Is There a Distrust of Larger Churches?

Three things have happened in the PCUSA which have caused me some discomfort, as people have thought about the future of our denomination.

1) In 2008, Beau Weston wrote a paper on “Rebuilding the Presbyterian Establishment.” The “Establishment” was to be made up of all kinds of people, but mostly tall-steeple pastors.

2) More recently, a group of male pastors of mostly large, conservative churches wrote a letter stating that the denomination is “deathly ill” and outlining their hopes for the future.

3) Then there was a NEXT Church gathering, which was a conference that resulted from a conversation that was largely initiated by progressive big-steeple pastors.

I have many friends in the NEXT Church group and I was invited to the initial conversation and the gathering. Scheduling conflicts kept me from participating, but I would have loved to be a part of the discussion and the resulting conference. I was out of the country.

As soon as I returned from international roaming rates, I excitedly checked the #NEXTChurch Twitter hashtag to find out what happened at the event. I have to admit, my heart sank when I read the timeline. Many of the tweets explained that it was an event where four people preached, and three of them were men from tall-steeple churches. Testimonies were given, by mostly men. After some initial questions, I heard the gender equity was pretty good, especially during worship. In the breakout groups, mostly men moderated the conversation, but men and women reported that the gender balance was okay and that the racial ethnic representation was good in the worship leadership.

As I waded into the conversation with my tactless sass and a bit of misinformation, friends pushed back. Some pushback was good. I retweeted something on gender representation that was false, and I apologize for that. A seminary student said that I needed to make more friends among the organizers.

White guys commented on blogs how annoying it was that people (um, I would be one of those annoying people) are always bringing up how many women and people of color were involved. I know, I write about this a lot.

One friend pointed out that there seemed to be a distrust of big-steeple churches. He rightly explained that the big-steeple pastors had the resources and the power to pull the gathering off, and we should be thankful that they did.

I felt my own distrust rising up when he mentioned it, and I’m not sure why. I am the Associate Pastor of a 350-member church. It’s not a powerful church position. But, let me be clear. When my congregation called me, they asked me what my long-term career goals were. I answered, “I want to be the Head of Staff of a large, progressive congregation.”

I am very content where I am. I love my congregation. But, I don’t expect that I’ll be at this position for the next 30 years. I don’t think that God is calling me to big-steeple church any longer, but that has certainly been my hope up until recently. I guess I just want to put those cards on the table as I wade into this topic, because I have not had animosity against large congregations. I have felt called to serve in one.

So where is the frustration coming from?

It is a pattern in the Presbyterian Church (and probably in most organizations), that when a group wants to advocate for something in particular, then they will craft a letter ask the most powerful person that they know to sign on to it. We are denomination with a democratic structure, but we also know that some votes can count more than others. More than once I’ve felt frustrated by watching my influential colleagues throw their weight around.

In the Presbyterian Church (USA), the stats are pretty interesting. About 65% of our congregations are made up of churches that are under 150 members. When we imagine the future of the church, we know that the big-steeples are pretty safe. Even the conservative ones, who can’t abide by a democratic change in our polity, have enough power that they will probably end up with their property and be largely unscathed when they sever themselves.

The 65% often cannot afford a pastor. Many have a membership of people who are over the age of 65. Most will be coming to the end of their life cycle in a decade or so. Are we willing to be a church of the 35%? Or will we start looking toward the edges for innovative ministry?

The big steeples have ministry models that many smaller congregations cannot replicate. The vast programs, staffing structures, beautiful buildings, and musical excellence are out of reach for most churches. The congregations that are growing the fastest are immigrant congregations. Many new congregations are finding deep community in smaller forms. As these churches are being planted, many appreciate the depth of their community and realize that they might lost something when they become larger.

I guess what I’m getting at with all of this is that the future of the church may not come from the tall-steeple pastors’ imagination. I am thankful for their voices in the discussion. I acknowledge the vast sum of money that they spent to put on a conference. But, as we look toward the future, I hope that we can keep looking at the edges. I hope that we can keep listening to immigrant communities, women, people of color, younger people, and those who are engaging with technology. I have a deep longing that those who are engaging with technology will not turn into another boy’s club, commenting about how annoying the girls are for wanting to be a part.

There are people who have not been able to attain the large pulpit, who are doing something different, who may not have much weight to throw around, and yet, they need to be heard in these conversations.

(Oh… and to be clear… my post is a paltry, late rehashing of some really good work that’s out there: namely MaryAnn McKibben Dana’s post, Landon Whitsitt’s post, and John Vest’s post.)

Where I’ve been….

I have been trying to keep up with my blog, letting you know when I’ve been in other places. Unfortunately, I let it slip a bit in the last few weeks.

My dad has been in critical condition for a few months now. He’s faced a couple of life-threatening surgeries, and made it through. Now, his kidneys have begun the process of shutting down. So, I’ve traveled home to Florida the last couple of weekends. Since I moved away, I always enjoy the fact that I’m not known as “Linda Howard’s daughter” any longer. But I have to say, I wish I was closer during this process. I feel like I could be doing so much more if I were there…

Anyways, let me link some of the places I’ve been (in no particular order).

On God Complex Radio, I interviewed Tony Jones on his book The Teaching of the Twelve. Landon Whitsitt interviewed Jonathan Brink.

And speaking of Landon, I just finished the foreword for his book, Open Source Church, which should be coming out next month (I don’t have a link for it yet, but I will soon).

I’ve been over at Duke’s Call and Response leadership blog, talking about Rob Bell and Tall Steeples.

I got back from an amazing week with the RevGalBlogPals’ Big Event. We went on a cruise, my friend. A cruise to Mexico. They hosted a chat about Reframing Hope here. And, coming up this week, Martha Spong will be on GCR.

Also, Alban just sent out a notice that Reframing Hope and Tribal Church are on sale this week. They are celebrating the fact that the book was named to the Academy of Parish Clergy’s top ten list.

With my dad’s situation, I’m not sure what the next couple of weeks will look like, but I’ll try to be around as much as possible. And, if you think about it, I would appreciate your prayers for my family. Thanks…

How can we be revolutionary?

So, I don’t think that all marketing principles should be whole-heartedly applied to the church. I think many people get exhausted by continuous marketing, and don’t want our congregations to adopt all of those principles that can leave people feeling manipulated and used.

But, I do kind of smile whenever I have this image in my mind.

What if top ad execs acted like some of our church leaders? Think about it, we’re sitting around… oh, I don’t know… the Apple board room. Apple has lost half of their customers, and the marketing person gets up to make a presentation.

She sighs deeply and says, “I don’t really know what’s wrong with this generation of customers. They don’t seem to have the commitment that we did when we were younger. You know, we bought our products. It didn’t matter what kind of content was in the product. No one had to cater to us. No one had to entertain us. We had a commitment to the brand and we bought into it because it was the right thing to do.”

She continues to shake her head. “I think it’s because this new generation is narcissistic. You know, they’re used to getting everything they want. They have no respect for us, as a company. So now, they just pick and choose, like the world is a cafeteria. And they expect us to cater to them.” [Insert eye rolling.]

What do you think their sales trajectory is going to look like in the coming years? Probably not so good.

What do I imagine Apple really is doing in their marketing sessions? Trying to figure out the needs of a new generation. Then, Apple explains to us they are revolutionary. They are going to change everything.

What if our faith communities stopped heaping on the guilt because a new generation is not giving us the money, volunteer hours, and attendance that we want? What if we stopped looking at what’s wrong with a new generation, and began to minister to their needs? What if we began to imagine how we can be revolutionary together?

Because we’re much more likely to change everything than the new iPod shuffle is.

Facemashing Christianity

I was watching The Social Network, squirming as the story of Facebook opened, and the Harvard women became outraged at Facemash, the site that the Mark Zuckerberg created in order to let people compare female undergrads, ranking them based on who was hotter. I cringed as I watched the horrified women, being voted up or down like cattle at the State Fair.

I winced because I knew how they felt. I, too, had been a part of a similar “who’s hot and who’s not” contest, but in a very different venue, and with a much larger audience. It was on an Evangelical Christian Leader site.

I often write and speak about the intersection of technology and religion, and so I’m keenly aware of the benefits and the cruelty that can be generated at that crossroads. So when my name appeared on a site for “The Nines” event, and my Twitter feed filled with messages saying that people were voting for me to speak at the conference, I became interested. I went to the site and inhaled deeply. I found a list of names along with a small picture and description and a place for people to vote, with a thumbs up for “like” or a thumbs down for “dislike.” The site tallied and ranked the speakers.

I thought of the art of spiritual writing and preaching, the beauty and poetry that the church has birthed since its inception. These words have lifted spirits and encouraged men and women to walk through their darkest hours. Sermons have inspired people to commune with God, to sell everything they own to feed the poor, and work for a society where all can live with dignity. Then I saw the thumbs up and down and thought, Is this what we’ve done with our spiritual heritage? I looked closer and I found out that my husband, Brian Merritt, had put my name in without asking me. Brian is a shameless promoter, with a bit of a prankster streak. So I shook my head and exhaled. The Christian Facemash had begun, and I was about to see how “hot” I really was.

Let me give you a bit of the back-story. On September 9, 2009, Leadership Network responded to the economic crisis that had hit so many churches by holding a free on-line conference entitled “The Nines.” It was an incredible success. Thirty to forty thousand people from 35 countries watched and interacted with one another. There were probably many more people watching than that, as pastors used the event as an education opportunity in their churches. The next year, as 09/09/10 approached, the organizers tried to think of ways to generate even more buzz. Since the Leadership Network is committed to recognizing known as well as spotlighting unknown leaders, they decided to have a bit of a competition between Christians. They put their avatars in an arena to see who would outlast the lions of public popularity. They would use Twitter and crowd-sourcing to create publicity and scope out the next hot thing. The site drew over 30,000 people within a few weeks.

The world of “The Nines” is not my world. It’s a corner of Christianity where mega-pastors, with multiple-site churches claim their stake. It’s where church leaders go to learn about “rapid growth.” They seem to be doing fine things there, but the speakers at their conferences are mostly good-looking, fairly conservative men who wear jeans that someone just starched and ironed. I, on the other hand, am a small frumpy mom who wears five-year-old suits that always have stray pet hair on them. I’ve pastored Presbyterian churches for twelve years. I also write about church growth, but I encourage the steady kind. I left Evangelicalism a long time ago, mainly because of the sexism, homophobia, and conservative politics that I experienced there. So, I figured that the good folks at Leadership Network would surely sniff me out as an intruder, but because of my active social networking presence my rank kept going up.

Then the mash began. I quit looking at the site when I started to get negative votes. The “dislikes” piled up, and I got a pit in my stomach when I saw that I could see the faces of those who voted against me. I looked at their Twitter pics and wondered, Why do you dislike me? Do you know who I am? What have I ever done to you? Feeling like those Harvard women, I kept thinking, This isn’t right.

The sponsors of the event have acknowledged that there were a lot of things they could have done better, but they defended the process overall, because it generated buzz and helped them identify new leaders.

I suppose I should be used to the endless comments, criticism, and praise. That’s what our Facebook culture is all about. I benefit from it most of the time, so I ought to be able to take the rejections as well. At the end of the day, I’m not sure where I was ranked on Leadership Network’s Twitter poll. I do know that I was like many of the other smart women on the list– women like Diana Butler Bass, Julie Clawson, Phyllis Tickle, and Nadia Bolz-Weber–historians, authors, pastors, and church planters who never spoke at the conference. They are innovative giants who are changing Christianity. Yet even after the humiliation of an on-line Christian Facemash witnessed by over 30,000 people, we still didn’t get to hear from them.

Which seemed to make it even crueler.

God Complex Radio Season Three

Charlene li Pic

Can real community form through a Twitter feed? What do you do if your church gets a bad review on the Internet? How can we use social media tools in our church contexts? Can our church communities ignore the Internet any longer? How can we, as religious leaders, navigate the changes that social media present?

Join me and Landon Whitsitt as we welcome Charlene Li to talk about these questions on God Complex Radio. Charlene Li is the co-author of Groundswell, the author of Open Leadership, and the the founder of the Altimeter Group.

Also joining us is Meredith Gould, the Abbess of the Virtual Abbey, and author of many books, including The Word Made Fresh and Why is There a Menorah on the Altar?

The Show is at our God Complex Radio site.

Functions of Social Media in the Church

I’m in the midst of editing a podcast for God Complex Radio. I interviewed Phil Shepherd, at the Euc, and Charlene Li, founder of the Altimeter Group and author of Open Leadership.

While talking to Charlene, I realized that the ways we communicate and use technology in our churches have three pretty distinct functions:

1) We use it to reach out. In many congregations, people usually check out the website before they enter the church. Our website is our new front door. Another effective outreach tool seems to be our sermon podcast. We regularly get thank you emails from people who listen to it. People have also come to our church because of the reviews on Google maps. What’s been most effective for you?

2) We encourage the congregation. Charlene Li is a business writer, but I was thrilled to find out that she knew congregational culture and understood the challenges of reaching across the generations. She explained that when churches receive outside criticism, sometimes the most important thing is to build up and take care of the body. Use emails and newsletters, and make sure that your communication works across generations.

3) Leaders support each other. Right now, churches are cutting and downsizing. Retiring pastors have watched their nest egg dry up, pastors beginning their careers have found that those entry level jobs are disappearing. Church culture often blames the pastors for the decline. Sometimes it’s the case, but not always. I just don’t believe that former generations were that much more awesome than we are. Sometimes we’re just caught in difficult situations, and we need a place to vent and share with one another. We need to pray for one another. Social media has become that place for many leaders.

What functions would you add?

Oh! And new season of God Complex Radio is scheduled to come out on Tuesday! We’ve had a bit of furniture rearranging to do in the summer/fall. When Bruce Reyes-Chow stepped down from his Moderator position, Landon Whitsitt stepped up as Vice-Moderator. Landon put a ton of work in as the producer, so we’ve had to figure out how to redistribute that. Now I think we have… Landon’s going to do a bit more hosting and less producing. And we’re adding a new person on the team to help produce. But more on that later….

Exploring the Activist’s Tool Box

I was taking a friend on a tour of Miriam’s Kitchen, the feeding and social services program housed in our church. Along with an amazing breakfast and dinner, Miriam’s provides a full array of services for our homeless guests. When we walked into one of the offices, I introduced her to the Development Associate by saying, “This is the woman behind the Tweets.”

My friend said, “I tried Twitter. I was on it for about an hour. And that was it. I just don’t have the time. How do you find the time?”

The Associate responded, “Miriam’s makes sure that I have the time.”

I smiled at the exchange. The question of time is important when it comes to social media. But as Miriam’s raises funds and awareness around the issue of homelessness, they know that Twitter is an important part of their strategy.

Miriam’s Twitter feed is fun and insightful. They tweet the menu of the day, statistics on homelessness, needs of the guests, and appreciation for volunteers. They retweet what people say about them, and they quote funny things that the chefs say. They let people know about fundraising events, and the tweets have spurned other organizations to hold events for them. One day, our guests received a box of socks from California, because someone on Twitter read that they needed them. Twitter, as silly as it seems for those who are not active with social media, is an important tool in social justice work.

When a church or nonprofit group engages in advocacy, when we need to get the message out about an issue like homelessness in our city, there are many things we can use when we put together a strategy. There are the traditional avenues to get the word out about an issue, like direct mailings, press conferences, and press releases. We can assemble print, radio, or television ads. Each of these is important. But they can also take a great deal of money, time, or power to pull them off. If an organization has those things, then using traditional media can be extremely effective.

But what if our church or organization doesn’t have these things, but they still want to speak out on an issue? Then there are many other tools in our box now, and even though they take time, they are often easy and cheap to utilize them.

Blogs allow us to generate news and information, without having to worry about the layout of a regular newsletter. Furthermore, they allow people to respond in comments, and many are set up so that the article can be shared over Facebook and Twitter. While a direct mailing only targets the person to whom it’s addressed, the impact of a well-written blog, one that tells personal stories and relates important information, can allow for interaction, involvement, and sharing. Through blogs, we can become aware of other people who are working on the same issues, and begin to form important constellations of thought. Facebook can be a place where people share causes with their friends and Twitter is an effective means of getting the word out, recruiting a young volunteer base, and raising money around an important cause. The tools are changing all the time. There are on-line petition sites and advocacy networks that gather similar organizations around particular causes. There are sites where we can post Power Point presentations, YouTube videos, podcasts, or Livestream events.

While traditional media allowed a person to consume information, new media lets a person interact, respond, and share. It’s also important to note that younger generations are putting down print media and turning off the television more and more. So as church leaders seek to engage young activists, then they will need to use the same tools that a new generation is using. This is an exciting time, when so much of how we consume and share information is changing. In the midst of all of this, we will need to use as many tools in our box. When the tools are used well, it will worth the time to keep up with it all.