Unoty April 9, 2013Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian witness, Core Values, Ecumenical & Interfaith Unity, Seeker spirituality.
Tags: church, Christian Community, Unity
I am attending a National Workshop on Christian Unity this week in Columbus, Ohio. It is an annual ecumenical gathering that focuses on how to build bridges, foster friendly relationships, and improve communication between Christian communions. We talk about finding common ground, celebrating each other, and discovering spiritual synergy where together we are greater than the sum of our parts. It becomes painfully apparent how far apart we are — a small group of religious leaders talking about what if and what could be simply illustrates how NOT united we currently are. And this morning a brief encounter shined the light of brutal honesty on the witness we offer the world.
I stepped out of the meeting to respond to a text message, and I stood near a pair of young Latina members of the housekeeping staff at our hotel. When I finished my message, I noticed the young women, and one asked me, “Who are you?” I froze like a deer in headlights for a moment, unsure how to respond. My confusion was clearly displayed, so the young woman unpacked her meaning by asking, “What group are you with? Who are you?” I explained that we were leaders from a variety of Christian denominations and organizations gathered to talk about “unity” and working together. Both young women looked confused.
Anti-Afflatus March 14, 2013Posted by Dan R. Dick in Core Values, Critical Thinking, Seeker spirituality, Spiritual Trends.
Tags: Holy Spirit, spiritual practices, Values
What do 21st century United Methodists actually believe about the Holy Spirit? Are we in danger of lumping the trans-rational in with the irrational and dismissing anything and everything supernatural with a primitive and premodern understanding of the world? Secular critics like Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the late Christopher Hitchens delight in “proof-texting” religious history to elevate the gross abuses of religious power from history and the ignorant faith-as-magic modern aberrations as the “norm,” seeking to ignore any and all good spirituality has wrought in favor of religion’s failings. By relegating religious belief to the immature, infantile and primitive, it is simple to dismiss it wholesale. Yet, this ignores that billions upon billions of people find great hope and peace in religious belief. And beefers like Dawkins refuse to include anyone with half a brain in his definition of “religious.” But there is a bell curve in every belief system, scientific, religious or otherwise. Certainly, there are those simple folk who believe in a benevolent grandfather sitting in the clouds, waiting to grant wishes in the form of prayer to change the natural order and defy physics and biology, but they are the tail three standard deviations from the norm. They are the easy target, used to make religion seem silly and embarrassing (yet, people have the right to believe even this if they so choose…). At the other end of the curve, however, is a small segment of brilliant, progressive, insightful and creative people (scientists included) who are deeply religious and spiritual. When I traveled from college campus to college campus conducting interviews for the seeker study in the early part of the last decade, I encountered dozens of young minds turned off by the tail of the bell curve, but totally ignorant of the leading edge. I introduced many students to a whole new range of voices (including Frank Brennan, Ken Wilber, Jim Wallis, Sebastian Kappen, Leonardo Boff, Charles Hartshorn, Sri Aurobindo, Neill Hamilton) that actually resulted in some becoming Christian. I cannot count the number of people whose gratitude rests in the fact that Christianity was redeemed for “smart” people.
It is a tragic failing that we have allowed spirituality to become associated with simple-mindedness and magical thinking. A very prominent concept during the enlightenment was that of afflatus – divine inspiration, or a deeply spiritual creative impulse that allowed human beings to transcend their earthly limitations to think great thoughts, compose great music, author great literature, create glorious art, and strive toward goodness, truth and beauty. In the Christian faith, afflatus was the “breath of God” (Holy Spirit), alive and at work within the body of Christ. Do we, in our cynical and skeptical age, still believe in afflatus?
Manipunativity December 16, 2012Posted by Dan R. Dick in Advent, Christmas, Devotional Reflection, Seeker spirituality.
Tags: Advent, Christmas, Spiritual seekers
I can quite honestly say I am having a “cognitive dissonance Advent”. Late in November I received a monograph from two graduate students for review and comments. One of the most intriguing aspects of the monograph is that its authors are young females — one Israeli and one Palestinian. Their subject is an examination of the poor in first century B.C.E. Palestine (drawing mainly from sources written 60 – 2 B.C.E.), primarily in urban settings, but with rich detail comparison to rural life. It is slow going because I have been asked to do some source checking, and I find the work both well-researched and exhaustively documented. The problem with it is that it is challenging all of my 20th-21st century dearly held beliefs about the birth of Jesus! Our wonderfully crafted modern mythologizing transforms the accounts from Matthew and Luke into a pageant — grand, noble, inspiring, but also sterilized, palatable, and comfy.
Picture Mary. What images come to mind? The “wise” men? The shepherds? The stable and manger? The immaculately clean, well-behaved, reverent animals in western style stalls? The star in the sky? Joseph? The mean old inn-keeper? In its simplicity it is a sweet, gentle, kind, lovely story. Just the kind we love — don’t nobody mess it up! If you don’t want it messed with, stop reading. No, seriously, you won’t care for the rest of this blog. I mean it. Step away from the blog.
Wanted: Young People (Some Restrictions Apply) March 11, 2011Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian witness, Core Values, Seeker spirituality.
Tags: Christian Community, Evangelism, Spiritual seekers, Young Adults
Going through some files, I came upon a folder of interview notes from the UM Seeker Study I conducted almost a decade ago. There is a wondrous and troubling paradox in the old UMC these days when it comes to young people: we say we want to reach young people and bring them into the church. We say we need to listen to them to find out how to reach them. But when we hear what they say, we argue with them and criticize them for not accepting us just as we are. Which raises the question: do we really want to reach young people or do we only want to reach young people who are exactly like we are? And who, exactly, are these “young people” we are so keen on?
Last question first. When we look at young people, ages 18-34, we’re looking at three distributions: education, economics, and values. About 58% will finish college, about 21% will get some college, and about 21% will have no college. About 55% will make between $30,000 and $70,000, with about 15% making more and 30% making less. About 50% will hold moderate values spiritually and politically, 30% conservative, and 20% liberal/progressive. Young people who are less educated, conservative-to-moderate, and making less income are five times as likely to go to church as their counterparts. This group is most attracted to larger, newer, independent churches with the widest variety of programs and services. Across the board, young people are not joiners, and 18-34 year olds are unlikely to step into leadership positions in traditional structures — they are more interested in doing ministry than talking about doing ministry. Those with a higher education will hold the church to a different set of expectations. Of the 21% who do not go onto college, the basic expectations are: a simple story, clearly told, with very clear instructions on right and wrong, good and evil, salvation and sin. This group will not “over-think” the gospel story, nor will they be attracted to deep theological reflection or the complexity of reconciling belief with behavior. Of the 21% with some college, the expectations shift to include a deeper understanding of the Bible and the Christian story. The hunger for “answers” shifts to a deep desire for “meaning.” The moderately higher-educated will be less interested in knowing “the truth,” than understanding how to live a life pleasing to God. This group will wrestle more with inconsistencies and will seek ways to resolve the inner conflicts that their faith brings to bear on complex social issues. This will be a questioning group, unwilling to take most anything at face value. (In The United Methodist Church, we’re not really sure we want people who will come asking a lot of questions — especially when we don’t know the answers…)
Missing the Forest For the Trees August 18, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian witness, Communication in the Church, Seeker spirituality.
Tags: Christian Community, Church Leadership, Spiritual seekers, Theology
In response to my “Back to Basics” post, many people are asking (demanding?) whether or not theology is at the root of “seeker aversion” to organized religion. More conservative voices posit that our lack of Biblical integrity and adherence, our loose morals, and our “anything goes” liberalism may be what people are really rejecting, while left-leaning libs conjecture that the stuffy, stifling narrow-mindedness of the religious right is to blame. What I would lift up is that it is not a particular theological perspective or position that people are objecting to, but the constant theological bickering itself. People outside of organized religion seem much more tolerant of theological diversity than those inside our hallowed ranks.
The Best Defense is a Good Pretense February 15, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Christian witness, Seeker spirituality, The United Methodist Church.
Tags: church, Faith Sharing, Spiritual seekers
I love to step on toes. I love to stir people up. I am especially fond of irritating people around the issue of reaching spiritual seekers who have rejected the church. We in the church are very quick to defend everything we do, and to deflect any criticism as “well, they don’t really understand us.” The sad fact is… they understand us better than we understand ourselves. The major problem is we simply don’t know what to do with groups and individuals who don’t fit our existing definitions. One example from this past week: I talked about two groups of people — one group of seven and another group of nine — who don’t belong to or attend any church, but they meet once or twice a week to pray, study the Bible, sing, eat, and to serve the needy in the area. Someone passed along to me these comments about my blog:
The first obvious question this comment begs is, “What does God want?” Surveys are taken, meetings are held, opinions are sought…..all about what these young adults want and little at all about what God desires! As just a quick shot across the bow, I do believe that God hopes for Christian “community”….small “c” or not!
The second area I believe that Dan may have missed has to do with what seems like a trend in this generation’s shortage of moral (religious) values. I’m speaking of the very sort of values that centers on “me” and “what’s in it for me” and less on what’s helpful to others. Of course, this is a circular problem, is it not? The very values required…..missing…..and basic to Christian faith remain out of their reach in the “church.”
The third point I think Dan misses ties the first two together. Where are the PARENTS of these pre-teen, teen and young adults? Are the parents in church, or do they spend their time at the country club…..or perhaps in a different coffee shop down the street. I understand that these youngsters tend to move in circles outside of the parental fold……but Christian values are generally more prominent in a young person’s life if they were raised in active church families.
It is stunning the assumptions and inferences this person (I have no idea who it is — the name wasn’t passed along with the comments…) makes about “young people”… but they are fantastic illustrations of the problem. To groups praying and studying scripture — something over 75% of our church members DO NOT do is viewed as selfish and self-serving. How is it that people who include God in their faith formation are less interested in God’s will than those who might sacrifice a Sunday every few months to attend a worship service? Two groups modeling authentic community are criticized because they don’t find that community in an organized church — one that is perceived as not wanting them there in the first place!
Dots Dying to Be Connected February 12, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christian discipleship, Core Values, Evangelism, Seeker spirituality.
Tags: Church growth, Spiritual seekers
Recent conversations with pastoral leaders in my home Conference (Wisconsin) about young adult ministry share a common theme: there simply isn’t enough interest in the area. Apparently, young adults don’t want what the churches have to offer. Except, this morning when I stopped off for my morning Buzz at Beans ‘n Cream coffee shop, I noticed two small groups engaged in some deep Bible study. One table hosted two fifty-somethings and five college students, the second table squeezed together nine twenty- and thirty-somethings. I stopped and asked both groups what church they were from and got identical answers: we don’t go to church.
Now the default reaction for most mainline United Methodists is, why can’t we get these kids to come to church? They study the Bible — they’re obviously interested in the Christian faith. It seems like they are a prime target audience. They want to grow in their faith, we’re the church — BINGO! But therein lies the rub. Church and the Christian faith are not the same thing, and much of what those inside the church find so valuable, those outside do not. Much of what church members will tolerate, non-church members have no patience for. Attending worship — the meat-and-potatoes of modern United Methodism — is of secondary importance to those seeking spiritual formation in small groups. The sad fact is, we DON’T have what a large population is looking for. They want relationship with God, we offer them relationship with a church (small “c”).
Who Needs a Sermon? January 18, 2010Posted by Dan R. Dick in Communication in the Church, Research, Seeker spirituality, worship.
Tags: Christian worship, Preaching, spiritual practices, worship
It never fails that when I am looking for something in particular, I manage to find something else I was looking for months ago. Such is the case with interview notes I took in Colorado, Iowa, and Connecticut with 20-60 year old spiritual seekers. These notes have been the missing piece in a puzzle that has frustrated me for the past three years. They were part of the larger Seeker Study I did for the General Board of Discipleship, and they highlighted some interesting perspectives on preaching and proclamation. These interviews — 71 in all asked non-church-affiliated Christian spiritual seekers to share their thoughts on the art of the sermon. Two-thirds of the 71 interviews (48) were with women, and approximately the same percentage were Caucasian. Twelve were of African-American, six of Korean, two of Puerto Rican, one of Japanese, and two of mixed ethnic heritage. While this may not be overly important, there were some gender and racial/ethnic differences in responses — those these are correlative, not necessarily causative. We discussed five questions:
- what is a sermon?
- what is a sermon for?
- what is the preacher’s role in preaching?
- what do you look for/desire/need from a sermon?
- what types of sermons speak to you in meaningful and/or transformative ways?
Claus-trophobia December 10, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Christmas, Core Values, Seeker spirituality, U.S. Culture.
Tags: Santa Claus, Values
I noted with some fascination the annual terrorizing of little children by a loud, aggressive man in a red and white suit. (yes, I mean Santa Claus) This wonderful, jolly, happy icon of Christmas is supposedly the sweetest mythical human being on the face of the planet, yet many children are absolutely horrified by his physical presence. Children wait to “meet Santa,” then shriek in terror and run away. It would be funny if it weren’t so sad. Whenever I see a child afraid of Santa, I think of one Tennessee Claus a few years back that defines for me “scary.” I stopped at one of those roadside novelty dives — located about every three miles across the entire state of Tennessee — where cheap knickknacks and discount tobacco products fills the shelves. At one particular site near Oak Ridge I saw a Santa to give nightmares for years — a tall, spindly, snaggle-toothed figure with a glass eye and a badly stained suit and beard. He wreaked of cigarette smoke and his voice was loud and gruff and he actively chased children and forced them to sit on his lap. Little children were screaming and hysterical, parents were pulling their children away, and Santa was cackling and slapping his knee each time another child broke into tears. In a very real sense, this guy was Satan Claus, not Santa Claus.
How does this happen? How can a beloved figure become such a source of discomfort? Even in the best of times, a large, loud, blustery stranger is going to make many kids nervous. But in the past few years, the kind of Santas provided makes it even worse. An article from Primedia shared some interesting data. There are almost 250,000 Santas employed each year in the U.S. The majority of these are unemployed people picking up a year-end gig. The majority receive no training, and they are responsible to obtain their own costume and accessories. In other words, we want all the benefits of Santa with none of the costs. To serve as Santa is not so much an honor as it is a last resort. For good or ill, this impacts the quality of the experience for everyone involved.
What’s In A Shem? July 15, 2009Posted by Dan R. Dick in Mission of the Church, Religion in the U.S., Seeker spirituality, Theological Reflection.
Tags: church, Religious Trends, Spiritual seekers
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The reaction to the death of Michael Jackson has been fascinating to observe. The real flesh-and-blood person who was Michael Jackson is almost irrelevant. The myth, the image, the character (or caricature), and the concept of MICHAEL JACKSON eclipses any kind of appreciation for the man. Listening to all the many testimonials on television and the web, it strikes me that while people are talking about Michael Jackson, they generally refer to one of four of his incarnations — the child prodigy of the Jackson Five, the young phenomenon who changed pop music and music videos, the eccentric and somewhat bizarre adult temperamental artist, or the slightly disturbed and disturbing Peter Pan of Neverland. Very few people speak of all four as one individual — Michael Jackson is a mythic figure, meaning many different things to many different people. His name is one of the most recognizable across the globe — as evidenced by the near-crippling of the world wide web within moments of his death.
Few names carry such power. A few celebrities and world leaders have “name power” — some famous, some infamous — but the general power of names isn’t what it once was. In ancient Israel, names (shem) were all important. Names defined more than just families — they delineated tribes and property and power. Reputation was more valuable than gold or jewels. Being blessed by progeny to carry a name forward was a sign of honor and pride. To go childless (or to fail to produce a male heir) was nothing short of a tragedy. In an age and culture that didn’t define immortality as eternal life, immortality depended on an unbroken lineage of successive generations carrying on the family name. Abraham, Isaac, Moses, Elijah, David — these were not even family names, but they became universal signifiers of a people, of a particular identity. Nothing could undermine the importance of having Abraham as one’s “father,” or to be a “son of David.” Everything worldly could be stripped away — possessions and property, family and friends, power and prestige — but no one could take one’s name and heritage.
The concept of shem — naming — is a bit deeper and weightier than what we generally ascribe to people’s monikers. In the Hebrew culture, a name was not merely a label, but a descriptor of the character and core of the individual. People had to live into and up to their names. Dan-i-El, for example, meant “God’s judge,” and it was expected of a child with this name that righteousness (in Israel, righteousness meant unimpeachable justice, not good behavior) would define his entire existence. Honoring the name Daniel meant living a life of honesty, integrity, mercy, and fairness — without exception. The only way a person could keep the commandment to “honor mother and father” was to live up to their name — to be what they were called. We don’t think of, or use, names in this way any more.