Saturday, May 26, 2012

social media + ministry: seven practices

A few thoughts on the use of social media and ministry: 

1.  Rhythm of life.  If you use a smartphone, and spend a great deal of time with a laptop, you soon find yourself being accessible to a much greater extent to people.  I learned over time that I needed to create boundaries for myself, so here they are:  I do not look at my smartphone early in the morning or late at night; in fact, I try to read email or facebook and twitter updates only after I have been awake for about thirty minutes.  This allows me to spend time first in some kind of spiritual practice---this year, I am reading four chapters of the Bible each day and 15 verses of the Koran.  Then I make the coffee.  Then I turn on Morning Joe or Up With Chris.  Then I look at the smartphone.  I have also come to the sense that it is not productive to respond to email later at night; I am not rested, and this is prime time to encounter the frustrations of others.  I would rather read and respond in the morning, when I am mentally fresher (and perhaps they are as well) and when I can follow up with a phone call if needed.

2.  Facebook.  I enjoy Facebook.  For me the positives far outweigh the negatives, and I can discipline myself to spend brief amounts of time there.  FB has allowed me to reconnect with friends from almost every season of my life: high school and college, seminary and graduate school, each congregation along the way.  Along the way I have come to a few boundaries that work for me:  I don't have FB friends who are not adults, I don't ask to be FB friends of persons I am supervising, I hide the posts of people who are blatantly, consistently and harshly political (the culture wars wear very thin after awhile) and I don't play any of the games or join any of the lists that require the sharing of private information.  Given these guidelines, I enjoy connecting with people who have all kinds of interests.  It is a great way to point readers toward blog posts, or books or music or restaurants; it is an easier way to come to know more introverted people; and it is a wonderful way to wish friends a happy birthday. 

3. Twitter.  It is easy to ridicule Twitter, but again the individuals shapes his or her use of this tool.  Here is mine.  I follow people and sources that interest me: my feed is eclectic, from the Atlanta Braves to Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times to Partners in Health in Haiti to Chris Thile.  It is a great way to find resources that are helpful, interesting and fun.  If I stay away for awhile, no problem: the feed simply flows along and I catch up to it, and contribute to it, as I am able.  I would also add that Twitter is perfect for an event that is in process, like the United Methodist General Conference or an Atlanta Braves game.  And it is amazing what you can communicate in 140 characters!

4.  Blogging.   I have been blogging for several years.  When I served as a local church pastor I would post my sermons; now I write more generally about the church and culture.  I have learned over time to keep blog posts to a briefer word length, and I use Twitter and Facebook to alert folks to new blog posts.  As an intellectual exercise blogging has helped me to clarify my thoughts on a number of issues and point friends and readers to a variety of resources that are worth knowing about.  I have also blogged intentionally within a few distinct communities:  Christian Century, Day 1, and No Depression (a roots music website).  It is a nice form of self-expression, and I should note here that I enjoy reading the blogs of a few others.

5.  E-Mail.  My general rules:  I don't feel compelled to respond to e-mail to which I am copied; I assume that if I write something by e-mail it may be shared without my permission with a crowd of people; briefer is better; e-mail is not a helpful method for dealing with conflict; and most e-mail is not urgent.  For younger adults text messaging has replaced e-mail.

6.  Generations.  I realize that different generations use social media in diverse ways.  Most people my age (54) who are parents go on Facebook for one primary reason: to see pictures of their children.  At the same time, I know that our children restrict our access to their sites, and that is fine.  It is their world.  I did not ask either of our children to be FB friends; they offered.  FB and Twitter were first inhabited by younger adults, and then over time boomers have entered in (this is not so different from so-called "contemporary worship").  And so younger adults will likely find new spaces to create and inhabit in the world of social media.

7.  Connecting and Disconnecting.  I close with a reference, again, to boundaries.  I find that it helps me to have particular times when I disconnect from social media; for example, when I am driving and when I am sharing a meal with someone.  When I served local churches I disconnected from the smartphone on Sunday afternoons, and I would recommend this (at least for significant stretches of time) on sabbaths and days off from work.  Disconnecting from social media does create time and space for other pursuits: reading scripture or novels, writing in a journal, having a conversation with family or friends.  I know that iPads and Kindles are the media for reading books, and iPhones are tools to have conversations with family and friends in other places.  I am supporting the general principle that disconnecting from technology creates space for our attention to the wider world (creation) and time to pursue hobbies (like gardening or playing music) or simply being still. Connecting is fun, and perhaps even essential if we are going to be a part of the conversation,  but disconnecting, on occasion, is necessary.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

we get more of what we focus on

In the aftermath of the United Methodist General Conference we are both making sense of the implications and beginning to move into the future.  It would be possible to continue the kind of point-counterpoint that is playing itself out, or to lament the particular changes to which we object as individuals.  This is a continuation of the arguments voiced on the floor of the convention center in Tampa, and it serves some purpose, chiefly self-expression. 

There is another way forward and that is to transition into our leadership roles, to refocus on our places of mission and ministry, and to reconnect with the actual human need in the communities where we live.   When we shift our attention, I am convinced, we are actually positioned to make a difference in a world awaiting transformation.  The following seem possible areas of fruitful engagement:

1.  An intervention with young adults.  With a major allocation of resources for lay and clergy young adult leadership development over the next four years, we have the opportunity to create a significant initiative that will bear fruit for decades to come.  I am hopeful that young adults will help to create this, and that the pool of young adults will represent the theological and political diversity of our churches across the U.S.  I am also grateful for pastors like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter, who have already done significant work with young clergy,  newer general secretaries like Kim Cape and Thomas Kemper who are ready to move in a fresh direction, college presidents like Cam West, who has turned an institution back toward the church, academics like Jason Vickers and Phil Amerson, who have reflected deeply on the renewal of our tradition, and bishops like Grant Hagiya, who have tremendous gifts in the study and practice of leadership.  Our denomination is blessed with a network of excellent colleges and universities  and we can access resources from them to help us engage an emerging generation.   The focus must not be on intramural fighting about denominational polity or representation; it must be shaped by an external focus that connects the gospel of Jesus Christ with the human hurts and hopes that exist outside our ecclesial structures, and leads to an integrated grasp of vocation or calling to serve wherever we are. 

2.  Mission/Evangelism is local.  The strength of the Call to Action was its core idea:  to redirect resources toward the creation of healthy and vital congregations.  This was not our focus in Tampa but it can be our priority going forward, and annual conferences are actually better positioned to work on this than the general church.  The more local our focus, the more we are in touch with the rich diversity of people who live in our communities.  We are blessed with a number of models, from within United Methodism (here I am thinking of Elaine Heath and Robert Schnase, for example) and beyond (the missional, emergent and new monastic movements), and the basic idea--that we are called to create new places for new people----is simple enough to implement and flexible enough to call forth the gifts of very different leaders.  And so leaders (bishops, activists, structural strategists, lay leaders, young adults, pastors) can return to the places where we really live and begin to do work in our spheres of influence around the matters that are compelling to us.  Actions in Tampa would not have made us more inclusive, at the local level, or more vital, at the congregational level.  If the mission is going to happen, it will take place "on the ground". 

3.  Theology matters.  As I noted in an earlier post, we can and must rediscover a robust theology of grace.  This is much more than an academic exercise.  Prevenient grace grounds our conviction that all people are created in the image of God and matter to God.  Repentance calls us to confession and humility.  Justifying grace calls us again and again to the truth that salvation is a gift, not our work, given to us through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Sanctifying grace is a life devoted to the love of God and neighbor, working itself out in personal (and not impersonal) and social (and not anti-social) holiness.  Our gift to the individual seeker and to a jaded and degraded society is the fullness of God's grace and holiness.  Without the fullness of this way of salvation we degenerate into political interest groups obsessed with issues; without a posture of grace we do not have the resources to discuss with civility, to discern our positions with humility, to see our neighbor or our enemy with dignity, or to be patient in the long journey toward the beloved community.   Without the fullness of grace, our actions, no matter how well intentioned, do not glorify God.  Every local church would benefit from a serious engagement with the meaning of grace in our everyday, ordinary lives.

The performances at General Conference revealed that we are a broken church, and that in "plundering the Egyptians" we have mastered the political tactics of a broken world.  But now I am reflecting on an insight from appreciative inquiry:  "we get more of what we focus on" (see Philippians 4. 8-9).   As United Methodists we have gifts that we can offer to the world, gifts embedded in our congregations, in our structures, in our institutions, but mostly in our people.  A revival of mission begins when we focus on the world that is our parish, and share the gift of Jesus Christ.  As we move into the future, this will be the way that leads to life.

Friday, May 11, 2012

general conference, united methodists and the grace we need

A few days ago the General Conference in Tampa concluded.  Like other delegates I made my way home, began to process what had happened, and struggled to articulate to others what the outcomes actually were.  Looking back, there is relatively little to show for our two weeks there.  I have suggested that the conference was no more intense or fractured than the previous two (2004, 2008); this conference was marked by the parallel conversation in social media, especially twitter, and so many saw the church at work in a new way.  The transparency is good, but perhaps the disillusionment that comes upon some is an inevitable result of the wider access.

Many have summarized General Conference, and this is certainly not the last or the ultimate word.   It may be, however, a word that has not been spoken, and therefore it may help.  I hope so.

We are Christians because God's grace, for some mysterious reason, is at work in our lives (Ephesians 2).  And our work as a United Methodist General Conference is shaped by our understanding of the grace of God.  Some in the body expressed a theology that included prevenient grace and social holiness, and little else.  Others grounded their speech in justifying grace and personal holiness, and little else.  We were each convinced that we knew the mind of God, but of course our knowledge was and is incomplete (I Corinthians 13).  And of course we were usually talking past one another.

Some have asked if we did in fact mimic the political divisions of our cultures and the answer must be yes.  Our default way of being together was primarily sociological:  we saw and heard each other first in this way.  This was reinforced by much of the worship, whose dominant theme was ourselves in relation to each other, with relatively little place for the transcendent, the One who stands in judgment upon us and is at the same time the source of abundant grace and blessing.

Our sociological divisions were sometimes cast in theological terms---for a time we struggled with an interpretation of the prodigal son--- but at times they were blatant, as with the request to see the skin color of a petition's author, as if identification as a child of God, or membership in the United Methodist Church, or authorization to serve as a delegate were not sufficient.

Still, the theological inadequacies are of greater concern to me, and they are an obstacle to any movement beyond our present impasse.  The one thing necessary is a full and complete embrace of the grace of God---present in every person, regardless of belief or practice, yes; calling forth our humility, repentance, confession and profession in One Lord, yes; bearing fruit in holy personal lives that do not conform to the world, yes; and breaking down walls of prejudice and bigotry, yes.

Yes to all of God's grace. That we cling to the piece of the whole that satisfies or justifies us displays a lack of faith in the One to whom the church really belongs, and leads to a lack of trust in each other, especially across the red and blue states that compose the cultural map of the U.S., not to mention God's wider world.

Until we begin to reflect on, rejoice in, return to the grace of God and sense that this gift is our only hope, we will continue to do violence---and there really is no other word that fits here----to each other at General Conference. Until then we will choose our issues----structure or sexuality, representation or resources---and see ourselves in the role of victim, and that is a logical outcome in a political process where there are inevitably winners and losers.  At General Conference 2012 there were no winners; only losers.

We believe, God.  Help our unbelief.