Membership has its privileges. Or does it?

I refuse to join any club that would have me as a member. – Groucho Marx

I’ve never been a joiner.

Perhaps it’s my personality type. I’m an INTJ and a 4 on the Eneagramm. I am the most original person in the world, damnit. I can’t be a part of no club.

Perhaps it’s because I am either the youngest Gen Xer or the oldest Millennial. I don’t like or trust institutions, or I find them completely irrelevant and useless.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an artist. I have rarely had the support of the establishment. That is, until they needed what I had in order to sell something or make themselves feels better.

Perhaps it’s because I’m an ex-Fundegelical. I know the stories and themes of being “an alien in this world,” and have been encouraged to view my life as something that will be persecuted. Standing apart is a birthright.

Perhaps (ironically) it’s because I’m a young, straight, white male. I can exist in our world with ease. I do not need validation for who I am because that validation is present all around me.

Whatever the reason(s), I’m discovering that I’m not alone. There are a lot of people who are not joiners.

The easiest explanation for the current crop of non-joiners is that the internet has made the world a place where we can self-actualize at an alarming rate. We can be, do, and say whatever it is we want to be, do, and say without a lot of fuss. And this has caused a lot of problems for Church Folk.

My friend Carol Howard Merritt addresses “non joining” with authority in her book Tribal Church. Using more facts and figures than Ben Bernanke at a Senate hearing, Carol makes as strong of a case as one could make for the lack of “joining” on the part of Young Adults. She reminds us of the fragile financial state of YAs, which contributes to the transient nature of their living arrangements (if they’re not living in their old room at Mom and Dad’s). Carol’s testimony, certainly, is not the whole reason, but it has to be a significant part of it.

Further, in the upcoming issue of PLGRM, we will feature an interview with two of our favorite Twitizens, Megan and David Hansen, in which they share about their thinking behind #epicenterofmatrimony (their uber-awesome wedding hashtag). In the interview, it is revealed how they deftly walk the line between acknowledging our calling to be part of somethign larger than ourelves and the reality that that “something” no longer need be physical. It’s an interesting juxtaposition.

Since writing Open Source Church, I’ve thought a lot about church membership. I can give you all the standard reasons why one should join a church, but I’m not sure that those reasons are really good ones anymore. Perhaps the truest reason I can say that the very idea of “church membership” has begun to get under my skin is that it has ceased to be about conforming me to the image of Christ and more about my cash.

The Head Tax

I’m sure that most denominations have some form of uniform giving expectation. In the Presbyterian Church, it is called the per capita apportionment. Most folks, however (rightly or wrongly), call it “The Head Tax.” For every member in a congregation, a certain amount is requested to support the ministries of the broader levels of the church.

I’m not blind to organizational realities. My current employment is tied, in large part, to this apportionment. If we are going to have a denominational structure that is functional and allows us to do things together that we would not be able to do alone, then some sort of organized giving method is a must.

Further, even if there’s not a “dues” system in place, what congregation does not fret over the budget every year? One of my good friends is the Stewardship Guy at the congregation I previously served, and I know his pain. O Lord, hear our prayer…

Cash affects almost every decision that a church makes. And it should no be so. Too often, despite best intentions, the concern for the spiritual health and well being of people takes a backseat to cash for the budget. Truly, we plan programs, etc for the benefit of people, but when it comes time to assess their “success” what is the criteria? How much, how often, and how many.

But its not just church boards. It is us, the people in the pew, as well. We pay our dues… I’m sorry, we offer our tithes and offerings, and we expect services in return. We rarely understand church to be anything other than a place where we receive Religious Goods and Services. All the fuss over pastoral work hours is because “that’s what we pay them to do.”

We are spiritual consumers. To be a member is to be part of a Columbia House arrangement: I pay you, you send me stuff. If I do not pay, you cut me off.

I don’t like that.

Church membership should not be about cash. It should be, in the first place, about something else.

I am 10 pounds of shit in a 5 pound bag

When I taught confirmation classes and covered the Reformed idea of “Total Depravity,” I would define it for the kids as being “10 pounds of $#!+ in a 5 pound bag.”* No, I didn’t cuss in front of your kids, but I did try to get through to them that, while everything else in their life tells them how amazing they are, the truth is that being human means being an asshole.

Now: I have friends whom I love and respect who are going to argue this point in the comments…which I will not respond to. 🙂 I’m not opposed to alternate points of view on this, but I see evidence for Total Depravity every day of my life, and it is this truth that forms my understanding of what membership is and should be.

Friedrich Schleiermacher said that the Church is where we come into contact with the “influencing spirit of Christ.” The Holy Spirit compels us to be drawn together to share with others in the experience we have had of utter and total dependency on God. It is with this community, with these people, that we begin to more fully experience the Risen Christ and be conformed to the image of that Christ. All the practices of “being Church with and for one another” should change every aspect of our lives. Being people who embody the Missio Dei should be a matter of course.

And, yet, we have morphed our understanding of what a congregation is into a social service organization with a weekly pep rally for its contributors. Do not misunderstand: I believe the people of the church should regularly band together to care for the “widow, orphan, and stranger” but I’m not convinced that the organization called the “congregation” should be the central, organizing force of that.

What I am advocating is something similar to what the Church of the Saviorbegan almost 70 years ago.

[The] desire for intimacy and accountability among members of the church is what led the community to break into smaller congregations rather than try to grow larger as a single church. It has also led to the formation of small groups called “mission groups”, made up of 2 to 15 members gathered around a shared sense of vocation or God’s calling.

Read through the linked Wikipedia article on CoS. You will see that they are living something radically different than what you and I normally experience. However, more and more, I hear from disaffected Christians and non-Christians alike that they would “do church” in a heartbeat if church were about serving one another and the world rather than cash.

There’s an ad campaign that used to say “Membership has its privileges.” In the Christian Church I believe that the only privilege we should be afforded is the privilege of serving others.

I’d probably join that.

*I would give credit to the friend who originally said this, but I’m not sure how s/he would feel about that. 🙂

The New Evangelism, revisited

Last January, I offered a few thoughts on what a “New Evangelism” might look like. In that post, I cribbed the ideas from a documentary I had watched about influencers, asking if the church could reframe its thinking on evangelism in light of what we’ve been able to learn from those who have influenced our idea of culture. “What would a postmodern evangelist look like?” I wondered.

This past weekend, I was reminded of these thoughts. I was wrapping up a speaking gig on the “10 Commandments of Open Source” and some one asked what reason I had for being so hopeful about the church and the Christian Faith given my professed belief that God does not exclusively call people into relationship through Jesus Christ. Or, to ask it another way: “Why should we devote time to making a case for following Christ when there are a ton of other good offers out there?”

This is a good question, I think. Many people I know claim that Christianity is not the only religion that we could give our lives to. However, we have stopped short of spreading the Good News because we don’t want to get painted with the same brush strokes as “Those Christians.” This is totally understandable. The moment that you allow for there to be more than one option, the less likely you are to insist that yours is the best option. And, yet, I can still think that my option is really, really great and worth considering while, at the same time, being honest about its flaws etc.

So that’s what I think I’d like to devote some time and thinking to over the next month or so. What does evangelism look like in an open source world? While I’m not going to say that others have it wrong, I want to figure out how to make the case for why we’ve got it right. How do we make a case for a consistent worldview and life ethic that doesn’t insist that others are not worthy of consideration and devotion?

And so, to get us started, I want to offer some realities that I think would be helpful and necessary to acknowledge when considering our question.

  1. Evangelism is not a dirty word. I have had bad experiences with the “E Word” growing up. As a Charismatic Fundegelical, we treated evangelism like selling a product and we tried everything in our power to get you to buy what we were selling. Even if it meant lying a little. I’m not kidding. But if the Good News really is good news, then we should want to make it known. We’ve got to get over our fear/revulsion/whatever of evangelism.
  2. There is no such thing as on message for the whole world. Anyone with even a passing understanding of contextualization will know that treating everyone the same is just ridiculous. We may want to say that “Jesus is the Answer,” but I think that grossly overstates what we think the question is. Not everyone is asking the same question, and if the Good News is going to actually be good news then is must be relevant news.
  3. No one knows who we are anymore. And no one seems to care. The recent Pew study is only the latest evidence to us that Christianity is seen as irrelevant, and where we’re not irrelevant, we’re often despised. We can’t trust that anything we do will be held up as important. Sure, some of us still get our names in the paper, but those stories are so few and far between that they will have no impact on our standing in the community we’ve been called to serve.
  4. Evangelism is part marketing, and its online marketing at that. We need to stop thinking that “Invite a Friend Sunday” is going to do anything to stem the tide. People are still spiritually seeking and they will give us a look-see, but we need to make it easy for them. And this means that, damnit, we need to get over our aversion to social media and accept that people are increasingly online. It seems so silly to write that statement, but so many churches are not heeding Carol’s advice that the website/FB page/Twitter account are the main door folks use to enter a church.
  5. People don’t want to interact with “First Church” but the people of First Church. Those “clear boundaries” that we have been encouraged to set up are now seen as the latest ways that we fragment our lives. Seeing church people as blank slates that only hold the church’s message is kinda silly. The fact that Jerome is the one tweeting for First Church makes a difference to how First Church is seen. And, in the end, isn’t it the people that make church worthwhile?
  6. We don’t need to spend a lot of money on evangelism programs. We just need to believe that what we are offering (Christ’s Freedom, Grace, and Peace) is worth spending our time sharing. Seriously, if we believe that what we’ve got is worth it, the rest is just tactics and logistics.
  7. We can’t control people’s opinion of us. But we can be around to help mitigate it if it’s bad. The Pew study showed us that most USAmericas love God, Jesus, prayer, etc, but they don’t like us. If we are not out and about – physically or digitally – we will have no chance of changing that impression. Did you know that we are all seen as homophobic, judgmental asses? Of course not. Because we’ve holed ourselves up and are concerned with saving ourselves, rather than help God save the lost, release the captives, and heal the sick.

I’m sure there are many more realities than that. Those are just the one I can think of right now, on a sunday afternoon. What else do we need to contend with as we think about engaging an open source world?

Sometimes, Facebook is like Lord of the Flies

I remember the first time that social media became an issue in my ministry.

I got a call from the pastor who proceeded me at the congregation I was serving, asking for a meeting. His tone was serious, and even a bit apologetic. Of course, I obliged.

He showed up in my office and asked, “What do you want me to do about Facebook?”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean, I’ve got members of this congregation. Members that you now serve, who are sending me friend requests on Facebook, and I don’t know what to do. I know ‘the rules’ about leaving a congregation: I’m supposed to back off and not be involved with things so that you can have a good ministry. And I want to do that. Really, I do. But these are also friends of mine, people I love and care about, and they’re asking me to be their friend on Facebook. So, what do you want me to do?”

In this age of digital communication, the boundaries have blurred. Not just in the realm of pastor-parishioner relationships, but everywhere. The expectations of easy communication continue to rise, and those expectations have created some old problems to rear their ugly heads.

We used to have boundaries figured out. But now, again, we don’t.

Social Media creates boundary problems

Don’t mishear me: I’m a big proponent of digital communication and social media. When I speak on Open Source Church, I spend an inordinate amount of time defending the basic premise that social media and communications technology has, in fact, changed the way we see, think, and interact with the world.

But I also spend time hearing confessions from folks for whom digital communication is not a first language about how out of it they feel and of how they are scared – yes, scared – that the use of this technology is going to ruin relationships. They tell stories of their children and grandchildren “holed up in their rooms.” They bemoan that they can’t get their kids and grandkids to answer the phone.

What I hear from people is that they see the use of digital technologies as ruining the ability to have a “real” relationship.

Now, I can point you to numerous books, blogs, and websites that address this phenomenon. This is well tread water, and I don’t need to get us all back in the pool. But I do want to remind us of it so that we can address the real issue I see creeping up on us. An issue that might just take us out if we’re not careful, and that is: social media creates boundary problems because many folks we are serving with don’t know how to interpret our communication.

I have a pastor friend who recently “liked” something on Facebook. It happened to be something politically liberal in nature. Of source, it showed up in her Facebook feed, and one of the people she serves (who resembles the people I described above) saw it and flipped out a bit. In response, said member posted something to the pastors wall and… well, you can see where something like this could head.

At issue is not necessarily that the particular pastor is a “liberal.” What is at issue is that the congregation member has no frame of reference for how to interpret that Facebook “like.”

Social Media has brought us to a place where many congregations are struggling to come to terms with a new way of being and living, particularly with how we communicate. Previously, the various outlets of pastoral communication were set. Everyone knew how to interpret the words a pastors said from the pulpit, and they understood that the words in a sermon will carry a different weight than the words in a newsletter article. Further, if they were hunched around the broken HVAC unit with the pastor, trying to determine whether to call in the electrician, the words out of the pastors mouth there would be given an entirely different context of meaning.

Different contexts make words mean different things to people, and the “problem” with the pastoral use of social media is that most of the people we have been called to serve don’t know yet how to interpret it.

I “got in trouble” for this all the time. I’d use my blog to tease out theories and ideas and you would have thought I was trying to get brought up on heresy charges. I’d post some snark to Facebook or Twitter, and my character would be questioned.

It was unreal. Accusations and foul behavior regularly ensued. It was like a re-run of Golding’s Lord of the Flies where the little boys became heinous behind their masks. Social media became a digital mask, and people showed up, true to form.

But I was able to manage it because I remembered one simple truth: Social Media is not a relationship. It is a tool for relationship.

Basic decency still applies

When Jesus is pressed for the most important part of the Law, he replies, “Love God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. And the second one is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

If one purports to take the Bible seriously, then one would want to know what Jesus was meaning there. I am embarrassed to say that it was not until the last few years that I looked into the passage from Leviticus 19 that Jesus was referencing with the “love neighbor” thing. #pastorfail Here’s what I found:

Jesus was using “love your neighbor” as a shorthand reference to a section from Leviticus 19, that leads up to the exact phrase Jesus borrows. In reading it, I decided that the text was basically telling us that the way we love others as ourselves is by teaching them how to treat us. From verse 11 through 18, Leviticus commands us to live with decency, honesty, and integrity. We are particularly told to make sure others know what is and is not expected. “Reprimand your neighbor,” we are told. “Or you will be guilty yourself.” We are expected to insist that people treat one another well. This is a non-negotiable. And, while social media may exacerbate the issue, the same rules still apply.

Thinking back to my friend on Facebook and my own life, its clear to me that what is happeneing is people are confused about how to interpret a particular genera of communication, they’re scared/frustrated, and so they resort to childish behavior. Some general practices become clear when needing to handle difficult situation where integrity and decency are lacking.

  • Be clear on expectations. For instance, I always refer to my Facebook wall as “a party that I’ve having in my living room.” It’s okay for you to come and hang out. It’s okay for you to disagree with me or others. But it is not okay for you to be an ass. Everyone wants to have fun at a party, and if you’re making it so that others no longer want to come to my house for fear of being around you, then you will not be allowed in.
  • Be firm and consistent. Once the expectation has been set, don’t budge. Even if the offending party is your best friend. Don’t be afraid to call someone out for it. Often, I have found that a simple “Easy there, So-and-So” does the trick.
  • Don’t be afraid to block/unfriend/unfollow. As Carol says, “Facebook is suppose to be fun.” Repeated offenders will have had numerous warnings. If they show no signs of slowing, then is goodbye to them. Simple. Don’t feel guilty. Don’t look back.

At the end of the day, this Christian Faith thing we get to do is about right relationships. Please do not enable the bullies. Have a backbone and stand up for yourself and others, because if church leaders do not then who is going to?

(By the way, I told the pastor who asked me about Facebook that the fact that he was concerned enough to ask said to me that I didn’t have to worry about him and boundaries. I’m glad to report I was proven correct.)