this better, as I caused some grief that I didn't intend. Among other things, I should have picked up on the strong hint that Buford and others probably wanted the description removed until the big reveal on March 27th of that year. By the time I fully realized that, the ad's release party was long over. I take ownership of that responsibility, and could have saved my entire critique until after.

In the grand scheme of things, this really wasn't a huge deal, but the UCC recalling the release of this ad caused it all to come rushing back, and there's something about this that has always seemed unresolved to me. I love the United Church of Christ and what it strives to be in the American Christian landscape. I hope, at least, that nowadays we as a denomination may be more open to dissenting voices when presented in a constructive and loving spirit. I tried to do that, and regret that it wasn't received that way in this case.

We can do better, myself included. I think we have done better since those days, but we can do better yet.

Let's Stop Calling Them "Church Shoppers"

When I was in college, I played in a worship band at a United Methodist church some 10 miles away from the school. The church at that point was taking a lot of cues from a fellow UMC, Ginghamsburg Church in Tipp City, which you may have heard of. Ginghamsburg had found great success transforming and growing itself through many of the methods common to megachurches in that time, and this country church in little Old Fort, Ohio was just beginning to find its own niche through some of these techniques as well. Last I checked, they're still thriving, incarnating the gospel in their setting as best they can.

In those days, the primary word used to refer to the people that churches wanted to attract was "seeker." The larger movement went by the name "seeker-sensitive:" a highly attractional-based philosophy where churches did their best to offer programs and amenities that people either disillusioned or unfamiliar with the church might find worth checking out as an entry point for a life of discipleship.

The term "seeker" was meant to denote one curious enough about the church or faith to at least try out what the church was doing. Perhaps, the reasoning went, these seekers would find new energy in this faith community due to its laid-back atmosphere, worship alternative to the old-timey hymns, and generally an experience that seemed less removed from what people were used to the other six days of the week.

There's plenty to critique about this approach, and plenty of others have written those critiques over the years. That's not my concern. At some point in the last decade or more, I haven't heard the term "seeker" as often, if ever. Part of that simply may be that I don't run in the same circles any more and just don't hear it. Another possibility is that with the rise of the emerging church (which started as a group of guys who decided that the usual megachurch approaches weren't going to work for the next generation) that it fell out of use.

A term that I have heard much more often lately is "church shopper." When someone uses this phrase, it's usually meant to connote a type of person who wanders from church to church, never really commits anywhere, chiefly wonders what a particular church can offer them (as opposed to what they can contribute), and uses faith in general as an accessory to show off more than a transformational way of life.

There are particular groups to whom I've seen this term applied. First are those who use or have found meaning in the megachurch model described above, moreso if they've left a more traditional church in the process. Second are those who have identified as "spiritual but not religious," whom some have deemed spiritually wishy-washy and self-centered. Regardless, it's hardly ever used in a flattering or endearing way.

All told, there are likely some who are seeking Sunday morning entertainment or are more interested in what the coffee bar is serving than a better understanding of how the Sermon on the Mount applies to their lives. However, how many more who wander into a brand new church on any given Sunday desire healing from something that happened in a former congregation, were curious enough to step inside for the first time with no expectations other than maybe this place could help them make sense of their life, felt out of place elsewhere and are looking for a new community in which to get involved, or any number of other reasons that go way beyond wanting a cool hangout where they feel good and are never challenged?

If we start right off by referring to these people as "church shoppers," we've decided to view them in a certain way. By using this term we've already made a half-dozen or more assumptions about why they've shown up and how involved they might be in the future. We've already dismissed their journey and reasons for attending, and have already decided they aren't going to stick around (a "church shopper" by definition is eventually going to choose a place to stick with, hence the "shopper" part, right?). It likely follows that viewing visitors as selfish consumers leads to treating them as such, whether we're conscious of it or not.

The reader may not think much of the "seeker-sensitive" movement, but at least the term "seeker" is hopeful and puts forth a view that this person is worth engaging, i.e., they are seeking; let's help them find it. Meanwhile, if I decide that one is a church shopper, I am already suspecting their intentions, may not take them very seriously, and may even hope that they disappear as quickly as possible so that I can get on with real ministry with these other people.

In truth, who knows why someone has wandered in looking for a new church home? Could it be that the question they are asking is not "What can I get from this place?" but "How can I participate here?" Could it be that they are looking for a place that is more welcoming, more open to exploring the hard questions, a truly safe place where they can finally be themselves, a place that is more intentional about reaching out in hospitality or mission?

Calling them church shoppers suggests that we think we know why they've come, when in truth we don't.

Maybe they're seeking something. Maybe we can help them find it.