I’m back, and I have a new idea. (Yes. Another one.)

No worries, campers. Theocademy is not dead, but it is morphing into something else. More on that in another post.

For now, I’d like your help thinking through another idea that I have. Buckle up, this might be a bumpy ride.

I have recently been reading through Diana Butler Bass’ new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening. I had intended to wait to break it open this summer after the 220th General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (when my term as Vice Moderator ends and my life returns to a relatively normal pace), but this series of posts by my friend Rocky changed my mind.

I’ve gotta tell you: I love this book. Not only because it’s great writing, but because I resonate with it so completely. For instance: Just a month ago I preached that we should be about “belonging, behaving, andthen believing as Christians.” Then I pop open DBB’s book and…she’s saying the same thing.


So Rocky and I are chatting this text up, having a blast and I mention that I am returning to a love affair with long-form writing, high-quality journalism, and print as of late. I have discovered media outlets that are staffed and visioned by persons of my generation who consider topics I’m concerned about and write about them in a way that I can hang with.

So I suggest to Rocky that we start a magazine exploring the “next Great Awakening” that DBB writes about in her book. He doesn’t run for the hills, so we proceed. 2-3 weeks later, and after many many chat conversations we’ve birthed an idea, and I’d like you to help me figure out if its just an idea better left to the wayside or one worth pursuing.

The upshot is, I’d like you to take a survey about the magazine concept for me. It’s truly not long and it’ll take maybe 5 minutes of your time.

We’re calling the idea “The New Ecclesiast”, and here’s the “Editorial Philosophy” we’re working from:

The New Ecclesiast is a quarterly thematic journal that investigates the people and ideas associated with the “new spiritual awakening” as suggested by Diana Butler Bass in her book Christianity After Religion: The End of Church and the Birth of a New Spiritual Awakening. The main focus will be the lives and interests of those no longer satisfied with Modern Christendom, especially younger Gen Xers and Millennials as they search for a more authentic spiritual expression. The message will be bold and principled, unafraid to take firm stances on dicey issues, and will find its content largely in the consideration of inter-religious/inter-spiritual ideas and practices, the work and convictions surrounding creation care, and in the pursuit of peace and equality (with particular focus on combating violence, poverty, and oppression). This message will be communicated through a variety of voices – some humorous, some painful, some cutting, some joyful – but will each share an earnestness that this journey towards a new spiritual awakening is vital and must be taken seriously. Ultimately, this platform has been created in order to inspire these new ecclesiasts to begin crafting new structures of their religious and spiritual existence, and to realize that they need not do it alone for they are not alone.

If that sounds like a magazine you’d consider subscribing to, I would love for you to take our survey. I’ll leave it up until next Saturday so you have some time.


Click here to take survey

What Theocademy is really about

Today, at a conference I was preaching and teaching at, I met a couple of folks who mentioned the ideas I was floating this past week about rethinking seminary. One of them said they were mulling over the first call for submissions over at Theocademy. I said that I hoped they would be submitting a video lesson, and the response was interesting:

“Absolutely, but when I think about answering the question ‘What is Theology?’ all I can think about is what I read in Shirley Guthrie’s Christian Doctrine. So…”

Whether I’m right or not, what I heard in that response was, “I’m happy and excited to participate, but I’m not sure I have anything earth shatteringly new to say.”

Let’s be clear: That’s perfectly fine.

Most of the work I’ve done in the last several years (as many of you know) has been on the integration of open source theory and the Church. One of the ways I explored this in Open Source Church was to take a look at the foundational principles of Wikipedia. One aspect of those principles has some encouragement for us, I think.

As they construct their articles, the Editors of Wikipedia often remind one another that they are after “verifiability, not truth.” The idea is that they do not pretend to be establishing the “best” or “correct” view, but trying to create a record of verifiable information. Wikipedia explicitly states that they are not a place to post opinions or cutting edge research, but a place to amass the “sum of all human knowledge.” Likewise, the point of Theocademy is not to see if we can develop a new theology from scratch, but to see if we can build a online video archive of theological lessons. That’s a totally different thing.

Don’t get me wrong, if theology is art (as I think it is) then we never know what will happen and someone may show up with something AMAZING. But when we remember that the point is to make what theological expression we already have freely available to those that need it, that seems to take the pressure off.

Theocademy is first and foremost a distribution idea. It is only a content idea, second.

So, if you’re a little nervous about coming up with something brilliant, please stop. Just say the truest thing you know to say, and say it as interestingly as you can. Provide us with resources, and tell us who first said that amazing things you’re saying and then say them to us.

But let’s not get worked up about this. Let’s just do our best to help our friends who want and need the education we’ve been fortunate to already receive.

Can we reimagine theological education?

UPDATE (05/27/14): All links to Theocademy now point to the new website and project.

I’ve started an experiment, and I wonder if you’d like to help.

No lie, I was keynoting a conference last weekend, struggling with getting to sleep as I often do my first night away from home an a trip, and decided to read Seth Godin’s new (free) book STOP STEALING DREAMS: What is school for? (the all caps are his, not mine, btw). That was a bad idea.

Seth Godin is one of my “People you’d want to have lunch with” (Malcolm Gladwell being the other), and I find anything he writes to be perfect. He has an uncanny ability to cut through the bullshit of a given topic and lock onto the aspect that needs considering/questioning/improving/reforming/etc. In his new book, he turns his sights on education, specifically higher education. Here’s the blurb:

The economy has changed, probably forever.

School hasn’t.

School was invented to create a constant stream of compliant factory workers to the growing businesses of the 1900s. It continues to do an excellent job at achieving this goal, but it’s not a goal we need to achieve any longer.

In this 30,000 word manifesto, I imagine a different set of goals and start (I hope) a discussion about how we can reach them. One thing is certain: if we keep doing what we’ve been doing, we’re going to keep getting what we’ve been getting.

Our kids are too important to sacrifice to the status quo.

Reading this book did not help me go to sleep. Quite the opposite. Given my professed love of in depth theological education, I automatically thought of seminary as I read.

I thought about the countless seminary graduates who bemoan that “seminary did not prepare them for this” or “I didn’t learn to be a pastor in seminary. I learned to quote Calvin/Luther/Wesley/[theologian of choice].”

I thought about the crisis (yes, crisis) we are currently having around seminarian debt load.

I thought about the fact that the pilgrimage model of obtaining a residential seminary education is no longer desirable or tenable for many would be pastors (I, also, don’t happen to think it is a necessary model). Even if a person graduates with no educational debt, they often incur significant consumer debt in order to live.

I thought about the fact that, even if we can get young adults to enter ministry, a disturbing number of them are gone after 5 years. My own denomination released a study in 2005 that indicated that the number of “ministry drop outs” has quadrupled from a similar study in the 1970s.

I thought about the increasingly powerful tools of digital, online collaboration.

I thought about Wikipedia.

I thought about YouTube.

I thought about TED.

I thought about Khan Academy.

After all of this, at around 2am, I had an idea. I don’t want to be hyperbolic, but it was the closest thing I’ve ever experienced to a Divine Download. I was jazzed, and didn’t go to sleep until after 4am, and the idea I’m calling Theocademy was born.


Before I go too much farther, let me make a few things clear.

I love seminaries. Specifically, I love the seminaries of my own denomination (I serve on the national committee which seeks to serve these 10 amazing institutions). This is not about sticking it to seminaries. I know that a lot of people think that what’s wrong with the Mainline church today is our seminaries. I could not disagree more. These seminaries know what the Church is facing and they are working to respond. Cut them some slack that the change isn’t happening as fast as you want. Most of us can barely get our 100 member, $200K budget churches to change. Try turning the ship that is a seminary. It’s not easy or quick.

Yet, while the current slate of seminaries are working to address the coming future of the Church, we have an opportunity to dream new dreams and take advantage of the tools and ethos at our disposal. So, while this isn’t about hurting seminaries, it is about experimenting to see if there is a new and different way forward than the one we’ve assumed.

This is also not about trying to replace the process by which we form pastors. In fact, if I was being honest, I would say that denominations have wrongly abdicated their responsibility to form pastors to the seminaries. If the folks at the Learning Pastoral Imagination Project are to be believed (and I think they are), the only way to be formed as a pastor is to “practice pastoring.” Yes, we need a bit of information, but the way you become a pastor is by actually pastoring. And yet, we expect fully seasoned pastors once we hand them an MDiv. Sorry. That ain’t gonna happen.

And so, if the purpose of seminary can’t be – shouldn’t be – to “form pastors” then what are we left with? Learning theology, biblical interpretation, etc.

And here is where we have a problem. With the countless resources available to me online, what is to stop me from getting a theological education by taking advantage of those resources and working through them with my pastor? What? They aren’t qualified to reflect on that material deep enough to help someone reach a level of competence? Then why are they a pastor? We need to get those folks out of congregations quick before they screw up the people in Sunday School! 🙂

Here’s what I want to try: Can we figure out a way to generate a body of theological, biblical, and pastoral knowledge and make sure that everyone who wants it has access to it?

Yes, I’m proposing a theological Wikipedia of sorts. Yes, I’m asking if what has worked for Khan Academy can work for the Church.

We used to train pastors in apprenticeship situations all the time. For thousands of years, one pastor trained another. The centralized theological academy is not the end all and be all of theological education. When I have access to the teachings of Richard Rohr at my digital fingertips, why do I need to travel half way across the country to learn it from you? Why can’t I reflect on it with my pastor? Isn’t she equipped for that?

To that end, the experiment known as Theocademy.

I want to see if we can become our own instructors again. I want to see if the Church is able to reclaim its responsibility to train the leaders that she will need for the next phase of the Church’s life. I can give you a dozen names right now that already are stellar instructors and that I hope participate in this experiment. And that’s just from my Twitter following list. I know there are people out there that I don’t know that will blow our socks off. Would you come over and be a part of it?

The Church is not here to make us better people

A few years ago I was privileged to meet and be taught for a day by Andrew Root. Root is probably the best theologian going, in my opinion, and while he is ostensibly a professor of “youth ministry” the work he does truly blew my mind open about my own ministry as a “regular” pastor.

Drawing on the work of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Root fleshes out a modern application around the doctrine of incarnation as opposed to the modern fascination with influence. Here’s a 15 minutes video I recorded with Andrew about this very idea:

So, given that, here’s the question I want to ask:

Is the Church as the Body of Christ living up to the expectation set by the “body” of Jesus of Nazareth regarding “place sharing”? If the entire point of ministry is for us to be “with and for” one another, how are we doing?

I have this bad habit of expecting life to operate with some measure of consistency. Nothing makes me more batty than seeing a person or an organization profess a purpose or mission and then operate in ways that are counter to that profession. If I say that my goal in life is to plant beautiful gardens, but spend my time on the couch playing video games, there’s a problem. Worse yet are the subtle deviations such as said gardener spending all their time just reading gardening books. True, a case can be made that education is necessary, but every teacher I know will tell you that the best lesson plan is an experimental, open-ended one. We learn by doing. Most anything else is work avoidance.

In the same vein, the logical inconsistency I see regarding the Church is this: If we profess to be the Body of Christ, called and created to carry on the work that Jesus of Nazareth did; and if that work is the work of place-sharing through the power of the incarnation, I’m not sure we’re doing to well.

Granted, we can always name an exceptions to the rule, but the fact that we acknowledge them as “exceptions” is telling. I believe that much of what we do in the life of our congregations (and, to a lesser extent, other levels of our denominations) is highly-refined work avoidance.

When you walk out of worship, do you feel like you have had an experience of God as one who has just shared your place? Not every week, perhaps, but almost every week?

When you finish a Sunday School class, what is the net result? Is it that you’re smarter?

What is your feeling when you return home from spending a day serving at a social service organization or a short term mission trip? Do you utter the oft quoted “It changed me more than it changed them”? Wow. I hope that’s not the case.

Don’t read me wrong. I think that a certain amount of “preparation for ministry” is good, but mostly what I see is Christians practicing spiritual work avoidance. When I think about what it is that the Church typically does, I must admit that I see most of of what we do as “influencing” behavior – behavior designed to make us (think we are becoming) better people. But if the Gospel is to be believed, and if incarnation is true then it seems that we need to be arranging our gatherings for a very different purpose.

How do we order our common life if the purpose is not to influence do-gooders, but to share the place of the widow, orphan, and stranger?

A Progressive Call to Conscience

One of my spiritual heroes, Fr. Richard Rohr, posted this quote on his blog yesterday:

“Despite a certain trend towards conservatism in parts of the church and society, I am convinced that we have moved into a new era that will be determined by people who live by their own conscience and are particularly qualified to act as discerning members of community and society…the era in which almost everyone was content to be born and to live as a member of a certain church or ‘organized religion’ is over. The people who will shape the future of believers of all religions are those who have the courage to make their own choice, whatever pain may be involved, and to do so with personal responsibility.”
– Fr. Bernard Haring, German Redemptorist priest

The “certain trend towards conservatism” that Haring writes of has been on my mind a lot lately, and I love how he describes it.

I appreciate his description of “conservatives” as simply being content to be born into and live as a member of a particular kind of system, because that has been my working definition of this stream of the faith for quite a while. The truth is that, for a lot of Christians, the historic ways of thinking about and enacting our faith works, and works well. To hold this particular doctrinal understanding or that one makes a lot of sense. Given the way that their worldview is constructed, one cannot fault someone for professing the particular theology that they do (remember: knowing determines understanding determines meaning).

But Haring names something important, I think. What will shape the future of faith is whether or not we have the courage to make our own choices. I do not understand him to say that all of those choices are going to be good ones that will lead to the Abundant Life, but I do understand him to say that this will be the norm (and this comes from Catholic moral theology, which, according to Rohr, has as its first principle, “Follow your conscience”). However, the interesting point that Haring’s thought raises for me is not regarding the future of religion, but about the reaction of those living out that “certain trend towards conservatism.”

I can say from experience that persons who want to preserve the particular system that has defined Christendom raise loud, vocal opposition whenever someone dares to explore the “adjacent possible” of our common faith. I find it interesting that, at almost every turn, what we have discovered to be a true expression of God’s love for creation was once thought to be in direct violation of scripture and theological tradition (ie – equality of races and genders, etc). I am grateful for those who naturally want to preserve the best of our faith, but I am not willing to let them rule the roost. And yet, that is what is happening.

As I observe it, Progressives (those who seek to explore the adjacent possible) do one of two things in response to loud, vocal opposition. We either cower in the corner, constantly on the defensive, and allowing the opposition to set the agenda; or we segregate ourselves, trying to ignore fray, telling ourselves that this “certain trend towards conservatism” is not a serious issue. In both cases we fail.

This “trend towards conservatism” cannot be allow to set the agenda for the future of the Christian faith, for, indeed, its agenda is not about the future, but about the past. This conservatism is often little more than a romanticizing of times gone by, and as Melissa Harris-Perry recently said of a similar kind of USAmerican nostalgia, there is no time in the American past that one would want to go back to as a black woman. If we allow the agenda of the Christian faith be “Back to the Future” we are all destined for a limited and limiting existence.

However, more often than not, what Progressive Christians do is sit smugly in the corner and decline to engage in the debate at all. The reason we can be accused of snobbery is because, well, we practice it. Rather than cower in the corner, we (instead) sit there smugly, waiting for others to “catch up” to a more inclusive, holistic, and complex way of engaging the world. We do this because we don’t like to argue and fight; we don’t think that anyone’s mind will be changed.

I disagree. Minds can be and are changed. I trace my own “journey to Progressivism” to my freshman year of college, when my friend Todd rhetorically dismantled my conservative theological worldview. I returned to my room after that very civil debate and cried for about an hour because, for the first time in my life, I did not have all the answers.

I believe it is time for those who identify as Progressive Christians to begin proclaiming what my New Testament professor calls ” a confident counter-proclamation.” I believe it is time for us to cease being afraid. I believe it is time for us to cease allowing the recent “trend towards conservatism” to be the agenda setting narrative. We must not be haughty, but we must be firm, clear, and respectful.

I would call this a call to arms, but it is not a war. So, instead, I take a cue from Haring and issue this Progressive Call to Conscience. Sisters and brothers, let’s once again be willing to make bold choices to explore the adjacent possible of the Christian faith, and be willing to endure whatever pain may come as a result.