A Theology of Gender Roles Part One: Chores

Despite substantial improvements from the 1960’s, statistics from the Bureau of Labor show th

How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service

Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design

A Theology of Halloween

Sadly, the holiday of Halloween does not seem to elicit much reflection beyond concerns such as Wha


A Theology of Gender Roles Part One: Chores

November 5, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Despite substantial improvements from the 1960’s, statistics from the Bureau of Labor show that women still shoulder a heavier burden of household chores, especially in the areas of cooking and cleaning.  And while such divisions may actually be equal when mixed with statistics showing that men are still shouldering the burden of work outside of the home, the question of how and why these divisions continue to crop up becomes one of concern.

Even more concerning is the fact that children, even at young ages, often show beliefs of chore division by gender. For example, vacuuming might be seen as a “girl chore” and mowing the lawn as a “boy chore.” The appearance of such beliefs are often shocking to parents who have attempted to model no such divisions in their own style of domestic life.

Interestingly enough, these parents may have to look no further than their own living room in searching for the source of these neotraditional views. This is because the individuals featured on television and in commercials have not progressed as far as their real life counterparts have. (Ever seen a commercial with a woman mowing the lawn? How about a commercial with a man standing behind a vacuum?)

And while adults often doubt the level of influence such advertising has over them (“I don’t even pay attention to commercials”), much evidence shows that these subtle visual guides shape us more than we realize, not to mention the ways they shape our little charges. Thus, unclogging the toilet becomes “manly,” while scrubbing it becomes “girly.” And barbecuing is “a man’s job,” while baking, well, “women are better at that.”

Motivation and Priming

Interestingly enough, such constructs about gender roles are not benign but invasive, often impacting us in deep ways, the primary of which is our motivation. In Delusions of Gender, Cordelia Fine suggests that one’s ability to master a specific task is often dependent upon their motivation to do so, and that such motivation is dependent upon how much social value they will gain from the particular achievement.

For instance, in the case of spatial skills, an ability that men are said to perform better at, Fine suggests that outcome may be dependent upon as little as a simple change of context (and thus, motivation). Fine recalls two experiments conducted, one, which featured spatial skills in the form of airplanes, and a second, which featured spatial skills in the form of textiles and clothing manufacturing. She reports that while men outdid their female counterparts on the first test, the results were opposite for the second. Thus, when faced with a task that was socially indicative of their sex, the participants were able to muster up enough motivation to succeed.

To run tangent for a while, I often think of sewing and baking as the ultimate examples of motivation at work within the female gender.  Both tasks often require mind-numbing precision (even when pursued creatively) and a large allotment of time. Thus, to do these tasks requires a good deal of motivation, and it makes sense that if one’s social value was not based on these activities, one would probably never pursue them. As a girl, however, the accomplishment of baking brownies or hand-stitching booties is often met with a great deal of praise, and thus, often seen as worth the effort. Similarly, working with wood or tinkering with electronics, both of which also require precision and time, may be worth the effort to men, who will likely receive praise for these accomplishments.

Another way constructs of gender can affect our behavior is through priming. For instance, Fine also reported that when participants were told that a test was designed to measure something their gender was naturally good at, they performed better, and that when told they would be tested on something the opposite gender was better at, they performed worse.

Having worked in the past as a tutor, I myself can relate to the powerful effects of priming. As a beginning tutor, in order to not make a student feel bad for struggling with a new and challenging concept, I would often mention that the concept was slightly more difficult than the one before. What happened, however, is that the student would automatically start having problems with the new exercises and, sometimes, even the older ones if we switched back to the preceding level. Thus, as humans, we are often more sensitive than we realize to the expectations that society places on us, and we can easily shape-shift in order to fill these roles.

A Christian Division of Labor

While each Christian marriage is going to look differently in terms of logistics (money has to be made, the kids have to be raised, etc.) it is important to realize that activities do not have to be based upon gender or social value. For Christians, value comes solely from our creation in God’s image and our subsequent attempts to model our lives after His example. It is for this value alone that we should muster up motivation, and thus, bake brownies not because doing so will earn us points as a woman (in societies’ eyes) but because doing so can be an act of love (by both men and women) and thus worthy of praise (in God’s eyes).

Similarly, neither men nor women should be given extra points for doing chores typically placed in the category of the opposite gender. Way too often I see wives giving enormous praise to their husbands for lending a hand in the kitchen or doing the dishes. [for one night!] Oftentimes, this only leads to reinforcing the stereotype that men are not normally expected to do these chores, and thus, that such effort of actually pitching in is worthy of inordinate praise. Ideally, Christian marriage should consist of men and women living under an equal and mutual amount of expectations and gratitude. Thus, if my husband says thank you to me for doing this week’s laundry (as he should), I say thank you to him for doing this week’s grocery shopping (as I should). Gratitude is an absolute must, but mutual participation is expected, and thus, nobody gets gold stars.

Furthermore, especially in the case of new marriages, Christians should take time to check for any automatic expectations they may be harboring toward their spouse, and re-evaluate these expectations outside the lines of gender. And this doesn’t just mean that husbands shouldn’t automatically expect wives to do the dishes, organize the cabinets, and plan the dinner meals, but also, that wives shouldn’t automatically expect husbands to unclog the drains, change the oil, and fix the broken light bulbs. As said before, all of these tasks require, at the very least, a mere amount of motivation and, at most, a minuscule amount of research on the internet. Thus, to always wait for your spouse to take care of a certain activity may be perpetuating the societal concepts of masculine and feminine more than the Christian concepts of stewardship and service.

Finally, I think it is important for Christians to remember to cut each other slack. Just as it would be wrong for a husband to become angry at a wife for forgetting to run the dishwasher overnight, it would also be wrong for a wife to yell at her husband for accidentally leaving her cashmere sweater in the dryer or accidentally putting soap on a cast iron pan. While there is something to be said about Christians needing to be conscientious and thoughtful in their actions, everybody makes mistakes and it is important to not have expectations of either gender that don’t allow room for mistakes.

How your Church Website can Reach your Community with Service

October 31, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Leaky Jar, Sharing, Tech

Recently, I wrote a guest piece for the Theologia Ordinarius blog on a Theology of Church Web Design, which I hope you will consider reading if you haven’t already seen it. In my final point on that blog, I hinted at the possibility of churches using their websites to do more than simply provide basic information on their church to potential visitors and to act as a community-building resource for the congregation.

While it would be foolish for any church to neglect to potential impact of reaching out to others through its website, many churches are content to post logistical information on where and when to find a Sunday morning worship service and to tell visitors that they are “most welcome,” and conclude that they have done as much outreach as can be expected on the web. Realistically, your church website needs that information but the only visitors it will attract are those who are already Christian (note: this is a good thing, but not really outreach). This may not be the case in the Bible Belt where I understand (second-hand) that church-going is a cultural norm for many who have no faith, but it seems safe to say that most people who are not already Christians have no interest in visiting a church unless they are personally invited. This means that your website may be bringing in people who are new to your church, but not people who are new to the Church, those people who do not yet know Christ.

This does not mean that outreach to non-Christians online is impossible; it just requires some creativity. Despite the continuing prevalence of tracts and street-corner prophets, the most effective and faithful way to share the good news of Jesus Christ is to share it person-to-person, with Christians and the church community manifesting the love of God as the Holy Spirit works within them. While it is admittedly difficult for your church’s website to develop a person-to-person relationship with anyone, you can still use it to manifest God’s love for the people of your surrounding community by serving them.

There are undoubtedly endless ways that your church could serve the community through the web and I encourage you to ask your congregations to pray for the Spirit’s guidance and inspiration, but I would like to offer a few ideas to get the ball rolling, beginning by highlighting some of the needs that exist in most communities.

The Need for Hyper-Local News

In our day of globalized news coverage and the death of the small newspaper, it is increasingly difficult for people to find relevant news about their own community. When your neighbors tune in to the six o’clock news, they will primarily hear national reports with a smattering of the most sensational stories from their general metropolitan area. While local metropolitan newspapers are capable of better local coverage, they still often miss many stories and certainly are not capable of giving sustained focus to any town of less than 100,000 residents. Even in cities with excellent local journalism (e.g. New York City or Los Angeles) the newspaper is necessarily constrained to reporting on only the most apparently significant events, leaving the smaller communities (like the neighborhoods of TriBeCa and Queens in NYC, or individual cities like Inglewood or Azusa in LA) largely overlooked. Journalism alone cannot make a strong community, but it certainly is capable of strengthening communities.

Meeting the Need

Your church can easily develop a website with a social media presence that serves as a news hub for your community. While such a site will require an overseer to moderate and curate content, the vast majority of the content can easily be submitted by members of the content. The service your church provides in this context is that of serving as a reliable central location for all local news and events. By relying primarily upon reader-submitted content, your church not only has a much easier job but also begins to build a partnership with the people of your community who may begin to recognize their ability to help contribute in service to their neighbors.

A great example of this sort of hyper-local news is offered by Planet Princeton, a local resource for Princeton, NJ. While it is not in any way connected to a church, Planet Princeton serves as a useful model. Not only do they aggregate reader-contributed news and events, they have reliably relayed vital information on road closures, police advisories, and store closings in the recent October snowstorm and Hurricane Irene.

The Need for Easy Access to Community Resources

In the United States, poverty and need are rarely the result of too few resources existing in a community, but rather are rather the result poor resource allocation, ignorance concerning available services, and confusing systems for obtaining those services. For example, there are undoubtedly families in your community in need of an extra bed and other families with a spare box spring and mattress sitting in storage, but neither is aware of the other. In other cases, there are single mothers who qualify for welfare, food stamps, and discounts on heating fuel but who are either unaware of their eligibility or discouraged after trying to navigate the bureaucratic processes required to access these services. Likewise, there are unemployed residents who are in need of proper interview attire, resume-writing skills, and even a ride to their interview who are unaware of your church’s clothing distribution ministry, the public library’s resume workshop, and of the schedule of the local bus system.

Meeting the Need

Your church can empower and enable your neighbors to find and access resources in several ways. First, and most simply, you can provide a website with well-explained links and information on local resources. This might include links to the local unemployment office, city bus schedule, public library, and food pantries. On this level, your service would primarily be that of helping your neighbors to be aware of all the resources available them.

With a bit more effort, your church can provide not only links and information, but also guides to help your neighbors decide which available resources will be of the most use to them and tutorials to help them access those resources.

It is also possible to help connect people with needs to people with resources by providing a community sharing site, such as can be developed with resources like Kassi, Unstash, and NeighborGoods.

The Need for a Newcomer’s Guide to the Community

Whether we like it or not, we live in an increasingly mobile culture that almost ensures your community will constantly be acquiring residents who are new to the area, and those new residents will be weighed down with the stress of driving an unfamiliarly large U-Haul, finding a suitable home, settling into new jobs, meeting their new neighbors, and enrolling their children at new schools. Aside from those non-negotiable stresses, new residents face the strains of building new relationships; finding a grocery store, bank, coffee shop, mechanic, dry-cleaner, and restaurants; picking up local colloquialisms (i.e. the people of your town may have developed nicknames for local landmarks); learning the local laws and routines (e.g. noise curfew times and garbage pick-up days).

Meeting the Need

By this point, you will have guessed that your response to this need could be a website serving as a guide for newcomers. You can organize and neatly present the locations of post offices, city hall, grocery stores, mechanics, gas stations, parks, and much more. Your church might also provide a helpful guide to the nuances and idiosyncrasies of the community: the local jargon, laws, and ordinances that are difficult to pick up otherwise. Of course, you can also extend an invitation to newcomers to find community within your church.

Final Thoughts

Every one of these needs may not exist in your community, but without doubt at least one of them does. Your church can choose to meet one or all of them, alone or in partnership with other local churches. By simply serving your community in this way and honestly acknowledging on the site that it is supported by your church, you will be fulfilling Jesus’ commandment to love others while simultaneously helping the people of your community to recognize that your church is interested in loving them.

I’d love to hear what your churches are doing or hope to do along these lines. Please let me know about what you come up with below.

A Theology of Halloween

October 29, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Sadly, the holiday of Halloween does not seem to elicit much reflection beyond concerns such as What shall I be this year? and Will that one neighbor be giving out king-sized candy bars again? 

And even more sad, one might notice that such a pattern does not differ much from other holidays, such as Christmas (What should I buy for Dad? ; Are we going to make cookies this year?) and Easter (What should I wear to church? ; Will my bunny be dark chocolate?)

Yet, unlike these other holidays, which receive a great deal of attention from the church (Christmas isn’t just about Santa; Easter isn’t just about eggs), Halloween is often overlooked, or possibly, avoided, as if to say We have no idea what to do with Halloween!?!

There are some churches that vehemently reject participation in it, or, in some strains, advise their members to go on the offensive and fight the powers of darkness that are supposed to be more active on this day [!Wouldn’t it be more logical to assume that such forces, being made complete in evil, are as completely active as they can be on every day!]

And there are some churches that “take back” the holiday by providing a Halloween alternative (Trunk or Treat, Har-Fest, etc.). However, the activities at these events hardly differ from their secular cousins, and they often seem to assume that Halloween is not a Christian holiday, but a secular one only, for which they are providing a safer, homogeneous environment.

But Halloween is a Christian holiday (co-opted from pagan traditions of course, just as all the others were). The particular history of the this holiday begins with the Gaelic harvest festival of Samhain, which focused primarily on the transition from the lighter half of the year to the darker half and also included the recognition of death and those who had passed on.

When adapted by Christianity, this time of the year was crowned “Hallowmas” or “All Hallows,” which is the archaic terms for “All Saint’s Day,” (traditionally celebrated on November 1st, and preceded by “All Hallows Eve”). Furthermore, thanks to Luther, October 31st has also become recognized as “Reformation Day,” which is often celebrated together with All Saints Day. Thus, by way of the Christian liturgical calendar, this period of time is officially not ordinary, but holy (a time of holiday).

Thus, whether you celebrate Halloween (and all holidays for that matter) purely for their Christian remembrances, or as mixed with cultural activities (feasting, gift-giving, partying) and symbols (trees, pumpkins, eggs), Halloween is indeed a holiday that should provoke us theologically.

Perhaps the easiest concept that Christians can celebrate in Halloween is the Harvest, a time of the year when vegetation, having ripened and matured, is gathered and celebrated. Beyond reminding us of our own charge to bear fruit, the harvest helps to direct our attention to God’s bountiful provisions in our lives and prepares our hearts for Thanksgiving and the Christmas season.

Yet another theme of Halloween is death and the remembrance of those who have gone on before us. For those cultures that are profoundly disconnected from the concept of death (such as American culture is) this holiday often brings to the forefront a recognition of our mortality. And while Freud would say that a holiday like Halloween allows people to consciously process our unconscious fears of death, for Christians, the holiday’s recognition of death should be a reminder that death is neither our ultimate fear, nor the ultimate victory; a natural part of this fallen world, but a reminder also of a world that will one day be reversed.

Furthermore, death reminds us of all those who have gone on before us and with whom we will one day be reunited. Traditionally commemorated with a feast and, sometimes, a graveyard visit, the celebration and remembrance of the Saints is a festivity that could probably be revitalized in modern Christianity and in the modern celebration of Halloween.

Finally, the theme of the spooky, through often troubling to the Christian, is not irredeemable, but a reminder, yet again, of those things that are indeed scary to us now (spiders, snakes, bats, creaking stairs, fog, the dark, the uncanny, etc.), but will not be in the new earth, where we will be reconciled with all of the things that go bump in the night. And, while we know that there are dark forces at work here on earth, as Christians, this holiday should remind us that, scary things, whether real (demons) or unreal (ghosts) are not to be feared, nor are we to be superstitious about them (whether throwing salt over our shoulder or refusing to carve pumpkins out of the fear that doing so will open us up to dark forces).

On a side note, I think that people can choose to abstain from certain Halloween activities, but their reason for doing so should be to redirect focus and/or shape character rather than out of fear that participation will condemn them spiritually. Furthermore, while Christians may be tempted to abandon all material participation in Halloween (and in other holidays for that matter), we must remember that the spiritual does not exist outside of the material, but is embodied in it. Therefore, we shouldn’t strip our youngsters of pumpkins and, at the same time, expect them to comprehend the harvest. We shouldn’t shelter them from death and expect them comprehend the boundaries of the fallen world or the price that Jesus paid on the cross.

Finally, in approaching Halloween, Christians must be reflective, as they are with other holidays, celebrating those elements that are redeemable or, at least, neutral and abstaining from those that are detrimental. Personally, I think some of the worst aspects of Halloween have nothing to do with witch decorations, ghost costumes, and pumpkin carving, but with promiscuity and the glorification of gore and horror.

For Christians, the real issue is not How can we provide an alternative to this holiday? or How can we use this holiday to target non-Christians (ex: handing out ineffective tracts) but How are we to celebrate this Holiday? and hopefully, What can we learn from it? 

A Theology of Pop Music

October 22, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Okay, I will admit it. When LMFAO’s “Party Rock Anthem” comes on the radio in all of its rhythmic, auto-tuned, Black-Eyed-Peas-esque glory, I turn it up. I also dance around to it in my house, listen to it while I run, and spontaneously start singing it when I am in a good mood.

Party Rock

Am I aware that it makes a reference to “ho’s” and “getting naked?” Well, I am now, having taken the time to actually look up the lyrics before writing this post. (I really thought it said “running through this hose like draino”).  But, seriously, I can’t say that I am surprised.

This is because pop music often works within an intentionally limited vocabulary, even to the point that artists repeat one word over and over, such as Usher’s “down down down, down down, down down” or Britney Spears’ “uncontrollably, lably, lably, lably.” Furthermore, in striking similarity to its movie cousin, the summertime blockbuster, pop music sometimes tries to up an f-word count of its own, all for the sake of its target audience.

Christians, not being this target audience, find themselves in the middle of a tension-filled relationship with pop music, in which some abstain from the genre altogether (which must be relatively hard given the music’s prevalence in commercials, store background music, school dance playlists, etc.), and some look desperately for ways to redeem it.

Pop Music: Redemption Through Biblical Reference? 

For instance, in his article “Popular Music and Theology: Strange Bedfellows,” Nate Risdon suggests that redeeming qualities are sometimes found in pop music’s attempts to include spiritual themes and concepts, which may provide Christian listeners with a new perspective. As an example of this, he uses the song “Hallelujah” by Leonard Cohen:

“When a songwriter like Leonard Cohen alludes to the complexity of emotions and desire felt by a fallen King David in his much heralded song “Hallelujah”, I listen to that song and return to that biblical narrative with a new set of eyes. I complete the “Mid-rashic” exercise when I read the text in a new way and can reflect with a new set of eyes and new ears to hear. David emerges from the page and becomes real, not just a character in the Bible . . . I now empathize with David and his fall from grace all the more and I carry that with me into my immediate world. I can use it to inform my faith and desire to follow Christ. Cohen has altered my reading and my reality in a simple and profound way”

While I give Risdon credit for his eloquent wording, I don’t think the principle he is using to redeem this particular song extends very far in the world of pop music, where most “invocations” of religious terminology do not rise above empty cliche:

“There’s gotta be a heaven somewhere” – Justin Timberlake

“When you call my name, it’s like a little prayer” -Madonna

“I know that God put you in front of me” – Kanye West

Furthermore, even Cohen’s extended allusions to biblical characters lack depth and meaning in a song that is primarily about disenchantment with love and faith. Thus, while I don’t doubt that pop music can provide glimmers of truth or examples of searching for theological meaning, to expect them to significantly alter our readings of biblical text and biblical doctrine is probably expecting too much. For example, trying to pass Hallelujah off as a “worship song” during chapel, such as my Christian college sometimes did, is probably not a good idea.

A. K. M. Adam, in his post, “C’mon Save Your Soul Tonight”: Toward An Appreciative Theological Criticism In Popular Musics, says the following about the “redemption through biblical reference” approach:

“[I] hope that we all can begin to move from a generally fannish orientation that focuses on catching and making-explicit allusions to the Bible, the liturgy, and theology in popular music (“oh, he said ‘The Father, Son, and Holy Ghost’!”) toward a more critical approach that doesn’t hesitate to deliberate seriously about the theological shortcomings of popular music (though without, I hope, condescending finger-wagging or censorship).”

Pop Music: Redemption Through Cultural Relationship?

Another attempt to redeem pop music focuses on the idea that entering into pop culture allows us to enter into the world of others and relate to them on their own level.

In his post, Pop Music and Theology, Troy Allen uses the musical career of Johnny Cash as an example of this, stating: “Was God only present in Cash’s ‘gospel songs’ or was God somehow present when Cash sang “Folsom Prison Blues” to a room full of prisoners? [I would also consider “Cocaine Blues” as an example] The lyrics are brash and hard and yet somehow a message of theological importance is found.”

Or, to tweak Allen’s words slightly, an act of theological importance is at work in this Folsom Prison visit, where prisoners are feeling understood, cared about, and ministered to. Thus, in this line of thought, the concept becomes one of incarnation, where Christians, by engaging or at least familiarizing themselves with pop culture, are able to relate to and communicate with those who are immersed in it.

Steve Rabey, who teaches a course on pop culture at Fuller Theological Seminary, even uses Paul’s sermon to the people in Athens as an example of this “familiar with for the sake of relating to” redemption, stating:

“Paul’s appropriation of pop culture artifacts in Acts 17 . . . [and his] sermon to the Athenians at Mars Hill compliments them for their religiosity—even though it’s far from Christian—and he quotes both a popular poet and the inscription found on a statue to a pagan god” (Developing a Theology of Pop Culture).

And while such rhetorical devices surely worked in Paul’s favor and did, in fact, serve the purpose of God, I think there is a sizable distance between appropriating pop culture and immersing ourselves in it, the latter often being the real sanction those taking the “relational approach” are hoping for.

Pop Music: An Exercise in Discernment

For something that is so commonplace, pop music does not elicit an easy answer, and there may be no all-encompassing doctrine for the church to advocate. For if the church says to abstain, members will likely abstain in the way that Catholics abstain from birth control, singing hymns in church and pop music at home. But at the same time, the church cannot condone the genre as a whole… For instance, imagine Nicki Minaj’s Super Bass playing in the background of an youth group event… Furthermore, if we believe that all practices are habit forming and soul shaping, we can hardly defend pop music (at large) as being that which is true, noble, honorable, pure, etc.

What we can do, however, is put in the extra effort to draw conclusions within rather than about the genre. For instance, does this song make shallow references to sinful behavior that can be overlooked, or does this song promote an entire theme that is counter to the gospel? In answering this question, we might compare Britney Spears’ I Wanna Go to Rihanna’s Love the Way You Lie, where the first simply talks about sex being exciting and the latter endorses an abusive relationship.

We can also make sure we are applying the same critical standards to all music, and not just those forms that sound “unchristian.” This may be especially relevant in the world of parenting, where it may be easy to convict a song with a couple of swear words in it (even if that song has a positive message), and harder to catch the problematic messages within songs that sound harmless.

For instance, when we turn the radio dial from Britney Spears to Taylor Swift, the message may not be significantly altered, starting with “life is all about sex” and ending with “life is all about boys and pining after the boyfriends of other girls.”

Similarly, even Christian music gets it wrong sometimes, such as Courageous by Casting Crowns, which preaches a doctrine of gender that is borrowed more from the Eldredges than the Bible, or Can a Nation Be Changed by Matt Redman, which asks a question more relevant to politics than Christianity.

Finally, churches should serve their members by guiding them in this type of discernment. Rather than avoiding the topic of pop music altogether or giving subtle permission for “Christian music” and condemnation of “secular music,” churches should be able to address the daily habits of their congregants, none of which are too small or too irrelevant for reflection and discernment.

*Image taken from: http://www.amazon.com/Party-Rock-LMFAO/dp/B00274SI8S

Are church plants actually factions? A response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article

October 22, 2011 in Christian Unity, Christianity, Church, Church Planting, Leaky Jar

Editor’s Note: This post has had one line edited as it presented a critique of one of Jivanjee’s arguments in the language of an attack on his character. The author is sorry to have been irresponsible with his words and for any harm caused to a brother in Christ.

This post is written in response to Jamal Jivanjee’s article, “Faction-planting or church-planting?” per his request.

In his article, Jivanjee makes several commendable points:

  • The first, and most obvious, of these is that there exists in some American churches a sort of factionalism that fails to recognize the extent of Christian brotherhood and sisterhood across denominational lines or even across the street. Where such prideful division exists, it is certainly sinful and an impediment to the Gospel.
  • The second point to note is that churches can easily become personality cults in which the congregation’s life comes to center on the charismatic leader. This can easily lead to straying from the authority of Scripture and foster a division between the “ministers” and the “members” that denies the priesthood of all believers.
  • Third, there is a helpful emphasis on the concept of a “city church.” While I am not sure that I agree with Jivanjee’s exact understanding of the city church, I certainly share his enthusiasm for a certain type of unity and Christian love exhibited in the city church.

Going from Anecdotes to Universal Indictments

While I appreciate the above points, I find Jivanjee’s stance to be both overly cynical and simplistic with regard to actual church congregations in the United States apart from the abstract concept of American Churches. Read the rest of this entry →

A Definition of Evangelism

October 18, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Evangelism, Leaky Jar

For the sake of keeping my blog active, I am willing to serve leftovers.

In a course of evangelism, my group partner and I were required to compose a definition of evangelism in ten minutes. The following is the product of our ten-minute toil:

“Evangelism is the Christian’s participation in the Holy Spirit’s work of proclaiming the good news of salvation and the in-breaking of the kingdom of God made available through the incarnation, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

Just as the Word was made flesh, so the gospel is contextually-spoken while simultaneously transforming its context.

The goal of evangelism is the making of disciples who, through the empowerment of the Spirit, live as holy citizens of God’s kingdom by worshipping the Triune God, proclaiming the good news, and loving one another as they love themselves.”

We wanted to make sure that our definition incorporated the foundational Christian doctrines (the Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection) and that it defined evangelism as the proclamation of the Gospel message, distinct from the necessity of “witnessing by lifestyle.”

How would you define evangelism or tweak our definition? Please join the conversation below.

A Short Response to John Piper on Stuttering

October 15, 2011 in Christianity, Church, Leaky Jar, Preaching

Let’s be clear up-front: I am not one of those people who is generally antagonistic to John Piper. While I have not yet read any of his books, I generally appreciate his tweets and blog posts (at least those that I come across). With that said, two tweets of his have particularly irked me today:

John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
Preachers, beware whom you hear. Academic stuttering, and the ubiquitous “um” and “ah” do not make for prophetic utterance.
John Piper's Photo @JohnPiper
The prophets give no evidence of ever using “um” or “ah”. These are weak, learned fillers and can be unlearned for Christ.

Although I want to be charitable, I am having a hard time understanding what could be behind these tweets (side note: if you have an idea or agree with Piper, please drop me a note below). The best motivation I can conceive of is a desire to see the Gospel proclaimed as clearly as possible, but this good desire should not be universalized or lifted to the position of the highest priority for one very important reason.

The Power of the Gospel is Made Manifest in Human Weakness

While it is important for preachers to hone their rhetorical skills for clear delivery of God’s word, Scripture consistently emphasizes the power of the Gospel itself rather than the importance of the preacher (except, of course, for the necessity of a preacher).

In the Parable of the Sower, it is the seed of the Gospel that holds the power to grow and bear fruit, not the skill of the sower. Likewise, in the Parables of the Mustard Tree and the Leaven, it is the power of the Gospel itself that is emphasized with no mention of a preacher at all, let alone oratorical ability.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the apostle Paul makes this statement,

“And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and of power, that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.”

Here we find Paul claiming to have intentionally avoided eloquence and rhetorical flair when proclaiming the Gospel so that the Corinthians would not mistake the messenger for the message and that their faith may be nothing but a result of the Holy Spirit at work.

Similarly, when Moses was called by God to be His prophet, he objected because of his rhetorical inability (and possible speech impediment) but failed to change God’s mind:

But Moses said to the LORD, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent, either in the past or since you have spoken to your servant, but I am slow of speech and of tongue.” Then the LORD said to him, “Who has made man’s mouth? Who makes him mute, or deaf, or seeing, or blind? Is it not I, the LORD? Now therefore go, and I will be with your mouth and teach you what you shall speak.” But he said, “Oh, my Lord, please send someone else.” Then the anger of the LORD was kindled against Moses and he said, “Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well. Behold, he is coming out to meet you, and when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. You shall speak to him and put the words in his mouth, and I will be with your mouth and with his mouth and will teach you both what to do. He shall speak for you to the people, and he shall be your mouth, and you shall be as God to him. And take in your hand this staff, with which you shall do the signs.”

Now, one might argue that God relented by allowing Aaron who was a gifted speaker to be Moses’ mouthpiece, but note that the Lord’s anger was kindled against Moses for claiming that he could not serve as God’s prophet because of a stutter.

Finally, let us return to Paul’s words in his second letter to the Corinthians,

“For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”

Here, Paul emphasizes that the Gospel’s glory is made manifest by shining in the midst of our own mortal imperfection. When a congregation hears the Word of God proclaimed and is transformed by that Word despite the preacher’s own flaws and imperfections, it is evident that the Holy Spirit must be at work, not the pathos of a rhetorician.

So, should preachers constantly seek to improve their preaching for the sake of clarity? Of course. Should they feel guilty for their rhetorical imperfections? Should young people sensing a call to the preaching ministry abdicate their calling because they are not a capable speaker? Of course not. To say otherwise is to emphasize the work of humans over the power of the Gospel and the work of the Holy Spirit.

A Theology of Leftovers

October 14, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Living in a consumer culture means that you can have exactly what you want at any moment. However, it also means that you are bombarded with choices, none of which are particularly better or meaningful. For instance, if you are craving pumpkin, you can have it. And thanks to products such as canned pumpkin, pumpkin pie spice, and pumpkin spice syrup, you can appease your taste buds through a variety of pumpkin-flavored foods all year long.  However, if you do so, you may come to realize that there is nothing particularly special about the pumpkin pie that decorates your family’s Thanksgiving table. After all, you did just have pumpkin pie a few days ago…

Oftentimes, it is the limitation and not the limitlessness of something that makes it special. Gourmet desserts, presents, parties, vacations, deep conversations, and so many other treats are appreciated for their scarcity.  Because they don’t happen every day, they become sacred to us, and we delight in them when they are present.

Such human characteristics are not unbeknownst to Starbucks, a company that seems to reflect more on the behavior of individuals than the individuals themselves, and Starbucks knows just how to trick, nudge, and delight us through the illusion of limitation. For instance, while Starbucks could easily provide Pumpkin Spice, Eggnog, and Gingerbread lattes year round (and at many stores, often will when asked), it markets these drinks as seasonal specialties, and even devises contests where cities can compete against each other to get these drinks put on the menu early.

Now, on the business level, this is very profitable, as their release of the beloved drink often leads to runs on their coffee shops. However, on the personal level, Starbucks also knows that these conditions are very pleasing to the loyal customer, who looks forward to even the mere hint or concept of a sacred ritual.

But unlike seasonal drinks at Starbucks, food (just plain food) is rarely seen as sacred. Unlike the Israelites wandering in the desert, waiting for heavenly bread, many Christians have only ever known food as it is in excess. We toss half of our burger and most of our fries away (even if we do go to the trouble of putting them in a “take home” box). Farms throw out crops that are misshapen or discolored (that is, undesirable for supermarkets). And grocery stores and restaurants chuck tons of leftovers in the trash rather than risk any liabilities associated with donating. And these practices are not benign, but only help breed a culture where wasting food is normal, and comments about starving children are trite.

Now, before you accuse me of setting the stage for an argument in favor of some ascetic lifestyle, in which your relationship to food becomes that of an inverse glutton, let me just say that restriction for its own sake is similarly void of meaning. From off-the-grid green fanatics to organic-only raw foodies to anti-consumer minimalists, the idea of restriction is often romanticized to a place of religion, and serves as a sort of spiritual law that brings a sense (though not necessarily the existence) of order to their lives: If I only eat food that I grow myself and that isn’t tainted by “chemicals” or “additives,” I will have “arrived.” If I recycle, compost, and keep light and gas usage to a minimum, I will have “achieved.” If I get rid of clutter, resist the urge to buy things, and take time to quiet and simplify my existence, I will have “transcended.”

And yet, as Christians, we know that such trends are only poor replacements for a soul that seeks to be perfectly restricted by God (what Augustine sees as the ultimate form of freedom). As we pursue this type of life (a life of service to God), the purposes of restriction become clearer.

As it pertains to food, restriction teaches us to appreciate the fact that food is a gift from God, disciplines our hearts to be good stewards of this gift, and encourages us to consider others when we have been blessed with excess. In more specific terms, it might foster the following habits, which again, should not become laws that are set in stone, but should be used in ways that are beneficial to the Christian life:

1) Be Resourceful:

Rather than going to the store for every meal, focus on what you already have. If you open a can of pumpkin, be committed to that can. This was a recent adventure in my house, where what started with adding one tablespoon of canned pumpkin to my morning oatmeal turned into “what is going to become of all that remains in that can?” Twelve pumpkin donuts, 24 pumpkin cookies, and 1 pot of potato pumpkin curry later, waste was averted, and not to the detriment of our taste buds either.

2) Be Creative:

Reuse Food. If you have leftover soup, use it as sauce for a pasta salad or make up some rice to pour it over. If you have a leftover meat source (steak, chicken, meatloaf), cut it up and put it into something new (salad, pasta, casserole). Even if you have trouble coming up with ideas on your own, there are plenty of websites that provide meal generators based on the ingredients that you type in.

For your convenience, some foods can even be made into desserts, which can be used on the same night as the meal. For example, my husband and I often use leftover white rice to make “Rice Au Lait” (alternatively spelled “Rice Olé”) which is an horchata-like dessert drink (Recipe Below). Another favorite of ours is the leftover sweet potato (the one that didn’t make it into the casserole), which can be baked and sprinkled with cinnamon and brown sugar.

3) Be Generous:

When you have extras, share. This is especially applicable to baking, because, when you bake, you are undoubtedly going to end up with extras. So instead of leaving that container of 3 dozen cookies on your counter, where it will either get eaten (accompanied by stomach pains) or will not get eaten (“I guess we better throw these cookies out”), why not share them with someone else? This is truly the best part of baking anyway, and the only reason anyone would put in all the effort of reading directions, measuring out precise levels of ingredients, and checking on their treats every five minutes until they are golden brown.

4) Suck It Up:

If you have extra of a dish that is hard to reuse (lasangna, stir-fry, etc.), and it is too late to bring a warm portion of it to a friend’s house, freeze it for next week and actually reheat it. Or, just bite the bullet and eat it tomorrow, and the next day, and the next day, until it is gone. Perhaps you will also consider not making so much the next time you get the recipe out.

Recipe for Rice Au Lait:

Ingredients: Rice, Milk, Sugar, Cinnamon

1) With at least one cup of leftover rice, put rice into a small or medium saucepan.

2) Pour milk over the rice until rice is covered. (You can add another layer or two of milk if you prefer your dessert to be more of a beverage)

3) Turn heat to medium/low.

4) Add at least 3 tablespoons of sugar and stir. (Add more sugar according to taste)

5) Add at least 1 tsp of cinnamon and stir.

6) When sugar and cinnamon have mixed, remove from heat and pour into cups. Enjoy!

*Picture taken from: http://www.countryliving.com/cooking/pumpkin-dessert-recipes

A Theology of Introverts

October 8, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

When I inform people that I am an introvert, I am often met with nods that hint at understanding and reassurance. And yet, having heard various and almost always incomplete definitions of what constitutes introversion, I have to wonder: Does society really understands this personality type as well as it thinks it does? And more importantly, does the church?

For instance, here are some of the ways I have had introversion explained to me: “Introverts are quiet people.” “Introverts like to be alone.” “Introverts have a very active thought life.” “Introverts feel exhausted from being around people.” And while all of these statements bear some semblance of truth, none of them, on their own, quite captures what it means to be an introvert.

Thus, rather than attempting to create my own pithy definition for the concept, I suggest the following principles (having originated from Marti Laney) as a helpful guide for distinguishing this personality from its counterpart: the extrovert.

1. The ways they get energy—Extroverts receive energy from external stimulus, while introverts get energy from the inner thought world. As a result, even if introverts perform well in social settings, they are often drained by people and need time alone to recuperate.

2. The ways they respond to stimulation—Extroverts thrive in environments that provide multisensory stimulation. Introverts, on the other hand, have a busy inner world and can easily be overwhelmed by external stimulation. That’s why introverts may be reserved and prefer quiet environments.

3. Their approach to knowledge and experience—Extroverts like to absorb as much as they can from their environment; they crave variety and breadth. Their introverted counterparts prefer depth; they invest energy in select areas. This is why they may be careful about choosing activities and may be hesitant to offer their feelings or ideas. 1

For those of you who are visual learners, Psychology Today, with its notoriously exquisite photo shoots, offers up this image of the introvert, and all of its 1000 words. 2

Taken from: http://www.psychologytoday.com/articles/201008/revenge-the-introvert

While a secular perspective would encourage us to view such personality types as cornerstones of our identities, a Christian perspective would recognize that a foundation or identity built on anything other than Christ is doomed to fail. Nevertheless, personality traits which are both inherent and constructed, God-given and God-transformed, are important bricks in the building of individuals and communities.

Thus, I think, it becomes important for the church to evaluate itself, and see to it that the entire body is being cared for. And while the implications of this statement abound, I want to focus on three areas of potential assessment: Church Fellowship, Church Services, and Church Theology.

1) Church Fellowship: Introverts and Mingling

Perhaps one of the hardest things for introverts in the church is the seemingly endless pressure to “get involved,” “get connected,” or “get plugged in.”  While introverts have no qualms with the underlying principles of these commands (hospitality, fellowship, service), they do fear the narrowly designed pathways that provide access to these virtues.

For instance, at some churches, the only means of fellowship are found in venues such as the coffee hour, the potluck, the ministry fair, and the small group. For an introvert, all of these activities can be reduced to one resounding word: Mingling. This is the introvert’s worst nightmare. Endless stimulation and signals to read. Endless potential directions of conversation and action. And at the end of all of it, he or she will be exhausted.

Thus, sometimes undetected and sometimes to the chagrin of more extroverted church members, the introvert will often flee the scene or avoid showing up at all. This is not because the introvert does not care for people, or for the church, but simply because such settings, while extremely conducive to the extrovert, are overwhelming and unnatural for the introvert.

At the same time, such settings are often designed with specific images of fellowship in mind, images in which the introvert is not an adequate poster child. For instance, a church might unintentionally be sending messages such as “fellowship is people bantering over coffee,” “fellowship is a girls-night-out party (put on by the women’s ministry) at an active, downtown venue,” or “fellowship is a small group laughing, crying, and instantly clicking with each other, even at their first meeting.”

The risk of these preconceived images is that they put pressure (unspoken but still detected) on introverts and make them feel as if they are “doing it wrong.” Furthermore, they often obligate introverts to act in ways that are completely opposite to their personality in order to fit in.

In her article, The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering with Introverts in Mind, Mandy Smith says something similar to this effect in her assessment of what she refers to as obligatory involvement in small groups.

“For many churches, small groups are organized so that participants are forced to meet with those they don’t know and prodded to share what they’d prefer to keep private. Although small groups can be meaningful for all personality types, Joseph Myers’s conclusion in The Search to Belong should make us think twice. He says, “Often our small group models encourage forced belonging.” 3

2) Church Service: Introverts and Responsive Exercises

Turn to your neighbor and say “Your a Sinner.”  Now turn to your neighbor and say “I’m a Sinner too.” Now turn to your neighbor and say “God Loves You Right Now.”

Nope, this is not Christian preschool. This is church for many people whose pastors have decided to implement “responsive” or “interactive” exercises into their service structure. While some people seem to respond well to these participatory acts, for introverts, they are meaningless and irritating. And while distaste for these practices is not an exclusively introvert characteristic (as extroverts, too, may view them as corny or schmaltzy), they are particularly damaging for introverts, who prefer their social interactions to be few but meaningful, but are forced to participate in many social interactions that are devoid (at least for them) of any authenticity or depth.

To give another example, from my college years, I recall a particularly painful exercise that was forced upon morning chapel-goers. It had something to do with connecting with people, and it involved taking a whole minute (they actually timed it) to stare into the eyes of the person sitting next to you and contemplate “them.”

While I imagine that any individuals who were attending chapel with their significant other did not mind this exercise, those of us who were attending solo and soon found ourselves being forced to share a minute of physical and emotional vulnerability with the potential creeper/person of the opposite gender next to us were less than amused.

The reasoning often provided for such exercises is that they better their participants by forcing them out of their “comfort zones” and into an embrace with a radical, potentially “life-changing” experience. And while I will agree that all of God’s people (both introverts and extroverts) should be challenged out of rigid patterns of behavior and thinking that may prevent them from leading a life of service, I doubt that such transformation takes place through exercises such as the ones that I have listed.

While I agree that the Christian lifestyle is a radical one, I think we must use discernment in differentiating between that which is radical for radical’s sake, and that which actually aligns the individual with Christ. While I don’t doubt that God calls us to radical acts such as giving away money to the poor or refusing to recant our faith, even with a gun to our head, I doubt that Jesus looks upon the pastor who has asked his congregation to amuse him by participating in some “turn to your neighbor” speak, and says, “Way to go! Look at all those people who are radically uncomfortable in My Name!”

3) Church Theology: Introverts and Complementarian Doctrine: 

In the article “Caring for Your Introvert,” taken from The Atlantic, Jonathan Rauch says this: “Female introverts, I suspect, must suffer especially. In certain circles, particularly in the Midwest, a man can still sometimes get away with being what they used to call a strong and silent type; introverted women, lacking that alternative, are even more likely than men to be perceived as timid, withdrawn, haughty.” 4

Those in the church who view personality through these gender stereotypes are often rooted in various forms of complementarianism, which, on its most basic level, holds that men and women have distinct yet complementary roles within the family and within the church. However, when this philosophy is explained or acted out through specific expectations, it can be devastating for the female introvert.

For instance, while men might be allowed and even encouraged to be stoic thinkers, contemplating hefty decisions, women may be expected to be chatty hostesses, gently touching new comers on the arm and engaging them emotionally. Given that such gender roles are often espoused by the church, it is no surprise that they are especially rigid for those who are associated with the church.

For instance, my husband and I were once accosted by a man selling beanie hats at Rockafeller Center. Before he began his sales pitch, he entered into a minute or two of small talk, and out of politeness (and the hopeful aspiration that we could exchange that politeness for help with directions) we said hello and offered up answers to his questions: Yes, we were from New Jersey.  We were living there because my husband was attending seminary.  Yes, he did want to be a pastor.  Before leaving, we offered up handshakes and said that it was nice to meet. But when he received my hand, a look of surprise came over his face. “A hand shake?” he said. “Normally, you get two things from pastor’s wives.  Either they go around hugging everybody or they won’t touch you at all.”

Now, obviously not all pastor’s wives fit into this man’s false dichotomy, however, I think his perception of women sub-types within the church was very keen, as both the social nurturer and meek bystander have their place within various strains of complementary philosophy. Of course, the former is more trendy than the latter in modern culture, which seeks to promote womanhood through validation rather than negation.

However, for the female introvert, such promotion does not provide validation, nor does it stray far from Coventry Patmore’s Angel at the Hearth. And furthermore, it does not serve the purpose of the church, which should not be a mere reflection of what is currently trendy in society (including the cult of the extrovert in American society), but should seek a communal identity that is based on and rooted in scripture.

Thus, regardless of what your church believes about the roles of women as mentioned in the bible (ie: the woman as pastor, the woman of Proverbs 31, etc.), it is the non bible-based doctrines of women (the woman as emotional, the woman as sociable, etc.) that are most threatening to the introvert, by not only discouraging women from introverted traits, but sometimes even placing scorn on the very combination itself.

Thus, for the female introvert, the church can be an environment wrought with landmines, and the church would do well to reconsider where it may have unintentionally set up these traps.

Finally, just briefly, it may be beneficial to consider ways in which churches might actively welcome the introvert and plug him or her into effective fellowship and service.

For instance, to encourage fellowship, churches could offer more activity-based rather than talk-based gatherings, where introverts would have the option of focusing on the task at hand rather than the crowd of sensory overload. A church might also consider offering one-on-one mentoring relationships or other one-on-one activities for those who find the personal rather than the group setting more comfortable.

To encourage service, a church might provide introverts with more behind-the-scenes or one-on-one roles that need to be filled (making and delivering meals, overseeing the planing of an event or trip, etc.) Also, because introverts often dedicate a good deal of time to contemplation, churches could probably benefit from their feedback. Thus, providing easy venues for sharing any thoughts or ideas that strike introverts after the fact is a good way to get them involved.

1. Taken from The Christian Standard, paraphrased from Marti Olson Laney, The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World (New York: Workman Publishing, 2002) p. 19-24, 49.

2. Psychology Today also offers an extensive article that deals specifically with the personality of the introvert Revenge of the Introvert.

3. The ‘IN’ Crowd: Ministering to Your Introvert.

4. Caring for Your Introvert.

Can God make a Rock so Big that He cannot Lift it?

October 3, 2011 in Apologetics, Christianity, Leaky Jar

Before I move on to answering the title question, please allow me to explain why I am answering this question when the answer is by no means original to me. When I was in middle school, this sort of question did not wreck my faith in God but it did shake me a bit. In working with middle school students today, I find that this type of question still holds resonance for junior high students (and others, no doubt!) and that while a simple answer exists, it is not particularly easy to come across unless you know where to look. By tossing this answer into the “inter-webs” I hope to make it that much easier to find. So, with that said…

Can God make a rock so big that He cannot lift it?

Large Granity StoneThe answer, in a word, is no.

Whoops, I guess you caught me in a trap. Now you will say, “If God cannot make such a big rock that He cannot lift it, then there is something that God cannot do, which means that God cannot be all-powerful.” Of course, if I has said yes, you would argue, “If God can make a rock He cannot lift,  then He cannot lift it which shows that there is something God cannot do.” It would seem as if you had just proven that there cannot be an all-powerful God.

It would seem that way, but unfortunately, this question poses an illogical question that cannot have an answer.

When we say that God is all-powerful, we mean that God can do anything that can be done. Very often people express this by saying that “God can do the impossible.” What we mean by that statement, though, is that God can do those things that are impossible for anyone else but God. For example, it is impossible for a human to spontaneously sprout wings and fly, but it is not impossible for God to make a human sprout wings and fly.

The problem of the rock is a different sort of impossibility though. For example, you could just as easily ask whether God could make a three-sided rectangle, understanding that the definition of a rectangle is a four-sided object. So, the question is basically: can God make a three-sided four-sided object? The answer is once again, no, but it is helpful because the reason for the “no” is clearer than in the example of a rock. The English language allows us to pose questions that are actually complete nonsense: there can be, by definition, no three-sided rectangles, no objects that simultaneously exist and do not exist, and no possibility of both an immovable object and an unstoppable force co-existing. In the same way, there cannot possibly exist both a rock too large to be lifted by anything and a God who is all-powerful.

You might still object that God seems to have limitations, and you would be right, except that you must note that God is only limited by Himself. For example, God is eternal, which means that God has existed forever and will always exist. This puts a certain type of “limitation” on God, because God must be who He is. So, God cannot stop existing, because He is eternal and if He stopped existing He wouldn’t be the eternal God. God also cannot make a creature that existed before God, because God has, by definition, always existed and so nothing could have existed before Him. Likewise, God is perfectly holy and righteous, so it is impossible for God to do something evil, because a perfectly holy and righteous being cannot do evil.

Although this can all be pretty confusing, the key thing to remember is that our language allows us to say some things that actually make no sense, and that it does not rob God of any glory to recognize that He cannot do meaningless or logically contradictory things.