The up side of being the most annoying person in your church

A close friend of mine has spent the last couple of years since moving to a new suburban community trying to play an active role in a local church. This particular congregation has important familial ties, a large number of families with children the age of their own and is located in their community.

What’s remarkable is that this congregation is theologically at odds with him. The church is fairly Calvinistic. He’s more of an open theist. The church is firmly complementarian. He’s egalitarian. The church pours its resources into weekly worship services pursuing prevailing megachurch strategies. He’s leaning toward Eucharistic table fellowship-based house church more every day.
yelling
To be honest, while I’ve admired him, I’ve met his attempts to uncompromisingly “fit in” with some incredulity. I’ve observed him taking great pains to foster a small group and grapple with the very issues where he is at odds with his congregation—even hosting his small group bible study and enduring a marriage and family study where he and his wife often felt the need to speak out in opposition to the authors. At one point he engaged a few church elders in a group reading and discussion of Christena Cleveland’s Disunity In Christ. The conversation he had hoped to spark stalled out.

My mentality has always been to seek out the like-minded rather than push against existing power structures. The former admittedly has been hard to find, while the latter has wounded me emotionally more than once.

Yet, the efforts my friend has been making prompted me to rethink my approach to church community when I encountered the work of Carl DeSalvo, professor at Georgia Tech. DeSalvo is a proponent of something called “adversarial design,” the kind of design thinking that leads to alarm clock robots that run away from you after they go off to force sleepers to get out of bed and hunt them down to shut them off. Rude, agitative, and very effective at making you get out of bed on time.

Like most people, I tend to problematize every situation involving conflict or discomfort, and for every problem there must be a solution. When the conflict produces interpersonal disagreement, finding a solution often means parting company and seeking out the like-minded through separate denominations, theological positions, generational groupings, gender roles and other binary parameters.

From this human tendency proceeds a design where relationships (and social acceptance) are predicated on an increasingly narrow set of agreements—and this is nowhere more clearly visible than it is in the church.

The drive toward a design of separation comes from placing a high value on establishing unity and an often unconscious psychological response that pushes people to avoid any information that causes discomfort when it conflicts with or challenges their beliefs. Leon Festinger’s research into cognitive dissonance and confirmation bias is particularly informative in this regard. Those most invested in the solution of separation, tend to see no viable alternatives and fail to recognize the benefits of a community that comprises various dialectical tensions. In fact, Festinger and others might argue that the overemphasis on unity in all aspects of church community is more a result of error justification where dissonance is reduced by exaggerating the importance of goal in question.

Returning to my friend’s intentional participation in “a fellowship of differents” (borrowing wording from theologian Scott McKnight), I have to honestly evaluate what is lost when I knowingly or unknowingly allow my response to dissonance to drive my behavior. By extension, the church needs to do this as well.

Wisdom comes from suffering.

– Aeschylus, “Agamemnon”

Carl DeSalvo’s Adversarial Design (2012) advocates a state of agonism whereby social, political and technological design drives “productive contestation and dissensus.” This is not a formula that seeks to solve conflict but an ongoing state of tension—a suffering that produces wisdom.

…to be a good church is to come to a community with different people, who don’t agree on everything, but who fellowship around Jesus anyway. And the only thing harder than doing this, is what happens, over time, when we don’t.

– Jonathan Storment.

Where existing church culture is predisposed to separation in order to foster an ecclesiology buttressed by complete unity in all matters, individual believers have to intentionally apply adversarial design to their engagement with their church communities, which, my friend readily admits, feels one-sided most of the time. It leaves one subject to mistrust, ad hominum attacks, social ostracizing and, at its worst, spiritual abuse. It’s often not a safe space to inhabit. The dissonance can be deafening.

Now look if you’re gonna come around here / And say those sort of things / You gotta take a few on the chin / You talking about love and all that stuff / You better wear your thickest skin / Sometimes you can’t please everyone / Sometimes you can’t please anyone at all / You sew your heart onto your sleeve / And wait for the axe to fall”

Bill Mallonee, “Skin”

Out of One Blood, Immeasurable Worth

Today I watched blood slowly drip into a vivid red line leading to a bandaged plastic tube that had been inserted intravenously into my 11-year-old son’s arm.

some textI’ll be honest: I’m not a good one when it comes to needles, and the most disconcerting thing for me to deal with when it comes to IV treatment for my son has been blood transfusions. It was a rare occurrence when he was being treated for cancer (Rhabdomyosarcoma) in 2012. Even though I knew in my mind that the chemotherapy being administered was basically poison, it was the blood transfusions that hit me the hardest. I remember weeping back then, as I did recently, when they first gave him blood to support his own struggling system. Something about the vivid color and the knowledge that some one gave that precious substance to help my child in dire need touched me profoundly.

As a privileged white male, it also became most clear to me at that moment that with the free gift of life blood, there is no Jew nor Gentile, no slave nor free, no male and female—no color, no creed, no class, no division that changes this unifying feature of our humanity.

The blood remains as red

– The Choir, “Clouds” (1987)

The bones that serve as the framework of every human form have at their core the source of that unity—the marrow that regenerates this common lifeblood.

Amid varied and beautiful human diversity, an essential sameness exists at the core.

The constitutive elements of blood have become too familiar in the past month as my son fights a new battle with aplastic anemia. We’re back to regularly fretting over platelets, hemoglobin, neutrophils, and so many blood tests. All of these building blocks of blood emanate from the core of his framework of bones—his marrow.

This blood is life. Its value is costly.

Lost in thought amid the hours of treatment this week and this contemplation about blood, I encounter the horrible news of the Charleston, SC, Emanuel AME Church shooting.

While I struggle to comprehend the full extent of this attack, I’m more aware than ever of the precarious nature of human life and the unity that this bloodshed represents.

And men will recognize that out of one blood God made all men to dwell upon the face of the earth.

– Martin Luther King Jr., “Where Do We Go From Here?” Address to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (1967)

This killer’s hatred and his evil act of terror, as much as he wants it to, cannot blot out the red blood and the marrow at his core that he shares with those he seeks to destroy. Yet as this enemy selfishly takes blood, so many others selflessly give their blood, literally or figuratively, and bear witness to the love of Christ.

This is how Osheta Moore’s message to Kingdom people, in the aftermath of this shooting, spoke directly to me.

We’re called to be the ones to cry out, “Immeasurable worth!” when image-bearers are devalued. We’re the voices of justice. We’re the ones who draw in the sand and level the playing field. As peacemakers, we’re tasked with identifying with our Prince of Peace who overcame our blood-thirsty enemy by shedding his own blood—selflessness and love flows from the cross and lies out our chosen path—humility.

– Osheta Moore, “What I Need You to Say in Response to the Shooting in Charleston”

The blood of Christ—incalculably valuable, immeasurably costly—flowed freely to meet my desperate need. I know this to be true in the marrow of my bones.

The blood remains as rich

That poor sinners drink like wine

– The Choir, “Clouds” (1987)

some textI don’t know the nine people who were mercilessly gunned downed as they prayed, studied and fellowshipped Wednesday night at church but I see Christ’s love flowing as they served God, each other and their community.

I know they have unsurpassable worth.

I don’t know the people that gave the blood that is now flowing in my son’s veins, renewing his life and helping him recover.

I know we are grateful and humbled to receive such a gift.

I am beginning to understand that this “one blood” encounter through my son’s illness can be used by God to teach me. Today, it is teaching me to listen more closely and identify more deeply with the sorrowful in Charleston and the black community.

 


At our university documentary film festival this past April, the best in show winning film centered upon the last prayer of Christ that included the words, “I pray that those who believe in me, that they may be one.” Christ’s last prayer directly connects to His most costly gift.

THE LAST PRAYER / story from Chitwood Media on Vimeo.

Church and the Overjustification Effect

My 2008 master’s project included a review of literature that delved extensively into criticisms of consumer-oriented church growth models. Most specifically this had to do with the film industry and its attempts to fuse movie marketing messages with church worship and teaching materials (a practice that still continues in various forms).

some text
Barry Schwartz

The consumerist critique begs the question as to what aspects of consumer behavior are counterproductive to the goal of growing churches. While the potential avenues of inquiry to answer this question are many, I recently came across something from psychologist Barry Schwartz cited in Evgeny Morozov’s To Save Everything, Click Here that prompted my thinking specific to intrinsic and extrinsic motivation and the “overjustification effect.”

[The] enthusiastic embrace of the view that self interest simply is what motivates human behavior has led us to create social structures that cater to self-interest. – Barry Schwartz

The seminal research by Lepper, Greene and Nisbett (1973) defined the overjustification effect as a phenomenon in which an individual’s more intrinsic interest in an activity decreases when they are induced to engage in the activity as a means to gain an extrinsic goal.

While research since Lepper et al. has scaled back the significance of earlier overjustification effect studies, a solid critique by Cameron, Banko and Pierce (2001) conceded that there was a negative effect on intrinsic motivation when the rewards were tangible, expected and only loosely associated with the performance level of the subject.

Christianity in its American form could be said to have always existed in tension between intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. Indeed, the extrinsic have been built into the narrative in the form of eternal punishment and eternal reward juxtaposed with more intrinsic qualities of a rightly ordered relationship with God and fellow humans facilitated by unmerited grace.

Yet, I would argue, local church adherence (in contrast with the Christian religion itself) has been less about other extrinsic rewards until the latter part of the 20th century. Since then, the development of more highly “produced” worship experiences—the coupling of productized music and teaching—has increasingly become the extrinsic motivation for church attendance (and ultimately financial support).

Human beings are unfinished Animals: what we can reasonably expect of people depends upon how our social institutions finish them. – Barry Schwartz

some textEntertainment—music, lighting effects, screen-based media, TED-style talks—comprise the prevailing extrinsic motivation on offer by many large evangelical churches today that have the means to deliver it. This occurs in a cultural context where entertainment is almost always formulated as a tangible commodity with either a direct economic value (tickets, subscriptions, retail) or indirect human attention value (television, Internet) (Smythe, 1977). This sets the stage (pardon the pun) for a situation where the perceived performance level required of the subject/consumer is mere attendance.

The risk, according to overjustification effect research, is that the receivers of these extrinsic rewards may have their more important intrinsic motivations dulled—even to the point of devaluing participation in deeper Christian formation and their faith community where intrinsic qualities must endure over time.

Millennial Faith – Part 2: A Church for Makers

I teach a senior seminar class in communication topics every fall. The format is reading and discussion. I curate a selection of topical texts for my students and together we read and discuss our way through them in our 15 weeks together. One of the things I have observed is how the nature of the discussion changes when even one person is absent from the table—sometimes dramatically. We “create” the discussion each time we meet in such a way that every learner matters, and we tangibly feel the presence or absence of presence of each person in our seminar group. Every interaction we have together is fundamentally different, even if it is my sixth or seventh time leading the group through the same material.

Contrast that with the prevailing evangelical church model today—one of large group gatherings featuring high-end music performance and teaching—that works against the relevancy of the individual that attends. Simply stated, it matters not if one attends or doesn’t attend the weekly service. The experience created at the large group level is unaffected by any individual. In this model it is only the individual that is affected by their presence in the service. There is little or no interdependence. Much like swimming in the ocean, the individual gets wet and experiences the refreshment of the cool water, but the ocean is unaffected by their presence. Generationally this consumer model has appeared to be successful with Boomers and even Gen Xers.

simmelIn 1902 German Sociologist, Georg Simmel considered the impact of group size on the sociological forms those groups take. He noted that there was a stifling impact on individuals immersed in large collectives: “It is this large number which paralyzes the individual element and which causes the general element to emerge at such a distant form it that is seems as if it could exist by itself, without any individuals, to whom in fact it often enough is antagonistic.”

At a certain point, the large group is perpetuated without meaningful connection to the individual. “The large group gains its unity… only at the price of a great distance between all of these structures and the individual,” Simmel wrote. The value of the individual ceases to matter apart from what can be quantified.

Yet, it seems, this quantification is all anyone can talk about with regard to millennials and Christianity. The blogosphere erupted with responses to the most recent Pew research ostensibly heralding the decline of Christianity in America.

More generationally focused Pew research from 2010 found young people much less likely to affiliate with any religious tradition or to identify themselves as part of a Christian denomination. One-in-four adults under age 30 (25%) were unaffiliated, describing their religion as “atheist,” “agnostic” or “nothing in particular.” This compares with less than one-fifth of people in their 30s (19%), 15% of those in their 40s, 14% of those in their 50s and 10% or less among those 60 and older.

Use of the term “affiliation”—the quantitatively measured membership roll of a religious denomination or church body—seems indicative of what makes millennials different. Again, Simmel’s ideas are on point:

The super-individual character of the group, the fact that its form no longer depends upon any contents of the component individuals, is nowhere seen in a more absolute and emphatic manner than in the reduction of the principles of organization to purely arithmetic relations. – Georg Simmel

Attend a large evangelical church on a Sunday morning and ask yourself if your presence there would fundamentally change the service experience in any way other than adding to the size of the audience and for anyone other than yourself.

This is where Simmel resonates with the generational data. Millennials have a high need to count—and count for more than their objective value as statistics. Myriad references to the rise of the “nones” in much of the recent church research on this topic masks the reality that millennials seek something more than affiliation. This is not the generation of auto clubs, AARP or the American Express card where “membership has its privileges.”

While Boomers and GenExers could be said to be individualists and self-reliant in different ways, milliennials exhibit an individualism that craves significance through collaboration and co-creation: the individual is most valued in relation to the social group.

In a December Forbes article by Micah Solomon touting 2015 as “the year of the millennial,” Alex Castellarnau at Dropbox.com characterized millennials as “a generation that wants to co-create the product, the brand.” Soloman agrees, with the caveat, “as long as they believe their say matters to the company in question.”

Companies that understand this and figure out ways to engage in this co-creation relationship with millennials will have an edge. – Alex Castellarnau

The prevailing church model puts inordinate resources in to getting people to attend—to show up. Gabe Lyons characterizes The Next Christians as a generation that strongly believes “…no one solves anything by merely showing up.” Instead, “The next Christians are provoked to do something when they arrive on the cultural scene.” And that something must not be filling traditional church roles that prop up and perpetuate the existing consumer church model. Rather, Lyons continues, “…they create culture that can inspire change. They create organizations, services, and goods—art, films, music, campaigns, projects, media, churches, and businesses—anything that incarnates Christ.”

In order for the creative impulse to be realized, an individual must have subjective value within in their social group.

In the small group, by contrast, the individual’s views and needs are directly effective, are objects of immediate consideration. – Georg Simmel

Try to forget, for a moment, that Simmel uses the phrase “small group.” Writing in 1902 he certainly is not referring to modern church programs that seek to infuse more community and discipleship into large, impersonal churches. Simmel writes more fundamentally of group size indicating a sociological tipping point between one’s individual presence in a group being significant and even essential as a subject, and that presence being largely irrelevant when objectified as part of a larger quantity.

To understand the millennial disaffiliation from the consumer church model, one needs to understand the characteristics that are coming to distinguish this generation. A 2012 MTV Strategic Insights study entitled “Generation Innovation” found considerable evidence to refute the notion that millennials are entitled or coddled.

We found a vibrant and strong fixer/maker/builder culture where nearly 3 in 4 of Millennials believe [they are] starting a movement to change old, outdated systems. Put more broadly, if the American Dream isn’t working as promised, Millennials will take it upon themselves to iterate the next “version” of America. – Nick Shore, Senior Vice President of Strategic Consumer Insights and Research for MTV.

In step with that strong proclivity for creativity and meaning, Solomon notes that millennials “care about what’s genuine and authentic. This interest falls somewhere between a purely aesthetic preference and a search for honesty.”

I recently received a tweet from a local millennial audaciously announcing the launch of a newsletter featuring handmade goods. Think about that. In the age of mobile technology and social media, a millennial is using an old medium to generate marketplace interest in handmade goods. And he’s right on the trend. Handmade goods are gaining popularity, led by a wave of creative millennials.

Handmade happens on a small scale. It is necessarily subjective. The craftsperson, inventor, artist or maker leaves their fingerprints on their work. Handmade is the epitome of authenticity.

some text John J. Thomsen, author of Jesus, Bread, and Chocolate: Crafting a Handmade Faith in a Mass-Market World, describes a realization he had as he compared his regular mass market loaf of bread with the delicious bread his friend, a baker by trade, shared with him more than a decade ago. In the age of mass production people have “chosen to sacrifice quality, nutrition, flavor, and integrity in our pursuit of convenience and cost savings. In fact, that kind of trade-off has become one of the prevailing values of our age.”

These industrial age values have profoundly affected how we produce food, how we educate children and how we conduct the church.

As I sat there in the kitchen tasting my friend’s bread I started thinking about all of the other things we have sacrificed on the altar of convenience and industrialism. … the squishy loaf of plastic-wrapped bread on my counter reminded me of the ways…the church had taken on certain toxic values of the Industrial Revolution far more that she had shaped those values. – John J. Thompson

The generational trend toward seeking meaningful creativity and hand-crafted authenticity, along with the data suggesting the apparent rejection of the industrial producer-consumer model of church, points toward a new millennial ecclesiology.

Our Internet connectivity is just fine. The rest of our lives is a different story. We are hopelessly disconnected. Church, you can be a powerful remedy if you stop posing as a Fortune 500 company scheming to sell a product. – Jonathan, from Dear Church: An open letter from one of those millennials you can’t figure out

This is what pierces the filter bubble—the sharpness of the real; the penetrating reality of a hands-on community incarnating Jesus.

At the ground level, what does a church consist of that is made, or co-created, with parishioners?

I return to the analogy I began with in Part 1. Clay Shirky made a prediction about what would replace the public good of accountability journalism that the newspaper industry long provided now that the Internet had fundamentally changed the economics of the industry. In short, he asserts no one model will replace newspapers, but rather the next “step needs to be vast and varied experimentation, not the transfer of allegiance from one institution to another.” The state of affairs for the church is the same. We must let a thousand flowers bloom.

And while I want to avoid proposing anything formulaic in this regard, in light of Simmel’s sociology of groups, my strong proclivity is that church communities going forward, in the midst of this experimental and entrepreneurial necessity, must intentionally strive toward ways of gathering together for worship where every person matters as a co creator, and that their presence or absence makes a qualitative difference in the ongoing experience of the group.

The data is shouting at the church to stop trying to get millennials to just show up and, instead, “make” something entirely new with them.

—————-

Simmel quotations taken from Kurt Wolff (Trans.), The Sociology of Georg Simmel. New York: Free Press, 1950.

Lyons quotation take from Gabe Lyons, The Next Christians. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011.

Millennial Faith – Part 1: The Decline of Church and the Rise of Filter Bubbles

Journalism in the print dominated era was largely able to avoid having advertisers censor or otherwise interfere with news reporting, something known as “commercial capture,” because there were few, if any, advertising alternatives available. For example, GM would never challenge an unfavorable story by threatening to pull its advertising dollars largely because they had nowhere else to buy their media. Clay Shirky, NYU media professor, aptly noted this in a well-known blog posts in 2009.

Shirky As Shirky noted then, that deferential treatment of publishers changed in the digital era. In short, Internet companies such as Ebay, Craigslist, Monster and myriad social media upended the political economy of the newspaper business:

With the old economics destroyed, organizational forms perfected for industrial production have to be replaced with structures optimized for digital data. It makes increasingly less sense even to talk about a publishing industry, because the core problem publishing solves — the incredible difficulty, complexity, and expense of making something available to the public — has stopped being a problem. – Clay Shirky

There are some interesting parallels to draw between the organizational and economic models of newspapering in the industrial age, and the modernist evangelical church, especially as it concerns certain effects of mobile networked communication media on millennials.

In light of Shirky’s well-worn thesis on the plight of newspapers in the digital era, I thought I’d create a “find and replace” thought exercise to show how analogous this is with the exodus of millennials from evangelical churches. In reading the statements below, replace the underlined words with those in the parentheses that follow.

Find and Replace:

For years newspapers (churches) didn’t have to be beholden to advertisers’ (parishioners) concerns about content (theology and dogma) because publishers (clergy) controlled the only viable advertising medium (spiritual and social support system) available. Publishers (clergy) could avoid this commercial capture (church consumer capture) because, as Shirky puts it, “Where else you gonna go?”

Yes, people have been church hopping for decades — people have always been able to vote with their feet — but something is going on generationally that points to a new dynamic. After a spate of articles in the past few weeks laying blame for plummeting millennial engagement with the church on the usual suspects (pluralism, lack of critical thinking, the decline of apologetics, post modernism, consumerism), something just didn’t ring true with my experience of millennials as a college professor, and I began to pull on a thread that seems to connect some of the disparate sources I’ve been reading and listening to in the past few weeks.

All of the issues people have had with churches—the reasons millennials give for leaving the Evangelical churches behind noted in recent research—are largely the same as they have been for decades and even generations, as Richard Beck, professor and department chair of psychology at Abilene Christian University, points out.

…the church has always been this way. Is the church of 2010 much different from the church of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, ’80s, or ’90s? I don’t think so. So, yes, the church is screwed up. Always has been. The church has been a depressing constant over the generations. – Richard Beck

What has changed is the ability to mediate and even titrate our spiritual and social support structure.

In the silence of connection, people are comforted by being in touch with a lot of people — carefully kept at bay. We can’t get enough of one another if we can use technology to keep one another at distances we can control. – Sherry Turkle, psychologist and professor at MIT

Traditional church attendance, interacting with others in unmediated and uncontrollable context, for some millennials has become as unbearable as using their mobile device to make an actual phone call. Technology has given them a measure of control over their relationships, something the church cannot provide (nor should it). Yet, having been conditioned by an industrial-producer model of church programmed with the base code of consumer culture, they find it quite natural to leverage technology to “optimize” their experiences of faith and the church.

ShirkyThis leads to another analogous concept that seems pertinent here: Eli Pariser’s filter bubble. (You can access a full definition through the link. In short, it is how people become increasingly isolated in their own cultural or ideological bubbles by digital technology that can monetize their personal data). This individual bubble effect is further inflated by our ability to control our social interactions and information sources through social media.

Many Christians have spent their lives within the church “bubble,” a word most readily understood to be the protective insulation one gains from affiliation with their church subculture. A strong social contract has maintained the boundaries of this bubble over time: be likeminded and the medium of the church will filter out dissonance, deception, temptation, etc. In the digital era, individual filter bubbles have largely transcended the old borders.

As one is able to inflate and maintain their own filter bubble, he or she becomes less bound within the church bubble, as everything is more subject to their individual bubble. Even if one still subscribes to the dogma and practices of their original church subculture, all of that content and connection must now transcend the mediated membrane of the individual’s bubble. The church becomes subject to a person’s ability to control the input and mediation of social interactions and information. What was once a relational–social process is obsolesced and becomes an objectified input source — one among many.

In short, the existence of individual filter bubbles that propagate digitally makes the existence of larger bubbles propagated offline largely irrelevant (or a lot less relevant). The priesthood of all believers is now the oracle of each individual believer.

Percentage of people affiliating as white evangelical Protestants:

  • 27% of people age 65-plus
  • 22% of people age 50 to 64
  • 17% of people age 35 to 49
  • 11% of percent age 18 to 34

– Public Religion Research Institute, American Values Atlas, 2014.

The challenge posed by the phenomenon is that neither those in church leadership, nor millennials recognize this filtering process is occurring. The sharp decline in the religious affiliation of successive generations is largely attributed to immediately visible factors (styles of worship, service content, bad PR, etc.) — all with much hand-wringing. The presence of filter bubble millennials doesn’t negate the other factors, but we also shouldn’t expect solving those issues will change much in terms of the generations filling the church pews in the digital era. One bubble has popped as the other has inflated.

Next: Part 2 – Millennial faith: A church for makers