Category Archives: Book Discussion

5 Books that Rocked My Theology

The NuDunkers are busy folks this summer. We have had conferences, pilgrimages, vacations, and piles of work that waiting to be completed. With all these events going on a typical Hangout is difficult to pull off. So, I suggested we start a series of blog posts that could go up at any time discussing the 5 books that rocked our theological world.

Now, I am regretting that suggestion! At the time it sounded easy enough, but clearly keeping it to 5 books is nearly impossible. So I finally decided to leave out the articles and essays that have been central to my thinking. I also chose to avoid two key authors– Thomas Merton and Henri Nouwen. I just could not pick a book each from these two men that would get to the significant role they have played in my theological reflection and spiritual life. In fact, I credit Merton and Nouwen for opening my eyes to the wider history of the church– a perspective that ultimately led to a PhD in Early Christian History.

So, now for the list. They are listed in alphabetical order by title so I can avoid having to make the even harder choice of trying to order them by influence!

After Christendom by Stanley Hauerwas

This was my first and only read of anything by Hauerwas. I first read it in Jeff Bach’s “Brethren Beliefs and Practices” class at Bethany Theological Seminary. That spring term I was also taking my introduction to Latin and felt like I wasn’t giving my reading the attention it needed. But when I opened After Christendom and saw that famed phrase– Outside of the Church there is no salvation– I knew I had to read closer. I hadn’t read any Post-Liberal theology, and nor did I know much critical theory or of the likes of DeCerteau. But since then, I have read Lindbeck, MacIntyre, DeCerteau and Charles Taylor, all of whom play significant roles in the argument of After Christendom. So, nearly ten years after first reading the book I find myself returning to it time and again, and nodding.

After Christendom finally gave me the frame to talk about how Enlightenment thinking has tried to supplant a rich theology of being the church. It also grounded a key theme in my own scholarly work– that of formative practices within Christian community. In my church work, his argument against a Christendom imaginary (to use Taylor’s later phrase) that has so defined the North American church. The link between these two parts of my writing is best summed up in Hauerwas’ phrase at the opening of After Christendom: “For the crucial divide in our time is not– as is often claimed– between modernity and postmodernity, but rather when the church is no longer able to shape the desires and habits of those who claim to be Christian.” (8)

Beyond his role in shaping my bibliography and argument, Hauerwas also kicked started a key conviction. I have often wondered how an Anglican ethicist could speak for my own tradition. After reading After Christendom I found myself asking where our (meaning Brethren) voices in the debate could be found. Clearly, Hauerwas knew of Anabaptism by working with John Howard Yoder, but if practices are so central to formation how could he effectively talk of the tradition from outside it’s way of life. I was convinced then, and continue to be so, that Brethren need to jump into the theological fray adding to and critiquing the Neo-Anabaptism rooted in Hauerwas.

A Black Theology of Liberation by James Cone

Cone is certainly a controversial theologian, and his Black Theology of Liberation was clearly one of the most provocative. White theologians around the US still shudder to read his noted assertion that if Jesus Christ is not black we must kill him. In the midst of a class on Liberation Theology, Cone’s words and antagonism grated on a number of my classmates, many of whom were ideological pacifists.

I took two things away from Cone’s work. First, I can remember sitting in the reading room finally realizing what a true systematic theology looked like. Cone’s argument progresses through a doctrine of God, to Christology, and to Ecclesiology. I don’t know what triggered it, but I finally understood how a whole theological system plays out within the various categories of thinking.

Second, though I did bristle as some of his more provocative phrases, I knew I could not reject his argument just because I didn’t like what appeared to be a clear call for violence. I knew, as an emerging white theologian, I had to come to terms with how some theological tenants I had come to accept were in fact based in privilege. As I turned each page I knew I had to keep learning from Cone in order to hear how white thinking is engrained in the church. I had to hear how race experience in the US was formative of both black and whites, and come to think critically about how power is either claimed or rejected in light of those experiences. Cone clearly challenged me to think beyond “just theology” and recognize how power and privilege are too easily overlooked.

On the Incarnation of the Word by Athanasius of Alexandria

Given that my academic work is based in the fourth and fifth centuries I should comment on a book written in that period of time. Interestingly though, I do not go back to the works of Cassian (on whom I am writing my disseration), nor the desert monks of Egypt. Those works have certainly been formative for my thinking, but it was Athanasius’ treatise that finally sealed the deal in my Christology and its connection to Theosis in my thinking. Athanasius, though known as a politically savvy rhetorician, also spoke of the key to the Incarnation of the Word being God’s desire that we would return to God. In Athanasius’ words, “the Word become human so that humanity could become divine.” For us Protestants such a phrase seems nearly blasphemous, but I found it a beautiful way to link salvation and Christology in a way that countered our current popular understandings of atonement.

Athanasius was, then, for me the turning point in my thinking regarding the creeds. Though I often had said I could recite the creeds in general without much contradiction, I finally understood and accepted the classical orthodoxy of those statements of belief. In short, the statements of Nicea and Chalcedon finally made sense. Saying that Jesus is one with the Father, begotten not made, and that the human and divine were united in Christ without mixture or confusion aren’t just matters of historical story telling. They are now, for me, central components of my theology.

Scripture and Discernment by Luke Timothy Johnson

It would not be a stretch to say that this book was part of my own decision to head to Candler School of Theology to finish my Mdiv. I was getting a bit restless at Bethany after having completed an MA and beginning again with the Mdiv. One mentor asked me where I would go to study for my PhD, and immediately I thought of Emory, where both LTJ and Bondi were teaching. I was in a seminar with LTJ the spring my son was born, and I went to his office to discuss the things I needed to do in order to prepare for doctoral work. I will say that neither was easy. In less articulate words, he kicked my butt. Yet, I look back to those months with LTJ as formative for my work and understanding. At the end of the day it is difficult for me to unlink Scripture and Discernment from my personal experiences of LTJ, for both were clear turning points in my thinking and work.

In Scripture and Discernment Johnson studies the council narratives in the book of Acts. He explores how testimony and scripture were interwoven in the discernment of the first Christians. In a way, the church came to new understandings of old texts through the accounts of how Paul and Peter had experienced the working of the Holy Spirit. In a way, LTJ’s account of the church’s practice of discernment avoids the dichotomy between truth and experience. What is more, the church clearly plays a key role in testing these experiences and ultimately came out with a different, yet shared, understanding of the meaning of scripture. Though Johnson is Catholic, I found his account to speak to a rich theology of both the church (as in Anabaptism) and the Holy Spirit (as in Pietism). I still turn to Scripture and Discernment as a way to hold up church, Spirit, scripture, and experience as foundational elements of theology. They are not exclusive, but mutually informing.

The Way of the Pilgrim

I first read this Russian tale in a class during my undergrad at Manchester College (now University). Since the class was a January term, we were reading a book a night for two weeks. I certainly had skimmed the others, but this simple story was just too good to put down quickly.

The story is of a lay person who heard Paul’s admonition on I Thessalonians 5:7– to pray without ceasing– and went on a journey to find out how such a prayer was possible. He ended up in the cell of a hermit who gave him a set of beads. The instructions were simple– go off and pray the words of the Publican, “Lord Jesus, have mercy on me a sinner,” a certain number of times. Week after week the pilgrim took on the task, and week after week the hermit instructed him to pray this Jesus Prayer more times. Soon the pilgrim was waking up early and staying up late just to get in the required number of prayers. Finally, the hermit stopped and sent him a way. The pilgrim soon found that though the tasks were no longer required he missed the frequent prayer. What is more he found the words coming to his lips at any given moment, and especially when he touched the beads in his pocket.

The story is the tale of the Jesus Prayer, and was part of the Hesychist tradition in Orthodox theology. The central idea is that the prayer clams the mind and stills the heart. I loved the simplicity of the story, the tactile nature of praying with beads, and the idea that unceasing prayer is possible. Since reading that book I have sought out how Christian cultures understand Paul’s admonition. It opened the door to explore the Hours of Prayer, led me to the monastic traditions, and has in some way contributed to my academic work with Cassian. Cassian’s noted discussions of prayer in his Conferences looked at two key scriptures in my faith journey. The first is the I Thessalonians 5:7 text and the other is Matthew 5:7– blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God. In all my studies, these two scriptures surface again and again. As I look back, The Way of the Pilgrim was my first encounter with the practicality of unceasing prayer.

A list of just 5 books clearly does not do justice to the breadth of sources central to my thinking. Michele deCerteau, James K.A. Smith, Rowan Williams, Gregory of Nyssa, Richard Valantasis, Pierre Bourdieu, Patricia Cox Miller and Richard Rohr are often standards in all of my work. However, these books all arrived on my desk as a result of reading these 5. They simply set the course of my thinking and perspective, leading me into rich and plentiful fields of reading.

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The Prodigal God and Our Language

Some NuDunkers gathered in a Hangout last week to discuss Prodigal Christianity with David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. You can catch the recording (with a few technical difficulties caught for your amusement!).

After some hours from the NuDunker hangout I’ll admit I came around. In the midst of it, however, I was not so convinced. Having entered three different graduate schools and taught just a few classes I’ve had to sit through the language games. In some cases there was an official orientation session regarding the expectations for language and in others it was a trial by fire. In each of these cases there was a desire to be both accurate and inclusive with our language for writing and doing theology. In many cases, however, the desire for inclusivity was overpowered by the easier policy choice of outright limiting the use of certain words. So as we began to talk about the role of language and words in Prodigal Christianity, I must admit I was a bit dismayed. There was so much to discuss about the book and I was afraid we were going to turn critical about the words other authors chose without getting the larger contributions of their writing.

So I’ve mused about this on a long car ride to Ohio.

We didn’t do the typical progressive move and ban words in the name of inclusivity. In fact we started to unearth some of the cultural and theological issues of signs, referents, games, and redemption. In the end, I am with Matt who pressed the conversation initially- the issue is not about the words themselves, but a missing range of images, metaphors, and words. The pastoral task- as named by Geoff during the hangout- is indeed the expanding of our bank of images and words to understand the great and often ineffable work of God around us.

Here are some of the (tentative) conclusions that surfaced for me in the course of my drive.

1) The issue is the USE of words, not the words themselves. Part of the use of these words, then, is the context within which it emerges. That was the thesis of my original post on Prodigal Christianity. In the cases of systematic theology, the starting point is the most crucial. So for Geoff and David to start with the Post-Christendom is a significant theological move. It is not tangential, but rather the core to the project itself. That is to say that the descending of the church from its position of cultural power is more faithful to the kenotic, kneeling nature of Christ. Thus, the entire matrix of the Prodigal God redefines the kingdom language itself. It puts such terms to use in favor of self-denial rather than denial or over powering of others.

It strikes me as interesting that for those most informed by the Deconstructionist play with language the impulse is to limit the meanings of words. Rather than press for more clarity or explanations, it seems that the reaction is often that words have a fixed meaning- ie they have baggage that places them in the problematic or banned outright categories. No where is it more clear that words do not mean what we often assume they mean than in the pages of Derrida. There, context and juxtaposition break open new or peripheral connotations- even at times the baggage is what is deconstructed.

2) Our word choice- whether by conscious choice or by range of vocabulary- draws lines. That is inevitable within theological discourse. The liberal move (both conservative and progressive) to set certain terms outside of the theological lexicon is to draw a line in the sand. It should then strike with some irony when those who favor inclusivity in practice champion the “unredeemable” nature of certain words.  It says to those who find meaning and liberation in certain words that they are patriarchal or colonial in their outlook simply because of their vocabulary (and not their practice). This is most problematic for me as I think back to experiences within African American churches where the words we were hung up on are still part of a clear “liberation theology” within which they are frequently used.

3) Thus, as I said in the hangout, the need for greater intercultural capacity is central to theological conversations. At the recent gathering of the Missio Alliance I found myself doing a lot of “translating”. While I can easily say that some of the vocabulary and even some of the questions were not my own, I was keen on discerning the context for the shared discussion. There were times I disagreed with some of the theological assertions (especially the assertion that our root problems were with the “Hellenization of the Hebrew narrative). However, I heard within the multiple cultures gathered there a desire to reclaim mission as the primary nature of the church.  There is clearly a negative approach to this- they are not speaking my language, not using my words so they must “not get it”. I really appreciated Dana pressing into the conversation by asking, not if the words were the wrong ones, but if there were other theological categories and assumptions at work. That question, to me, gets past the cultural questions and digs into the true distinctions. Also. Laura’s question about ritual and language needs further discussion and I think is a fruitful place for further conversation about the juxtaposition of words and signs.

The final pay off, for me, in the extended discussion of language and vocabulary was to identify the implications for the Incarnation of Christ for the way we understand our words.  To put it in the terms of Prodigal Christianity,  the Prodigality of God of the coming in the flesh, into a particular time and culture forces us to wrestle with the contingencies of language and embodiment. So, in the end, I am with Matt and Geoff, that the pastoral task is key. Our words are malleable and yet, it is always central to the theological (and intercultural) nature of our conversations to expand our vocabulary. Using one set of words to the exclusion of others is to limit our understanding and practice- whether the terms are masculine or feminine, kingdom or explicitly egalitarian.

In the end, this particular Hangout and discussion for the NuDunkers was a fruitful discussion of theological language. While I didn’t foresee that as the aim of the book, this is a good example of how the conversation matters, and that the contributions of those gathered enriches the conversation greatly.

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Prodigal Christianity: The God Who Kneels

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The NuDunkers are discussing the new book Prodigal Christianity by David Fitch and Geoff Holsclaw. Join us for our Hangout discussion on Friday at 11 AM eastern here . If you can’t make the live discussion, don’t worry. We will share the link to the recording on YouTube.

As the church lived into its new status both legally and socially in the fourth and fifth century, the artistic presentation of Jesus began to reflect the its ascension to imperial power. This is no place more clear than in the majestic mosaics of Hagia Sophia. The basilica was built to match the grandeur of the imperial city of Constantinople. The mosaic in the large dome, called Christ the Pantocrator (Christ the Ruler of All) drew the attention of worshipers to the elevated ruler, Jesus Christ. Gilded in the richness of gold and hovering above even the mosaic images of emperors and rules, they set the Christ to be worshiped within the imperial context. Now, as the official of the empire, Jesus Christ must also be shown as the emperor, only ruling over all of creation.

In many ways, the images we present of Jesus reflect the social position of the church. By the Middle Ages the images of Jesus shifted from the grand imperial mosaics to crucifixion images- often mirroring the death so common in the ages of the Black Plague. Even prior to the Christendom shift of the fourth century, the sketches in the catacombs presented Jesus as the rising savior, standing at the mouth of a whale (echoing the imagery of the book of Jonah) or on the bow of a boat (as in the gospel narratives of calming the sea). These images reflected the ultimate triumph of resurrection, unlike the imperial ruler or the crucifix. We not only depict Jesus in the ways we understand the church in our day, but we depict him in the place that most reflects our imagination of the salvation event itself.

In their new book, Prodigal Christianity: 10 Signposts into the Missional Frontier, Geoff Holsclaw and David Fitch, follow this pattern of presenting Jesus and our soteriological imagination within the context of the North American church. It is no surprise that American Christianity is losing its footing as the defining religion of the culture. Survey after survey, performed by the likes of the Pew Forum and even the Barna group, are showing just how far Christianity has moved from the center of American society to the edges. More and more people are self-reporting that they have no religious affiliation or consider themselves “Spiritual but not Religious.”

There are often two ways of responding to this cultural shift. First, the church can work to exercise its cultural privileged and claw its way back into influence. The other, is to celebrate this shift and view it as an opportunity to explore faithfulness in new terms. Fitch and Holsclaw follow the trajectory of the latter.

While it is true that this new Post-Christendom culture has yet to reach the whole of American culture (see my conversation with Isaac Villegas), it is clear that the new day offers us much to consider as followers of Christ. Rather than try to reclaim the place of Christ as emperor (or even president) Fitch and Holsclaw present God as the one who bows, reaches out, even kneels into world, and enters as the prodigal one who ventures into the far country.

There are those in the publishing world who have tried to rethink christianity and define what a “New Kind of Christianity” is to look like today. Often, in this mode, these writers venture to deconstruct doctrines of the tradition and present new emerging ideas. Still others, venture to reclaim more radical teachings of the church, in effect elevating the Evangelical roots to dogma. Thankfully, Fitch and Holsclaw take the more Anabaptist rode. It is not the reconsidering of doctrine or the entrenchment of dogma that is required today, but the exploring of how the church itself needs to more closely reflect the nature of God. Like the early Anabaptists, rethinking the Trinity or Grace does nothing. Rather, reassessing the role of the church in world that offers us new ground to cover as disciples.

In reflecting Jesus- the God who kneels- the church is more like itself when we take root in nitty gritty of the day to day. Instead of trying to leverage our influence (by numbers or by wealth) the question presented in Prodigal Christianity is simple- How can we more fully embody the Christ who lived, ate, breathed, died, and rose again in the world. Real people, real needs, and actual neighborhoods are then the context in which the church can more fully live into its name- the Body of Christ.

Fitch and Holsclaw offer us a breath of fresh air in this new day of Post-Christendom. While we spin our wheels in trying to prop up the church as we have received it in the heights of American cultural Christendom, they offer us a new vision of faithfulness- of being willing to follow the prodigal God into the far country, of letting go of our desires for privilege and power, and seeking to embody more fully the redemption we proclaim.

Maybe it is time to paint some new pictures of Jesus. Maybe it is time for the church to take the mosaics off the wall and be like Christ,  “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” (Philippians 2:6-7)

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Digital Discernment

Not too long ago Apple ran into the negative side of the digital revolution they themselves have fueled.  Soon after releasing their long anticipated new phone, consumers soon struggled with their new gadget.  The PR problem soon escalated when Consumer Reports confirmed the problems.  Apple, known for its tight-lipped protocols, barely acknowledged the reports.  That is until the problem reached their own cyber-community at apple.com.  Soon it became clear that any mention of the phone’s problems in the support forum were being deleted.  In the print age such Machiavellian practice would have gone unnoticed, but the internet has a way of revealing even the deepest secrets.

In chapters 5 and 6 of Groundswell Li and Bernoff help describe how Apple has so misunderstood its own digital medium.  Basically they have forgotten that people use internet.  The remedy for such amnesia is simple: Active Listening. In a marketing culture, such a shift is significant, but fundamental to navigating the groundswell effect (125).  For those of us in the Church today, this may seem like old news.

Or is it?  Terms like marketing, brand management, and even spin control may not be in our vocabulary, or have much theological grounding, but they have made their way into our thinking.  The latest press coverage of the Vatican’s handling of the sex abuse allegations reveals just how much PR defines how we as the Church interact with society.

Li and Bernhoff make it clear in chapters 5 and 6 that the groundswell has changed how organizations, denominational or corporate, interact with the public.  The Vatican and Apple exhibit a control or management approach while Li and Bernhoff talk about listening and response.  It is striking that, given the critique of digital isolation on the internet,  such a listening posture assumes that people are on the other side of the wire.  This is evident throughout the language of listening, responding, and community throughout the book.  The groundswell asks us to interact with our public, not to act funnels of information and resources.

We as Brethren appear to do a lot of listening, but how much do we actually engage our fellow brothers and sisters?  By sharing information we often think we are communicating, but in our groundswell culture publicity and marketing are akin to shouting in someone’s face.  As Li and Bernoff write; “The transition from shouting to conversation will challenge your marketing department” (125).  The primary posture then, is one of active listening.

The Quakers help us, as people of faith, live into this new posture through the practice of a Clearness Committee.  This model of shared discernment is a terrific model for engaging the groundswell.  Rather than managing the conversation, the clearness model puts the community in the position of asking questions before making declarations.  Two things emerge as the questions and responses flow.  First, the other is acknowledged and affirmed.  His or her perspective and ideas are valued.  Second, the hierarchy implicit in a management model disappears in favor of collaboration, of a common search for understanding.  As Elizabeth Drescher commented in her article on simple living: ” Maybe we’re practicing a new mode of engagement that the apparent simplicity of Amish life allows us– and perhaps them– to more safely envision.”

Questions for our consideration

How do we listen to the groundswell?

In what ways are we already listening?  How are we responding, from a management perspective or as a Clearness Committee?

What are some ways we can engage the people already talking about the Church of the Brethren in the groundswell?

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Testing the Deep End

My family gathers every other year in Michigan for a family reunion.  This is often a vacation of sorts for my extended family.  One day is usually set aside for a visit to Lake Michigan for running the sand dunes and swimming.  If you haven’t experienced Lake Michigan in August, beware it’s not as warm as it sounds.  Each of us have developed our own strategies for entering the water.  There is the jump right in approach: Start running about 30 yards from the water’s edge, building up enough speed that once you are in the water there is no turning back.  Some chose the slow and agonizing approach: Walk directly into the water, rather slowly with the body straight as a board without any joint movement.  This one usually entails at least two restarts.  The last variation often takes the form of simple and hesitant touching of the water, usually a toe with the rest of the body showing the clear hesitance in its steep angle away from the water.  Those who chose the toe approach usually get in the water just in time to pack up for the day, if at all.

I imagine that many of us resonate with these approaches to the lake.  What is more, I have the feeling that these responses can also describe our approach to the Groundswell- running in without abandon, resistantly wading, or just testing without any desire for commitment.  Though Li and Bernoff see immersion in the Groundswell as inevitable, they helpfully provide us with tools to make the plunge happen on our terms.  In other words, they are not the crazy uncle calling from the deep end; “Come on in, the water’s fine!”

At the risk of oversimplification, two words seem to me to capture the insights of these two chapters- Study and Strategize.  These two actions provide the tools to make sure our immersion goes smoothly.

Study

Though market analysis is a common practice today, in both secular corporations and ecclesial communities, studies of the Groundswell are significantly more complicated.  Not only are there age demographics to observe, but in each traditional category it is essential to understand what the constituents are doing with social media.  Thus, Li and Bernoff outline six approaches to new media (41-45).  This ladder of participation helps reveal what is happening in social media platforms.  The interesting thing is that the percentages fluctuate depending on the age demographic in question.  To make our study even more complex, in some cases percentages of a demographic overlap.  Simply put, a Joiner can also be a Collector by adding tags to different sites.

What is striking about the data gathered in this kind of study is that participation ranges.  As an example, the blog for the Young Adult Forum has around 70 views when a new post is published.  On any given post, however, we are lucky to have more than two comments.

In order to facilitate such a study, Forester has provided a tool for navigating this complex sets of data.

Strategize

Unlike in the past, strategy comes second.  It used to be possible to construct a plan or vision, do the demographics and then implement the plan.  Advertising then took the burden of convincing the demographic that such a product was useful or needed.  Now, Li and Bernoff warn us that people come first.  That is the study element of the third chapter.  In chapter four, they further drive this point home in their acronym for planning: POST, People, Objectives, Strategy, Technology(67-68).  By placing People first, it is essential to ask what the constituency is ready for.

It is only after studying the people that we could even begin to establish Objectives.  What is it we want to accomplish with our first toe in the water?  From their corporate marketing perspective, Li and Bernoff name five kinds of activities corporations take on in social media; Listening, Talking, Energizing, Supporting, and Embracing.  Each of these actions consistently echo the relationality of social media.  For our work as a denomination, the last two categories seem most promising, especially given the perceived isolation of many pastors and congregations.

Questions for our consideration:

What does our membership look like in terms of social media use?

We have a number of surveys in process, and talk a lot about the life of the denomination.  What are some ways we can begin supporting and embracing our membership?

Where would you place yourself on the ladder (Creator, Critic, Collector, Joiner, Spectator, Inactive)?  Are there parts of the ladder that make you nervous?

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Defining the Groundswell

Even a new pastor is quick to learn that congregational business often doesn’t end after the closing prayer.  The conversation just moves to the parking lot.  So it should not surprise us when Li and Bernoff warn that “your company’s customers are talking about your brand right now on MySpace, probably in ways you haven’t approved.” (8)  Yet, given the rapid growth of social networking and the internet, its easy to miss the fact that the conversation has moved from the parking lot to cyberspace.  It may not have worried us a few years ago as people sent emails to one another praising or panning the Church of the Brethren, it should give us pause today.  Now, given the public nature of social media and the ability to disseminate opinion and resources so publicly, we must account for this new wave of interaction.

So then, what are we facing in this second generation of the internet, Web 2.0.  Li and Bernoff are pretty clear that “power” or energy in this new digital age is at the bottom, at the grassroots.  They have coined the term “Groundswell” to help make this new life visible.  Groundswell, in their parlance, is “a social trend in which people use technologies to get the things they need from each other, rather than from traditional institutions like corporations.” (9)  Note that the phenomenon is not about advertising or brand management, but rather utility.  People locate, download, and use the content of the internet for their own purposes to serve their own needs.  No amount of advertising can sway such use.  Think of Facebook.  How many billboards or commercials have you seen for Facebook in the last week?

As good Brethren we probably bristle a bit at all the business lingo involved in this conversation.  Brand, image management are all words and concepts with speak of commerce and seem not to be translatable to Church-speak.  Yet, if we look closer, I think we can see that these very concepts have impacted our way of understanding the denomination.  Though we avoid the ideas of persuasion, it seems to me that we do have a kind of trickle down perspective to our work.  We produce and distribute resources for consumption by our constituents, much as our corporate counterparts do in the secular market place.

It is striking to me that despite the commerce jargon, the Groundwell perspective is more akin to our relational theology.  This is clear when as Li and Bernoff note that it is more important to “concentrate on the relationships, not the technologies.” (18)  In other words, its not about Facebook or Convio, but what those platforms can do for the higher strategy of building relationships, relationships between CoB membership themselves and between the members and ourselves as denominational ministers.  A technology or platform is not judged by its corporate payoffs, but by its utility in building relationships.  “If it’s designed well, people will use it.  They’ll tell their friends to use it.  They’ll conduct commerce, or read the news, or start a popular movement, or make loans to each other, or whatever the site is designed to facilitate.” (13)

So then, how are we understand the uses of our technologies?  In other words, what are people doing in the Groundswell?  In chapter 2 we finally get a view on what is happening in the grassroots of the internet.  In essence people are creating content, connecting and collaborating with others, reacting to and organizing other media.  We must ask if the platform enable connections, effortless to sign up, shift power to people, community contribute content to sustain it, is it open to invite partnership. (36-37)

Questions for our consideration:

What are your initial reactions to this way of understanding social networking?

What struck you as you read these first two chapters?

Are there some notes of caution to keep in mind?

What would have to change in the way you as a denominational minister interact with social media given the Groundswell perspective?

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The Church in the Groundswell

Social media seems nearly ubiquitous today.  Even NPR, so often ridiculed by Saturday Night Live, has multiple Twitter feeds, Facebook pages, and even a location in Second Life.  Thanks to such media there is an unprecedented opportunity for people to interact with one another and with organizations, even to the point of breaking news to the newsroom.

Charlene Li and Josh Bernoff have named this phenomenon The Groundswell.  With such a descriptive name they have captured the effect of social media on the communications landscape.  As more and more people interact with their world and reveal their ideas, insights, concerns or even just a picture, the ground seems to swell with new information.  It’s a bottom up phenomenon to say the least.  No longer are creative or news worthy events being filtered through a hierarchy of production.  The vox populi has the technology to contribute to the wider culture.

Though Bernoff and Li have the larger commercial landscape in view as they present their findings about social media, it is important for us as leaders in the Church of the Brethren to understand the possibilities and limitations of social media.  With that in mind, I invite you to a structured, online discussion of the book.  Though we will not agree with everything and will raise theological concerns, we can use their findings and case studies to think strategically about the impact of the internet on traditional ministries such as evangelism, outreach, and spiritual formation.

I propose that we stretch our conversation over 6 weeks by tackling 2 chapters a week.  I will offer a short summary and pose an initial question at the beginning of the week, to which we each can respond and add our own questions.  As we move through the book we can discern if a video conversation would be helpful.  But for now, asynchronous conversation seems the easiest.

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