Christianity After Religion

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In her Acknowledgments at the end of Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler Bass says, “These pages are my long-considered answers to questions a book and a teacher raised during my senior year in college.”  Christianity After Religion is one of those books that took me a long time to read.  Not because it was difficult, but because it required me to look at questions that have lingered around my faith and life for years.

Raised in a very religious home, faith has always been an integral part of my everyday life.  It was not merely a program to be consumed a couple times a week at our local church.  It was giving thanks at every meal.  It was hearing the Bible read each night as we gathered in my parents’ bedroom.  Those readings closed with us all kneeling beside the bed and expressing prayers to God. The church of my youth taught me that when some tenet of that faith was challenged by culture or science or another doctrine, the first response was defensive because the challenge seemed to attack the very foundations of all the provided meaning and purpose for every aspect of my life.  Religion had been framed as a no-holds-barred death-match…winner-take-all.

There was a point about 12 years into my vocational ministry that this framework made absolutely no sense to me.  My denomination had been embroiled in religious/theological/cultural battles for 20 years and the lines that were drawn between the sides didn’t seem to be significant or substantial enough to justify the carnage being wrought between good and faithful people (Diana Butler Bass has a wonderfully succinct description of this battle on page 233).  It was for damn sure draining my very soul.  A journal entry I made during that time simply said, “God, if you’re there, cool.  If you’re not, cool.”  I had had enough.

During that time, my family was a part of a community of faith that seemed to be a refuge from the battles…a spiritual DMZ so to speak.  No doubt, our congregation was labeled by those in the fight, but my pastor, Dr. Larry Taylor, and the good people of that community had remained true.  There was something different for me about that place.  These people were not sheltered by any means and if pressed for a position on the issues of the day, whether religious or political, you would get an impassioned and well reasoned opinion from anywhere on the continuum of possibilities.  But, we were ultimately followers of Jesus in a place called Emmanuel Baptist Church and that community was more important and life giving than any one political/theological position.

When looking back, I recognized that I had experienced this same type of community in a couple of places before.  In the Baptist Student Union at LSU led by Frank Horton, and in the college department of First Baptist Church, Baton Rouge, led by Anne and Jack Lord.  Rather than soul-sucking battles for “truth”, I found life-giving and transformative spiritual community.  It was in these communities of my college days that I felt a call to vocational ministry.  And it was Emmanuel Baptist Church that helped salvage that call from the hubris of denominational leaders seeking to tear apart such communities in the name of their particular versions of truth.

By the time I reached Chapter 7 and read Diana Butler Bass’ description of The Great Reversal, I recognized she was describing those communities from my past.  These were not utopian by any stretch.  But when taken as a whole, my experiences in those places were lived examples of belonging, behaving, believing (in that order).  Butler Bass’ connecting this vision of community with spiritual awakening was exactly the appropriate link to make and her practical actions of “prepare, practice, play & participate” placed the lofty aspirations of such an awakening on the solid ground of experience and tangible action.

Christianity After Religion has become a foundational book for me.  I’ll read it again and, with difficulty, will attempt to find more space for notes and thoughts in it’s margins.  I recommend it very highly.  And I recommend you take your time.  It’s not a “page-turner” and I mean that in the absolute best sense of that term.

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living in exile…a voice in the desert!

It was the title that caught my eye…”What do low-income communities need?” Intriguing. Definitive. Hopeful? Maybe…I clicked the link and read the article in hopes of finding the answer.

After reading it, I’m not sure I necessarily “liked” what I read. But, I still felt compelled to post the link on both Facebook and Twitter. Megan McArdle’s perspective was frankly pretty dark and cynical in some respects. As I read it I found myself torn. There are ideas here that rub my liberal sensibilities the wrong way and others initiate a loud AMEN from those same sensibilities. I also found my more conservative impulses reacting almost exactly opposite my liberal side in precisely those same places.

Ultimately, the writer didn’t answer the question posed in the title. And that was sort of a let down after all of the opposing visceral reactions I experienced while reading the piece. Don’t get me wrong. McArdle’s point is well taken, specifically as she stated it in her last paragraph:

“Public policy can modestly improve the incentives and choice sets that poor people face–and it should do those things. But it cannot remake people into something more to the liking of bourgeois taxpayers.”

And there’s the rub. Just like so many other things in our culture, we want to apply some kind of pharmaceutical remedy to all our problems and make them disappear. We don’t necessarily care how the drug works, just so it takes the pain away. It is in that spirit that we attempt to apply social policies to issues at the whims of elected officials whose main goal is not to solve the issue at hand but to be re-elected. Lets just say the “results” of these politically motivated prescriptions pretty much read like the foul side affects that are hurriedly read following the utopian myth offered by the drug ads we are constantly barraged with on TV (would anyone like to recall the first time you heard “please call your Doctor immediately if you experience an erection lasting for more than 4 hours” with your kids in the room? For a funny digression, check this out.)  All of the efforts from “both sides of the aisle” to solve these problems seem to be more effective at inducing cynicism and resignation that any sort of hope for real solutions.

However the false promise of the article led me to another thought. I was reminded of a passage of scripture we read in our Corner Bible Study at King’s Cross Church a couple of Sundays ago:

The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
—Isaiah 61:1

It was a prophetic word to a people who had lost everything: their homeland, their culture, their religion. They were returning from exile in a foreign land to rebuild their lives from the ruins of Babylonian conquest. And it was very good news.

I think we often forget that we (all of us) live in exile as well. As I listen to the noise of partisan politics and recognize it’s absolute inability to deliver the good news proclaimed by the ancient prophet, I begin to long for the realm promised by God.  As I become inundated with the call to consumption and materialism to which this season has devolved and recognize the fleeting nature of the “highs” provided by the giving and receiving of stuff, I long for a voice calling out in this wilderness. (With all due respect to my friends who work for Nissan, this particular ad was the last straw for me.  Seriously?…”most wonderful sale of the year“…seriously?)

This Advent season has been a reminder for me to rediscover the true source of Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love.

10And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for allthe people. 11For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  — Luke 2:10-11

This is what poor communities really need.  Frankly, it’s what all of us need. Hope, Peace, Joy, and Love…generously applied in our day to day lives.  Generously applied to the problems of our day.  The empty words of politicians and the fleeting pleasure of the accumulation of stuff pale in comparison.  It is my prayer for my family and for all of you this season that we all absolutely enjoy our Christmas celebration.  All of it…the giving and receiving of gifts, time with family, the lights, the food, the TV shoes, even the shopping (but that was a bit hard to write).   But I also pray that in all of this busyness and activity that you will “make straight in the desert a highway for our God.”  Peace!

WIFI Prayers and Hugs Withheld

My last post focused on the hopeful tone evident at this year’s US Conference on AIDS in Chicago.  While there is still much work to be done in the fight against HIV/AIDS, the end of the epidemic is actually a realistic possibility.  However, with these consecutive posts, I want to be careful and not overstate my own role in this battle against the epidemic.  I’ve merely attended a conference and worked a booth a couple of times.  I’m NOT a hero here.  But I was fortunate to be in the company of several hundred people who are…people who have dedicated their lives and invested their own love and compassion toward eradicating this devastating disease.

Who am I then? I am a person who claims to be a follower of Jesus.  Vocationally, I am an ordained Christian minister tasked to help others along the path of following God, offering God’s peace (shalom) as I go.  Probably the most formative thing for me personally coming out of my visit to the USCA was how institutional religion has come to be perceived among the HIV/AIDS community.  I was made painfully aware of how badly the community of people who claim to “follow Jesus” have behaved in response to this epidemic and to those who are HIV positive.  I’ll grant on the front end that many of the attacks directed toward institutional religion are based on generalizations and are often unfair.  I’ll also grant that there are MANY religious institutions who are doing GREAT work among this community (My two personal favorites are Samaritan Ministry & The Center For Church and Global AIDS).  So, before we go any further with this post, if you count yourself as part of this group of people called “Christians”, I would like for you to leave your defensiveness at the door.  Go ahead…lay it down…I’ll wait…leave that whole “hate-the-sin-love-the-sinner” thing there too…  Ready?

Samaritan Ministry is always one of the exhibitors at the US Conference on AIDS…the largest conference of its type held in the United States. Until this year, Samaritan Ministry was the ONLY faith based organization who exhibited at this conference.  This year, it was great to have Rev. Donald Messer and the Center for Church and Global AIDS at the conference as well.  (from the CCGA website: “Donald Messer is a 70-year-old writer, United Methodist theologian, and retired college (and seminary) president who tells us here that he believes his career may have begun in earnest only after he retired and began to work full time for the organization he founded, the Center for the Church and Global AIDS.”  His book, Breaking the Conspiracy of Silence: Christian Churches and the Global AIDS Crisis was a profound inspiration to Wayne Smith.  He’s also a great guy to hang out with over Chicago style pizza!)

Being a faith based organization attending this meeting always makes for an interesting stream of conversations. Two particular conversations hit me very hard this time.  A young woman came by our booth this year and took our “unofficial USCA IQ test.” This is a simple four-question card that opens easy conversation as well as serving as an entry to our door prize drawing.  After completing the test, Nicole asked what Samaritan ministry was all about. She began to tell us her story. She was HIV positive and worked for an HIV/AIDS service organization (or maybe a department of health…hmmm…can’t remember). One moment she was telling us her story and how her pastor wouldn’t touch her when he found out she was HIV positive.

The next moment Nicole was weeping.

Wayne immediately reached out and hugged her. The conversation continued.  It was deep and moving.  I was honored to have her trust and the opportunity to hear her story.  But I was also struck by the amount of hurt that can me administered by a hug withheld in the name of Jesus.  It was a deep and faith scarring hurt.  I’ll never forget that moment.

About 30 minutes later, an African American man approached our booth. He also took our IQ test.  As we listened to his story, we found out he was a minister who was also HIV positive. He told us about attending a “healing service” at a church. At the front of the church, there was a woman who had cancer and who had gone forward for prayer. The minister and a group of deacons were “laying their hands on her, anointing her with oil, and praying for her” (see James 5:14).

He said, “I wanted me some of THAT!” He went forward, informed the pastor that he was HIV positive and wanted to be anointed with oil and prayed for.  The pastor’s response?

“He looked at me…backed AWAY a step or two…raised his hand in the air in my direction…and began to pray. They laid hands on the woman with cancer…I got the WIFI prayer!“, our friend said with an inviting and friendly laugh.

And we all laughed…except it really wasn’t funny. This pastor’s sanctimonious prayer was an unloving action based on ignorance and poor theology. It was the same action that made one young woman weep in her abandonment and a young man laugh at the unfortunate irony.

I’m going to resist the rant that is poised on the tip of my tongue.  I would hope those stories might speak for themselves.  I’ll say this however in closing: I want to be a part of a group of people who reach out and give Nicole a hug and then walk with her on her journey.  I want to be a part of a people who will never be accused of WIFI prayers.  I saw God very clearly at the USCA this year (and each of the other times I’ve been fortunate enough to attend.) Frankly, I saw “the Church” there as well…very active and engaged. To bad “organized religion” is missing it.

Peace!

Mumford and Sons and the Gospel

I’m reading Sarah Vowell‘s book Unfamiliar Fishes which was recommended to me by a college friend.  He and his wife (also a college friend) and daughter spent the weekend with us at Bonnaroo.  The book is a brief history of the evangelization and annexation of Hawaii and its eventual adoption as a state.  I haven’t read or even heard of Vowell before but she’s evidently on the Daily Show a good bit and also on NPR.  I love the way she writes (very dry sarcastic humor as well as very interesting historian).

The book spends some time on the missionary enterprise spawned from the revivals at Yale in the early 1800s and the “haystack prayer meeting“.  Vowell is pretty cynical toward religion (from what little I know about her background, that would be understandable).  Take this gem of a quote about the spread of Christianity around the Pacific:

Mills, Dwight, and the other men of faith who founded the [American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions] would use the empirical data and maps of European explorers like Cook and LaPerouse to fan out evangelists across the Pacific to spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.

So…to my actual point and question…Vowell tells the story of Henry Obookiah’s journey from Hawaii to New York and his eventual conversion to Christianity and subsequent call to return to his home to win his people to Christ.  She writes about his arrival in New York like this:

In New York, Obookiah disembarked with Thomas Hopu, a Hawaiian shipmate he had met on board.  As the missionary Hiram Bingham described their first night in Manhattan, “Like the mass of foreign seamen who then visited our cities without being improved in their morals, [they] were for a time exposed to the evil of being confirmed in vice and ignorance, and in utter contempt of the claims of Christianity.”  That is how a missionary describes the fact that the Hawaiians went to the theater.

She goes on to talk about the differences between western enlightenment understandings of truth vs. a more respectful approach of some of her encounters with Hawaiian culture (which might have led to their openness to conversion when the missionaries finally arrived…but I haven’t read that far yet).  The black vs. white approach of western Christianity comes firmly out of the enlightenment…absolute truth can be known and/or observed.  Armed with the arrogant notion that they knew absolute truth, off the missionaries went.  Vowell has a great line about this arrogant and myopic view of other cultures:

In America, on the ordinate plane of faith versus reason, the x axis of faith intersects with the y axis of reason at the zero point of “I don’t give a damn what you think.”

So…I found myself at Bonnaroo this past weekend.  On Saturday, I drove by some descendants of the very missionaries who had “spread the fear of God as far and wide as Cook’s men had spread the clap.”  I was heading home for a “real” shower and these missionaries were heading into Bonnaroo dragging crosses and [what I assumed to be] King James Bibles and sandwich signs condemning the satanic rock-n-roll being spewed out of Satan’s Hell there on that little farm in Manchester, TN.  Upon my return, my camp-mates confirmed my fears and recounted their experiences of being preached at.

Later that afternoon, we found ourselves at the Mumford and Sons show at the Which Stage along with 50,000+ others who were drawn to their sincere and fresh brand of folky rock-n-roll.  What we witnessed was a group of very serious lyricists who were almost uncomfortably humbled by the prospects of performing for such a crowd.  They returned for an encore with a good number of musician friends and led the gathered throng in a deeply moving and spiritual rendition of Amazing Grace.  I saw one young woman projected on the video screen beside the stage weeping.  As a follower of Jesus, I absolutely sensed God moving among those people.  And I was at church.  More precisely, I was with the Church.

Meanwhile, those other more obvious followers of Jesus were driving people away from Christ with their brand of condemnation and hate completely missing the gospel being proclaimed by some of the very profane musicians they were denouncing.  How do we (the church claiming the name of Jesus) totally fail to “get it”?

It’s very easy for me to cast stones at this judgmental and hateful brand of religion.  But, upon reflection, I need to try to recognize when I’m guilty of the same in the name of my own particular brand of “absolute truth”.  That’s what I’ve been thinking about this morning…  Peace!

Start What You Need

I’m one of the “littles“…( a FAN of the Tony Kornheiser radio show).  I listen to the podcasts of the show religiously when I’m on the road.  It’s funny, smart, snarky and covers topics from sports, politics, movies, culture, food, etc. (frankly whatever “Mr. Tony” wants to talk about).  For WAY more information than you really want to know…check out his wiki page).  I was scrolling back through some of my past blog posts and rediscovered a post from 3 years ago that featured a clip from his show. (Listen to the excerpt here…Tony Kornheiser on Spirituality. It’s a little over 9 minutes long but worth the listen.)

In my original blog post, I said that I wanted a group like the the one Kornheiser describes (beginning at around the 5 minute mark of the clip).  Specifically I said, “…what was so meaningful about [Kornheiser’s golf] outing and what draws most of us toward that kind of experience is the community that allows such a conversation to occur.  I want that.

Something has evolved for me over the past couple of years that resembles the community evident in Kornheiser’s Yom Kippur golf outing. It is what I “wanted” but looks different than I expected.  A few months after that blog post, I started a conversation with several friends facilitated through a private blog.   It is a group of friends who trust each other implicitly, enjoy spending time together whenever we can, and who are a source of encouragement and challenge that make life better just knowing they are there.  We have a lot of things in common, but we differ on MANY things as well…politics, theology, religion, even continents.  But unlike many institutional forms of “community”, these differences haven’t seemed to hinder the friendships. In fact, the relationships have probably grown deeper through the differences.  More specifically, the growth has occurred through the trust to share those differences out in the open without fear of reprisal.  Which brings me to another observation from Mr. Tony’s radio conversation.

Tony Kornheiser and David Aldridge’s skepticism toward religious institutions is clearly articulated.  Their experiences of and attitudes toward these institutions are shared by many people in society today.  We have all heard those feelings expressed from many of our acquaintances, neighbors and/or co-workers.  This is obviously a problem from the perspective of the institution.  To address the problem, institutions have expended huge amounts of time, energy, and resources.  “Outreach” programs are developed.  Books are written.  Consultants are hired.  Neighborhoods are canvased. Small group programs are initiated.  But we still hear of skepticism directed toward the church based on real or imagined stereotypes of church and religion.  I’ve come to believe we are not going to create the type of community people hunger for by introducing more programs, or slick marketing campaigns.  What to do?

“Start what you need.”  I would suggest starting a conversation among some of your friends…a conversation that is based OUTSIDE the doors of the institutions in question.  A conversation specifically intended to create the community you are looking for.  Don’t force this conversation; allow it to evolve.  However, be intentional.  Take some risks.  Share yourself…the good, the bad, and the ugly. Share the questions and the doubts as well as the definitive portions of your faith.  Chances are, you and some of your friends share that same need.  I have a hunch that the more community we experience in our personal lives, the more community develops in the institutions in which we participate.  It’s a hunch that I’ve experienced personally…both in my friendships and in my church.  A couple of years ago, after hearing something that made me write, “I want that”, I started what I needed.  It’s been more than I thought I wanted.

Lonely

…the continuing saga of a Facebook Fast…

I travel a good deal with my job.  I regularly commute to Murfreesboro from my home in Tullahoma (about 40-45 minutes each way).  On Thursday, I had an appointment in Nashville and I began the routine drive after dropping my son off at the High School.  About 30 minutes into my trip, I became aware on how alone I felt.  I frequently drive in my car with no one in the passenger seats.  Things were normal from that standpoint.  But on this day, I was aware of a different quality to the empty car. I had logged out…no Facebook.

I have likened Facebook to non-Facebook friends to being in a large room with acquaintances from all periods of my life.  There is the constant buzz of conversations going on in this room.  At any point in time, I can choose to join in a conversation or start a new one.  These conversations range from silly to sublime.  Family, sports, spirituality, politics, news, religion, art, music, books, reunions… The list is endless.  Sometimes, you just want to sit in the room and relax with your thoughts.  But always, there is the comforting buzz of family, close friends, high school and college buddies, church members, work colleagues, etc.

What became vividly clear during these first few days of the Facebook fast was that I had stepped out of that room.  I had closed the door.  A deep sense of silence and a different quality of “alone” permeated my empty car.  I know how this might sound a little crazy to the folk that have been trying to intervene in my Facebook thing.  But the effect was profound.

There are several implications to this but I’ll mention two.  First, I have rarely been truly alone over the past year or so.  Being connected “virtually” via my cell phone and social media is something significantly more real than I realized.  I’ve missed the renewed relationships with people from my past.  I’ve recognized that conversations with my friends locally are enhanced and deepened via social media.  Rather than typical small talk, on Facebook we move on to snarky comments and humor.  We also begin to ask the second level questions and make comments that move conversations to deeper levels than might happen when we merely bump into each other in the grocery store.  I also have become more aware of why the most brutal from of punishment for a teenager these days is taking away their cell phone.  In a way, it places them in “solitary confinement”.  I think at times, that’s exactly the punishment that is called for in a situation.  However, it also might be more extreme than the situation calls for.  I need to think a little more about this next time parental justice comes down.

The second thing I’ll mention is that…well, I’ve rarely been truly alone over the past year or so.  Rather than solitude and quiet, I’ve taken comfort in the noisy room.  I think true solitude is something extremely important and is in fact missing from my spiritual life.  I don’t think merely logging off of Facebook is going to provide the solitude that I’m talking about here.  I fill the space constantly with podcasts, music, email, newspapers, magazines, TV, YouTube, etc.  We are constantly barraged with media, information…noise.  I think this constant sensory overload might just be overwhelming the still small voice of God’s Spirit…of my own spirit.

Withdrawals

So I’ll confess…I’m addicted to the little red flag that signals a response to something on my Facebook page.  The Internet browser I use is Apple Safari.  Normally I have a tab open with my Gmail account, another tab with Facebook, and then any additional tabs I might use for surfing the Internet, checking out the news of the day or to do research for the tasks of the day.  In addition, I have my mail app and my Facebook app adjacent to each other on the home screen of my iPhone with “push notifications” turned on.  What this means to the non-techno-geeks out there is that I’m aware practically immediately whenever someone posts a message to my wall or sends me an email message.

One of my motivations for this Facebook fast was my increasing awareness of my addiction.  While the designation of addiction might seem to be a little melodramatic, I have to admit that it fits.  The simple definition of being addicted to something is to be physically and mentally dependent on a particular substance leading to adverse effects when that substance is taken away.

On Ash Wednesday night, not 30 minutes after my “final” sign-off…I recognized I had a problem.  My Bible Study group at church has a fairly active Facebook group (our page is not as active as the Facebook Group but here’s a link).  I intended to post scripture passages and prayers daily leading up to our class time last Sunday (March 14, 2011).  I knew there was a way to post to the group via email that would keep me from having to login to my account.  But I didn’t know the proper email address and I didn’t know the procedure.  So I innocently logged in…and there was the little red flag…with a 7 on it!  I couldn’t resist…I had to see who had commented on my wall.  The next morning…I “needed” to make sure my Bible Study post was up…same thing…red flag…my mouse could have simply clicked the Bible Study Group link…

Well…the first step is admitting you have a problem.

Facebook Fast

“Really?!?”, replied my wife.   “I don’t believe you!” commented my daughter on my last post before signing off Facebook for Lent 2011.  I have to admit, I was at best skeptical.

A little context/confession here…I’ve never completed a Lenten fast.  I’ve only tried it one time before.  I was a “fail” as the kids like to say.  I couldn’t even tell you at this moment what I failed to give up for lent that year.    More context/confession…I’m a Facebook junkie.  I was a very early adopter.  Facebook opened membership to anyone over the age of 13 with a valid email address in September of 2006.  I was aware of Facebook on college campuses prior to that time.  I opened my own Facebook account in the Summer of 2007.  That puts me pretty much in the Total-Facebook-Geek category in most people’s books.  I check it on my computer, on my phone, while I’m at the office, while I’m driving in my car…just about anywhere.

Part of this lent deal for our church this year was to “give up something” but also, add something.  As I’m writing this, I’m aware of my failure in the add category…I was going to write more consistently…fail.

So the doubts of my wife and daughter are pretty much justified.  I’m still pretty skeptical about the chances of my success with the Facebook portion of this thing.   Here goes nothing…


New beginnings…

This blogging thing comes in spurts for me.  It’s been a while since I posted anything…nearly 3 months.  My excuse has been that I really didn’t have anything to say, at least nothing I wanted to put in writing.  I felt that something profound had to be laid down every time I clicked the “Add New Post” button.  Whether or not published posts have actually lived up to that expectation is debatable.  But there is something about the discipline of putting words on a page I need at this point in my life.  It has little to do with an audience for this blog. Based on the “hits” counter, not many people are reading this stuff anyway.

The relatively recent (at least for my circles) rediscovery of the practices of observing Ash Wednesday and Lent have been increasingly meaningful for me over the past several years.  Once my understanding shifted from “giving up a guilty pleasure” toward the taking on of a new discipline[s], it has become an important season for my faith.  This year, part of my Lenten discipline will be to write regularly here on the blog.  We’ll see where that takes me.

the PR Effect and Preaching…

Pulpit of the Sint-Bavokerk, Haarlem, The Netherlands (taken by Mike Young, summer 2008)

I just started what is turning out to be a very interesting book by Hugh Heclo entitled On Thinking Institutionally. My interest was sparked by a review in the latest issue of The Christian Century as well as the water in which we’re currently swimming attempting to keep a denominational institution afloat in these challenging times.  I hope to write more about the book in later posts but there was an interesting point he made in explaining what he calls the PR Effect.

Heclo gives a “short list of some prevailing strategies used by today’s professionals in public communications”:

  • Stay on a simple message (rather than dealing with complex realities).
  • Appeal to emotions (rather than taking time to reason with the audience).
  • “Frame” issues to steer people toward the desired conclusion (rather than informing them about the substance of any given issue).
  • Project self-assurance (rather than admitting uncertainty or ignorance).
  • Counterattack or switch the subject (rather than trying to answer tough questions).
  • Avoid self-criticism (rather than trying to correct your errors).
  • Claim to have the whole answer (rather than admitting there is any independent expertise that is not on your side).
  • Above all, talk to win (rather than to get at the truth of things).

He then makes an interesting observation:

“So what does the PR effect have to do with institutional distrust?  To find the answer, we might return to the preceding short list and imagine two acquaintances.  One deals with you in the terms indicated at the beginning of each bullet and the other does so along the lines contained in the parentheses.  Once you realize you are the target of a sell-job, trust goes out the window.  It’s time to keep you hand on your wallet.  More than that, the rhetorical tricks, focus group-tested talking points, and slick strategies are a way of saying that you are not being taken seriously.”

I am still processing this but strangely enough my first thoughts went to preaching.  How has this philosophy of public communication impacted how we relate to people in the congregation?  I had a nice opportunity to preach for a World AIDS Day service last night.  My topic was “How are you spiritually healthy?”  I acknowledged how pretentious it would be for me to actually give a recipe for spiritual health…a “10 step” plan or something similar.  I received some nice comments following my talk.  But the one that probably meant the most was by someone who simply said, “I’m glad you let us think about that without answering the question.  I’m glad you let us know that you didn’t have the answer.”

I’m convinced that not only from the pulpit, but also in our “Christian/religious” communications with folk outside our particular faith tribe, our slide toward irrelevance has been greased by our attempts to sell faith.  Doris Bett says, “…faith is not synonymous with certainty…[but] is the decision to keep our eyes open.”  Our sales pitch approach to faith has run its course.  I really don’t think people want answers.  I think what they want are authentic relationships so they can work out their salvation together.  They want to be able to keep their eyes open.  Too often what we provide is an opportunity to change the channel.