Needed in the Court of Reputation—Alternative Voices

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What compels us to do the right thing? In the more individualistic West, the answer would be: one’s conscience. In most of the rest of the world, it is the collective, the group. The evaluative gaze of others compels right behavior. In the first I do the right thing to avoid internal feelings of guilt; in the latter I do the right thing to gain honor and to avoid the shaming of my group, my family, and myself. In our recent book, Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, Jayson Georges and I provide insights and tools for evangelism and discipleship in contexts that have a collectivist orientation. We give numerous examples of mistakes, including our own, that flow from a focus on the individual conscience in an honor-shame context. Yet, even in the West, to only focus on the individual conscience is problematic; it is an error to ignore the honor-shame dynamic even in individualistic contexts. Here too, communities and peer groups become courts of reputation. Although forming an individual to think correctly about Christian ethics is of fundamental importance in the individualistic West, that alone will not lead people to do the right thing.

I recently heard a person talk of turning his conscience off so it would not bark at him saying, “You’re doing a bad and evil thing.” Why was the ethical direction from his conscience not enough? What pushed him to turn it off? What implications does this have for the church? As you read this story of a Vietnam war draftee, note the presence of both the individual conscience and the honor-shame dynamic. 

Tim O’Brien, is one of the people interviewed in Ken Burns’s and Lynn Novick’s documentary series, The Vietnam War (episode 7). O’Brien grew up in Worthington, Minnesota, a farming community of about 8,000. He described it as a town where people knew each other, knew what was going on in others’ lives, who was doing well, and whose kids had taken a wrong turn. He was drafted in June 1968. His parents had both been in the Navy in WWII. He explains, “They had believed in service to one’s country, and all those values. On one hand I did think the war was less than righteous. On the other hand, I love my country. And I valued my life in a small town and my friends and family.  And so the summer of ’68 I wrestled with what to do. That was for me, at least, more tortuous, devastating and emotionally painful than anything that happened in Vietnam. . . Do you go off and kill people if you are not pretty sure it is right? And if your nation isn’t pretty sure it is right? If there is not consensus? Do you do that?”

“I was at Fort Lewis Washington, and Canada was what, a 90-minute bus ride away. I wrote my Mom and Dad and asked for some money and my passport. They sent them to me—with no questions. ‘What do you want this for?’ I kept this stuff, along with some civilian clothes, stashed in my footlocker thinking, ‘maybe I will do it.’ It was this ‘maybe’ thing going on all throughout training. As Vietnam got closer and closer and closer. . . In the end I just capitulated. . . It wasn’t a decision. It was forfeiture of a decision. Letting my body go. Turning a switch in my conscience, just turning it off so it wouldn’t be barking at me: ‘You’re doing a bad and evil and stupid and unpatriotic thing.’”

“What prevented me doing it [fleeing to Canada]? I think it was pretty simple and stupid. It was a fear of embarrassment, of ridicule and humiliation. What my girlfriend would have thought of me, and the people in the Gobbler Café in downtown Worthington. The Kiwanis boys and the country club boys in that small town I grew up in, the things they would say about me, ‘what a coward,’ and ‘what a sissy for going to Canada.’  I would imagine my Mom and Dad overhearing something like that. I could not summon the courage to say ‘no’ to those nameless, faceless people who, in essence, this was the United States of America. I couldn’t say ‘no’ to them. I have had to live with it now for 40 years. That is a long time to live with a failure of conscience and a failure of nerve. The nightmare of Vietnam for me is not the bombs and the bullets.” He pauses and with a quivering voice says, “It is that failure of nerve I so regret.”

O’Brien thought then, and thinks now, that the better option, the “right” thing to do was go to Canada rather stay in the army and go to Vietnam. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with what he considered right, let’s reflect on the dynamics of the decision itself. The honor-shame dynamic of a small tight knit town overpowered his individual thinking on the matter. He opted to do what the town would consider the honorable thing to do in order to avoid the shame of people talking about him in a disparaging way.

What did he need? What might have led to a different outcome? He needed a counter community with a different honor code. He needed voices that would honor his decision to desert and neutralize the shaming voices of others in the court of reputation.

Let’s think of this in an analogous way. Imagine in a ministry setting you work hard to shape someone’s beliefs about a particular ethical stance that differs from mainstream society. They are convinced. Then, however, like O’Brien they are alone with only their individual conviction, they are surrounded by people and media pressing them to do the opposite. Individual conviction may be enough, but it very well may not be.

As we call people to radically re-orient their lives to the way of Jesus, we must work with intentionality at honoring them when they take steps that will bring scorn from the mainstream. This can be dramatic, as in this incident, reported by Bob Brenneman, that Jayson and I included in our book. Brenneman tells of a Central American gang member, Roberto, who converted and left the gang. For Roberto the church community became an important “alternate court of reputation,” as he sought to follow the way of Jesus rather than the way of the gang, and the broader society. There were many challenges, perhaps the most difficult was when his younger brother was murdered. Brenneman states,

Such events place a recovering gang member in a difficult position. According to the moral logic of the street, a “good brother” defends the honor of his fallen kin by avenging his death with “payback.” And indeed the offers for assistance in “making things right” came swiftly from Roberto’s former associates. But just as quickly came the support and reminders of his new “brothers in Christ.” “Violence only begets more violence,” his pastor told him. “That’s no way to respond.” Roberto decided not to seek out vengeance and to relinquish his “right” to kill his brother’s killers (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 225).

Although not as dramatic, my friend with a position in a large big-city law-firm probably felt as much pressure to do the obvious thing and continue putting in the hours so he could become a partner and earn an immense amount of money. Yet, with encouraging voices from fellow Christians he did what his peers and others in society considered ludicrous. He quit his position and went to work for a small firm in a small city in order to have more time for his family, for ministry, and for other activities.

The value and importance of a church community honoring an individual’s Jesus-like actions is not just in relation to big and dramatic decisions, but in daily actions and decisions. I think of my friend Mario in Honduras. I once asked him how it was that he lived in ways so differently than other men and resisted the dynamics of machoness.

He first affirmed how strong the honor code of machismo is. For instance, one aspect of machismo is drinking. A commonly heard saying is “One who does not drink is not a complete man.” In his teen years his friends started pressuring him to “be a man” and drink. He already felt shame for being poor, so to avoid more shame he began to drink. Some years later [after another night of drunken brawling]. . . he started attending church and five meetings later accepted Jesus as his Savior. . . As Mario reflected on how he was able to step away from the ways of machismo. He mentioned three things. A man from the church, Hector, spent a lot of time with him offering support and affirmation. Secondly, the Christian men at work and the people at the church provided a counter chorus. Just as friends had shamed him into drinking, old friends around him began ridiculing him and shaming him for becoming a Christian; they pressured him to continue in his macho ways. Christians countered these shaming comments of Mario’s friends by praising him for his efforts to stop drinking. Lastly, as his new identity as a loved child of God grew he felt increasing security to step away from other aspects of the machismo honor code and walk in the ways of the honor code of the New Testament. His church continued to affirm and honor him as he took these steps. The shaming comments of other men did not stop, but they do not have the power over him that they used to (Ministering in Honor-Shame Cultures, 223-24).

Although those of us in individualistic settings have tended to focus on the Bible providing ethical instruction, if one puts on honor-shame glasses, the dynamic described in these examples comes to light. For instance, looking at I Peter through these lenses we see that the Christians Peter wrote to were being shamed and scorned by their neighbors—pressured to abandon the way of Jesus and return to the mainstream. Repeatedly in the letter Peter affirms the alternative honor code of Jesus, and affirms them for following it. And he seeks to undercut the shaming voices of their neighbors. (See chapter 11 of our book to see the list of ways Jayson and I see Peter doing this.)

How might your community more actively support and honor those who seek to go against the current and live according to the ways of the Kingdom of God? I encourage you to pray and ask God’s Spirit to give you a heightened awareness for opportunities to honor others, an imagination for how to, and the initiative to do so. Let us become active members of an alternative court of reputation.

Posted on May 12, 2018 .

Marvelous Pigness of Pigs

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When showing the documentary Fresh in class one of the lines that always catches students’ attention is Joel Salatin talking about the chickenness of the chickens. He describes how his way of farming, in contrast to industrial chicken farms, honors the chickenness of chickens. In class discussion I assert that it is a theological statement, and that Salatin means it to be—even if he does not state that in the documentary. He affirms my assumption in his recent book, The Marvelous Pigness of Pigs: Respecting and Caring for all of God’s Creation.

 

I immediately heard the phrase as theological because in my ethics class I so frequently talk about living more authentically as the people God created us to be. Christian ethics, in part, is about helping the Markness of Mark flourish. In this book Salatin states that to farm in a way that respects the pigness of pigs or the chickenness of chickens is to honor their creator. It also, he maintains, is the best way to farm. It is a stance of worship and respect, but also practical wisdom. He encourages us to pay attention to the patterns of creation and work with them for the good of pigs, chickens, fields and forests, and our good as well.

 

Salatin describes himself as a “Christian libertarian environmentalist capitalist lunatic farmer” (xiii). One thing that means is that very few people will agree with everything in this book. More significantly it means that Salatin crosses more divides and has more diversity of friendships than many in today’s increasingly siloed society. He has many conservative Christians friends who worship the Creator and many liberal friends who worship creation. “This book has grown out of the tension between those two camps” (xiii). It is an attempt to persuade evangelicals to embrace, for biblical and theological reasons, the type of farming and earth-care practiced by Salatin and his friends in the other camp.

 

There are many ways to read the book. Read it to learn about Salatin’s approach to sustainable farming, and ways non-farmers can participate in that approach. Read it for help in thinking of ways to talk about these issues to people you know in his target audience. Or, better yet, read it together with some in that camp. Read it for new biblical and theological insights produced by his thinking theologically about his farming practices. I encourage you to read it and let it challenge you broadly and deeply—not just in relation to specific actions and thoughts. As he works to show the contrast between the order and patterns of God’s creation, and the ways of industrial agricultural I found myself reflecting broadly and deeply on agriculture and beyond. I will share a few examples.

 

In the mid-1800’s Louis Pasteur saw bacteria through a microscope and developed germ theory to explain illnesses. “He proposed ways to kill these critters. He saw nature as fundamentally flawed and in need of human intervention and fixing” (60). A contemporary of his, Antoine Beauchamp, saw the same things through a microscope, but came to a different conclusion. He developed terrain theory, arguing that there are good bacteria and bad, and it is the condition of the terrain that determines which wins out. Pasteur and his followers looked for ways to kill the germs. Beauchamp explored broadly. He studied the impact of things like sleep deprivation, hygiene, and food quality on the terrain. He looked for ways to have a wellness-inducing terrain where the good bugs would win out over the bad. After introducing these contrasting approaches Salatin spends the rest of the chapter describing how the two approaches play out.

 

Do we take a more passive, victim mentality about sin—a sin gene or the devil made me do it; or, do we work at the terrain of our lives? Urbanization, without refrigeration or indoor plumbing set up a very negative terrain. “From smoke-clogged homes to manure-clogged streets to brewery-waste-fed-cows, the recipe for disease could not have been better” (62). Milk started making people sick. The solution? Germ theory says, kill the germs in the milk—pasteurization (which also kills the good bacteria). But Salatin points out, “raw milk from grazing cows doesn’t need to be fixed with pasteurization. It’s not broken” (63). Solution, clean up the mess and respect the cowness of cows—let them eat what cows naturally eat. “At sustainable agricultural conferences, most of the workshops are positive how-tos. I almost never hear much discussion of sickness and disease. . . At industrial agricultural conferences . . . nearly all the discussions center around diseases and sicknesses. The overriding desire is how to beat nature, how to win, as if nature is the enemy that must be subjugated like a military conquest” (89). I can applaud Salatin’s points, yet as I take a step back I have to acknowledge that I have been immersed in a germ-theory-world for most of my life. How does this influence me? How does a find-the-cause-of-the-problem-and-kill-it approach play out in other areas of my life?

 

(Coincidentally, the day after I wrote the previous paragraph I read an article in The New Yorker about a team working to lessen sexual assault at Colombia University. The two professors who lead the effort stated that rather than take the common approach that sees it as an issue of individual behavior and punishment as the solution, they think about it “socio-ecologically: as a matter of how people act within a particular environment. . . Their approach . . . does not ignore personal responsibility; rather, it aims to nudge students toward responsible behavior on a collective scale” [34].) 

 

Germ-theory-mentality combined with industrial agriculture has produced a food system saturated with fear. Consumers fear contaminated foods and farmers fear disease or pests wiping them out. In response we seek to wrap ourselves in a sanitized bubble—sanitize food, keep out visitors who might carry a germ into a chicken farm, and use chemicals to kill malicious bugs that are present. “A farm of faith says this: if I follow the Creator’s patterns, immunity and wellness will follow.” Salatin is not naïve. He acknowledges that industrial mono-crop farmers have reason to be fearful, and consumers understandably want their milk pasteurized and their chickens dipped in bleach. They have reason to be fearful of the products of a mono-cultural industrial system. Jacques Ellul tolds us that technique always leads us to look for new techniques to solve the problems created by technique. Salatin does what Ellul advocates instead, dig deeper, look for root problems, and trust God and God’s ways not technique. What are other areas in our lives where fear pervades and we have not looked deep enough in search of freedom from our fears?

Posted on May 4, 2018 .

Conflict-Aversion and Worship

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I was reading the book Worship in the Way of the Cross. I turned a page, saw the section title “Interpersonal Cruciformity,” and wondered “Why does a book on worship have a section on interpersonal relations?” I thought, “I guess this is a topic the author is passionate about, so he stuck it in. I wonder how he will make it look like it fits?”

John Frederick’s book is a practical book rooted and framed theologically. He is scholar-practitioner, a Ph. D. in New Testament with extensive experience as a worship pastor. He leans heavily on Michael Gorman’s excellent work on Paul’s theology of the cross. I don’t want this to turn into a book review. I will just mention one thing that may entice you to check the book out yourself. He writes about the role of worship in challenging the myth of redemptive violence and reorienting us to an alternative. Okay, back to the interpersonal section.

I began the section thinking it was a tangent—assuming it would be well done because John is a good writer, but still a tangent. I ended the section saying, “John is right. It is not a tangent. Actually we need chapters like this in most ministry books.” What caused my perspective to change? To answer that I need to, briefly, share a recent experience. 

Grace Spencer, a current student, is also a scholar-practitioner. She is involved in a church plant, high school ministry, and practices restorative justice as a mediator for VORP. She is an MA Theology student passionately exploring connections between atonement theology and attitudes and practices of justice. One question she has brought up is: Why are so many Christians conflict-averse? Why do they view conflict as inherently sinful?

As I work on a book on bounded, fuzzy and centered approaches to church, I have interviewed many practitioners, including a weekend of focus groups at The Meeting House in Toronto. A group of pastors and home church leaders there were recounting experiences of loving confrontation done in a centered way. One of them said, “People are afraid of conflict. One of the things that pulls our groups in a fuzzy direction is aversion to conflict.” I immediately thought of Grace’s question, and made a note: “Have a chapter on conflict aversion in the book.”

A few pages into John’s section on interpersonal relationships, I thought back to that moment in Ontario and Grace’s question. My perspective changed. He has recognized that conflict-aversion, passive-aggressiveness, and heavy-handed coercive leadership hinder churches’ worship experience. He writes about relations between the worship leader and others on the worship team, others in the congregation, and others on the pastoral team. He shares positive and negative examples. He states:

“Holy Scripture beckons us not to the cultivation of politically correct discourse and dishonest communication but instead to its crucifixion so that we can live according to a new narrative of truth-telling. We are called . . .into the new creation culture of compassionate, charitable honesty. . . Yet we continue to promote as a virtue dishonestly withholding truth as a mechanism of avoiding interpersonal conflict in the church” (108-109).

I write this blog for a number of reasons. First, as an exhortation, let’s do what John has done and reflect on conflict-aversion in relation to an area of ministry we are involved in. Second, I hope it might stimulate further thought for you as it has for me. Third, I want to share two of those thoughts, and then lastly ask for your help and input.

John Frederick writes, “Far too often, in the name of what I thought was Christlike deference and being laid back, I allowed volunteer musicians in the congregation to engage in problematic and immature behavior without any critique or consequence” (115). For instance, a drummer, on the schedule for a particular Sunday, had come to rehearsal, but did not show up that Sunday—and gave no indication to anyone that he would not be there. John makes clear he is not advocating for a heavy-handed approach to dealing with situations like that. He asks what is the way of the cross? He shares some examples of well thought-out, carefully-worded, centered responses to situations like this. As I read I thought, most readers will probably agree, conflict aversion and fuzziness are problematic in a situation like that. I also think, however, that many will put a drummer not showing up in a different category than most things going on in the everyday lives of people involved in church. Yet, I wonder how many actions and attitudes that go unaddressed are in their own way more problematic to the life and mission of the church than the drummer not showing up. As Michael King points out, shadow impulses easily run amok, and fuzzy groups too readily allow destructive expression of those impulses (Trackless Wastes & Stars to Steer By, 128).

In the discussion at The Meeting House we equated conflict aversion and fuzziness. Rightfully so. As I think about it, however, a bounded approach and conflict aversion also go together. A bounded church must pay attention to things in the line, but it does not have to address other issues. It allows, even encourages, not confronting things not forming the line. Also, although at times some confrontation is demanded in a bounded church, it does not have to be the loving confrontation that John described. He was concerned not just about the line, the infraction, but about the person, the person’s relationship with the center and with the community.

I am conflict-averse myself. This blog is a challenge to me. I will write a chapter on it in my book not from the standpoint of expertise, but with the conviction that it is important. Like other chapters in the book, it will be short. I will raise the issue and point to resources. I know of books on methods of conflict resolution, but I also want to point readers to resources on dealing with the fear of conflict. Back to Grace’s question. Why do so many Christians view conflict as a bad thing, and what can we do to change that? Please let me know if you are aware of resources I can recommend to readers.

 

Posted on April 11, 2018 .

What is Your Relationship with Money?

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A family friend, Rianna Isaak, told us that in her small group she likes to ask these questions: “What is your relationship with ____________?” Then: “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with ________?” Recently she has asked the questions in relation to “entertainment” and “food.” What might be a helpful way for you, your family or church group to use those questions? What might you put in the blank? Last week I found myself asking them in relation to money. 

Many of you have heard or read my journey with money. In one period of my life I desired to acquire significant wealth. Then I headed in the opposite direction and sought to live as simply as possible so I could give more and more money to help the poor around me. I expended great energy in discerning what was the appropriate spending level for a Christian. I judged those who did not live that lifestyle—most other Christians. But, I also bore the weight of trying to live up to my own standard. In contrast, today I am neither consumed by acquiring riches nor by determining and achieving the appropriate simple lifestyle. Yet, we still seek to keep the poor in mind when we make purchases. We tithe; many months we give beyond a tithe. Therefore, it is easy for me to think I am doing ok in my relationship with money—especially if I compare myself to many around me or to the Mark Baker of the past.

Perhaps, however, it has been too long since I have asked these questions: “What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?” I asked them recently in two situations—one related to family finances and the other related to spending funds of the small mission agency we are involved with. In both cases the questions penetrated and illuminated. They brought to light things that have been there, below the surface—accepted as normal, even good.

In both cases I observed a concern for the future. It was not a question about having the money needed in the moment. Rather, my concern was how giving or spending money now might lead to shortage in the future. Secondly, I observed a concern for being “good” and doing “right.” In one case it was living according to the conventional wisdom of my culture about family and finances; in the other it was acting according to conventional wisdom of mission activity in poorer regions. Neither of these had anything to do with me grasping for status through acquiring things to “keep up with the Jones’s.” Yet the toxicity of threatened shame was still present. Even if subtly and subconsciously, the question, “what will others think?” was woven into my thinking.

Rianna’s questions, especially the second, might be heard by some as oppressive and accusing (see below) but I experienced the opposite. The intentional turn toward Jesus, repentance, brought life. I was unaware of how my strivings and fears weighed me down—remember I was cruising along thinking I was fine in relation to money. Yet in both cases I felt immediate lightness when I turned to Jesus and away from calculating-fear and away from status-grabbing-shame-avoidance. The burden fell off my shoulders. I felt the “reviving of the soul” mentioned in relation to God’s law in Psalm 19. I experienced what I proclaim every year in class when I share my journey with money. Something I state, but have not often enough allowed to penetrate and illuminate my being: “Through Jesus’s life, proclamation and death on the cross, however, God provides a different way to understand reality, exposes and disarms powers like mammon, and invites us to place our trust elsewhere. Rooted in that reality we can see the lies of mammon and we are freed to live differently.”

I write to share and encourage use of the questions. I do not think my answers will be your answers. I encourage you to ask the questions and begin conversations with others. I pray the turn toward Jesus will be as liberating for you as it was for me.

“What is your relationship with money?” “How does your relationship with Jesus affect your relationship with money?”

Additional comment on a centered approach:

My initial reaction to Rianna’s questions was, “what great centered approach questions!” They do not draw a specific line separating true Christians from others, nor do they communicate that by crossing a line you have arrived. They focus on the center and imply ongoing movement toward the center. They invite conversation, rather than external imposition of “right behavior.”  I asked Rianna about her group’s discussion of entertainment. She said the first part went fine, but when she asked the Jesus question the feeling in the room changed. One person responded with a sense of resignation, sounding a bit bitter he said, “Oh I guess I should…..” Whereas I had thought, “what great centered questions,” this person heard it as a question of bounded group religiosity.

This reinforced an important point I will included in the book I am writing on bounded, fuzzy and centered. Having excellent phrasing does not guarantee those listening will hear it in a centered way. The spirit of religiosity rooted in our beings, and our default responses shaped by years of bounded-church experience can twist centered discourse in a bounded direction. Craft our words well, yes! But we must also work to foster the ability for people to hear centered words in a centered way. Therefore, we must follow Jesus and Paul in proclaiming freedom from the enslaving spirit of religiosity, expose the bounded approach, and present the centered alternative.

Posted on March 8, 2018 .

The Tech-Wise Family: Everyday Steps for Putting Technology in Its Proper Place

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Some books on technology/technique, like Jacques Ellul’s or Sherry Turkle’s, analyze and expose truths of great importance. Other authors, like John Dyer or Arthur Boers, utilize insights from others and add their own, but put much more emphasis on the “what to do?” question. Andy Crouch’s The Tech-Wise Family is in the latter category, but has an even stronger practical orientation than Dyer or Boers. Andy Crouch is a gifted thinker and communicator and a man of sincere commitment to live as a disciple of Jesus. This book has the strength of many how-to books—relatively short, engaging, and many practical suggestions. And it avoids the weaknesses of many how-to books: he writes with humility and nuance; he roots the how-to principles in thoughtful analysis; he does not pretend it will be easy, nor does he present his suggestions as the one right way.

Crouch is a technophile, that may help some readers to be more accepting of his radical suggestions. He does not say, “get rid of your devices as I did.” He loves them; is fascinated by them; he uses them. He writes, “Technology’s fruits are to be celebrated and delighted in” (65). A phrase from the subtitle is key: putting technology in its proper place. He begins the book with seven observations about its proper place, such as: “Technology is in its proper place when it starts great conversations. It’s out of its proper place when it prevents us from talking with and listening to one another” (20). The final observation is that technology does not stay in its proper place on its own. Reflecting on his family’s practices he observes, “We haven’t eliminated devices from our lives by any means, but we go to great lengths to prevent them from taking over our lives” (30).
 
Yet, the book remains a radical one. Because, as he states, to keep technology in its proper place will require choices “that most of our neighbors aren’t making” (29). It is radical not just in the action steps advocated, but also in its observations—two examples: “We often give our children screens not to make their lives easier but to make our lives easier” (130). He acknowledges that technology has made our lives easier, but he asks: are our lives better overall than our grandparents? (64).
 
This points to his definition of technology. I, following Ellul, define technology in terms of efficiency. Crouch defines technology as that which makes our lives easier and is everywhere. Humans have always used tools; they have aided us in work, but until recently have not done work for us. The technology Crouch writes about are tools that are easy—they work on their own, or are very easy to use. They ask too little of us, make the world too simple, and they are everywhere (think of landline phone vs. mobile phones). Just as I say that “efficient” is not synonymous with “better,” Crouch writes that “easier” is not synonymous with “better.”
 
The heart of the book is the ten commitments his family made to seek to keep technology in its place.
 
1. We develop wisdom and courage together as a family.
 
2. We want to create more than we consume. So we fill the center of our home with things that reward skill and active engagement.
 
3. We are designed for a rhythm of work and rest. So one hour a day, one day a week, and one week a year we turn off our devices and worship, feast, play and rest together.
 
4. We wake up before our devices do, and they “go to bed” before we do.
 
5. We aim for “no screens before double digits” at school and at home [ten years old].
 
6. We use screens for a purpose, and we use them together, rather than using them aimlessly and alone.
 
7. Car time is conversation time.                                        
 
8. Spouses have one another’s passwords, and parents have total access to children’s devices.
 
9. We learn to sing together, rather than letting recorded and amplified music take over our lives and worship.
 
10. We show up in person for big events of life. We learn how to be human by being fully present at our moments of greatest vulnerability. We hope to die in one another’s arms.
 
One could say, “now that you have given me the list I do not need to read the book.” Please, read the book! A chapter is dedicated to each one of the ten commitments. They include thoughtful analysis of why the commitment is necessary and concrete examples and suggestions on how to put them into practice. Each chapter ends with a Crouch family reality check. He describes how they have actually done on the commitment over the last two decades. He includes his children’s perspectives. He writes with humility and honesty. They have done better at some than others.
 
Those reality checks go a long way in keep this from being a judgmental book with an accusing tone. In addition, although there are many observations about the negative impact of technologies on our lives, Crouch writes more of the richness that flows from keeping technology in its proper place. The book does not scold, it invites us to something better. It is a book full of promise and possibility.

Posted on March 3, 2018 .

Of Smart Phones and Emotional Safety: A Reflection on iGen

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Guest Blog by Robert Brenneman, Assoc. Prof. of Sociology at Saint Michael’s College, VT

Not long ago I had a conversation with my 11-year-old son, Nico, that surprised even me. He had recently begun his first year of middle school in the local public school system and was considering the option of attending an after-school program centered on Lego building, something which he loves to do in his free time. But there was just one problemstaying late meant he would have to ride the elementary school bus home instead of the middle school bus. Of course, this was not to his liking, but not for the reasons I expected. “I like the middle school bus ‘coz it’s quiet,” he said. Huh? I was stumped. Whoever heard of a bus filled with sixth, seventh and eighth graders that’s “quiet”?! Not me.  “Yeah,” he went on, “On the middle school bus everyone’s on their phones and no one bothers me.” Nico is growing up iGen.

In her book iGen, Psychologist and San Diego State University Professor Jean Twenge writes about a generational shift that is changing what it means to be a teenager and young adult today. The lengthy sub-title of her book pretty much gives away the punchline: iGen: Why Today’s Super-Connected Kids Are Growing up Less Rebellious, More Tolerant, Less Happy—and Completely Unprepared for Adulthood (And What That Means for the Rest of Us). And let me say from the outset, I am smitten. Twenge is a superb writer with a penchant for taking reams of data and helping readers make sense of the patterns within itwhile also alerting us to all of the caveats and risks associated with too-sweeping generalizations. In this case, however, Twenge has found some fairly profound cultural shifts that truly demand our attention. For starters, and this will surprise few readers, youth from iGen (a birth cohort that she identifies as having been born from 1995-2012) are more electronically connected than ever. This is, after all, the first generation to have been born after the rise of the commercial internet and which came of age just as smart phones made internet usage, social media, and electronic screens absolutely ubiquitous. Thus, almost all of the trends she identifies—including time spent looking at screens—apply across the board to US youth from all races, ethnicities and economic/educational levels. The trend toward greater time spent on the internet and/or screens correlates with a number of negative outcomes that have spiked rather suddenly. Teen rates of self-reported depression, thoughts of suicide, and loneliness are among the most obvious. But the actual rate of suicide has also increased. Interestingly though, the teen homicide rate has fallen at the same time as the teen suicide rate has risen. And here’s where her argument is, I think, at its most convincing.

Teens of the “iGen” are spending a lot less time actually interacting face-to-face, and a lot more time virtually interacting. One of the upsides to this is that these teens are safer from being physically harmed by others. Rates of rape, alcohol abuse, and teen pregnancy are falling along with the falling homicide rate. But emotional harm seems to have gone in the other direction. For Twenge—and for me since I came to this book fairly convinced of many of these trends already—the single most likely culprit for both the rise in physical safety as well as emotional anxiety and depression, is the rise of smart phones and social media. This is the case, argues Twenge, because a) no other comparable shift in culture and/or the pastimes of teens took place during the same time period (2008-2015) when the shift in outcomes are most pronounced, and because b) there is clear evidence from recent national surveys correlating increasing screen-time with deteriorating mental well-being.

Just as interesting is the fact that time spent in those activities that involve face-to-face interaction correlate with better mental health outcomes. For instance, in one of the many fascinating graphics she provides, the top two activities associated with a lowered “risk of high depressive symptoms” among 10th graders is 1) Engaging in Sports/exercise, and 2) (are you ready for this?) Attending religious services. Coming in third is “In-person social interaction.” What increases the risk of depressive symptoms? According to the same national survey, which is carried out by the University of Michigan’s National Institute on Drug Abuse; TV watching, internet news, and spending time on social networking websites all raise the odds of kids reporting symptoms of depression. According to additional details on her methods webpage (see page 22 in the pdf doc) this positive correlation is true even after controlling for race, class, and time spent interacting in person. In other words, kids who spend lots of time looking at screens are reporting more depression symptoms not just because they’re interacting less in person. The screen time appears to have a negative effect apart from and beyond the “crowd-out effect” of staying in rather than going out. There is a lot more to say about the research here and Twenge is well aware that her thesis is bold and therefore requires lots of data as well as careful explanation of the likely mechanisms at work.

 This book, however, is not narrowly focused on the screens and social media. It is a broad and deep analysis of the iGen. Anyone working with youth, including teachers, pastors, counselors or college professors like myself will find this book to be a valuable read. For instance, she also pays a lot of attention to a rise in a culture of individualism, especially in a chapter called “Irreligious: Losing My Religion (and Spirituality).” She reports that although for decades American sociologists have pointed out that Americans have remained far more religious than their European counterparts, that is starting to change and, if iGen is any indicator, is likely to change a lot more quickly soon. The reasons for this are multiple, and in this chapter as well as others, smart phones and social media do not receive as much attention perhaps because the rise of hyperindividualism—a key cultural shift contributing to young people’s skittishness around anything religious—was already in place well before the appearance of the iphone.

Another chapter I appreciated is called “Insulated but Not Intrinsic: More Safety and Less Community.” There she examines some of the trends that have been getting attention in the wider media recently, including the rise of “safe spaces” which many iGen-ers seem to demand as a kind of human right. Twenge agrees with certain other public intellectuals like Jonathan Haidt who worry that many college students have interpreted the right to safety as involving the guarantee that they will be protected from encountering people whose opinions might offend them. Her argument is that, compared with earlier generations, iGen-ers have learned to “play it safe”—staying at home instead of going out, waiting longer to get their drivers’ license, and, in some cases, putting off or even avoiding the party scene. At the same time, they have grown accustomed to avoiding encounters with people whose views are different from their own, since that might lead to hurt feelings or emotional discomfort. Put differently, Twenge believes that the desire for safety among iGen-ers has expanded beyond physical safety (access to which has indeed improved in a number of ways) to include a desire for “emotional safety” understood as freedom from having to come into contact with people who disagree with me. After all, this is a generation that has noticeably less experience (compared with Gen-X’ers and Boomers) navigating the messiness of real face-to-face encounters. Live social interaction can be difficult and scary for them, the more so when it involves people with whom they disagree.

As I mentioned above, I had a strongly positive reaction to Twenge’s book. In fact, I had the distinct impression at times that I was reading a work by a sociologist, rather than a psychologist. Not that psychologists can’t be brilliant (or sociologists dull and naïve)—many are. But it is profoundly refreshing to read work by a psychologist who excels at making the link between broader cultural and social changes, and the “choices” made by individuals who inhabit those cultural and social spaces.

Of course, the cultural changes ushered in largely by the spread of a technology do not just impact “choices” made. They impact the reality that we, and especially iGen-ers, live in and must deal with. My son Nico does not yet have a phone, but since most of his bus-riding peers do, he will be increasingly “left alone” if not “left out” by his generation the longer he goes without one. And this leads to the agonizing decision that will be made by many Gen-X parents like me—when will we have to buy the kids a phone? One more reason to think carefully and strategically about the social circles that envelope your kids. They matter now more than ever.

I first met Bob Brenneman in 1996 when he was serving with Mennonite Central Committee in Guatemala. Our friendship and conversations—theological, sociological, and personal—have continued and deepened over the years. A detective could find many of his “fingerprints” on my Discipleship and Ethics course, including, but not limited to: conversation with him about the first version of the course led to changes in the syllabus, I borrowed the one-day tech fast assignment from him, he pointed me to the material I use on inequality, and in recent years his book, Homies and Hermanos, is a text in the class. I am very pleased he agreed to write this blog for the website. Check out more of his blogs at: www.homiesandhermanosbook.wordpress.com

 

Posted on February 15, 2018 .

Let's Talk About Sin

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“When is last time you used the word ‘sin’ in a conversation?” I recently began a sermon with that question. My assumption was that for many, myself included, it had been awhile. Why? In part, in a society in which tolerance is the supreme virtue, it is not appropriate to talk about sins. But why, even in some churches is the word avoided?

Perhaps it is in response to ways sin has been talked about–as if declaring war on pleasure. Or maybe because the ones using the term were self-righteous-finger-pointing-shamers. Or, perhaps because of the way the word “sin” was linked with an image of a judgmental God–“the big eye in the sky,” people left the term behind as they appropriately ran away from that concept of God.

These are understandable reasons for moving away from talking about sin. But, as I asked that Sunday morning, have we moved too far?

What led me to give a sermon exhorting the congregation to talk more about sin? 

Two books had challenged me and came to mind as I read the biblical texts I was asked to preach on.

In Sin and Grace in Christian Counseling: An Integrative Paradigm Mark McMinn describes how he did not talk about sin much, thinking of himself as a grace-oriented counselor. But he began to wonder, can we fully understand or experience grace without a robust understanding of sin?  “A true understanding of grace has also been lost, because it cannot exist without a language of sin. . . Too often we integrationists are minimizing both grace and sin because our psychological vocabulary does not allow for these notions”(19, 22).

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist does not identify as a Christian, but he appears to be exploring the way of Jesus--often quoting Christian writers. Yet, I did not expect him to talk about sin in his book, The Road to Character. But there it is, on page 54. Like McMinn, Brooks advocates for pulling sin language out of the dustbin and using it. “Sin is a necessary piece of our mental furniture because it reminds us that life is a moral affair. . . No matter how hard we strive to replace sin with nonmoral words, like ‘mistake’ or ‘error’ or ‘weakness,’ the most essential parts of life are matters of individual responsibility and moral choice: whether to be brave or cowardly, honest or deceitful, compassionate or callous, faithful or disloyal. . . To banish words like [‘sin,’] ‘virtue,’ ‘character’ . . . and ‘vice’ . . . means we think and talk about these choices less clearly, and thus become increasingly blind to the moral stakes of everyday life” (54).

Later in the book, he reflects on David Chappell’s analysis of the civil rights movement in A Stone of Hope. One stream of the movement had an optimistic view of human nature and believed that through education and appeal to reason people would gradually see that racism is wrong. The other stream, led by Martin Luther King Jr., emerged from the biblical prophetic tradition. King declared, “Instead of assured progress in wisdom and decency, man faces the ever present possibility of swift relapse not merely to animalism, but into such calculated cruelty as no other animal can practice” (146). King's more serious consideration of the human propensity toward sin led him, and those with him, to be more realistic about others, more humble about themselves, more aggressive, and better able to deal with pain, suffering and setbacks.

These authors had me thinking that although bounded group religiosity often talks about sin in harmful ways, the fuzzy group’s alternative of banning the term also is problematic. A centered approach requires talk of sin. For reasons that McMinn and Brooks point to, and because a centered approach requires a sense of turning from something–turning from sin toward the center. Perhaps we can use a different word than “sin,” but we clearly need the concept.

So, propelled by these authors, I decided to preach on sin.

(If I was giving a three-hour class, rather than preaching a sermon or writing a blog, I would take the time to not just talk about “sins,” but also about what leads us to sin. Viewing the root problem as something in our DNA, passed on, according to Augustine, in male semen contributes to the toxic ways of talking about sin listed above–and more. Much better to go with the pre-Augustinian view of understanding the root problem as alienation, broken relationship with God and others. But rather than giving a “lecture” on that I will simply do what I did that Sunday, suggest you read John E. Toews's book, The Story of Original Sin or send me an e-mail and I will send you my lecture notes on these two contrasting views of sin.)

Knowing I would be encouraging listeners to think and talk more about sins I sought to practice what I was going to preach. I did not do very well. I would prayerful reflect over my days: how had I sinned? Not much came to mind. In part I think it is because “the list” view of sins is so deeply embedded in my being. In my youth I would occasionally slip up and then confess my infraction, but in general I steered clear of the sins on the list in my mind—things like lying, cheating, stealing, swearing, drinking, etc.

At a theoretical level I agreed with McMinn and Brooks, and I was working on a sermon advocating the same thing, but personal application was not going well.

Midway through sermon prep a shift happened when I began crafting my comments on the gospel text for the day—Mark 1:1-8. The word “sins” is in the text. John the Baptist proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” The more significant word, the one that stood out to me, was “repentance.” That day, riding my bike home from the seminary, instead of asking “how have I sinned today?” I found myself asking repentance questions: "What are ways I am heading in the wrong direction? Ways I got off track today?"

I asked those questions and as I passed by the county fairgrounds what came to mind was: interruption. I had interrupted others a couple times in the seminary faculty meeting. Interrupting someone was not on my sin list. It would never have come up as an answer to the question: “how have I sinned today?” And, on the other hand it was not a new revelation. I have been working on interrupting less. But in this space of repentance and prayerful openness something new happened. A question came to mind, perhaps by God’s Spirit: “What are you communicating when you interrupt?” I responded, “I communicate that what I have to say is more important than what the other person is saying.” I had an immediate and powerful response. “I do not want to be that kind of person. I repent. I want to change.” What a different experience simply by changing words from "sin" to "repent."

I invite you to let John the Baptist call you to repent just as he called people like us to repent in first century Palestine. But John offers us something more than just some alternative vocabulary for asking the sin question. He prepares the way for someone greater; he points us to Jesus Christ. Someone who also will invite people to repent and offer forgiveness for sins. In fact just a few verses later Jesus proclaims “repent and believe the good news” (v. 15).

What happens when we think about “sins” and “repentance” through the lens of this one John points us to?  Jesus is God incarnate and in Jesus we see the character of the God of nurturing love. Think back to reasons I listed that some of us have moved away from using sin language—scolding, shaming, punitive, lists. Is that Jesus?  

It makes a difference who is talking about sins and repentance: a nurturing caring God, or the big-eye-in- the-sky-God? A nurturing God, like a loving mother or father, still disciplines, still calls for repentance, but it feels significantly different than a shaming, scolding call to turn from sin.

Jesus calls for repentance, challenges us to turn from sin, but it is a call for repentance draped in love.

Let us not simply do what David Brooks does and call for a return to using the language of sin, rather let us use the language of repentance and sin more often, but always bind it to Jesus, wrap it in the nurturing love of God. My experience also points to the importance of working to re-frame the word “sin,” and to use other words to talk about sin.

I was just talking about these contrasting experiences with a student–the sin list vs. a loving God calling me to repent. I realized the first leads me to treat sin like laws and view God like judge or police officer. In my daily life I seek to not break the law. As long as I obey the list of laws the police, the district attorney, and the judge leave me alone. Although in some sense the criminal justice system contributes to my well-being by encouraging me to obey the law, I do not view them as helping me to thrive. I do not expect the police to stop by and give me counsel on how to improve my relationship with my wife or co-workers. I have a very different view of my parents, mentors, pastor, or therapist. Who do you imagine calling you to repent, God as police officer with a list of laws, or God like a mentor, pastor, or therapist? With the sin list mentality the objective is to get God, the police officer, to leave me alone. In contrast, I invite the loving God into my life with hopeful expectation that the call to repent will contribute to a more abundant life.

I will end as I ended the sermon, by suggesting a daily practice you might take up.

Four steps:

1. Focus your mind on an image of God’s nurturing love: perhaps Jesus’ loving gaze, God giving you a maternal hug, a caring shepherd; use an image that works for you.

2. Then, in the security of that love, ask God: what are you calling me to repent from today? Reflect, listen, think back over your day.

3. Confess, repent—make a commitment to change direction.

4. Rest in God’s loving forgiveness.

An important note: Some of you need no exhortation to think daily about your sins and shortcomings. You may need an exhortation to do it less. If that is your situation then the first step is of utmost importance and value.

What might happen if we take up this practice? What might God be lovingly calling you to repent from? What are ways God might be calling you to turn around, change direction?

God loves you, and because God loves you, God calls you to repent, calls you to leave behind attitudes, practices, habits, thoughts, and turn to new ways that will be better for you, for others, for creation.

Posted on January 9, 2018 .

Little Things Matter

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I am the type that retrieves a water bottle from a trash can and puts it in the recycle bin. Just did it leaving class last night. I often feel compelled to take small actions like that—with a sense that they matter. Once in Honduras I joined neighbors to stop a forest fire from reaching our homes. A trail in the woods was our line of defense. We cleared brush on both sides of the trail so the fire would not cross that line. Then we stood guard in case sparks blew across the trail. As I watched the fire crawl down the hill towards us I looked at the little pine trees in between the trail and the approaching flames. While others stood by, I went up the hill a few yards and began clearing more brush. I made a new line of defense that saved a few of the trees. In the months ahead I would pass those trees and think, “little things matter.” We see this in the Bible—a few loaves and fishes, a mustard seed, a few coins. Thinking of forest fires reminds me that James states it explicitly. The tongue is a small thing, but like a small fire can set a whole forest ablaze so the small tongue can do great harm (James 3:1-12). Little things matter. Big things can come from them. Although I can make a biblical case for this point, I can’t claim my attention to small things flows from reading the Bible. Perhaps it does. Perhaps it is my personality. Whatever the origin of it, I do live as if little things matter.

My conviction that little things matter was reinforced in a number of ways in the last couple weeks. Articles warning of negative consequences of overuse of mobile devices have gone mainstream. I have read and heard many in recent days. An article in Time reported that, since 2010, rates of teenage depression and suicide have increased dramatically. Many believe mobile phone use and social media are a significant reason. (Just one statistic, see the article for more: adolescents who use electronic devices three or more hours a day were 34% more likely to have a suicide related outcome than those who used them two hours or less; with five hour daily use the likelihood increased to 48%.) That article, or news clips like this one and this one from NPR, saddened and sobered me. Yet, little things matter. There is hope.

A student, Matt Vincent, wrote this in a post last week:

A while ago, we "woke up" to the reality that our kids were spending more and more time online—either playing games or watching youtube/video content. We were beginning to notice some behavioral changes like those mentioned in the audio posts--grumpy, irritable, temper, and withdrawn. My wife and I decided to impose a "technology fast" for the kids—taking away phones, computer, etc. for a week. Our kids were not fans of this idea, and tried their best to argue that it wasn't needed and everything was fine :)

Almost immediately, we noticed a change in them. They started hanging out and playing more together; they spent more time outside with friends, and our time together as a family was better. We enjoyed longer conversations around the dinner table, and did more activities together. It was a pretty remarkable change.

Little things matter, and studies affirm what this student observed—remarkable positive change can come quickly. In a New York Times article Sherry Turkle describes an alarming drop in empathy amongst children and youth. Then she writes:

But we are resilient. The psychologist Yalda T. Uhls was the lead author on a 2014 study of children at a device-free outdoor camp. After five days without phones or tablets, these campers were able to read facial emotions and correctly identify the emotions of actors in videotaped scenes significantly better than a control group. What fostered these new empathic responses? They talked to one another. In conversation, things go best if you pay close attention and learn how to put yourself in someone else’s shoes.

Resiliency is not limited to humans, it is found throughout God’s creation. I saw this in another student’s reflection a couple weeks ago. Eric Miller visited a Kansas farmer as part of an act-observe-reflect-adjust assignment. Eric retells the farmer’s story from a recent seven-year drought.

One August morning he walked out of the house and it was already uncomfortably hot as the sun began to rise. He thought about his 2,000 acres of crops and his ten irrigation pivots which were each pumping 1000 gallons per minute out of the Equs Beds Aquifer. It was in that moment he started to call into question the sustainability of these methods where much of the crops grown in our state are consumed by animals so we can consume the animals. When I asked him about the future, he said without missing a beat, “We’re going to run out of water. It’s not a matter of if, it’s a matter of when.”

 He is currently in process of transitioning a quarter section (160 acres) back to grass and grazing his cows on it. This is only possible because there is now a growing market for grass-fed beef. He is also planting cover crops all winter and using the cover crops as mulch in which he plants grain in the spring. These methods have allowed him to use one tenth of the water he had been using! The young man who is working alongside him and in process of taking over the farming operation has hired a crop consultant who is helping them move away from monocultural farming methods in order to reduce the amount of herbicides and pesticides needed, which in turn reduces input costs and increases profitability. At one point in our conversation he told me, “Kansas was meant to be prairie. At some point it will need to return to Prairie.” Their crop consultant is helping them consider how to use the natural gifts of the prairie to produce food in the most sustainable ways. 

Little things matter. They are worth doing. Of course one could say, “this is a huge farm these are not little things—that is a lot of cover crop.” True, but the huge ramifications that flow from small changes still led me to think, “little things matter.” There is hope.

It is not just in growing food that little things matter, also in eating it. One student described radical life-giving changes that flowed from his avoiding sugar in his diet. Little things matter. They can bring positive changes to our lives. And little things matter not just in what we eat, but also in the setting, the meal itself. This semester a few students wrote of making the commitment to prepare meals at home and eat together around a table for the week the course focused on food and farming. As students have observed other years, this contributes to so much more than intake of healthier food. They describe increased laughter, connection, sharing. The relational impact from this simple change exceeded expectations. Little things matter.

As we seek to name others, little things matter—a question, looking someone in the eyes. Last week a woman told me of a vivid memory from a few years ago. She was sitting with her husband and another man—all three were in leadership roles in ministry. She recounted that her husband brought up a controversial Rob Bell book. She said, “so I braced myself for a long theological discussion where my brain wanders but my face pretends to listen attentively. My husband casually mentioned that I also had read the book and at the next pause in conversation the other man looked at me and asked, ‘What did you think about it?’ This small question spoke volumes. I’ve been in Christian settings and leadership positions for many years, and I remember this as the first time someone specifically and genuinely asked for my thoughts. It was one of those revealing moments that was disappointing because it shed light on how often I’m not asked questions–especially when my husband is around–but it also was an incredibly beautiful moment.” Little things matter.

How have you gained hope and been encouraged by seeing God use little things in your life or ministry? What little things might God be calling you to do?

Posted on November 27, 2017 .

From Sabotage to Collaboration: A Factory’s Dramatic Shift from a Bounded to Centered Approach

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Guest Blog by Nathan Hunt

Back in the ‘70s, one of Frito Lay’s production plants received a rash of angry letters from customers with same bizarre complaint: their potato chips had obscene messages written on them. As leadership in the company assessed the situation at the plant, it quickly became obvious that this was just one more symptom of a very unhealthy workplace. “The climate at that plant was toxic. Supervisors there were using the traditional ‘progressive-discipline’ system for all violations, serious or trivial. They eagerly wrote up troublemakers in an attempt to run off malcontents. Every employee who received any disciplinary contact was considered a ‘troublemaker;’ his performance was attentively watched with the goal of finding sufficient evidence of misbehavior to whisk him through the discipline system and out the door” (Grote, 1). Plant managers had fired 58 of their 210 employees in the past eight months, convinced that harshly punishing any minor break from “the rules” was the best way to improve their employees’ quality of work. Not surprisingly, it had done exactly the opposite. All this led to pent up frustrations, staggeringly low morale and the desire to somehow “get back” at their managers for being such jerks. In that spirit, one unnamed employee decided to take matters into his or her own hands and started writing the obscene messages on potato chips.

How do you fix issues as systemic as these? They could not just throw out or ignore all policies and rules. The company still needed to function efficiently and productively to stay in business. Dismissing these necessities would bankrupt the company and undermine any ability to accomplish their mission. Nonetheless, Frito Lay’s dysfunctional system for dealing with their employee’s mistakes and deviances was clearly at the heart of the problem.

They made a radical decision. Supervisors would treat employees like human beings worthy of respect. Frito Lay stated, “We created a system that focused on insisting that people take personal responsibility for their choices of behavior and conduct--a system that reflected our belief that every one of our employees, even our ‘troublemakers,’ was a mature, responsible, and trustworthy adult who would respond that way if we treated him that way” (2). Management learned to stop penalizing employees after every little infraction. Instead, they worked to cast a compelling cultural vision of what a true Frito Lay employee is like: honest, hardworking, supportive, etc. Deciding to work for Frito Lay was also a personal decision to value and embody those characteristics

A manager would remind the employee that they had decided for their self to live out Frito Lay’s values—it was something they personally desired to be. Together, the manager and employee would explore what barriers were keeping the employee from living up to their values, look for creative solutions and place the responsibility for those actions on the shoulders of the employee. If he or she continued to fall short of the company’s values, the employee would be given a paid day off. The day off was an opportunity to reflect on what the person wanted for their self and who they wanted to be. They could either return and live out the vision of the company or resign with the manager’s blessing. The decision was in their hands, and at all stages the goal was to cultivate everyone into the best possible person—not weed out the “troublemakers.”

After two years of using this approach, terminations at the plant dropped from 58 in an eight-month period to 2. Camaraderie returned among employees and with their supervisors. Production increased. “The plant was transformed” (24).

Christians and churches all over the world are attempting to transition away from the legalistic patterns that historically marked our approach to “sin.” Our religiosity and boundary making has embittered many of our own and alienated many more watching from the outside. Far too many proverbial “curse-word-covered potato chips” have been shipped out into the world by well-meaning congregations.

In reaction to our judgmental past, the temptation is to toss all the rules and standards out the window. It feels much more loving to listen to the sirens of American culture and remake ourselves into a fully open and unilaterally tolerant club, accepting everyone exactly as they are. However, a moment of reflection reveals that this approach also falls short. Just like Frito Lay, the Church has a mission. Theirs was making potato chips efficiently and profitably. Doing so required a particular caliber of employee, doing their very best to live out the company’s culture of excellence. The Church also has a mission. We have been called to be a worshiping and serving community, glorifying God and building for his Kingdom of shalom. Doing so requires people striving to model their life after Jesus.

A centered set approach to discipleship is not an “anything goes” paradigm, blithely disposing of the high ethical standards Jesus established through his teaching, ministry and self-sacrificing death. Rather, it asks us to dispose of the arbitrary rules that create unhelpful boundaries for determining righteousness, acknowledging that these do more to undermine than facilitate the Church’s collective quest for holiness. It asks us to shift from enforcing standards through the threat of punishment, to calling Christ-followers to take responsibility for their behavior accompanied by others offering loving support.

In place of rules and boundaries, we are called to gaze at the impossibly lofty vision of Christ on the cross and continually challenge one another to press toward him. We are called to treat people like adults who do not need carefully delineated rules and punishments to keep them in line. We are called to respect the dignity of each person. Doing so means allowing some to choose the journey and others to reject it, always ready to welcome them back with grace and point them toward Jesus.

What are ways the case study informs your thinking about and practice of a centered approach?

 

Posted on October 13, 2017 .

Act, Observe, Reflect, Adjust

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“I never realized….” “I will start…” “I saw something new about myself.” “I am going to change….” Phrases like these began showing up with much greater frequency in my students’ papers starting in the spring of 2011. Why the sudden increase in 2011? I can trace the answer to that question to a conversation at Bob Brenneman’s kitchen table in Vermont. Bob, a sociology professor, shared excitedly of the impact of a new assignment. He had his students fast from their phones for a day and during that time compose a hand-written letter. I borrowed the assignment from Bob—literally; I lifted the words from his syllabus. The depth of reflection and the commitment to life-change increased dramatically in comparison to the class response assignment I had previously used. Impressed, I began to think of other action-reflection assignments I could add to the Discipleship and Ethics course.

I will share a few lines from students’ reflections—to give you a feel for what excited Bob and I, but the main purpose of this blog is not to pass along information that others have learned. Rather, I write this blog to encourage you to use these same activities in your church, with your family, your small group, with clients you counsel, in youth group, in courses you teach, etc. I will begin by listing the five action-reflection assignments I use. Borrow them as I borrowed from Bob!  

 Act

The action assignments I now use are: a one-day cell-phone fast, composing and sending a handwritten letter, visiting a mall and thinking about it as a place of worship, a five day fast from television, watching TV commercials with a critical eye, and making a change in food purchasing or preparing for one week. Copied below are the actual assignments. Although they will need some adaptation for non-academic settings. It would be easy to do so.

One-day cell-phone fast

Choose a day in the week ahead for a fast from electronic communication (cell phone/mobile devices, e-mail, Twitter, Facebook and any other internet based forms of communication). You may choose the length of the fast, all day would be ideal, but less than that is acceptable. Sometime during your fast write a handwritten letter to someone you normally communicate with electronically and mail it/deliver it to them.  After you have written the letter write a two-part critical reflection. Part one: through the lens of class 6, reflect on your experience of the fast – including stating how long your fast was; you may want to utilize some of Erisman’s questions in your reflection. Part two: reflect on the experience of communicating through the handwritten, pen and paper medium what did you learn? It should be one page single-spaced and is due by class 7.

Mall visit

Spend an hour at a mall observing how it acts as a religious place of formation and worship. Liturgy and worship practices reflect what matters to us and shape us; they give us a vision for a way of life and call us to that way of life, invite our allegiance and obedience. What is the foundational narrative of the mall—its basic truths? What is its view of the human, of “sin”? What is the vision of the good life it calls us to? What kind of people does it want us to become? As you are at the mall seek to discern the “liturgies,” the “sermons,” the “worship” practices of the mall. How does it communicate its foundational narrative/basic truths and how does it seek to shape and call us to be the kind of people it wants us to be? Write a one page (single-spaced) analysis based on your observations. Answer the above questions. Integrate specific examples from the last question (How...?) into your answers to the other questions. (Idea borrowed from James K. A. Smith [Desiring the Kingdom, Baker Academic, 2009, 96-101]).

Watching TV commercials with a critical eye

Be a critical watcher of TV commercials this week. Take notes as you watch. What messages are communicated explicitly and implicitly? What are common themes and methods? How do they cohere with and conflict with the gospel and the Kingdom of God? Write a response letter reflecting on what you observed and learned. Send it to your friend and me before the next class.

Five-day TV and Internet Fast

Take a five day fast from T.V., videos and entertainment/news on the internet (You may continue to use internet based forms of communication like e-mail, but some break from that is encouraged as well). Write a response letter reflecting on the experience and what you observed and learned. Send it to your friend and me before the next class.

Food – do something different

The action part of the assignment is to do something different than your normal routine in relation to food. This is very open ended. Some possibilities include: shop at a farmers’ market, prepare meals at home, get a trial CSA box for one week and prepare meals based on what is in it, visit a farm and discuss issues that have come up in this class, invite others to join you for a meal, have a meal be part of a Bible study or other church event, plant some vegetables, exclude sugar or fast food for the week, volunteer at a food bank,  eat together as a family, etc. (you may already do some of these things, the idea is to do something that you do not normally do). Come to class prepared to report on what you did and reflect on what you observed and learned through the experience.

 Observe

The actions made all the difference. That was the new addition to the course. But all three elements evident in the assignments are necessary. For instance it is not the action of going to the mall that is significant. Many people do that all the time. Rather it is going with the intent to observe as these comments display:

“The Mall has a very specific idea about the type of person it wants you to become. It is one thing to be aware of that at some level—and a very good thing at that—but to be consciously aware of the mall’s myriad attempts at high-jacking your desires for its own purposes is something else. Going to the mall with the intention of being consciously aware of its liturgies is staggering.”

“As I walked through the mall with a life full of experiences of paying down credit cards, I realized that these stores which offer jewelry for ‘low financing.’ or the clothing store which offers introductory credit cards, were not trying to help better people’s lives or help them as a person but they were instead offering a false promise of a ‘better’ life.”

“I noticed in that moment how easily one can be drawn in to the promise of the good life.”

Similarly, we see ads on the TV and Internet all the time, but to stop and observe with intentionality is something else. The step of observation is important in relation to all the actions--even the ones that will be experienced as new and attention grabbing. As one student wrote, “Impressive how our view on things changes if we are more mindful of what is happening.”

Reflect

It is not, however, just to observe, but also to reflect. What do we learn about ourselves and society? What important issues does the action raise? The value of not just acting, but reflecting is evident in these comments:

 “I do think that I have a clearer understand of just how damaging this environment is for me. It is apparent how the mall as an entity aims to lead us in a direction that may in fact be opposite of where we need to be headed.”

“At the moment, movies are the background noise I hide behind. As I stepped into the silent evenings and quiet moments during the day when my work was done, many things I didn’t really want to think about or didn’t want to pray about but needed to were slapping me in the face constantly. My mind was free. No static. I was forced to think. Forced to pray. Forced to heal.”

“I realized how much time and energy I spent caring about what other people were doing on social media, instead of using that energy to focus on today and what I need to get done. I also realized how much social media makes me feel like I need to work harder to catch up to others, yet at the same time is stealing my time to get things done.”

“In my most consumed moments of social media and technology there are instances where I become aware that I am looking for something. I ask myself in that moment: what am I looking for? What do I need right in this moment that I think social media can fill? Is it friendship? A connection? Personal meaning? Motivation? Am I avoiding something? Am I seeking attention? Recognition?”

The depth of reflection flowing from these assignments encourages me and calls me to ponder with the students. Perhaps what I most enjoy, however, is the way students stumble into unexpected joy through the actions taken. For instance, one student’s family rather than grabbing fast food, committed to make all their suppers and eat them together at the table. He made some comments about healthier food—the sort of thing I had expected. But mostly he reflected on relationships and the way family dynamics changed, positively, through their eating together. Regularly students, after recounting their children’s resistance to joining in the TV/Internet fast, then describe in wonder the joy of the family playing games together.

Adjust

I do not require students to spell out specific applications, although writing this blog has led me to make changes in the assignments. I have added "adjust." It is a key question flowing from reflection: How will you adjust your life, what will you do differently? Yet, even without asking that question, the power of the experience frequently leads people to state: “I have decided to….” “I will start….” “I will stop…..”

How might you adapt and use these act-observe-reflect-adjust activities? I invite you to take a few moments and think of settings where you could use them. What are other action oriented learning activities related to themes of this website that you have used or can imagine using? (Please share them with the rest of us in the comment section.)

Posted on September 12, 2017 .