Disciples today: communication

Several weeks ago, I started a series of blog posts based on a recent set of reflections I delivered about who Disciples are today, and who we may become in the future.  I am finally to the fifth of five areas I’m exploring about who Disciples are today – communication.

You can check out previous blog posts for reflections on congregational transformation, the growing diversity among Disciples, the economic recession, and a trend toward cooperation.  Next week, I’ll begin exploring what the future might look like for Disciples.

First, it’s essential to understand that it’s not just that we have new communication tools that we must learn how to employ for the sake of the Gospel today.  Something even more radical is happening.

Christians have always had to adapt to new tools of communication in order to get across the Gospel message in that day.  In ancient societies, oral history — the telling of stories — was the primary means of communication.  Jesus told parables, easy to remember stories with lessons.  In the Middle Ages when the vast majority of people were illiterate, visual tools became the means for teaching the Gospel.  The artisans of the great medieval cathedrals carved and painted the stories of the Bible to teach the populace about Jesus.  In our era, when video began to rival the written word for prominence, Christians started filming the message.

But some tools have done more than provide a new medium for the message.  Some tools over time have radically altered our ways of thinking and our patterns of behavior — our very understanding of and experience with our world and our faith.

When the printing press was invented around 1440 and the Bible was mass produced for the first time, this access to the Word of God changed the way people thought.  It rewired their brains, and I dare say, it even changed the message of the Gospel as it had been taught.  People who once understood their God only in the way conveyed to them by the priests who had exclusive access to sacred texts, when these people could read and understand such texts on their own terms, they began to ask questions about their world, and about themselves.  And about the church.  And the Protestant Reformation happened so thereafter, and changed the very way we think about God and the church and ourselves as people of God today. 

Something along the order of the invention of the printing press is happening today.  New technologies — the internet in particular — is not just a new tool for communication.  It is changing the way we actually think, the way our brains work.  And of course, it affects younger people more than older folks like us. 

Social networking, texting, email, Facebook, Twitter, websites, blogs, news sites.  One effect these technologies are having is a flattening of how we see the world, and how we find meaning in it.   The modern sensibilities of older generations would have us searching for universal truths, for overarching paradigms in which to organize and discern the meaning of our everyday lives.  But younger generations find the truth, the paradigms, the meaning, in a web of relationships that can stretch around the world.  They are adept at networking, at looking for others who are doing what they want to do, and pooling their insights and resources to do it better with them.  And they are not as protectionist as we have been (see previous post). 

Some examples of where this kind of new communication is occurring in the church, and how it is reshaping the church:

2009 General Assembly.  The tweeting, blog, up-to-date news reports, streaming video — all these technologies not only helped folks participate more dramatically regardless of whether they were present or not, but it also changed the General Assembly experience.  A “democratic back channel,” I called it in my September/October 2009 editorial in DisciplesWorld.

RSS feeds.  This service called, Really Simple Syndication, is now available for most every kind of online information out there, and it allows you to customize what kind of information you want coming to you computer or mobile device.  So, now you can choose to have Week of Compassion, DNS, DisciplesWorld news, and your regional news posts coming directly to you rather than having to go to all these different sites to find it.  Think customized church information.

DisciplesWorld’s the Intersection, and the news.  This is our new social networking site set up as a place where faith and life intersect through dialogue, conversation, and sharing.  News sharing is also the name of the game today.  Even the big players like the Washington Post and the smaller players like your local news stations are sharing their news gathering services.  You’ll see more and more of this, and it can’t help but bring us closer and make us more informed.

Developing your own resources.  We partner with International Disciples Women’s Ministries to publish a new magazine for women, Just Women.  Previously, the women used a resource that was more like a curriculum with step by step plans for leading sessions.  A magazine is different than a curriculum.  Rather than explicitly telling women how to lead their groups, a magazine provides topical articles and resources that can be accessed and customized for local groups in their own contexts.  This has not been a seamless shift in the practice of women’s ministries.  It relies on the expertise in the women’s groups as much as the expertise behind the publication. Very post-modern.  A new way of doing things.

Congregational transformation. As described in a previous post, this movement is really a networking movement rather than a program that has been launched by centralized experts.  This is the wave of the future. 

So, what do you think?  Where do you see, or do you see, places where these new modes of communication are not just being employed as new tools, but are actually changing the way the church thinks, behaves, functions?  And what is your assessment of it all?


Disciples today: recession and cooperation

We can’t view this snap shot of the church today without acknowledging how the economic recession has impacted the church’s collective life and individual lives within it. 

Several weeks ago, I started a series of posts based on a recent set of reflections I delivered about who Disciples are today, and who we may become in the future.  I am exploring five areas of who Disciples are today — 1) congregational transformation, 2) growing diversity among Disciples, 3) economic recession, 4) trend toward cooperation, and  5) communication — before looking to the future.

In this post, I’ll look at the recession, but also 4) the trend toward cooperation.

Disciples Mission Fund (DMF) — the outreach fund that supports general and regional ministries of the church — is down. Giving in 2008 was 3 percent lower than in 2007, and for the year 2009 through September, giving was down 7.19 percent.   

Every church organization I know, whether supported by DMF or not, has had to scale back their operating budgets this year, which has most often meant layoffs and salary cuts.  DisciplesWorld has not been immune to this; we had to eliminate one staff position in the Spring, and all other staff salaries were reduced by 3.8 percent for the year.  Cash flow is incredibly tight.

The financial pinch has accelerated many congregations’ journeys into transformation — whether going ahead and closing, or deciding to re-envision their mission. 

But maintaining the status quo in this economic environment is no longer possible.  Congregations just can’t do it anymore.  They may be in denial that they can no longer maintain the status quo, but they can’t do it.  They are either on the verge of closing, or they are deciding to re-imagine what they can do.

The fourth area of this snap shot — trend toward cooperation — is harder for me describe because it’s more of a feeling than it is something for which I have facts, quotes, and statistics to support.  But I think it’s worth naming.

I sense a growing openness among congregational clergy, regions, and general ministries, to working more cooperatively than Disciples ever have before.

Of course, we have worked cooperatively in the past.  We understand ourselves to be one church, whether in one expression of the church or another.  First Christian Church of Broken Arrow, OK, needs Week of Compassion, which needs the Pension Fund, which needs the Christian Church in Tennessee, which needs DisciplesWorld, which needs the Office of General Minister and President, which needs the church in the Congo …  You get my point.

But Disciples also have this history of protecting our independence from one another.  We have been accused of operating in silos of suspicion, doing our own thing while complaining about what others may or may not be doing.  In my position at DisciplesWorld the past six years, I’ve witnessed it first hand, and the damage it can do to the fellowship.

To describe this part of the snap shop is to also describe the real enmity that continues to exist between some Disciples leaders — congregational, regional, and general.  For example, in the past five years, there has been a painful struggle among regional and general staff regarding the distribution of Disciples Mission Fund receipts.  Some leaders accusing others of breaking covenant.  Others use our loose denominational structure to avoid accountability to the larger body.  I’ve even heard tell that some leaders use their positions to actively discourage subscriptions to DisciplesWorld because we have reported and commented upon this fractious problem.

But for a less cynical look at our church, this “autonomy” or independence, has also served us well.  It protected the larger church from the financial calamity that befell the National Benevolent Association a few years ago.  It allowed Disciples to ordain women long before other denominations saw fit to do so.  It means that congregations can be creative with new ideas and ministries, not having to pass a test of faith before moving forward. 

Perhaps it’s the financial crisis, perhaps it’s the newer generations of folks whose minds are wired differently (I’ll discuss that in the next post), but there seems to me to be a growing openness to cooperation and a willingness to sacrifice some of our protectionism in the name of helping the whole church flourish and grow.  We seem to be coming to a place where old baggage is more easily set down and left behind, so that we might prepare for the new, even if unknown, journey ahead of us. 

I can point to the processes around the Mission Alignment Coordinating Council that is bringing together some of those traditional silos to build relationships and find new, more cost effective, and perhaps more faithful ways of being in mission together.  I can point to the cooperation evident in many regional ministries, and across regional boundaries.  I can point to the new paths of communication that we’re exploring at DisciplesWorld.  But otherwise, it’s a feeling right now, one that I certainly hope proves to be accurate.

Disciples today: growing diversity

In the previous post, I started a series based on a recent set of lectures I delivered about who Disciples are today, and who we may become in the future.  I am exploring five areas of who Disciples are today — 1) Congregational transformation, 2) Growing diversity among Disciples, 3) Economic recession, 4) Trend toward cooperation, and  5) Communication — before moving on to the future.

In this post, I’ll look at 2) the growing diversity among Disciples — demographic yes, but also theological diversity. The July/August 2009 issue of DisciplesWorld was devoted to this topic. In the article, “A beautiful tapestry of diversity, but are we coming apart at the seams?” I described this growing diversity as both blessing and challenge.

First, some statistics (source: Church Extension):

Disciples congregations in 2000 and in 2009: Anglo — 80% in 2000, 75 % in 2009. African American — 15% in 2000, 13.4% in 2009. Hispanic — 3% in 2000, 5.3% in 2009. Asian American —  2% in 2000, 2.6% in 2009. Haitian — 0.1% in 2000, 3.17% in 2009.

Given the trajectory we’re on, by 2020 Disciples may likely be 61% Anglo, 13% African American, 17% Hispanic, 6% Asian American, and 3% other.

Fourteen percent of all Disciples congregations today have been formed since 2001. Of that 14%, 20% are Anglo, 16% are African American, 31% are Hispanic, 10% are Asian American, 19% are Haitian, and 4% are other. 

Of course, theological perspectives among Disciples vary widely as well. In my article, I wrote, “Disciples regularly make different, sometimes conflicting claims about who God is and what Jesus would have us do … DisciplesWorld has published opposing views on salvation, the person and work of Jesus, pacifism and just war, and the ordination of gays and lesbians, to name just a few. Some Disciples emphasize the divinity of Jesus; others think that it’s not so important. We read the Bible differently, define faith differently, worship differently, sing different hymns, even think and pray differently.”

Now, there is something not so new about all this diversity for Disciples. We are, after all, born of a movement that pursued the ideal of Christian unity, open table fellowship, the refusal to use creeds as tests of faith, all of which predisposed the movement and the church toward inclusiveness, culturally and theologically. As I wrote, “What better show of progress toward the ideal of Christian unity than the continuing existence of this crazy, diverse hodge-podge of a people Disciples manage to hold together in community?”

But it does strain the community. The leaders of the early movement never quite anticipated just how global the American frontier would become. It’s hard work to live with folks you don’t understand and with whom you may disagree. Many feel judged by the other whom they don’t understand, which complicates the work even further. And genuine disagreements often get overlooked in an effort to tolerate each other and get along. We have a lot of work to do in this area.

What do you think?

Disciples today: congregational transformation

Last weekend, I was in Broken Arrow, OK to reflect on Disciples identity for the Northeast Area Christian Church in Oklahoma Institute of Theological Studies. I was asked to give a series of lectures, including one on who Disciples are today and another on what I see in the future for Disciples.

Over the next couple of days, I’d like to share some of what I said to the hundred or so folks who attended the event.

Who are Disciples today?  What’s going on? What major trends, joys, challenges does the denomination face today?  I’m going to look at five areas:

  1. Congregational transformation
  2. Growing diversity among Disciples
  3. Economic recession
  4. Trend toward cooperation
  5. Communication

1. Congregational transformation

Adopted in 2001, the four priorities of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) are:

  • Becoming a pro-reconciling/anti-racist church
  • Forming 1,000 new congregations by 2020
  • Transforming 1,000 current congregations by 2020
  • Developing the leadership necessary to lead these new and renewed congregations

Why would transforming 1,000 congregations be one of our priorities?  Because of overall decline in church membership.  Disciples total membership is 1/3 of what it was at the time of Restructure in 1968.  A huge majority of congregations are rural and small and can no longer afford full or even part time pastors. Too many are hampered by old buildings that consume up to 90% of their budget in maintenance and repair.  In many places, vision and passion for the mission and evangelism has faded. 

Now the new church movement — forming 1,000 new congregations by 2020 — that took off immediately in 2001, and Disciples have established more than 500 new congregations to date, well ahead of schedule.  That was largely thanks to the folks at Church Extension who took the lead in training new pastors, and because the work of church planting was already underway in regional efforts across the country.

But the “transforming congregations” priority, that one got off to slow start.  No one really knew how to define a transforming or transformed congregation, much less how to evaluate and support a church wide effort to track 1,000 congregations through such a process.  It could be argued that it’s easier to start something new than to reform something that’s been around for a while.  

But here now, eight years after the priority was named, the movement for congregational transformation is gaining momentum and it’s actually pretty exciting. 

Congregations and regions took the lead in this effort initially, and now Disciples Home Missions is attempting to resource the network of transforming congregations. 

This is part of what I think is exciting:  Rather than thinking of this as an initiative that some general church ministry in Indianapolis or St. Louis needs to plan, sponsor, and do for us, from on high, our church leaders are recognizing the vitality of the movement for what it is, the network of transforming congregations already out there, and looking for ways to support and nurture it.  (That’s an important distinction in the way we are doing ministry today, and I’ll come back to it in a subsequent blog.) 

Next entry on 2) the growing diversity among Disciples.

What is this hunger?

At DisciplesWorld we are dedicated to the belief that people are hungry to think deeply about faith, reflect broadly in its implications for life, engage in mission and do so in community with others. And so we publish insights, conversations, and stories online and in print that feed this hunger as best we can.

But why are we so hungry?  A theological answer would be that God created us to be in relationship with God and with others, and gave us minds and hearts to do so passionately. I’ve never really found people of faith wanting to be passive recipients of information or instruction.  Of course, I have found passive recipients in churches, but I don’t think those folks are really looking for faith, even if they tell themselves they are.  I think they are looking for safety, which faith usually is not.     

But I think there is also a practical answer to why we are so hungry to think deeply about faith, and reflect broadly on its implications for life, and engage in meaningful mission.  And that’s that we don’t find a lot of places that do feed this hunger.  We are left wanting too many times. Finding a faith community that lives at the intersection of faith and life, that doesn’t just transport us to another way of being, but helps us find another way of being … in the world … this is difficult sometimes.

For example, let’s talk about overseas missions at church, but let’s also talk about how one element required to make my cell phone work is fueling war in Congo.  Wow.  How am I, in my little world of Indianapolis, connected to what’s happening in Africa, to my brothers and sisters in Africa?   Let’s talk about the Bible at church, but let’s talk about how it helps me face painful events in my past, and move into the future as a new creation. Let’s talk about mid-life crises and raising children and friendships and war in Afghanistan and health care reform and end of life issues and what makes my heart sing and what kinds of music I like and what does Twitter have to do with anything at all …  as it all relates to faith.  At that place where they intersect, overlap, run alongside each other.

I don’t know.  What do you think this hunger is?  What are you hungry for? 

That’s what nine year-olds do

The other day at church, my nine year-old daughter interrupted a nice coffee hour chat that had gone on longer than anticipated, with tears and accusations, “You said you were only asking her a question!” 

Later, when I talked with her about how rude she had been to my friend, my intelligent little girl said, “Well, I acted without thinking; that’s what nine year-olds do, Mommy.”


On the one hand, acting without thinking is a developmental issue, and children are less adept at it than adults. Self-control is a basic life skill that we work on over time, some with more success than others.  I still manage to act without thinking at least once a week.  Perhaps more, if you ask my husband.

On the other hand, acting without thinking is part of the human condition of every person on earth, regardless of age. We are a mix of strong feelings and rational thoughts, and maintaining the right balance that keeps harmony in our families and communities is the stuff most every novel, movie, and book in the Bible.  Or at least the good ones.  

The Genesis stories try to explain how this universal condition came about by blaming Eve for wanting rational thoughts (plucking an apple from the tree of knowledge and all).  That one doesn’t work so well for me. As if the desire for knowledge is the problem and if we had just left it to our emotions we would’ve been okay.  I’m a parent, after all.  Emotions run the gamet.  While positive emotions are a true blessing to behold, the blues, the anger, the fear … not so much.

Seems to me that in order to fully live, to fully experience the blessings of joy and hope and love, we have to  be able to know what those are by recognizing what they are not.  Rational thoughts enable us to tell the difference, and strive to keep the negative in check.  But they are all part of who we are, who we were created to be.  We have this capacity to keep them in balance so that we can experience true joy.   

Lucky for us, forgiveness comes into play.  We aren’t just left to our emotions, or to our rational thoughts (that would almost be worse). If we are going to have both, then we’re going to slip off the balance beam occassionally.  Or perhaps more often than we care to admit.  And we’re going to end up with systems around us that have slipped way off the beam, whether we ourselves leaned over too far or not.  But God assures us over and over again that forgiveness is available for everything, for everyone.  That we can get back up and do it better. 

How else could we manage?  That’s what we do.

The passing of an era

Paul Siebenmorgen was the kind of layman every pastor needs.  I was 30 years old when I began my ministry at Central Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Terre Haute, Indiana.  Only two-years post ordination, I was a bit “green” around the gills, but didn’t entirely know it.  Paul and his wife Jane were instant friends and supporters, long before I deserved it. 

Paul was about to retire from his family medical practice after 53 years when I arrived in Terre Haute.  But it wasn’t his many awards, achievements, positions of honor, and leadership roles in the medical and local communities that I first discovered about Paul.  It was a calculation he was working on to celebrate his retirement.  Paul had figured that he had delivered more than 5,000 babies in his medical career — he had brought multiple generations of families in the Wabash Valley into the world.  He was terribly proud of this accomplishment, and shared it gleefully with family and friends.  

Paul didn’t always approve of my decisions as a pastor, or the direction the congregation was going.  But he understood the role of leadership in a congregation and offered me his unfailing support.  If he disagreed, he’d do so in private, never in a board meeting or group setting.  With his immense influence in the local community, Paul could’ve easily swayed the church one way or another.  But instead, he would listen to the hopes and desires of the members and give his support to the collective wisdom of the congregation.  He was a faithful follower of Jesus to the core, a faith that provided him with a compassionate humility which he shared broadly with all those generations of families he brought into the world.

Because he had retired and was a member of my church, Paul was not my family’s doctor. Instead we were treated by his daughter Susan who attended a different church in town.  Susan is an equally gifted physician and shares Paul’s compassion for people and the community in which she lives.  Shortly after I arrived in Terre Haute, my husband and I suffered the devastating loss of a baby to a serious birth defect.  Susan, Paul, they were there for us, with answers to questions, with prayer, with love, with tears.  Jane brought us food and hugs.  Doctors don’t do that anymore.

Paul died last week at the age of 88.  It was the passing of an era in Terre Haute, Indiana, and I think, the passing of an era in my life.  I was graced by Paul and Jane, and the Siebenmorgen clan.  I was blessed by them when I was naïve and impressionable.  Thank goodness they were there to make an impression!  I’m a better person and pastor for their witness to me.  I pray that every young pastor gets to experience a couple like Paul and Jane Siebenmorgen in their congregation.


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