This is my personal blog. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent those of the congregation or presbytery I serve.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Crisis in Food and Faith.

Christianity has always been related to food.  Not just the pot-luck dinners that cause members of every denomination to claim a unique attraction to, and production of, good food.  (I don’t know how many times I have heard it claimed by Presbyterians, Methodists, Lutherans, Baptists, and so on, that it is a particular characteristic of their brand of Christianity that they “love to eat”.)  But it goes right back to Jesus’ last supper with his disciples when he made a symbolic meal the central act of this new faith.  Eating and drinking is the way he explicitly gives us to remember him. 
Last Sunday’s New York Times has an article about changes in the food industry.  The sentence that got my attention was: “42 percent of millennial consumers, aged 20-37, don’t trust large food companies.”  Woah.  Is it just a coincidence that this is the same demographic that doesn’t trust the church, and is leaving organized religion in such droves that we have had to invent new terms to describe them: the “spiritual-but-not-religious”, the “nones”?  I don’t think so.  I don’t know if the in-house publications of the food industry also feature article after article dedicated to how to attract, retain, recover millennials, as is the case in denominational journals.  But it would not surprise me.
The issue in the food industry is that they have been content to sell us cheap, counter-nutritional crap for decades, loaded up with unpronounceable preservatives, massive quantities of sugar (and not even real sugar but high-fructose corn syrup), salt, fat, and chemical substitutes for them.  People, especially younger people, not wanting to die of malnutrition and obesity at the same time, have been shifting away from processed foods and towards local, organic, simple, fresh, and natural foods.  It has gotten so bad that McDonalds is in serious trouble and the center of supermarkets, where the processed/packaged foods are stacked, is referred to in the industry as “the morgue.”
It is a term that could well be applied to many churches I know.  A handful of old people scattered throughout a cavernous sanctuary while an organ groans out old hymns and a middle-aged man talks might attract a similar description.  
The food industry is stripping gears trying to adjust to this alarming trend in which people will only buy food that is actually nutritious.  “For legacy food companies to have any hope of survival they will have to make bold changes in their core product offerings.  Companies will have to drastically cut sugar; process less; go local and organic; use more fruits, vegetables, and other whole foods; and develop fresh offerings.  General Mills needs to do more than just drop the artificial ingredients from Trix.  It needs to drop the sugar substantially, move to 100 percent whole grains, and increase ingredient diversity by moving to other grains besides corn.” “These changes would require a complete overhaul of their supply chains, major organizational restructuring and billions of dollars of investment….”
Now, I am not one to say the church needs to adopt the strategies and practices of business.  Far from it.  At the same time, is it just me, or do these critiques sound eerily familiar?  What would it mean for the church to “cut the sugar,” “process less,” “go local and organic,” use more whole foods,” “develop fresh offerings,” “drop the artificial ingredients,” “increase diversity,” “overhaul the supply chain,” and “restructure institutionally”?
To me, the response in the church would be to get back to the basics of the spiritual life and what people need to be nourished and healed in their souls.  Stop doing what we think will be popular (“cut the sugar”), encourage people to be responsible for their own soul-making by exposing them to deep and original sources (“process less”), focus on small group dynamics rather than mega-entertainments (“go local and organic”), allow more creativity (“drop the artificial ingredients”), draw from a wider variety of sources — from different streams of Christianity to other forms of wisdom (“increase diversity”), speak to contemporary issues and questions (“develop fresh offerings”), realize that denominations are a historical anomaly that has run its course (“overhaul the supply chain”), and start training people to guide others in their own faith-formation (“restructure institutionally”).
What the food industry is going through now, the church has been weathering for two generations, without a whole lot of success.  The church must recover the simple gathering of people seeking to follow Jesus.  The watchword for the church should always be this authenticity.   Not because it is a marketing necessity.  But because of who we are as disciples.


Saturday, October 31, 2015

Talk Is Cheap.

In Woody Allen’s classic movie, Sleeper, Allen wakes up several centuries in the future, meets Diane Keaton, and the two of them are called upon to save the world.  In the course of this situation the two of them are mistaken for surgeons and given the job of cloning the recently deceased evil dictator back to life.  As they are in the OR, observed by many real physicians, they have no idea what to do.  Someone suggests that they “check the cell structure” of the tissue to be used for the cloning (the dictator’s nose).  Allen and Keaton proceed to do a dance while repeatedly chanting “check the cell structure!” as the end of which Allen snaps his fingers and declares, “The cell structure is checked!”  Of course, they didn’t really check anything, they simply did a dance about it and enthusiastically affirmed that it was done.
I remember this scene often these days in the church.  Too many of our leaders are caught in a “deer-in-the-headlights” mode, as they try to interpret and implement many different strategies for reviving and transforming the institution. 
Too often they do a mindless tap-dance while chanting the words, even getting the rest of the presbytery to sing and dance along, and at the end of it pronouncing that the presbytery is now officially “missional,” “adaptive,” “relational,” or whatever…  when actually nothing has changed.  In fact it may be worse.  That is, we are actually less missional, adaptive, or relational than we were before we started parading around, chanting the rhetoric, doing the exercises, playing with the rocks, ribbons, water, candles, pieces of cloth or paper, and watching the film clips.
“Checking the cell structure” is an actual thing that a medical professional is trained to do.  Terms like missional, adaptive, and relational appear more vague and subject to interpretation and negotiation.  Indeed, sometimes it seems that they are not really intended to be anything beyond merely rhetorical.  As if it is just about how we talk, but has no bearing on what we actually do or how we organize ourselves.  We change the label as if that by itself is enough and will eventually change the way we relate to each other.  
Maybe we get this understanding from decades of focusing on reforming our theological language, imagining that once we are talking with appropriate inclusivity we will automatically start acting more justly.  Maybe it goes back to that primal Protestant liability in which “believing” can be more important than, and have no bearing on, actually doing anything.  
But words have to be embodied.  I have zero patience with people who claim to follow Jesus, and yet also advocate guns, war, economic injustice, torture, racism, and a whole lot of other things that Jesus explicitly rejected.  To me, they reduce discipleship to a merely rhetorical category.  We give ourselves the label “Christian,” but it doesn’t occur to us that this has any behavioral content? 
I have a problem when we start loudly proclaiming how “missional!” we are now, while we continue to support the same corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical institutional structures and procedures we have had for decades.  We say: “The mission of God in Christ gives shape and substance to the life and work of the Church” (F-1).  And yet we remain essentially the same institution we were before we made this claim.  Our actions reveal that what we really believe is that our “shape and substance” should continue to determine what we do.  Only now were calling it by the glitzy new term, “missional.”
I have a problem when we drag over from the business world a term like “adaptive change,” and then cynically use it to justify whatever changes the leadership wants, even if they have nothing to do with the way managerial guru, Ronald Heifetz, actually defines it.  So where Heifetz says it is adaptive to include people in a broader conversation about how to organize, a leader might impose a closed, secretive, and exclusive process to ram self-serving changes through, and then call it being “adaptive.” 
I have a problem when we rationalize changes by saying we’re becoming more “relational,” when actually we are acting in a way that is more directive, centralized, controlling, leader-driven, and even paranoid.         
If we’re going to use these words — missional, adaptive, relational — perhaps we might benefit from realizing that the words are supposed to describe actual ways of acting and functioning together.  Just changing the word is a cynical and desperate dance.  These are powerful terms that mean we have to relate to each other differently, act differently, and be organized differently.

Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Why the Church Doesn't Change.

Unfortunately, the PCUSA has largely fallen away from its own identity.  Over the four or five centuries of Modernity, the church gradually buried the decentralized, relational, flat, locally oriented, distributed model we find in the deepest strata of the Book of Order, and erected over it a hierarchical, bureaucratic, corporate, top-down, regulatory superstructure.  Rejecting the medieval/feudal pattern, the reforming churches adopted the institutional patterns developed by the ascending middle-classes, many of which expressed the privilege and power of owners.  Their politics had power accrue with certain leaders on the basis of money, expertise, education, connections, and economic class.  So while the Presbyterian rhetoric was all about democracy and freedom, in practice authority remained concentrated with a very few.   
In the church, we probably reached the nadir of this corporate structure in the 1970’s. That’s when it started to disintegrate.  We have been gradually trying to find and do something different ever since, for two reasons.  First, we can’t afford the expensive corporate superstructure we once had.  People don’t see the value of supporting and trusting bureaucracy when there are plenty of more direct good things they can do with their money.  Plus, as a middle-class institution, the church has been adversely affected by the drain of wealth from the middle-class in this same period.    
Secondly, the politics of Modernity effectively privileged white, male, and older people.  As this demographic became an ever smaller and less influential segment of the American population, the institutions that they developed and wielded became ever more isolated and irrelevant to everyone else.  More importantly, these ways of operating are not easily intelligible to non-Anglos and young people generally, who seek spiritual nourishment and expression in very different environments.  In other words, fewer and fewer people these days find it spiritually helpful to sit quietly in straight lines while a middle-aged white man lectures them.   
Most of the changes we have been able to squeeze out at monumental effort have been little more than window dressing anyway.  After decades of striving to be more diverse and inclusive, we have barely even nudged the needle in terms of our demographic makeup.  We’re been trying to bring in youth for half a century to no avail.  The fundamental corporate mentality pervading the church has not really changed.  The downsizing we were forced into over the past few decades is considered more evidence of our “decline.”  In addition, we are largely opting for a cheaper version of the same corporate model we could once support more lavishly.  Staffs may be smaller, but they still exist doing the same things.      
The new Form of Government was supposed to make us more “flexible” and “missional.”    It was supposed to encourage us to be more oriented towards congregational ministry.  Is this happening?  Are resources now flowing to churches for the sake of mission?  Are we realizing a more horizontal connectionism, as distinct from the top-down connectionism we were used to?    
In reality, especially as measured in the flow of funding, not much is changing.  We still sink a lot of money into compensating executives, for instance.  It doesn’t get any more corporate than that.  (Although now we give many of them various euphemistic titles.)  
Some think our problem is that we invest too much energy in “governance.”  Therefore, they would take power away from the churches gathered in presbyteries.  They would reduce the number and length of presbytery meetings, and inject into them various kinds of programatic entertainment and spiritual-lite playtime, much of which has little theological depth.  With presbyteries increasingly neutralized as discerning and decision-making bodies, it falls to the executives and their hand-picked supporters to run things.  They call this being “adaptive” (though anyone who has actually read the work of Ronald Heifetz would seriously question this).  In reality it is just the old corporate model on crack.
Part of this is rooted in a misconception that our problems will be solved by better  “leadership.”  Entrusting decision-making to a specially empowered “upper” class is itself a stubborn vestige of the corporate mentality, rooted in the economics of slavery and colonialism.  Modernity had this bias towards elevating individual personalities which we could even call the myth of the leader.  (Elizabeth Schuessler-Fiorenza and Gerhard Lohfink offer cogent critiques of this approach.)  It reached its demonic and disastrous climax in the Fuehrerprinzip in Nazi Germany.
As I pointed out in my previous post, we Presbyterians have an innate, constitutional, healthy, and biblically-based suspicion of all human leadership.  We assert in the opening of our Book of Order that Jesus Christ is the Head of the church.  Our movement was initiated as a rebellion against bishops and kings; our polity makes no explicit provision for special leaders at all, choosing instead to locate and diffuse power in gathered groups.
The question facing the church now is whether we will continue attempting to ride the current historical whirlwind in the Modernistic, corporate, bureaucratic, hierarchical vehicle that got us into this death-spiral, or whether we will junk that and embrace the decentralized, flat, open-source, distributed, and egalitarian organizational model that is currently emerging in post-Modern society… and, oddly enough, from our own biblical and Reformed tradition as well.