Tuesday, May 19, 2009

who needs the church/the wisdom of crowds

In recent days our congregation has experienced a number of difficult deaths, significant illnesses, economic dislocations. I want to connect what the gospel might mean for us in this particular circumstance. And I want to stay close to the scriptures along the way.

John’s epistle strikes a continuing refrain: to love God is to keep the commandments of God. Two weeks ago I mentioned a young woman named Lauren Winner, who teaches at Duke Divinity School. In Mudhouse Sabbath, she reflects on what Judaism meant and continues to mean to her from the perspective of a conversion to Christianity. She writes, “practice is to Judaism what belief is to Christianity”. To love God is to keep the commandments, to repeat the basic practices of the faith.

I want to ask a question: how many of you have ever awakened on a Sunday morning and you did not feel like going to church? We do the practices, not because we always feel like doing them, but because they are, in the words of John Wesley, the ordinary channel of God’s grace, the stream by which God’s mercy flows. As Lauren Winner writes, “your faith might come and go, but your practice ought not waver.”

This goes against the grain of our culture. I recently listened to someone talk about a fundamental change in our culture. Imagine that a young person loves classical music, goes to I-tunes on the Internet, and downloads a few favorite pieces. Now contrast that with the following: a child is given an instrument, first the parent may have found her way to a music store, or consulted with a teacher or a friend about a particular instrument; a child is given an instrument, and then the parent locates a music teacher, who will help the child to learn; at some point the child may meet others who play the same instrument, or the child may play with a group of other musicians who are learning.

At some point the group may perform in some public setting, and so friends and family show up to hear the music, and in the process they come to appreciate it. The child, along the way, progresses. Maybe the child, along the way, hears a master musician who plays his instrument, hears a piece that he has come to know, but in a whole new way. It may that in the beginning the child did not really want to do all of this. But over time the child is actively engaged in creating music. In time, the child, who might be an adult now, may grow to love music.

To love God is to engage in a specific set of practices. In our church, we use the language of radical hospitality----welcoming people into the house of God, as Brandon Lewis did each Sunday; and intentional faith development----learning about who God is and what God wants of us; and passionate worship-----giving thanks and praise to God, not for our own sakes but for God’s glory; and risk-taking mission and service---stretching out our hands to those in need; and extravagant generosity: blessing others out of our own abundance.

These practices help us to love God and our neighbor. As John writes to the first believers, we cannot have one without the other. And these practices cannot be carried out in our own strength: apart from me you can do nothing, Jesus says, just as a branch draws its strength from the vine, just as the tree draws its life when it is planted by a stream of living water (Psalm 1).

In our own strength, we waver in the practice. We say we love God, but to love God is to keep the commandments, and to keep the commandments is to engage in a specific set of practices: inviting a neighbor to church; Disciple Bible Study; singing in the Chancel Choir; serving at Room In The Inn; tithing 10% of your income.

We cannot continue to carry out these practices in our own strength. We need the help of God and we need each other. The proverb is correct, “it takes a village”, and John Wesley wrote, “I shall endeavor to show that Christianity is essentially a social religion, and that to turn it into a solitary religion is to destroy it.”

But again, this goes against the grain of our culture, which is more about the individual. This year Michael Marsicano and the Foundation for the Carolinas brought a fascinating speaker, James Surowiecki, to Charlotte. He is the author of The Wisdom of Crowds, a wonderful book that explores a very simple idea----that there is more wisdom in a group of people than in the brightest individual, that a large group is smarter than the person with the most education and credentials. He makes the point in a number of ways, the most memorable being about the series “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire?”

Imagine that there is a lot of money at stake, and you have a multiple-choice question with four possible answers, and you are stumped, you don’t know the answer. You have three options: two of the four answers can be removed. This gives you a 50% percent chance of being right. Or you can phone an expert, someone you have chosen who is really intelligent. The data suggests that this person gets the right answer about 65% of the time. There is one other option. You can ask the audience, a random group of people who showed up to watch the game show. Can you guess how often they are right? 91 % of the time.

We are sometimes inclined to think that we know it all, and yet there is wisdom in the crowd. But for our purposes it is not only about being smart or intelligent; it is more basic than that. It is about our need to be connected to others. We are at the beginning of a strategic planning process, as a church, and we have heard in feedback from our congregation that our greatest positive strength is the support people receive from and give to each other.

There was a heresy in the early church which insisted that religion was all about having a secret knowledge (this was popularized in the DaVinci Code, for example). But the first letters that circulated among the early church, and some argue that John was written as one of the earliest gospels, came from a different direction. To know about God is important. But to love God: that is the essence…but that is not all of it!

Love one another, Jesus says, as I have loved you. The theme of love is prominent in John’s Gospel, and in the letters of John: For God so loved the world; God is love; I give you a new commandment, that you love one another; since God loved us so much, we ought to love one another.

John defines love as communion, the experience of community. A significant obstacle to community is individualism, well documented by the sociologist Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone, whose simple but astute observation is that more people are bowling than ever before, but fewer people are involved in bowling leagues; We are bowling, but we are bowling alone. More of us are downloading or listening to classical music, but fewer people are playing it, or showing up to hear it. Interestingly, this work appeared prior to the onset of social networking and virtual relationships, trends that would seem only to reinforce his point.

In the gospel we discover that Jesus is the vine, we are the branches, and so we are connected. The life that flows from the vine into the branches is a life of love. There are no individual, solitary Christians. We are grafted into each other, into the tree of life, to use another image from scripture, into the body of Christ, to use yet another. I cannot be a Christian without you, and you cannot be a Christian without me. For some reason God designed it all in just this way.

This has multiple meanings for us. In the 8:30 service we share Holy Communion together, an activity that includes giving and receiving, tasting and touching. In each service we celebrate the strength and blessing of United Methodist Women in our church---the connection within the circles, the outreach to those beyond us. And at 11:00 we will commission 19 people for service in Haiti next week, a reminder that the branches that grow in northern Haiti and in North Carolina draw their life from one source, from one vine.

And so a part of our conversion is into the communion, the body, the believers, the household of God. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, writing from a Nazi prison cell, reflects on the communion that we share with each other, and on our temptation to take our life together for granted:

It is true that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed.

Therefore, let the one who until now has had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God’s grace from the bottom of his heart. Let us thank God on our knees and declare: it is grace, nothing but grace that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters”.

Christianity, from the beginning, was never meant to be your private experience, or mine, your personal preference, or mine. For all kinds of reasons, we need the crowd; the crowd is the church, people who know us and love us and pray for us, but the crowd is also those who came before us, those believers who first heard the words of the gospel and letters of John, in the 1st century, and John Wesley, trying to make the gospel relevant in 18th century England, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, trying to make sense of the gospel in a Nazi prison cell. And maybe some of us are trying to make sense of this faith in light of what we are living through. For all kinds of reasons, we need the crowd.

We write these things to you, John says at the beginning of his letter, writing about the Risen Lord, we write these things to you so that you may have communion with us, friendship with us, and our communion, our friendship is with God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

If there is a God---and I have staked my life on this…if there is a God, I believe we come to know this God through Jesus Christ. And if this is true, I believe Jesus was clear that the wholeness of the faith in him was to love God and to love our neighbor. And if this is true, I believe it is impossible to do this alone, in our own strength.

So, we need the crowd. We need the church. May you know the love of God that flows through the vine, Jesus Christ. May your love for God find its expression in your desire to keep his commandments. And may your love for other people be a sign of your faith in the One who gives you strength. This faith, John says, is the victory that overcomes the world. Amen.

Sources: James Surowiecki, The Wisdom of Crowds. Lauren Winner, Mudhouse Sabbath. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together.


Blogger JMS said...

Hello Rev. Carter, I apologize for contacting you this way, but the email on your church site kept bouncing back.

My name is James-Michael Smith and I've served as the Pastor of Discipleship at Good Shepherd UMC for the past 5 years. We met a few years back when I was still in seminary and attended a lecture luncheon you hosted by Ben Witherington.

I wanted to let you know about some work I've been doing with the goal of Discipling as well as reaching out to the 18-35 year old Charlotte young adult demographic. I've been writing for the Examiner, and online op-ed newspaper, in the role of Charlotte Methodist Examiner (http://www.examiner.com/x-8276-Charlotte-Methodist-Examiner). My articles are short and meant to be intellectually challenging, but accessible by anyone, and are on a variety of topics.

I was wondering if you would be willing to take a look at some of them and help me spread the word throughout the conference and particularly the Charlotte District. I've stepped down from my position at GSUMC in order to pursue writing/teaching/speaking as well as Th.M and/or Ph.D studies in the near future. So any exposure I can generate through my Examiner articles is a huge help in the meantime--hopefully not just for me, but also for the UMC!

Thanks so much for any help you can give me in this. And if you know of any churches in the area who would be interested in having me come speak or teach please don't hesitate to let me know.

Be blessed,

2:13 PM  

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