Monday, March 25, 2013

Social Networking as Evangelicals

This week I was at the annual general meeting for the Federation for the Humanities and Social Sciences and took in a workshop on social networking. To be honest the workshop was a bit disappointing in terms of content, very basic and general. But it did get me thinking. I took in that workshop because I have put my name forward as communications officer for the society I was representing (Canadian Theological Society). I have two reasons for choosing this topic to look at with you this week.

First I would love to hear the good, bad, and ugly stories about your churches and social networking. There are a lot of potential pitfalls with electronic communication, but I also know that some of us have made quite effective usage of these new tools. So please post your stories so we can all learn from each other.

Second I think this is an important aspect of contemporary ministry that can be very intimidating. The fact that you are reading a blog means you've somewhat overcome this hurdle, but I think it is time for an article that might help get people to see the potential. Maybe it will be helpful enough to send around via more traditional means. My concern is that there is a generation that uses these tools as if they were an extension of their social being. They are often so comfortable that older folks have trouble keeping up. Even though I was a very early adopter of social networking (before that term existed!), I had to be dragged into the world of Facebook by my church. This was after I tried to drag them over to older tools which brings me to my first point.

1) You Can Lead a Horse to Water...

Probably the best point that was made at the workshop was that you need to find out where your people already are. MySpace is dead, Facebook is not a good place to reach the young (or at least it is being less so as their parents join up in droves), Google+ is very niche, etc. There are many tools I've loved, like Yahoo! Groups. But over the years they become digital wastelands, where only a few stubborn survivors remain. You can have your favourites but if you are serious about building a social network to support your community you need to go where your people are already going. And to be blunt, that probably will not be the same space for everyone. So if you are trying to network with youth, have your youth leaders find out how their youth are using these tools? Then empower them to build networks to reach out that way.

2) Know the Etiquette for the Tool

Back in the FidoNet days you knew that all caps meant religious fanatic (not in the good sense) or ignorant newbie (term for a person new to that tool). Today I still cringe when I see stuff in ALL CAPS, in fact I often just ignore it. Social networking is very flexible. You can listen to who you want and turn off whoever you don't want to hear. When you are building an extension of your community play nicely, play by the rules. When I started out in ministry I worked at a Foursquare street outreach church. We would preach on the street corners and in the daytime I'd take my old beater guitar down and pass it around in groups of street folk. As I entered into their space on their terms they began to tell me things that I would never have guessed. The reason they hated (yup that's probably the right word) street preachers was that they would come down, take the best busking spaces and not follow the unwritten rule of surrendering the space after a half hour when someone else came needing it. I didn't realize many of these kids relied on busking money and we were screwing that up for them. So we adjusted and it actually dispelled the animosity. In fact it build important relationships in that community. Social networking is no different. Find out where you want to build and spend time lurking (reading and watching without posting) getting to know the community you are trying to bridge into. This is also a great benefit of having different ministries connected to different social networking tools - the rules are different in each one so the more focused you are the better net citizen you will be and the more people will respect and want to listen to what you have to say.

3) Yes it is as Hard as You Fear

This might sound counter-intuitive if I'm trying to encourage the use of social networking tools. But I think truth is liberating. It is not easy. There are lots of potential pitfalls in social networking. How do you handle the over zealous Christian sister or brother who just jumped into your online world only to marginalize the people you want to reach. Finding a way to navigate that which doesn't further alienate your network and/or marginalize your sister or brother is not easy. It takes incredible grace. Fortunately we serve the King of grace. Just know that social networking is not easy, it takes work but God, who is always interested in reaching out to the world, God is with you.

4) Invite them to Connect in the Real World

This is one of those things that I think we miss. We assume too easily that people want social networking to remain a virtual affair. They actually don't. Social networking is built on the human desire to connect and be in community. Many people will jump at the opportunity to connect IRL (in real life in net speak). Make this a key aspect of your social networking ministry. Connecting people is great, bringing people into community is great, bringing them to places where they can encounter the presence and power of God, that is priceless.

So over to you, I want to hear the stories. We need to learn, to grow, to expand our outreach.

Frank Emanuel - Ontario Region

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Theology and Followership

As I study and reflect upon the scriptures, I notice that when Jesus (and the Apostles after him) taught right thinking about God (good theology) they did so partly through the means of “followership.”  In the gospels, the call of Jesus to all who would be his disciples was (and still is), “Follow me.”  In fact, Jesus indicates that ‘followership’ is a necessary criterion for us to even identify as his disciples (Matt 16:24, for example).  Similarly in the New Testament, we see a few examples where the Apostles also exhort us to actively follow as a necessary component of our faith, discipleship, and right thinking.  In 1 Corinthians 11:1 we read, “Be imitators of me, as I imitate Christ.”  The model of followership is a fundamental element of the Jesus movement.

As we observe the ministry of Jesus, His teaching about God and the Kingdom was accompanied with demonstrations of the Kingdom - cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse lepers, cast out demons.  The commission given to us by Jesus (that we see most clearly in passages like Matthew 10, Luke 9, and Luke 10) invites us as disciples to follow Jesus through participating in His ministry.  It is through this participation in the life and the ministry of Jesus that His followers gain revelation and insight.  In Luke 10:21, as disciples return from having done what Jesus taught them, we read, 
“Jesus, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children. Yes, Father, for this is what you were pleased to do.””  
In Mark 4:24-25 (NLT) we read, 
“Then he added, “Pay close attention to what you hear. The closer you listen [and do], the more understanding you will be given - and you will receive even more. To those who listen to [and do] my teaching, more understanding will be given. But for those who are not listening [and doing], even what little understanding they have will be taken away from them.””  
In this more cryptic passage we learn that the amount of revelation and understanding into the things of God is directly related whether or not we choose to put it into practice.  James 1:22-25 makes a similar point.  James makes the point by using the analogy of looking into a mirror, going away, and then immediately forgetting what we look like.  If the word of God is going to stick in any tangible way, we need to be doers [followers], not hearers only.  Followership, putting the word of God into practice and imitating the person of Jesus, is a vital component to the forming and informing of our faith and the theological structures that support it.

In our present western church culture we have a high value for teaching as the primary means of learning and theological development.  Almost all of our theological training and development is done in the classroom at our most popular theological education institutions.  With the possible exception of some ‘spiritual formation’ tracks, it is far more rare to see programs that view followership as a necessary element of theological education and development. We’ve become big on the ‘believe in me’ but soft on the ‘follow me.’  Don’t get me wrong; I’m not at all disparaging the excellent educational and academic work done at many fine institutions.  We’re all greatly in debt to the tireless and enriching work of countless scholars.  What I am saying is that our learning is incomplete when we become lax on Jesus’ call to “follow me.”

Our exaltation of theory and our indifference to followership in our learning has a blind spot.  In Matthew 23:2-3 Jesus remarks, “The scribes and the Pharisees sit on Moses’ seat; therefore, do whatever they teach you and follow it; but do not do as they do, for they do not practice what they teach.”  According to Jesus, the Pharisees knew a lot of good doctrine.  Yet there is a disastrous problem.  Their lack of followership keeps them in places of blindness where they lock themselves and others out of the Kingdom (see v. 13).

Right doctrine doesn’t automatically produce right behavior.  If this were so then the Reformers who each claim to have “pure doctrine” have to adjust their theologies to accommodate the atrocities in their history.  Good theology does certainly inform us towards right action, but it doesn’t end there.  Nor does it always start there.  Something else is needed, and I believe Jesus has the key when he says, “follow me.”  Right behavior is a lesson all its own.  Right behavior can and does form and inform our theology.  The best defense from the blindness, self-centeredness, and absurdity of our own intense intellectual brilliance is to 'follow The Leader.'  We don’t fully see and understand – but He does and it’s His pleasure to reveal Himself and His ways in a manner that can only be done when we join along with Him in the journey.

I believe our indifference to followership in the formation of our theology is complicit with some of the current spiritual poverty within our western church culture.  We have become consumers of ideas, of theologies, of philosophies.  We’ll read about them, discuss and debate them ad nauseum.  It’s later that we consider if we approve and will actually obey or put into practice.  Yet, without the experience of followership, do we really know what we’re talking about or advocating?

A person can admire the idea of surfing.  She can learn the ‘theory’ of surfing – the physics of waves, buoyancy, the mechanics and techniques of using a surfboard.  She can read surfing magazines, watch surfing movies, become a total surfing junky.  Yet for those of us who watch ambulances frequently rush to the beaches, we know that consistent practical experience is also a vitally necessary element.  Without consistently practicing surfing while we learn the theory, we discover there are significant and meaningful gaps in our knowledge that leave us vulnerable to tragedy in a powerful and turbulent ocean.

If we want to a good theology on God’s heart for the poor, we need to follow Jesus to the poor and lovingly engage them as he taught us.  If we want a good theology on healing the sick, we need to follow Jesus and heal them as he taught us.  If we want a good theology of love, we need to follow Jesus and engage the in radical self-sacrifice that he demonstrated on the cross.  If we want to know Him - truly know Him - we need to enter into His space, doing life His way by answering his call "follow me" with a hearty and faithful, "yes, Lord!"

Monday, March 11, 2013

doing things together

Scene at the chalet this past weekend
Individual spirituality and theology are a pretty big part of our religious landscape in the 21st century.  Like most of my acquaintances, I have developed my own particular theological convictions over the years based in large part on readings I have done, teachings I have heard, and experiences I have had.  Though there have been rich conversations aplenty, I formulate my own ideas and I have the final say in what I accept or do not accept; my particular ideas are ones that I have come to on my own. Likewise, most of my dialogues with God and encounters with scripture are usually done in private as well.  To my knowledge, Christianity in the 21st century is based more in individualism than any previous age.  And because of this, we miss out on a lot of theological richness that can only be found in a communal context.

This past week was a case in point for me.  First, as part of a homework assignment for a course, seven of us got together and read through the entire book of John in one sitting.  It took about 2 hours, each of us reading three chapters aloud.  The effect was quite amazing.  For the first few chapters I let the poetic, mystical language resonate in my mind.  Then I began to hear connections between people, events, and different stories that I had never heard before.  As well, each person's reading seemed to have its own personality.  I remember the gentleman next to me flailing his arms in the air and slapping the seat of the couch as he vocalised the (used to be) blind man's frustration over the silly questions of the Pharisees (John 9).  I also noticed that Jesus was cheekier in his interactions with various people than I remembered.

One of the main observations I came away with was that there is a lot of death in this book.  Many times in the first 11 chapters we hear that it is not yet Jesus' time.  Then in John 12, everything changes.  Jesus announces that "the hour has come for the Son of Man to be glorified."  And after this, he turns his face towards death.  Before this point, people tried to apprehend him but couldn't.  He seemed untouchable, on top of the world with a steady string of miracles, healings, and followers, and while there were a few pesky nay-sayers, they were easily handled.  But after his statement in John 12, Jesus immediately begins to talk about death, the death of a seed.  After this, the many deaths of Jesus begin to accumulate: the death of relationships as his disciples start to leave him, the death of his reputation as he gets arrested, the death of his influence as followers question his authenticity, the death of his successful teaching ministry, the slow death of his body as he is tortured and crucified, the death of close friendships with his mother and his beloved disciple, and finally, the death of his connection to God.

The way of death for Jesus was devastating and complete, and in this reading I saw that it was indicative of how he lived.  It is the way of the upside-down kingdom that he came to bring.  Here, the first are last and the last first, here servants have the greatest authority, here children know more than wise men, and here death brings life.  This picture of the many deaths of Jesus has begun to change how I view other things as well.  Last night I was watching Celebrity Apprentice and became quite annoyed when a man of integrity was fired and others with questionable practices were rewarded.  "Why, God?" I asked.  "Why do good guys lose and bad guys win?"  And then I realised that winning is not the point and that I had unwisely equated winning with prosperity, blessing, and success.  Ah, the narratives of a world entrenched in individuality (one person wins means another loses) so subtly attach themselves to our ways that we find ourselves adopting them for our own.  Instead, I need to align myself more fully with the upside-down ways of Jesus, and that only happens when we do things together.

The second example of doing theology through "doing things together"came the next day.  Our faith community went off to a retreat in the mountains this past weekend.  There were 19 of us squished into a 4-bedroom chalet.  We cooked together and at times, much laughter came from the kitchen as silly mishaps became occasions of hilarity.  We ate together and cleaned up together and slept in close proximity and played together and hiked together and prayed together and sat in silence together.  We made a point of reading prayers and psalms together in the morning and in the evening.  And in everything, we had to be accommodating.  One person's tastes or desires or agenda did not rule.  The quick had to wait for those who were slower, the ones who were more adept in the kitchen had to patiently work with those who had less experience.  We ate what others prepared for us and we cleaned up messes that others had made.  And none of the small inconveniences seemed to matter because we were doing this together.  Learning about grace only happens when our differences surface.  Learning to love only happens as we journey together with those not like us.  Learning to listen, to be a student, to serve, and to teach others with patience only happen when we have to do them over and over again.  Together.   

Matte from Montreal

Monday, March 4, 2013


There will be no new post this week. I have had my head stuck in my thesis so much that I've not lined up a writer and I'm not sure I want to post half cooked ideas from my thesis. Next week is March break so I'll try to line up a roster of writers to step in for the rest of the month.

In the meantime why not take a look through the archives. I'm sure you will find lots of articles to get you thinking. As always we look forward to hearing your comments.

Frank - Ontario Region