JusticeSeeker from Presbyterian Bloggers interviewed me for their book club. Here’s a copy of the interview. You’re also welcome to go to the PCUSA blogger site and comment.
I assume that your Mother keeps a copy of Tribal Church on her coffee table, but does your Executive Presbyter?
I’m not sure if my Exec has read it, I saw him carrying a copy of it once. There was a bookmark in it… but he’s never said anything to me….
The Presbytery hosted a Tribal Church event and I was asked to speak to our council a few weeks ago. I’ve been invited to lead discussions at a number of Presbyteries (next month, I’ll be in the Presbytery of Charlotte). The book has done well, not only with Presbyterians, but also in Methodist, Episcopal, Brethren, Quaker, and even Jewish circles. So, yes, the institutional church has been very receptive to it. I was also surprised to find out how much it is read internationally. I often get correspondence from people in Canada and Australia about it.
Overall, I think people are concerned for the church. We look out on our congregations and we see a group of people who probably won’t be around in twenty years. We love our faith communities, and it’s very scary when we think about our long-term futures.
There is another concern that is arising. People are not only asking, “How can our church grow? How can our denomination survive?” As important as these questions are, people are also beginning to have real concern for young adults.
When we begin to look outside of our own survival, we start asking, “How can we communicate the love of God to a new generation? How can we reach out to them? What do they need? What do they want?”
Those are the kinds of questions that generate a love and desire for understanding. When we begin asking those questions, then we’re no longer just an ingrown denomination, looking after ourselves, but we create an environment where fruitful ministry will take place.
It’s that gentle shift from “What can they do for us?” to “How can we be the hands and feet of Christ to them?”
Have you seen any tangible applications of the ideas in your book that you find particularly interesting?
The most immediate application that has been really amazing to watch has been within individual families. I often get parents who write me or talk to me at conferences and say, “Thank you so much for helping me understand my son.” Or, “I could never figure out why my daughter was not settling down, until I read this.” This was certainly unintentional, but I’ve been very pleased that some generational breaches are being mended in our own families.
I live in a very different part of the country from the coasts. We have a very low cost of living, housing prices are below reasonable (yes, you can buy a small, older but decent house with fenced yard for five digits), people here without family or other cultural roots tend to be older adults not younger, also serious financial problems tend to cluster in the 50+ crowd. So, I had a hard time seeing large parts of your book as being about younger adults — as opposed to older ones. Now that the book has been out a little while, have you seen discussions of these ideas being applied to more than just young adults?
Wow! A house for five digits! That’s great. We all need to move to Oklahoma City.
There are certainly characteristics in our generation that have been in every generation. Americans have always moved around a lot. The elderly in our congregations lived through dire economic times, and they had no credit cards to hide the suffering. The extreme debt that has plagued our generation is now becoming more apparent across the country, and so communities of understanding and support will be crucial during this difficult time.
As we see areas of common ground between generations, the careful work that church leaders will need to do is to make sure that we don’t shrug them off and say, “So what? We went through the same thing when we were young. That’s just life!”
Instead, we can begin asking, “I remember going through that too. What did I need when I was in that situation? What helped me through it? Was there anything that the church, my friends, or my community did that really made me feel connected and supported in a desperate situation?”
In South Louisiana, I often heard people talk about growing up in the Great Depression, and they would say, “We didn’t really miss the money that much. We knew that it was bad, but we had our family, our friends, and our church. That’s what really mattered.” But a new generation is going through some difficult times, and many of them do not have families, friends, or churches to support them.
You are preaching this Sunday on Fear. For those of us who have never written a book but have always thought we would like to, where in the writing process have you been surprised by fear?
For about ten years, I wrote. I filled journal after journal. I began four books (a how-to book about being a woman in ministry, a book about my grandmother’s death, a thinly-veiled autobiographical “fiction” book, and a children’s book) and, of course, I wrote sermons.
The difference now is that most of what I write gets published. And, for some reason, that small difference conjured up a lot of fear.
I know people who are sure that every word that comes out of their mouths is true and right. They have all kinds of confidence. I am not one of those people. I’m not only unsure of myself, but I also hate conflict. Internal conflict, external conflict, it doesn’t matter. I just don’t like it.
So, I was fearful the entire time I wrote Tribal Church. I come from a family of very conservative evangelicals, and I thought for sure that they would completely disown me when they read it (they didn’t, but I’m pretty sure it’s not on the coffee table either!).
But it wasn’t just my family. My brain cooked up a new fear every morning. I didn’t have the proper credentials (because everyone who writes a book has to have a Ph.D.). I wasn’t cool enough to speak for my generation (all emerging authors are edgy, and I don’t even have a tattoo). I’ve never been the pastor of a big church (after all, you can’t write about ministry until you’ve had a mega-church). On and on it went….
Then, I thought about the critics. I began to think about every seminary professor who told me that I was a poor writer and I remembered every rejection letter I got from a magazine. I thought about the fact that in this day and age, everyone’s a critic. Even if a person cannot complete a sentence, he can post a nasty review and give you one star on Amazon and it will affect how many people will buy your book.
All of these things loomed large in my mind as I wrote (and they still do), but I keep working through them.
My husband often tells me, “You live in your head too much.” And he’s absolutely right. The thing that helps me to get out of my head and muster up some courage to write is that I have a sense that God’s calling me. When I can’t stand my internal, fearful conflict, or I become afraid of the criticism that I encounter in seminars and workshops, I go on a walk and pray through the fears. Then, I know that there is something outside of my head that’s pulling me in my vocation, and I become renewed in my passion—imagining how we can lead effective and vital churches in a new generation.
Are you planning another book?
Yes. I’m writing another one for Alban and I’m getting close to finishing the first draft. The working title is Reframing Hope, and it’s about many of the cultural shifts that we are going through and how the church can engage and respond.
Is there a question that you are surprised you don’t get asked more often?
Yes. In Presbyterian circles, I often hear the question, “How can we get our confirmands back? How can we keep our children in the church when they grow up?” But the question that we don’t always ask is, “How can we reach out to a new generation (regardless of their ecclesial or social background)?”
I was in a Presbytery meeting recently, and a candidate described how her great-great-grandfather laid the cornerstone for their church. There was an audible gasp of approval that erupted from the presbyters.
Of course, it’s a beautiful story, a narrative of a church that connected from generation to generation. But in this time of denominational upheaval, I wonder, can we begin to expand the narrative to include others?
When so many young adults have not been raised in a particular tradition, we may not be able to wait for people to have the right pedigree before they can feel appreciated in our churches. If we want to welcome young adults, we need to have that same sort of excitement and admiration if a person stands up and says, “I grew up in a Pentecostal Church. No one in my family went to college. My parents were divorced. And I was a truck driver before I went to seminary.”