Christian Movements in Southeast Asia: A Theological Exploration (ed. Michael Nai-Chiu Poon) is an engaging look at the history, theology, and missiology of one of the most religious vibrant areas in the world. The volume is a collection of essays published pulled together by the Centre for the Study of Christianity in Asia and published in partnership with Singapore’s Trinity Theological College.
The essays vary in their scope, from detailed analysis of the emergence of “folk Christianity” to an impassioned plea for Southeast Asian churches to help historians document the rapidly changing religious and cultural landscape of the region. One fairly consistent thread through the essays, however, is the role Pentecostalism has played in helping contextualize Christianity into a variety of different locales and expressions. Continue Reading…
For the past couple of years, the holidays have sent me into an uncomfortable examination of consumerism. My consumerism. Your consumerism. Our consumerism. This over-attention to “stuff-ness” starts with a bang on Black Friday and then backbuilds through Advent before exploding all over itself on Christmas morning.
Each year brings some new stomach-turning twist. The advertisements are darker and darker–like the department store commercial that turns misfit shopping behavior into a cutesy musical number,
or the electronic goods chain who is running a series of “game on Santa” spots
and the behavior of the consumer follows suit. People pepper-spray their way through crowds of shoppers to get the best deal. They mob one another for discount waffle irons.
A.J. Swoboda, in a message he gave at Theophilus Church on Sunday, Nov. 27, observed that “Black Friday has become our culture’s new Good Friday.” That’s a problem. And it is infecting our churches. Consumerism is alive and well in our faith communities and more often than not it, not the gospel, is in the driver’s seat.
In an email last weekend, prompted by my post on Jim Collins’ Good to Great, my father remarked,
Church members want a pastor with charisma who energizes them rather than a pastor who teaches the word so the Holy Spirit can change their life. They want music with melodies pleasing to them rather than words which praise God. They see themselves as stockholders and the deacons as the board of directors which means everyone is accountable to the member and the church’s role to bring them an ROI – a return on THEIR investment.
I think he’s right on. We are good consumers and we expect our churches to provide a steady diet of things for our consumption. Tim Suttle wrote a wonderful piece for the Huffington Post in which he describes the “one-two punch” of consumerism as sentimentality and pragmatism. More and more, churches are looking to feel-good Sundays and corporate growth strategies to increase their bottom line–which is usually butts in the seats and dollars in the plates. And that makes me sad.
But I am still hopeful. One of the reverberations from the market crash 2007-2008 is a growing distrust for large, faceless corporate organizations. In October 2011, around 650,000 people abandoned big banks for smaller, local credit unions. The Occupy Wall Street movement is one example of people expressing their feelings about large corporations. The rise of Etsy and the recent invention of “Small Business Saturday” are others. It is hard to know, and be known by, an organization. I think that people are moving progressively toward valuing that which is small and simple, over large and complex.
That will necessarily impact how we “do” church. I think that the bell is tolling for megachurches. They’re not too big to fail, and many will. But what will step in to gather together those displaced by the collapse of these huge faith “communities?” Smaller churches, sure, but it won’t be enough to just be smaller.
Instead, we still have to deal with the way that consumerism shapes our desires and expectations. The gospel isn’t a product, the pastor isn’t a CEO, the elders are not a Board of Directors, and the congregants are not the customers. Christ is the head of the church. The gospel is his mission. We are his workforce.
For leaders, this means a radical shift in how we view ourselves and our roles within the church. Gilbert Fairholm’s Perspectives on Leadership, a seminal and important work on the difference between leadership and management, is helpful here. He takes the reader through past paradigms (which he calls “virtual environments”) of understanding the role and task of leadership–Leadership as Management, Leadership as Excellence, Values Leadership, and Trust Leadership–before offering his proposal: Spritual Leadership.
Fairholm asserts that we want–we need–leaders who are aware of the spiritual implications of their role and the work in which we are engaged. He discusses problems with applying spiritual leadership in a business context, namely that it can lead to a perception of the leader as lacking professionalism, it interferes with the ambition to succeed, and it forces a leader to deal with her shortcomings. But these obstacles are not nearly so great in a church leadership context.
When it comes to spiritual leadership, church leaders can take the lead, so to speak, on creating models and best practices. Let the businesses and corporations learn from us, for a change! People are still searching for meaning in their lives. More and more they are waking up to the reality that consuming the latest retail goods doesn’t satisfy their appetites. We have an opportunity to offer a wonderful counter to the buy-consume-buy cultural norm. But to do that, we have to imagine faith communities that engage in a counter-rhythm. I think that small, spiritually-led communities are key. What do you think?
Clad in a red Oxford shirt with his trendy glasses sat Krish Kandiah, brilliant author, blogger, and all around fun Brit. I met Krish in Kenya in September. He joined the GML cohort as we interacted with evangelical leaders in Nairobi.
I also ran with Krish and we shared some special moments as Kenyan marathoner and Olympic hopeful, Gladys, led us through some post-run stretching. Special moments…
Anyway, watch this brief video of Krish talking about churches and church planting:
What do you think about the notion that what we need is not more, new churches, but renewal and reformation in the ones that exist? Is the “hard work of changing churches with a consumer mindset” the driving force behind “missional” church planting?
I think he’s partly correct. Sometimes it is just easier to “start from scratch.” We can’t escape the consumer mindset in our broader culture, but perhaps we can shape churches into environments that counter it. And often the amount of energy required to change directions is exponentially greater than the energy required to start something new.
I think of it like a flywheel. Imagine a gasoline powered lawnmower that has a pull-cord. When the engine is dead, you grab that cord and you yank hard, often several times, to get the flywheel turning. Then the engine kicks to life and a relatively small amount of gasoline and spark will keep it turning.
Now, imagine that you want to take that running engine and reverse the direction that flywheel is spinning. How much energy is it going to take to counteract the momentum? And how much to get it moving in the opposite direction? It’s no wonder that the more attractive route is the one where the engine is not yet running.
When there are visionaries who decide to stay within their church or denominational context to work for renewal and reformation, they often end up squeezed out of roles of influence. It happened to me recently. I was working in a context with which I had some basic ecclesiological disagreements, but which was full of people who genuinely love God. I knew before I arrived in that consumer-minded organization that I was going to have to deal with those friction points.
Ultimately the friction created sparks and I was released from my role, telling me that I wasn’t a “good fit” for the organization. The disagreements were over the role of marketing and consumerism, of excitement and attraction. Now I’m working in a non-church context. Someone just asked me two days ago whether or not I’d ever plant a church. I still don’t know.
Part of the tension is that I agree with Krish. Church plants are a dime a dozen. More than a few are filled with disillusioned church leaders who were either released (like me) or got fed up and decided to “take their ball and go home.” Both of those places of ressentiment are unhealthy reasons to plant a church. And I’m not convinced that right now I could plant a church without ressentiment.
But what do you think? When should a church be planted? When should a leader try and stay to work for renewal and reformation?
This week I’ve been reading through the opening chapters of Dr. Jason Clark’s PhD not-yet-published dissertation. A much more technical treatment of the chapters he contributed to Church in the Present Tense (see my previous post on those), Clark’s dissertation is at once profound and troubling. His quest is for a tertium quid, a third way, between the predominant modes of current Evangelical responses to social relationships in late capitalist market societies. On the one hand are those who would abandon Evangelicalism altogether, concluding that it is too deeply entrenched indebted and entwined in capitalism to have any effective counter movement (Clark turns to the work of John Milbank and William Connolly for support). On the other hand are those who would argue that Evangelicalism’s problem is that it is not entrenched enough, needing to seek more and better undertakings of commodification of capitalism, thereby proving once again the adaptability and relevance of Evangelicalism (Pete Ward is his primary source here). Continue Reading…
I suppose that engaging with one’s professor’s published material ought to be nerve-racking. It is one thing to read, review, and critique the work of authors who, you are rather sure, do not know you exist nor would they likely stumble across your comments and, even if they did, likely wouldn’t deign to respond. This post, however, cannot hide under the cloak of my obscurity. The author, Jason Clark, is the lead mentor of my DMin program and the person who will be giving me marks at the end of the term on the nature of the posts that appear in this space. Yet with all that, I neither fear nor tremble. He is, and I say this in a way that he will hear as loving and kind, just another bloke. Continue Reading…
(“Smells Like Teen Spirit,” Nevermind, Nirvana 1991)
“The thinking was that ‘we must approach them where they are most accessible; we must see in ways they will understand to enlighten, elevate, attract them;’ . . . ‘One minister uses a magic lantern to enforce his sermon; another has added a tavern to his church equipment; a third takes up the latest murder scandal; a fourth has a service of song; a fifth depends on a gipsy or ex-pugilist. A church will soon embrace a theatre, a variety-show, a saloon, a tourist agency, and other attractions which will draw young people and prevent old people from wearying in the worship of God'” (The Problem of Pleasure, Dominic Erdozain, 254, 255). Continue Reading…
My ministry context revolves around those who, by and large, have sold out to the quest for the “American Dream.” Consumerism and materialism are matters of course, so embedded within the culture they are barely noticed by those who have lived here for any length of time.
Material poverty is relatively low (and well-hidden) yet poverty of time is high. Schedules are packed with work and “play,” both of which attempt to further or reflect the “dream.” As a result, financial margin is low. Many households are living on the brink personal financial collapse. Continue Reading…
The second half of Weber's The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism attempts to weave together Calvinist, Pietist, Baptist, and Quaker contributions to Christian asceticism into the development the spirit of capitalism I wrote about in my last post and which Weber utilized Franklin to typify. With growing emphasis on works as a "proof" of salvation (though not connected to the effectiveness of salvation) Christian asceticism moved out of the exclusive domain of monks and nuns and "strode into the market-place of life, slammed the door of the monastery behind it, and undertook to penetrate just that daily routine of life with its methodicalness, to fashion it into a life in the world, but neither of nor for this world" (Kindle location 2,064). Continue Reading…
Today is Black Friday in the US. It is the second day of gorging. Yesterday we gorged ourselves on food. Perverting the original Thanksgiving feast that celebrated the wonder that any of the Pilgrims were still alive, Americans have taken to an annual day of eating themselves into a stupor, watching football (American, that is), and then unfairly blaming their resultant sloth on tryptophan. Today, we gorge on goods. It is a day of mythic retail sales, long lines, and ridiculously early store openings. Much like pie and turkey, it is a tradition for many families.
I've been reading a lot of John Wesley's Works recently. He had some harsh things to say about the over-consumption of his time: Continue Reading…