Monday, August 25, 2014

Listening for Abundance, Part III: "But first I needed to go blind and deaf"

"The Incredulity of St. Thomas"
by Matthias Stom, ca. 1620. Public Domain.
by Mike Mather



They wait like lowered gates while the mystery rolls past. Tomas Transtromer

How do you make visible whats invisible? I was that lowered gate.  The mystery was rolling past and I didnt see it. Id come to help.  My help isnt needed.  My eyesight is.

But first I needed to go blind and deaf.  So that I could see and hear.

The poet can have only one prayer: not to understand the unacceptablelet me not understand, so that I may not be seducedlet me not hear, so that I may not answerThe poets only prayer is a prayer for deafness.  Marina Tsvetayeva

THIS is the way things change, when we begin, to close our ears and eyes to what we have learned and begin to pay attention to the world as it is in all its wonder.

Thomas had to put his hand in Jesus wound.  Me too. I didnt feel it at first, but now I do. Did Thomass hand touch the various organs? The liver, the kidney, the stomach, or even the unnecessary appendix?  I was groping, too.

I was groping too.  I often came in contact with someone who was asking for money or food.  For a long time I would grab a bag or a little bit of money and help where I could.

As time went on I began to discover what I had almost missed.  The people sitting in front of me were my parents, my sister, my brothers.  They were people with interesting lives, but as the poet and physician of Paterson, New Jersey William Carlos Williams said no one/will believe this/of vast import to the nation.  I sure didnt.

I was missing the mystery of the lives before me.  I hadnt seen the entrepreneurs, the cooks, the clothes makers, the musicians, and the artists.  I was slowly awakening, as if from a sleep.

Step by step - poem, by cake, by clothing - I began to notice what I had not realized was there.

I began to see the way I was seen.   I was a bank, a credit card, a holder of money and power.  I wasnt considered one who saw dreams and lives, but only needs to be filled.  I had trained people well, we had trained people well.  Come tell us whats wrong, we cried.  Please. 

Could we begin to change the way our neighbors would see us?  Would people say - Im so interested in this thing Ive been spending my time on - I bet those people over at the church would love to hear about it!"


You only learn what you already know.  - something Phil Amerson said to me 490* times between 1986-1991

*Matthew 18.22

Monday, April 21, 2014

Listening for Abundance, Part II: By the Waters...



Fall Creek. Public Domain.

by Mike Mather
Pastor, Broadway UMC, Indianapolis, IN



Then the angel showed me the river of the water of life, bright as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb from the middle of the street of the city.  On either side of the river is the tree of life with its 12 kinds of fruit, producing its fruit each month; and the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.  Nothing accursed will be found there.

Revelation 22: 1-3 (NRSV)


Joe King takes the room as soon as he walks in.  Plaid shirt, blue jeans, they wear like a suit.  He is at home in the board room or in the woods.  

He is all energy and explosions - laughter, ideas, movements.  Hes on the move.  Always.  Hes Muhammad Ali as naturalist.

He sees you.

He sold insurance, keeping his neighbors safe and healthy, writing policy and caring for the waters.

He loves a good time, out fishing with friends, they tell each other stories.

As a boy he would step into the waters of Fall Creek, where the men would gather and fish. That was my television, Joe says. Fatherless, they became his fathers, his teachers. It was here he heard stories, his feet cooling in the waters.  The men teaching
him about fish, and about life in the city.

He's talking with teen-age Cameron on his porch.  Cameron says, Im weird.  Joe says, Ive been weird every day of my life, and its a good thing.  Any time you are feeling weirdcome sit on my porch and well talk,” doing now what was done for him.

Hes always close to the waters.  It is a member of his community.

Fall Creek is never very wide. No more than 45-50 yards. During the dry of summer it can slow to a trickle. In the spring and in the fall it flows.  It carries fish and the waste of our civilization, such as it is.

Along Fall Creek the waters roll, not the mighty Wabash, not the roaring Mississippi, just waters that literally, in the past, have fed the people.  The men that Joe joined as a boy were catching dinner. The living water whose cost and benefit are rarely (if ever) counted.

We go down by the waters he and I. Every day he steps in the waters. Even now twice a year he leads a clean up of Fall Creek.

Why?

Because, he says, I talk to the creek and the creek talks to me and I tell it I will not forsake it.

His whole life he has loved this place, this water. Its more than H2O to him. The waters cleanse and heal.  They breathe, free, reveal,  teach. Fall Creek was his school, his home, his grocery store, his bank.

As they fished the men caught him. Instead of filleting him, they fed him. His gratitude was for the ways the waters gathered and nourished community.

Joe knows times have changed.  He and his friends (the Dirty Dozen Hunting and Fishing Club) still gather with their neighbors, young and old, women and men, to feed each other by the waters of Fall Creek.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Making the Internet Work FOR and not AGAINST the Church

By Junior Melo (Own work) CC-BY-SA-3.0, via Wikimedia Commons
High Internet Use May Account for 20% of the Decline in Religious Affiliation in the US since 1990

I use the Internet more hours of the day than I do not. Much of this is for my work, which involves a substantial amount of time not only producing resources (many of which I research by using the Internet) but also interacting directly in GBOD and UMC-related social networks and chat with church leaders across the globe via Facebook and Twitter. I also use the Internet (Google Hangouts) to meet with my Covenant Discipleship Group when I am not in Nashville, and will even be offering a Holy Saturday service online via Twitter this coming Saturday (April 19, 10 AM ET, #holysat). And I use it personally-- for free texting to stay in touch with family and key friends, to stream video to our Roku player (we don't have cable), and to play a few games on my mobile devices (but not during regular work hours!).  And, of course, there's email. And search.

In March 2014, Allen B. Downey, Professor of Computer Science at the Olin College of Engineering, Needham, Massachusetts, published "Religious affiliation, education and Internet use" in the online science, mathematics and statistics journal, arXiv, hosted by the Cornell University Library. arXiv is not a peer reviewed journal, but rather an outlet for established researchers with appropriate institutional relationships to publish their work in these fields.

The overall findings of Downey's statistical research ascribed such high correlations (p-values less than 0.01) between religious disaffiliation and three particular factors (religious upbringing, education and Internet use) that unless some additional explanatory variable or variables could be identified, these correlations may be considered compatible with causation. In particular, reductions in the rate of religious upbringing account for 25% of the observed rates of disaffiliation since the 1980s. Increased amounts of of college and graduate education account for 5% of the change. And Internet use accounts for 20% of the change since the 1990s. Rates of disaffiliation are higher, on average, as Internet use increases beyond 7 hours daily.

That leaves 50% of the causative factors unaccounted for. Within the data, there is an explanation for the other 50%-- a lack of generational replacement-- but as Downey notes, that basically comes down to birth year analysis, and birth year, of itself, cannot function as an independent variable. In other words, when you are born can't, in general,  be said to be causative.

I've already noted I use the Internet more than 7 hours per day. I am also a college graduate and hold two graduate degrees (M.Div. and  M.A. in Peace Studies). So it would appear I have at least 25% of the risk factors for becoming religiously disaffiliated. However, both my parents were raised with deep religious involvement, and so were myself and my sister, and both of us in my generation are also deeply involved in the life of the church, so that 25% is more than counterbalanced by the other 75%-- or at least the other 25% if we admit we can't account for the other 50% statistically.

So What?
Why would Internet use correlate so strongly with increases in disaffiliation? Downey's research does not attempt to answer that question.

But among these factors, and with support from Barna's most recent research (summarized here), we might be able to pinpoint better for whom a church's increasing engagement with the Internet might enhance affiliation rather than have no effect or even increase disaffiliation.

The top 4 reasons Barna identifies evangelical Protestants and Roman Catholics attend church is a) to be closer to God (43%), b) to learn more about God (38%), c) a biblical call to be with other believers (34%) and because I've always attended church (28%, primarily Roman Catholics). At the same time most who attend admit they've not felt close to God in the last month (80%) or learned anything new about God as a result of the last time they attended (94%). In other words, the two most prominent driving factors for attending worship are not at all being satisfied by doing so.

So it should not be surprising that Barna also finds 40% of those who do not attend say they can find God elsewhere and 35% say the church is not relevant to their lives in any real way.

And where else might some of these folks be finding God or something that seems more relevant to their lives? Barna did not ask this question, but certainly the Internet, and particularly the social Internet, with its immediate feedback of likes and comments on content we post, is a likely candidate.

This might lead church leaders to conclude there's a mandate to reach these disaffiliated persons by using the Internet.

But putting Downey and Barna together might lead to a different conclusion.

Remember, increased Internet use is highly correlated with increased disaffiliation, so highly correlated it might be said to be causative. So it may well be the case that trying to reach people who are disaffiliated via the Internet may either not work at all, or, worse, actually lead to further disaffiliation.

For some, at least.

Just do the math. Persons not raised in the church, a rate that is continuing to rise, are already 25% more likely not to affiliate at all. If they are college educated, that jumps to 30%. Add Internet involvement, and that goes to 50%. And the later they were born, the more likely they will not affiliate at all.

In other words, the odds of a church being effective at using extensive Internet-based engagement with persons (including younger persons) with zero church background for the purpose of leading them to affiliation are not very favorable. At all. You're simply adding one more risk factor for moving people away from church life into the mix.

Short answer: Targeting the "never-affiliated Nones" with "internet church" isn't likely to accomplish much.

Okay, how about those "Nones" who had been affiliated, but now have dropped out, including that 59% of Millennials Barna notes have dropped out at some point.

They were affiliated at one point. That's significant. But even when they were, the vast majority of them weren't getting out of church what they said they would value most about it. So they've already left. Maybe they're finding that somewhere else. And from Pew we know that 72% of those who have disaffiliated say they aren't interested in reaffiliating or being part of any group larger than their immediate circle of friends, ever. If they're using the Internet, and likely they are,  they've got that additional 20% "drive away" factor in play. So again, the odds are low online strategies will be effective at generating renewed affiliation.

What these two bits of evidence taken together may say, then, is the primary value of church social media and internet sites may be far more for increasing ties with "insiders" than evangelizing or seeking to reactivate those who have become "outsiders."

So that leaves those who have been raised in the church and have not disaffiliated. For these people, and perhaps primarily for these people, the negative effects of Internet use on church affiliation may not outweigh the overall "affiliating" forces already in play. Let me suggest further, to help strengthen these affiliating forces, that online strategies for reaching and supporting these people aim squarely at the two highest factors Barna identifies for attendance-- getting closer to and learning about God. If the congregation focuses its efforts online in providing what the affiliated say they seek the most but clearly aren't getting in worship or educational opportunities (getting closer to and learning about God), it may be positioning its online ministries for maximum effectiveness.

The key in this is the church making its online ministries clearly part of its ministries, its web of communications, its work of community building within its life. Such online ministries needn't be members-only walled gardens, but the value they add needs to relate to the specific ways those already affiliated with the congregation can give witness and support to getting closer to God and learning about God as part of that congregation.

Internet: Use It... Wisely

When the Online Communion Conversation was convened in Nashville last fall, and then when the Council of Bishops acted on the recommendations of that panel of church leaders, practitioners and scholars, probably the biggest message most people heard was the call by the Council of Bishops for a moratorium on all online sacramental practice.

But that was not our first recommendation.

Our first recommendation, and in fact the first one the Council of Bishops approved in November 2013, was that:

"The Council of Bishops, in collaboration with appropriate general agency staff and other partners, actively lead the way to promote and develop excellent practices of online ministries across the United Methodist connection."

In other words, while the most widely spread outcome may have suggested United Methodists were some sort of Luddites regarding online ministries, the reality is quite the reverse. We were calling for and the bishops agreed to dramatically step up the excellence of United Methodist online ministries worldwide.

Excellence in online ministries involves not just excellence in their technical platform and execution-- and we absolutely were seeking that!-- but also and most importantly excellence in their results toward our mission as a church-- to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

What I think the recent studies from Downey, Barna and Pew show, fairly definitively, is that the most likely arena in which United Methodists (or anyone in the US) will be able to develop online ministries that enhance affiliation, and so, we trust, discipleship, will be in those that focus first on amplifying the capacity of all the affiliated in our congregations, of every age and ability, to get closer to God and learn more about God, both individually and collectively.

What do you think?