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Archive for July, 2009

What kind of world do we live in where a comedian is the most trusted man in America?

Time Magazine just did an online poll where Jon Stewart of Comedy Central’s The Daily Show was voted “the most trusted man in America”.  This is a title that was previously held by the long time news stalwart, Walter Cronkite.

Just think about that for a little bit.

Has the news industry degraded to the point where the real source of truth has become the court jester who pokes fun at the people who do “real news” for a living?  Maybe the fact that there is an entire industry built around news at all should be a clue.  There used to be a day when TV stations had news departments not because they made money for the station but because they garnered legitimacy and respect.  News used to always be an economic drain on a station, not an economic asset.  And then came along the advent of the cable news network, more commonly known as CNN.  Soon came an onslaught of entire channels devoted to the news, whether there actually was any news to report or not.  The effects of this were multi-faceted.  They now report on Michael Jackson with more time, energy and money than they did the Iranian election/revolution.  It has quickly become apparent that in order to stay afloat financially, all of these “news” networks have to take on all kinds of corporate sponsors with all kinds of special interests that ultimatley wind up affecting how they cover the news.

And Jon Stewart………well, he’s saying the emperor has no clothes.

Jon Stewart is saying what everyone else already knows: the news and those who report it are no longer worthy of our respect.  Now that’s not to say that Stewart isn’t beholden to advertisers, but rather they explicitly say who their sponsors are and publically recognize their own shameless ties to corporations.  The difference is that they’re upfront about the interests of those who pay for their shows rather than trying to pretend like their neutral.  Stephen Colbert has recently been working in sponsorship pitches directly into the show.  However, he does it in such a way that everybody knows what’s going on and, to some extent, pokes fun at the whole system.

I’ve talked about the impact of the Daily Show before on this blog.  If you’re interested, check it out here.

Now, granted, this is an online poll.  It even says at the bottom, “Poll results are not scientific and reflect only the opinions of those users who choose to participate”.  But still, there’s a grain of truth here that probably shouldn’t be ignored.

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The question is not whether or not we are being shaped by technology.  The question is how.

Here’s the latest presentation from Mike Wesch.  For those of you who don’t know, he’s a cultural anthropology professor at Kansas State.  He does really cool stuff like has his classes study the culture of Youtube.  Definitely check out his other stuff.  It’s profound.  Anyways, in this one he’s starting to sound a lot like the people at AMBS who have been studying the impact of technology on our lives and our church.  This is definitely worth the time.

I would also like to see him engage the question of religion and spirituality within the youtube culture.  But that might be a different discussion.

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Below is a post that I also posted to the Young Anabaptist Radicals blog.

First things first.  Being Mennonite has nothing, repeat NOTHING, to do with ethnicity.  Being Mennonite, or any other version of Anabaptism, has to do with a particular understanding of faith, religion and God.

That being said, I offer the following observation on the use of the term “ethnic” within the Mennonite Church.

One one hand: I am an “ethnic” Mennonite.

I grew up in central Kansas.  Within a 50 mile radius from the Hesston/Newton area there were over 100 different Mennonite settlements.  Each of these groups came from various parts of Europe during the 1860’s to 1890’s.  They could hardly be described as a homogeneous group, even though today they all happen to all be seen as white/european/Americans.  To be fair, the central Kansas Mennonites are also not the same as the northern Indiana Mennonites, which are not the same as the east coast Mennonites.  Nevertheless, I grew up knowing that I was part of a group known as “ethnic” Mennonites.  In my childhood consciousness that meant, primarily, that we ate weird food, had weird last names, kept track of genealogy to the 14th generation, had grandparents that spoke German and a variety of other things.  Above all, however, the term “ethnic Mennonite” referred specifically to a group of white people who emigrated from Europe to the United States.

On the other hand: I am not an “ethnic” Mennonite.

While the origins of Anabaptism, and thus the Mennonite church, come out of a Northern European context, the Mennonite church has begun to deal with the changing racial landscape of the churches that make up it’s constituency.  (The effectiveness  and completeness of this integration should certainly be discussed further at a later date)  In the struggle to describe the different parts of our church we have settled, intentionally or unintentionally, on the term “racial/ethnic” to describe the non-white parts of the Mennonite church.  The term “racial/ethnic” is somewhat of a catchall term that is not fantastically specific by any means.  “racial/ethnic” simply seems to mean “not-white”.  As far as I can observe, from my viewpoint as a white male, the use of the term “racial/ethnic” does not really allow for a nuanced understanding of the differences and tensions within and between the various cultural groups that get lumped into this category.  For example, the term “racial/ethnic” neglects the various shades within the Hispanic communities in the church.

I offer these observations simply to name a phenomenon that I’ve noticed.  I’m not making an value judgment on the use of “ethnic” in either sense.  I simply find it interesting.  I also do not yet know what it means to have the same word used in very different ways.  So, I ask you all; does this actually matter?  What are the implications of the use of this word?  Is it worth being more specific in our language?  If so, how do we go about changing the use of it?

Thoughts?

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I’m still kind of shocked at the differences between pastors and people in the pews.  A couple of years back when I was at seminary, Conrad Kanagy stopped by to present some of the information on his study of MCUSA.  Specifically of interest was his analysis of the differences between pastors and lay people in a wide range of areas.  Some of them are quite striking.  I was working on some stuff on youth and religion and came across this article on the Mennonite website where he articulates many of the diferences.  I’ve included the full text below.  It’s worth a read.  I’d be interested to hear from you all in the comments section what this might mean in your context at your church.

Pastors and lay people

Mennonite Member Profile 2006 was sent to a sample of 500 active and active-without-charge ministers in Mennonite Church USA. Sixty-five percent of these ministers responded to the survey. What have we learned about Mennonite pastors and how they compare to lay members?

Childhood socialization:
Differences between pastors and lay members show up early in life. Pastors attended church more regularly as children than members—96 percent attended weekly, compared with 87 percent of members. Pastors (59 percent) are more likely to identify a “specific moment” when they accepted Christ as Lord and Savior compared with members (49 percent). And pastors were baptized earlier in their lives—at 12.5 years of age on average, compared with 13.9 for members.

Demographics: The average age of pastors and members is the same (54 years), and pastors are as likely as members to have “other than Mennonite” backgrounds. But pastors differ substantially in educational levels, with 75 percent having a college education, compared with 38 percent of members. Pastors are much more likely to have had a Mennonite education than members, with 30 percent attending a Mennonite high school (17 percent of members), 35 percent graduating from a four-year Mennonite college or university (19 percent of members) and 40 percent graduating from a Mennonite seminary (2 percent of members).

Spirituality: Indicators of spirituality among ministers are higher than among members. Sixty-eight percent of pastors report that their religious beliefs are the “most important thing in their life,” compared with 44 percent of members. Eighty-one percent of pastors describe their relationship with God as “close” or “very close,” compared with 67 percent of members. And 87 percent of pastors identify themselves as “born again,” compared with 78 percent of members.

Theology: Pastors tend to select “middle” responses when asked about theological beliefs, likely reflecting their understanding of the complexity of theological issues. While a majority of members (51 percent) believe that “God controls most events in my daily life,” more pastors (64 percent) chose a different response—“God guides me but does not control the events of my daily life.”

When asked why Jesus died on the cross, members (84 percent) were more likely than pastors (64 percent) to say that “Jesus had to die to complete God’s plan of salvation.” Responding to the same question, pastors (24 percent) were more likely than members (9 percent) to say that “Jesus willingly died to show the power of nonviolent love.”

The Holy Spirit: Pastors are more like racial/ ethnic members in their experiences of the Holy Spirit than are other members. Seventy-seven percent of pastors believe the charismatic gifts of the Holy Spirit are “genuine gifts of God’s Spirit to some Christians,” compared with 61 percent of members. And 66 percent of pastors (compared with 44 percent of members) have personally experienced charismatic gifts, including casting out demons, speaking in tongues, prophesying, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and healing. Forty-six percent of pastors state that these experiences have been within the past year.

Politics:
Pastors are often more politically liberal than members and more concerned about issues of social justice. Pastors are evenly divided between political parties (29 percent identifying with each party) compared with members, who are far more likely to be Republican than Democrat. More pastors choose “Independent” (27 percent) than do members (15 percent).

Pastors are more aware of issues of racism in the church and more supportive of efforts to overcome these, with 41 percent saying it is “very important” that church leaders discuss and address issues of racism, compared with 28 percent of members.

Mennonite Church USA:
The commitment to and connections within Mennonite Church USA are stronger. Fifty-six percent of pastors said they will “always want to be a member” of Mennonite Church USA, compared with 48 percent of members. Twice as many pastors (35 percent) served in voluntary service, as did members (17 percent); while three times as many pastors (21 percent compared with 7 percent of members) served in an overseas assignment for three months or more.

Anabaptist identity:
In their religious identity, pastors are more likely to define themselves as Mennonite or Anabaptist—84 percent of pastors compared with 66 percent of members.
Sixty-one percent of ministers “completely agree” that “nonviolence as a way of living is very important to me,” compared with 40 percent of members, and 51 percent of pastors completely agree that it is “wrong for Christians to fight in any war” compared with 32 percent of members.

Seventy-two percent of pastors “completely disagree” that “the U.S. did the right thing by going to war against Iraq” compared with 46 percent of members who disagree.

Pastoral priorities: Pastors and members differ in their understanding of what should be the priorities of pastors. When asked to check the three highest priorities, members most often affirmed preaching sermons (46 percent) and providing pastoral counseling and care (32 percent). While pastors also affirm preaching as the highest priority, they also see “shaping the congregation’s vision” (42 percent) and “equipping members for ministry” (41 percent) as other top priorities.

Racial/ethnic pastors:
Mennonite Member Profile 2006 included a small sample of 37 racial/ethnic pastors (24 percent African American, 5 percent Asian, 5 percent Native American, 57 percent Latino/Hispanic, and 5 percent other). Some of the findings among these pastors include the following:

• 72 percent said their religious beliefs are the most important thing in their life;
• 44 percent were baptized in an “other than Mennonite” church;
• 89 percent call themselves “born again”;
• 89 percent believe that the charismatic gifts are genuine gifts of God’s Spirit;
• 64 percent say they will always want to be a part of their denomination;
• 71 percent believe it is very important that leaders and staff of church-related agencies reflect racial/ethnic diversity.

Conclusion: While these differences between Mennonite ministers and members may come as a surprise to some, they are confirmed by other sociological studies of clergy and members. Undoubtedly these differences play out in congregational conflicts and in the challenges of providing effective pastoral leadership. However, the differences may be vital and even necessary for effective ministry and congregational growth. Where ministers and members are too much alike, congregations may have difficulty moving beyond the status quo.
While I do not analyze the root causes of the differences between pastors and members here, several factors may play a part in the shaping of pastors:

• Earlier childhood religious and church experiences within which God’s call is felt more deeply.
• More education, particularly higher levels of Mennonite education.
• Stronger connections in the denomination and the broader Mennonite church.
• More service experiences, particularly abroad.
• Deeper encounters with human need and spiritual realities in the context of pastoral care.

Understanding the differences between pastors and members is important. For pastors, clarity about these differences may provide a helpful perspective when working through congregational conflicts and misunderstandings. For members, recognizing and validating their pastor’s distinctives could lead to greater empowerment of pastoral leadership and fulfillment of the congregation’s missional calling—communicating the good news of Jesus Christ across the street and around the world.

Conrad L. Kanagy is associate professor of sociology at Elizabethtown (Pa.) College and an ordained minister in Lancaster Mennonite Conference.

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It’ really not a comforting feeling to walk into a building and hear running water.

Sunday afternoon I was at the Shues house finishing up lunch and a great conversation.  I began to walk back home for a well deserved nap and decided to walk through the church because I had left my cell phone in my office.  As I walked toward the foyer I noticed the sound of running water and a huge puddle right outside the office.  I walked into the bathroom and the urinal was on and overflowing.  So I quickly called the Shues (fortunately a couple of their boys were home too) and a trustee and they came rushing over.  Brenda went downstairs to look for a mop and lo and behold the water had made it’s way into the basement.  You could have almost floated a boat down stairs.

So the cleanup began.  We had two shop vacs, mops, fans and dehumidifiers all pumping away.  Eventually everything got cleaned up.  The basement is still drying out today, but it’s doing pretty good today.  On the bright side, because of a fluke, we caught the mess after only a few short hours.  The other possibility would have been that the people who showed up for the funeral reception would have found it on Monday morning.  That would have been really bad.  As it is now, the worst that has happened is that we lost a few ceiling tiles and part of the carpet got cleaned.

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Amish Engineering.  Jimmy Rigged.  Duct Tape and Bailing Wire.  Whatever you call it, most farms would not be able to function without it.

I just stumbled upon a great blog called “There, I Fixed it.” It’s dedicated to all of those amateur engineers out there who made it work, even if the probably shouldn’t have.  Below are a couple of pictures but I highly recommend checking out the whole website.  It’s really quite amazing.  Hopefully nobody recognizes their own handiwork.

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It’s not that often that you have really life changing experiences.  In the past ten years or so, I seem to always have one or two when I attend the national convention of Mennonite Church USA (MCUSA).  Ten years ago to the week I was a high schooler at St. Louis 99 and received probably the most clear and amazing call to ministry that I’ve ever really had.  In more recently years it’s been amazing to take youth back to convention and to watch God work in their lives.  The wide eyed first timers are always the best.

This year was no exception.  I was really the only person from our group who had been to a convention, or at least multiple conventions.  After the first day it was apparent that most of the kids didn’t really know what they were getting into.  By 11:00 at night they just wanted to crash.  It was probably more emotional overload than anything, but that’s kinda what we’re going for here.  A number of the kids were really challenged in their own understandings of the faith and what it means for their lives.  It was really fantastic to watch unfold.

What I didn’t really expect was how convicted I became on a couple of issues.  One of which is economic justice.  Among others, Shane Claiborne really has continued to push me to question my role in our economic system.  I am at a pivotal point in my life where I have the opportunity to make some interesting and drastic decisions regarding how I want to live the rest of my life economically and I’ve been thinking a lot about the decisions that I will shortly be making.  More importantly, I’ve continued to question the entire economic system as a whole and the vast disparities that it creates.  While this has been a growing thought for me, coming back from Columbus has continued to push me to say that addressing the inequalities of our system is really not about giving more to the food bank.  It’s about rethinking the entire system, and our place in it.  Even more importantly, I’ve come more to the conviction that these inequalities arise because we are so separated from people who are different than us.  Even in Harper, it’s possible to live you life not really knowing anyone who is different than you are.

And then George stopped by.

The week before I left for Columbus one of the other pastors in town came by with a guy who was backpacking (hitchhiking) across the country.  His name was George and he wanted to know if he could pick up trash around the church yard in return for a couch to sleep on.  I was a little taken aback at first and mumbled, “um…um…ok”  I then called one of the elders and double checked that it would be alright, sent the guy downstairs and then finished up the second meeting that I needed to go to that night.

After I got out of the meeting a strange thing happened; I kept hearing this voice in the back of my head saying very clearly and loudly, “i was a stranger and you welcomed me”.  He had asked if we had any food so I ran to the quick shop and picked up some basic supplies and made George supper and took it down to him at the church.

By the end of the night I wound up having a 3 hour conversation with George and didn’t get home until midnight.  That conversation was an amazing one.  I heard more of the Gospel preached from an agnostic homeless man than I’ve heard preached in many of our churches in a long time.

In our conversation said to me, “Alan, I’ve been all over this country and the grip that materialism has on our country is killing us.”  He said, “Alan, you wouldn’t believe the domestic abuse and dysfunction that exists all over this land but especially in the churches that I’ve stayed at.”  He said, “Jesus was really amazing, if only the people in the churches would actually follow what Jesus taught.”

I know without a shadow of a doubt that one night in June of 2009, I had a conversation with Jesus.

That’s what I mean when I say that we’re being called to something more.  That’s what I mean when I say we need to rethink the entire system that our country operates on.  If we come to invest our lives with the “other”, the people who are different than us then maybe, just maybe, will we be able to see the world in a different way.

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