You are browsing the archive for MicroTheology.

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.

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

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.

A Theology of Gardening

September 30, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

If you live in the Northeast, you may find yourself paying more for a pumpkin this year. Of course, such circumstances are not due to corporate greed. Nor are there any pumpkin charlatans trying to covertly raise the price. Instead, due to excessive rain and early frost dates, much of the pumpkin crop in this area has been damaged. Pictured below are two pumpkins that my husband and I managed to harvest early. While I would have liked to plant another small patch of them, it seems that such efforts would not be fruitful. And so it goes for the art of gardening, in which things like weather, pests, and disease reign above our attempts to control them.

However, despite the uncertain outcome of this labor, I find that gardening is an endeavor worth pursuing. One that not only reveals to us biblical truth, but one that encourages, or rather, forces us to move further along in that process of sanctification, for which all of God’s creation was intended.

1) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and the Land

Perhaps the first thing that will strike you, when you begin to garden, is that gardening is dirty. While your concept of gardening may currently be inspired by the picture of a Martha Stewart-esque woman gracefully tending to her crops while still managing to look both clean and peaceful in Burmuda shorts and a fashionable sun hat, such fantasies will disappear after ten minutes of shoveling dirt to prepare the soil, or after spending an hour weeding on a hot day. For me, gardening often results in a mixture of sweat, dirt and mosquito bites worthy of a long shower.

And yet, I do feel that I have gained a slightly more elongated perspective from this dirty activity. Not only do I feel more connected to my food, which, to my surprise, sucks life from mother dirt as it matures, but I also feel more connected to that dirt itself, as I realize that from dust I also came, and to dust . . .

In generations past, people were not as removed from dirt as they are today. Instead, they were reliant upon the dirt for survival and even struggled with the temptation to worship it, or at least, the gods who were rumored to control it. Of course, this was not the artificial New-Agey sort of nature worship that we see in eco-friendly, homeopathic-remedy-wielding, earth-mothers of today’s generation. But rather, it was a “my life depends on this” sort of devotion to that which was mysterious and seemingly divine in nature.

Thus, embedded in a narrative of laws regarding sexual conduct, we find God clarifying to His people, just who is actually in control of the earth. “You must keep my decrees and my laws” He says, “And if you defile the land, it will vomit you out as it vomited out the nations that were before you” (Leviticus 18:26, 28).

While this warning does in part address the perverse sexual rituals that had been incorporated into worship in order to procure fertility of the land,” it also makes clear that any “violation of the sexual code [or of any code, for that matter] pollutes both the people of the land” and “[requires] a cleansing process that will drive them out and allow resettlement.” In such text, there is “an understanding of an intimate relationship between land and people that would have been natural to a people who based their lives on agriculture and herding” (IVP Bible Background Commentary Old Testament).

Thus in one way, gardening helps reveal to us a long-lost relationship with the land, in which we are made aware that it is neither us nor the Grandmother Willow tree from Pocohontas that controls the land, but God. And like the flowers of the field and the birds of the air, our sustenance and survival are also in His hands.

2) Gardening as Revelation: The Relationship Between Humans and Plants

Similarly, gardening also helps reveal to us that particular creation that is lesser than but similar to ourselves, or at least, caught in a similar predicament. In Job, we are challenged to “Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? [that is, who does not know that God is both all-powerful and all-wise, even in circumstances such as those that befell Job] In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind” (Job 12:7-10).

And yet, from these lesser creations, we are much estranged. Barbara Kingsolver expresses this sentiment rather poignantly in her journal-like memoir, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, when she describes encounters with those outside of the farming communities. She says:

We don’t know beans about beans. Asparagus, potatoes, turkey drumsticks–you name it, we don’t have a clue how the world makes it. I usually think I’m exaggerating the scope of the problem, and then I’ll encounter an editor . . . who’s nixing the part of my story that refers to pineapples growing from the ground. She insisted they grew on trees. Or I’ll have a conversation like this one:

“What’s new on the farm?” asks my friend, a lifelong city dweller who likes for me to keep her posted by phone. . . . So I told her what was up in the garden: peas, potatoes, spinach.

“Wait a minute,’ she said, ‘When you say, ‘The potatoes are up’ what do you mean?” . . . “What part of a potato comes up?”

“Um, the plant part,” I said. “The stems and the leaves.”

“Wow,” she said. “I never know a potato had a plant part.” . . .

To conclude, Kingsolver insists:

My husband and I decided our children would not grow up without knowing a potato has a plant part. (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p. 11-21).

While for Kingsolver, such knowledge of a plant may be the ultimate revelation, for Christians, these astonishingly various shapes and “colors of the wind” point to a God of infinite wonders and creativity. Such wonders do not have to be over-analyzed or contrived, such as the infamous Ray Comfort/Kirk Cameron assessment of a banana, but are inherent within such basic miracles, such as that of a seed coming to fruition.

On this subject, Kingsolver is, again, knowledgeable, stating: “Biology Teachers face kids in classrooms who may not even believe in the metamorphosis of bud to flower to fruit and seed, but rather, some continuum of pansies becoming petunias becoming chrysanthemums; that’s the only reality they witness as landscapers come to campuses and city parks and surreptitiously yank out one flower before it fades from its prime, replacing it with another” (Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, p 11).

This “fading from prime” to which she refers is none other than the stark reality of death, which comes to us all in a post-Eden world. Such disorder and chaos are often directly tied to the sins of the people of Israel and their on-and-off pattern of obedience to God. For instance, in Hosea, we find that “there is no faithfulness, no love, no acknowledgment of God in the land. There is only cursing, lying and murder, stealing and adultery; they break all bounds, and bloodshed follows bloodshed. Because of this the land mourns, and all who live in it waste away; the beasts of the field and the birds of the air and the fish of the sea are dying” (Hosea 4:1-3).

And yet, it is also revealed to us in Romans, that in times of both drought and plenty, all of creation remains in bondage to a fallen world, tainted by sin. “We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time” (Romans 8:22). In Knocking On Heaven’s Door, David Krump describes this specific state of travail, stating that “caught between the collision of two opposing spiritual forces, the cosmos groans under the combined weight of both” (Knocking On Heaven’s Door, p. 200).

Thus, like us, this lesser creation has fallen far from its perfected state and is now forced to inhabit a world where all is not well. And more often than us (for when do plants ever cease pointing to God?), this lesser creation has an instinctual though non-conscious awareness of its place within the order of creation and its purpose on earth, and it testifies loudly to the design of a Holy God that has been tainted by death and destruction. Take a whiff of air from a compost pile or that vase of decaying flowers that you have neglected to throw out, and such tainting with be made clear to you in a very visceral way.

3) Gardening as Formation: Ever-Approaching and Awaiting Perfection

Of course, it is in the garden that we also become aware of God’s promise to creation, which does not abandon it to death forever but intends to restore it to its former glory. And at the same time that creation groans under its present circumstances, it also “waits in eager expectation for the children of God to be revealed. For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God” (Romans 8:19-21).

And like all of creation, we also await perfection in heaven, where not only will our bodies be perfected, as those of the flowers and the trees, but our souls, too, and all the fruits of the Spirit that have been sown as seeds within us will be fully ripe and bountiful for the harvest.

In this way, we come to recognize ourselves as the seeds and ever-maturing fruits of God’s own harvest. And it must be noted, that through the act of gardening, we ourselves may grow in patience, joy, tenderness, self control, and other fruits of the Spirit–fruit which is just as much a foretaste of the Kingdom to come as the actual fruit that we harvest from our meager plots.

Thus, as we pull weeds from our gardens and attempt to make straight the paths of those climbing plants that just can’t seem to find their way to our trellis, we look forward to a day when all such plants will be perfected. To the day when we “will go out in joy and be led forth in peace; the mountains and hills will burst into song . . . and all the trees of the field will clap their hands” (Isaiah 55:12). A day in which this wasteland, where April is indeed the cruelest month crumbles under the incoming reign of a Garden of Eden on earth.

So go forth. Work the land. Plant seeds. Eat berries. But above all, seek after God and all that He wants to cultivate and reap in your life and in others. For the harvest is plentiful, but the workers . . .

A Theology of Church Web Design

September 23, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

It has been said that in our present digital age, church websites are the new steeples. The increasing availability of the internet and web-related tools offers churches the chance to not only advertise their existence but also to share their faith and strengthen their communities. While many helpful resources exist and much has been written on some of the practical mechanics of designing a good church website, little ink has been spilled on theological consideration for church web design.

1. Accessibility

If you could design a building for your church that would be difficult for poorer congregants to access and would be completely inaccessible to church members who drive Chevys, would you want to design such a building? Of course not, yet many churches do something similar by designing their website using Flash.

Five years ago, Flash-based websites were the cutting edge with integrated videos, fancy animations, and impressive page transitions. That is no longer the case, as web developers have begun to realize that a good website is not necessarily an impressive website, but a user-friendly and accessible website. The problems with Flash far outweigh the benefits, for example:

  • Websites built using Flash tend to be very data-heavy, requiring even users with fast internet connections to wait several seconds for the site to load. A 2006 study found that 75% of web users polled indicated that they would not return to a website if it took more than 4 seconds to load. More recent studies suggest that patience is waning, as 47% of respondents expected a website to load in less than 2 seconds, 40% will abandon a website if the load time goes over 3 seconds, and 52% indicated that load-speed was important to their loyalty to a site.
  • Poorer people tend to have older (slower) computers and slower internet connection speeds, which means that data-heavy websites will perform particularly poorly for them. People living in less densely populated areas and rural regions also tend to suffer from slower internet connections.
  • Flash does not work on the iPhone at all. As of August 31, 2011, 82.2 million Americans own smartphones and 27 percent of those smartphones are iPhones.* That means that 22 million Americans cannot access a Flash-based website from their primary internet connection, and this does not even include the millions of Americans who own iPads that cannot run Flash.
  • Apart from the 22 million American iPhones, there are another 60 million American smartphone users who have a slower internet experience than the one they would have on a PC and will therefore be frustrated by Flash websites, even though they technically work on their phones.

Of course, although Flash is a particularly illustrative example, many of the lessons that apply to Flash apply to other forms of web design as well. Any website, designed using any platform, can suffer from slow-loading and a clunky, frustrating user experience if it is not designed with accessibility as a goal.

James 2:1-7 warns the church against showing favoritism to the rich at the expense of the poor, and the warning against such favoritism should be remembered when designing an accessible church website.

2. Hospitality

While I would argue that a church’s website should be built primarily to serve the members of the congregation, there is no doubt that it should (and will) also serve as an introduction to potential visitors. Hospitality should be expressed everywhere within the church, but must begin on the church website. There are a few things that every visitor will want to know when considering your church, and you can show them that you care about them and have thought about their needs by making it as easy as possible for them to find that information.

Hospitality will usually involve creating a special “Visitor” section of the site that houses clearly named links to pages offering visitors:

  • A photo of the church building so that visitors will know when they are in the right place
  • The church building’s physical address
  • Driving directions
  • Service times
  • A way to contact someone from the church with questions
  • A brief explanation of what can be expected when visiting the church
  • A sense of just how dressed up church members normally are. While you want to make it clear that the church does not have a dress code, you do not do anyone a favor by promising that jeans and a T-shirt are normal when they will actually find themselves standing out in a sea of suits and dresses.
  • An explanation of the church’s denominational affiliation and Statement of Faith, for those who are interested.

While hospitality should be shown through the creation of such a Visitor section, it is important to keep in mind that the website should also be hospitable to church members and should not, therefore, be dominated by information for visitors. There are many ways in which the website could serve existing church members, including:

  • Providing audio podcasts and written transcripts of sermons can help members who were unable to attend a given Sunday service. Likewise, additional study guides can be made available to help supplement sermons and Sunday School lessons.
  • Keeping an updated calendar of events can serve church members by helping them to be aware of all upcoming opportunities to serve and be served.
  • Special sections of the site can be devoted to allowing church members to share prayer requests, to make needs known, and to offer to share their resources with one another.
  • Sign-up forms can enable members to easily enroll children in Vacation Bible School, volunteer for service ministries, or indicate what dish they will be bringing to the church potluck.

3. Ecclesiology

Hopefully, your congregation has made an effort to emphasize the priesthood of all believers and to encourage every member of the Body of Christ to use their gifts for the ministry of the church. Believe it or not, this emphasis should extend to your website.

In recent years, tools have been made available that allow multiple people to update and maintain a single website. The WordPress CMS (Content Management System), for example, allows you to give an unlimited number of users the ability to work on the site, and even allows you to grant each user a different level of authority so that theologically profound yet technologically incompetent church members could share their thoughts on the church blog but couldn’t accidentally shred the website’s code.

The benefits of giving website editing ability to multiple users include:

  • Spreading the workload of updating the website, so that the church secretary does not end up with yet another responsibility on his or her shoulders. (Exodus 18:13-27 encourages this sort of shared responsibility)
  • Having a regularly updated website
  • Living out the expressed principle of the priesthood of all believers.
  • Giving a sense of stewardship responsibility for the website to more members of the church, which can open the door to creativity and excitement in further developing the site to serve the church and local community.

4. Aesthetics

While it was argued above that accessibility is of key importance, this does not negate the importance of a strong visual design for a church website. Our God is a God of order, beauty, and creativity, who can be glorified through the use of artistic talents.

A well-designed site can glorify God through its beauty, but is also important because of the message it communicates. As Marshall McLuhan famously taught us, the medium is the message. While that was a hyperbolic overstatement, we cannot deny that the medium affects the message. The design of your website will have an impact on the content that you distribute through your website, especially regarding your church’s:

  • Competency – While we know that God’s glory can be made manifest through our weakness and insufficiency, such assurances are meant to point to God’s all-sufficiency and not to drive us to do poor work. While a well-designed and visually appealing website does not indicate whether or not your church is faithful to the ministry to which it has been called, a poorly-designed website can and does cast doubt on a church’s overall competency. People visiting a poorly-designed site can find themselves asking “if this church cannot achieve the fairly simple goal of having a nice website, how can I trust them with the complexities of rightly dividing Scripture or providing godly counsel?” Obviously, a bad design does not entail bad ministry, but nothing good is achieved by giving your visitors cause for even ill-founded doubts.
  • Relevancy – The Gospel is always relevant to all people everywhere at all times, but you cannot expect non-Christian web users or even immature believers to know that. Many people who have yet to experience the glory of God’s in-breaking Kingdom have the idea that churches have nothing relevant to offer. Poor web-design can reinforce such misunderstandings. If your church’s website is littered with animated GIFs, built using frames, automatically plays background music, or makes use of any other popular design techniques from the 90’s, you are basically telling visitors that your church has nothing relevant to offer.
  • Concern for real people – Humans in general and Americans in particular spend a great deal of their lives online and that must be taken into account by churches. An ugly, irrelevant website tells people that your church is not interested in reaching them in the realm of the web, where they are spending a large chunk of their time.
  • Ecclesiology – Yes, ecclesiology (the theology of the church) was already mentioned, but it deserves another look. Many otherwise-beautiful church websites have made the mistake of prominently featuring a photo of their building or of their pastor on the front page. Yes, you should include a photo of your building on the Driving Directions page to help people find it, and yes, it can be helpful for people to know what the people in the church’s leadership look like so they can recognize them when they see them. By featuring those photos on the home page of your website, however, you communicate to each person who views the site that your church is your pastor or is your building. You do not want be saying that.

5. Social Media and Web 2.0

Technologists have come to the conclusion that the internet today is not just bigger but also different from the internet of a decade ago. The web was once divided into two sections: the tools that allowed for interpersonal communication (e.g. e-mail, chat rooms, discussion boards, and instant messaging), and the tools that allowed individuals (people or organizations) to communicate to broad audiences (e.g. websites). Today, the internet has largely been transformed, as interpersonal interaction has become, in many ways, the primary content of the web. Websites, blog posts, and even news articles generally offer a comment section where readers can respond to the content. By responding, though, those readers actually augment the content. Facebook is one of the most-visited websites on the internet, and yet it is nothing more than platform that allows users to generate and share their own content with one another. The web has largely become an extension of conversation.

Because we, as Christians, recognize the giftedness of each Christian for ministry to the whole body of Christ, we should naturally encourage the participation of every church member in our websites. This can be done in several ways:

  • By allowing comments on your church’s blog, you give a primary platform to theologically mature church members but also allow the rest of the congregation to respond to their thoughts, which can lead to new insights.
  • By placing “Share” buttons on your website’s pages, you give church members the opportunity to share their congregational life with others via Facebook, Twitter, and their own blogs.
  • By integrating your church website with tools like Twitter and Facebook (particularly through a Facebook Page), you can provide ways for your church community to interact as a community in the virtual locations where they are already spending much of their time.
  • Rather than simply keeping an event calendar of upcoming church activities, using the Events section of your church’s Facebook Page allows church members to indicate whether or not they will be attending, to ask and answer questions, and to express their excitement. Most people will be more likely to attend the upcoming all-church barbecue when they can get their questions answered and see that people they know will also be attending.

6. Service to the Surrounding Community

There is no question that churches can reach their cities more effectively by serving and meeting the needs of their neighbors. While many churches admirably love their neighbors by visiting nursing homes, cleaning up litter in city parks, and distributing hot meals to the homeless, a church website also has the potential for serving the local community. This type of outreach is a recent development and surely has room for great creativity, but a few ideas for getting started might include (you can also find a more extensive article on these ideas at the Leaky Jar):

  • Providing a “New to the Area” Guide – We live in an increasingly mobile culture, one in which it is not uncommon for people to regularly move not only into new homes, but also into new cities, states, and nations. Such a geographical transition can be very difficult, but a church can help by providing a community guide for people who are new to the area. Such a guide might include descriptions of the city’s seasonal weather patterns; recommendations of great stores, restaurants, and parks; an introduction to local jargon and culture (e.g. if all of the stores shut down early on Fridays in Fall because of high school football, that should be noted); and, of course, an invitation to find community at your church.
  • Offering Information on Local Non-Church Resources – Often, those who are needy have no idea how to find help. While your church should be helping to meet the needs of your poor neighbors, you can also help them by providing a directory of local services so that they can more easily discover access to food stamps, low-income housing, and discounts for heating fuel.
  • Serving as a Local News Hub – Many small towns and even neighborhoods of larger cities suffer from the increasing globalization of media. That is, local residents can more easily hear about a protest in the nation’s capital than about the renovation of a local landmark or the loss of a local home to a fire. Making a section of your church’s website (or a separate website sponsored by your church) into a local news hub that aggregates local stories can help your neighbors to become more connected with one another.

Finally, the key thing to remember when considering the theology of your church’s website is that the website actually is theologically significant. Your website can and should be rooted in an understanding of what God has called your church to do for Him.

A Theology of Grammar

September 15, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

It is possible that, taking one look at the word grammar, many people will skip reading this post, believing that I have chosen what is undoubtedly a “boring” subject. Having learned to perceive grammar as a system of mere rules, which are taught briefly (and often poorly) in Jr. High and High School, we are often unconscious of how much we rely on grammar to make meaning in communication.

In fact, most of us hardly pay any attention at all to the choices that we make when we speak. Accustomed to our own vocabulary and speech patterns, as well as those of our family, peers, cliques, and communities, we become easily caught up in our own egocentric understanding of language. Our own dialects seem standard, while the dialects of others seem strange. It is at this intersection that having a theological approach to grammar first comes in handy.

1) A Pharisaical vs. A Christ-like Approach to Grammar:

Every religion has its zealot; in academia they may include such individuals as “the grammar police,” who cannot resist the urge (or what they may see as the opportunity) to educate others on the use of proper grammar. “I think you mean centered on, not centered around.” “It’s not who did you ask, it’s whom did you ask.” To such individuals, all uses of language, whether formal or informal, can be divided into stark categories of correct and incorrect, however artificial these divisions may be.

I say artificial, because even style guides, the holy bibles of editing themselves, do not commit language to such rigidity. The preface to the 16th Edition of The Chicago Manual of Style has this to say about the rules that make up its contents:

“Once again, we have looked to what has become a maxim (from the first edition of the manual in 1906): ‘Rules and regulations such as these, in the nature of the case, cannot be endowed with the fixity of rock-ribbed law. They are meant for the average case, and must be applied with a certain degree of elasticity.'”

Inherent within this statement is an acceptance of the fact that language, especially the language of American English, is a living amalgam of many influences, a mix that has changed and continues to change over time. In the process, it has morphed many a word, including nice, which originally derived from the Latin nescius, meaning ignorant, and was used in Middle English to mean foolish and wanton, and now signifies that which is pleasing and agreeable,* or, possibly, in more recent times, that which is cliche and lacking a certain intensity of greatness.**

Amid this more progressive outlook on grammar, there is also a distinction between grammar that is prescriptive and grammar that is descriptive. While prescriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas should be written this way,” descriptive grammar emphasizes that “some ideas are said this way, without making any judgement” (Approaching English Grammar).

Thus, when discovering the differences in dialect that distinguish you from your neighbor, it might be wise to remember that language (especially from the perspective of a Christian) is not as much a matter of law as it is of grace. And while it is true that some selected principles of grammar actually do hold places of esteem in this world, they should never be honored to the detriment of Christian principles. For instance, if I speak with the grammar of men and of angels, but have not love. . .

For the purposes of education, such axioms should also be encouraged, and the teaching of language should look more like a discussion than an interchange of papers filled with marks made by red pens. I often remember a teacher of mine who used to ask, “Does that work in your dialect?” I think it is in junctures such as the classroom that the concept of discussing what is said or what works, rather than what should be said, becomes most practical.

Nevertheless, for anyone addressing the potential quagmires between the ways people speak and the conventions of a formal written language, it is important to remember that “a soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1, ESV). It is at this point that we discover yet another theological implication within grammar.

2) Grammar that Corrupts vs. Grammar that Builds Up: 

The choices we make when using language often set the tone of a conversation or, even, a relationship. And here, I am not just talking about the content of the language. While most of us are familiar with which words are polite and kind and which words are rude and hurtful, we are often unaware of the more subtle ways in which our language can become productive or destructive. For instance, using overly formal language in a casual social setting may do more to highlight the existence of political strati than it does to achieve effective communication or connection with others.

On such issues of communication, the Bible is not silent.  In Ephesians 4:29, we are warned: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear” (ESV).

Thus, as Christians, we need to be aware of our context before we speak. Using good judgement, we need to consider whether the words we are about to say and the speech pattern that we are about to use are respectful or offensive, inclusive or exclusive, inviting or dismissive.

In some cases, this includes embracing a healthy tension within language. For example, a language that is convoluted with “Christianese” will often confuse and exclude those on the fringes, but a language that drops all hint of religious bias will cease to point toward God.

Thus, as grammar scholars spend time considering possible, non-sexist replacements for certain pesky pronouns, Christians would do well to begin contemplating how they might use language in a way that brings glory and not shame to the faith, and how they might gain more control over that troublesome little muscle, known as the tongue.

“For we all stumble in many ways. And if anyone does not stumble in what he says, he is a perfect man, able also to bridle his whole body. If we put bits into the mouths of horses so that they obey us, we guide their whole bodies as well. Look at the ships also: though they are so large and are driven by strong winds, they are guided by a very small rudder wherever the will of the pilot directs. So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness. The tongue is set among our members, staining the whole body, setting on fire the entire course of life, and set on fire by hell” (James 3:2-10, ESV).

Thus, as has been a recurring theme of this blog, it is through our bodies that we live lives of service to Christ. Through bodies, being “lovely in limbs and eyes not ours,” and tongues, which are able to bless or curse, that we either display Christ’s image or mar his name.

*Taken from: http://www.merriam-webster.com

**Taken from: http://dictionary.reference.com

A Theology of Barnes & Noble

September 10, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

Barnes & Noble Booksellers is possibly America’s most comforting “third place” outside of Starbucks, or maybe even including Starbucks, given the 1993 deal that now allows Barnes & Noble to sell the exalted coffee and other Starbucks’ signature bakery items in its cafe.

The concept of a third place is attributed to Ray Oldenburg, who claimed in The Great Good Place that beyond the “first place” (the home) and the “second place” (the work environment) humans look to third places (coffeehouses, pubs, diners, parks, main streets, etc.) as community hubs for social interaction. In generations past, third places included social clubs such as lodges, country clubs, YMCA’s, etc., but in the current reign of Generation Y, these venues have faded from popularity.

Churches also seem to have lost some ground in their positions as anchors for membership. According to survey findings from The Pew Forum on Religious and Public Life, Millennials are less likely to identify with a specific religion, denomination, or even church (measured through church attendance), despite maintaining similarities to previous generations in what they actually believe. According to the report Millennial Generation Less Religiously Active than Older Americans“Millennials are significantly more unaffiliated than members of Generation X were at a comparable point in their life cycle and twice as unaffiliated as Baby Boomers were as young adults.”

While some individuals (even young individuals) may frequent their own church often, churches at large do not seem to be the main venue choice for third place activities. Furthermore, church buildings seem to be recognized less for their universal role as community centers and safe havens and more for their particularities of style and demographics.

That places like Starbucks and Barnes & Noble have attracted and drawn in so many people has to do with the fact that they are chain stores, inseparably linked in a business-like fashion.  And while the church should never be run like a business, I think it is reasonable to argue that churches, inseparably linked in Christian like-mindedness, should show some visible signs of similarity to the outside world, so that when asked to describe a church, an individual might use words such as “warm, comforting, and peaceful,”  instead of than “cold, sterile, boring, or anxiety-producing.”

According to the Barnes & Noble website, “If you ask a typical customer to describe the Barnes & Noble experience, words like “warm, comfortable and spacious come to mind.” To this list, I would also add the word giving, and it is this list that I think also serves as an excellent template for the church environment, if it is to reclaim its position as a first-choice third place.

1) Warm & Comfortable

When you enter a Barnes & Noble, you are greeted with warm shades of color, seemingly imported from Florence, and warm lighting that instantly evokes the feel of a personal study. If you visit their cafe, you are further enticed by the scent of bakery treats and a fresh pot of coffee, and if you stay there to study, you will most likely (if your B&N has been updated recently) be accosted by amplified icons, painted in a quasi-caricature fashion. These are the likes of Shelley, Whitman, Melville, etc., as featured in the picture below, and their presence in the cafe is exemplary and awe-inspiring, as if to motivate the humans below to equal heights of greatness.

Barnes & Noble Cafe Mural, taken from theopenend.com

On the other hand, when you walk into many churches, you are often met with a bleak and sterile shade of white, as well as disjointed decor that appears to have been collected over decades. The smells and tastes of many churches are equally negligible, and may consist of nothing more than a somewhat recently stirred pitcher of lemonade powder and a meager stack of Costco brownie bites, which have yet to be removed from their plastic container. Thoughts regarding the planning of lighting and temperature control appear to be lacking, if present at all.

*Of course, the few churches that do give thought to these sorts of things (namely megachurches) often do so to the extent that they run more like a business than a church, in which such things are done more for the purpose of attracting and maintaining members than for the purpose of caring for them.

Visually, many churches are flat and plain, giving the impression of a hotel rather than a home. Having been stripped down in iconoclast fashion (sometimes to the extreme point of even getting rid of the cross) most churches don’t even consider offering up religious portraits such as John Everett Millais’ Christ in the House of His Parents, but, instead, trade them in for shallowly-disguised copy-cats of the Live, Laugh, Love genre. For example, the interior walls might be basted in phrases such as “Let God Love Through You Today,” which are often painted in some kind of contemporary scroll-style font.

*Interestingly enough, this is also a flaw of Starbucks, which sometimes makes the the mistake of being too cliche. For instance, my local Starbucks could probably do without some of the cheesy poetry on the wall.

2) Spacious

The way that Barnes & Noble uses space is ingenious. Their bookshelves, organized in a maze-like fashion, encourage browsing, and yet, they are wide enough apart that one can dart in and out rather quickly if their schedule demands it. But for those who want to stay, all paths lead to the cafe, which is often in the very center of the building, and in some locations, elevated so that it looks over all the rest of the store.

And this use of space is not neutral. Instead, it actually orients the customer’s perception of the environment. For instance, while in the upper level of the cafe, the whole store becomes one’s personal library; the individuals below, an atmosphere of entertainment.

Outside of the cafe, and in between the mazes, one will often stumble upon an open, living room sort of area. Here, little tables are spaced out between comfy, movable, easy chairs. From my perspective, it is this use of space that first distinguishes Barnes & Noble from Starbucks in the search for a third place. For unlike Starbucks, even on a busy day, when no cafe or cozy chairs are available, Barnes & Noble boasts a seemingly endless amount of space, and one can easily cop a squat right on the floor, where they can read book-in-lap style.

Like the details of comfort above, many churches fail to give any attention to the way they use space. If they are the type of church that sets up chairs, they may make rows that are too narrow, or don’t have many ways to get in and get out when people come in late or need to leave early.  If the rows are too long, they might encourage people to sit on the edge (even when the middle has not been filled) in order to avoid being blocked in. If the church site is split into multiple rooms or buildings, the location of child care centers, fellowship/snack areas, and church offices may also be lacking in proper planning. For instance, if a church fellowship area is around the back of the building, where it is out of sight from the parking lot, relocation should probably be considered, or if this is not possible, proper navigational signs should be put in place.

*Often times, all that is needed to designate an area as a “hang out” or fellowship area is the strategic placement of tables and seating.  If your church is accessible by foot (especially in a well trafficked area), placing a few umbrella-covered tables in front of your building will probably attract quite a motley crew of passersby and members alike, and not just on Sundays either, but throughout the week.

*The “comfy” factor should also not be underestimated when considering what sort of furniture to put in a pastor’s office, youth room, lounge area, etc.  Even a shabby couch, if it is comfortable will encourage sitting more than a sad-looking fold out chair or an immaculate, extravagant chair.

If this consideration of church architecture and the use of space seems out of the ordinary to you, you can at least take comfort in the fact that it is not without precedent, and I am not just talking about elegance and lavishness of detail, the financial cost of which can easily turn against the grain of the Gospel itself. What I am referring to, are the ways in which churches of the past manipulated space in order to orient their members in certain ways. Pews were communal in nature, facing forward toward a central and dominating cross. The pulpit was off to the side of the stage, emphasizing that it was not the pastor that members should worship, but Christ.

Perhaps one of the more difficult to emulate uses of space in older churches, were the ceilings, which used arches and A-line frames to draw attention up toward the heavens. While such detailing should never be sought outside a policy of good financial stewardship, it it at least thought provoking to consider the amount of care and intention that was given to the crafting of space in times past, in comparison with our own negligence of it.

3) Giving

Finally, in addition to providing physical space, Barnes & Noble is generously open in allowing people to use their facilities to do their own thing. One piece of evidence for this statement, is the fact that the employees won’t stare you down as you mosey around their store, or even expect you to buy a book from them. In fact, the amount of people moving in and out of the place gives off a comfortable vibe, in which there is no pressure to even be conscious of yourself as a “customer.”

If you are looking for a nice date spot, meeting a study partner, or even just resting with your kids while shopping at the mall, Barnes & Noble (without any ado) provides a venue for you (and for your restless kids, if you count the children’s area/corner). Furthermore, Barnes & Noble generously provides resources and materials that you can browse, while you spend part of your day there. Of course, this comes with the expectation that you will eventually, and inevitably buy something from them, as you continue to frequent their store. But nevertheless, it is a type of giving and openness that people cannot help but respond to.

My husband and I often frequent Barnes & Noble in order to browse their magazines for free, magazines that we cannot afford to individually subscribe to. However, while we are there (and without any pressure to) we are more than happy to make a purchase from the bakery so that we can munch while we read.  Furthermore, when we find a book that we really enjoy reading, we may just buy it while we are there. Such practices would not occur if the environment of Barnes & Noble was different in any way from the way it is now. In fact, without Barnes & Noble’s giving spirit, we would probably not come at all.

In returning to the church, we sometimes find that generosity and giving are often preached, but not acted out, starting with extremely limited access to the facilities. Locking your building door if your church is located in a dangerous neighborhood is one thing, but if your church is locked often, or uses a gate and a no trespassing sign, you may be sending the wrong message to your community. By allowing people access to your church, you do invite some risk, but you also invite opportunities to interact with and love others.

This interaction shouldn’t be contrived or done out of hopes to “sell” the faith, but should overflow naturally from members who already interact this way with each other.  Like the employees at Barnes & Noble, church staff and members should be open, friendly, and willing to go to great lengths to help. However, they should also be accepting and gracious to individuals who are just meandering about the premises, using the outside tables to hang out with friends, or poking in to use the bathroom. By providing these simple creature comforts freely and without stipulation, churches are sure to stand out in a society that is often over-concerned with liability and protection.

Finally, as brothers and sisters in Christ, church members should be setting a living example of generosity.  As communities, church members should be providing for each other on a daily basis.  Are there extra veggies in your garden? Bring them to share at church. Is a family in your church moving across town? Put an announcement in the bulletin or an event message on Facebook soliciting help for them.

If your church is already on this path, you might consider taking generosity one step further, and engaging in the use of a “sharing network,” (best done on a craigslist-esque website) where members can borrow and share material goods such as tools, vehicles, utilities, books, etc. For instance, why on earth would every person within the same church need to have their own power drill?  Or why on earth would every member have to own a pickup truck, a double broiler, and the same commentary on Job?

*My husband is actually in the process of introducing such a network at our local church (more updates on this to follow).

Though this level of borrowing might sound “extreme” to a culture that treasures its material goods above all else, Christians should not be bound by such concerns. Though there are real snags that have to be worked out in order to make this type of community possible, they should not be too challenging for the church community that is willing to grow and learn together, and willing to take correction and give forgiveness. In embarking on this adventure, churches would not only become intriguing examples of people living in true community (assuming they don’t get accused of being a cult), but would also free up resources and wealth that can be stewarded into surrounding communities and the world at large.

Because there has been a lot up until this point, I will try to summarize a final plea. It may just be possible that churches could take a few cues from Barnes & Noble in relearning the spirit of hospitality (warmth and comfort), intentionality (use of space), and generosity (giving and sharing). Of course churches should never be businesses, and they should never attempt to honor these principles outside of or to the detriment of other Christian fruit. But if we find ourselves in a state of mind or society where places like Barnes & Noble and even Starbucks seem more welcoming and enticing than churches, we may just need to reconsider the status quo.

A Theology of Holidays

September 2, 2011 in MicroTheology, Theologia Ordinarius

The poet Alexander Smith once wrote that “Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” Yet, I would argue, that it is not Christmas alone, but all holidays, religious or otherwise, that occupy this role, by both forming the constitution of time and informing our conscious awareness of it.  “How many days until Christmas is it again?” “Is it time for Halloween already?”

To put it simply, holidays help us make sense of our lives. Like seasons, they structure our year. Like weekdays and weekends, they separate the mundane from the sacred. And perhaps most importantly, they bestow upon us traditions, which provide not only comfort, but a sort of grounding that brings meaning to our daily existence.

The universal nature of holidays is probably a matter of common sense, but let’s explore it briefly anyway.  While each person’s life might be structured by a different collection of holidays (based on their religion, culture, family, etc.), it seems incredibly unlikely that any one person could escape holidays altogether.

Even the apathetic postgrad, who, having taken an Intro to Philosophy or Global Studies class, might smirk at the concept of a “holiday” and applaud himself for not “buying into” such “social constructs” meant only to serve the various agendas of religions, governments, consumerist economies, or even greeting card companies, cannot help but fall into his own pattern of holiday-like traditions, even if they are made up of no more than Thursday night Wilfred episodes, Weekend pot smoking with friends, and the Sundance Film Festival in January.

If I offended you with that particular example or with that overly-lengthy sentence, I apologize.  I only mean to make clear that we all structure our lives around “holidays” of sorts, and that there is something about doing so that is uniquely human. From Kindergarten to College, an individual’s holidays may consist of “Summer,” “Christmas Break,” and “Spring Break” or whatever the equivalent “school not in session” periods may be.  For married couples who work and have kids, holidays might consist of weekly or monthly “date nights” and “family vacations.” During my senior year of college, the weekly Wednesday night LOST party was a very well respected holiday.

Interestingly enough, it is these personal holidays, which we may not even recognize as holidays (such as those of our imaginary, apathetic existentialist), or may only label as “secular holidays” that best pinpoint the components that make up a holiday: the physical actions that constitute celebration. In this way, it is not so much the concept of a holiday, as it is the traditions that are ushered in by one that affect us.

Following this line of thought, and taking Christmas as a stand-in for holidays in general, we might ask: What then, is the Christmas Spirit? Is it some mindset within ourselves, or does it infect us from the outside in? Is it the hustle and bustle of “busy sidewalks” that Silver Bells proclaims? Or is it, according to It’s Beginning to Look a lot Like Christmas “the carol that you sing, right within your heart?” Is it the sharing of gifts and fudge with family that brings the holiday into existence? Or does the holiday only occur during those moments, when, as some pastors might confusingly say, “we make sure to take time to think about Jesus this year?”

Or, is it possible, that no such divisions exist? Could holiday traditions be inseperably intertwined with the concept of holiday and the holiday spirit itself? And further, is it possible, that the modern church just might have something to learn from secular culture when it comes to “doing holidays?” In order to answer these questions, we will first take a look at that which is often labeled “secular” within holidays, and see whether it is really secular after all.  Second, we will address the concept of liturgy, and discuss its important, though often hidden presence within both secular and Christian tradition.

1) What is it about those pesky holiday activities that seems so (gasp) “secular?”

To return to the confusing, yet commonly heard-while-in-church command to “take time to think about Jesus,” we see that there is a underlying, almost latently Gnostic sort of mentality in which the HOLY (aka: the sacred and divine and even conceptual) is viewed as distinctly separate from the SECULAR (aka: the physical, earthly, and material). I am sure I am not the only individual, who, as a young child, left church during the Christmas season, and contemplating this apparent divide between “doing” Christmas and “thinking about” Christmas, attempted to spend some time alone in my room trying really hard to focus on Christmas (only to come out five minutes later embarrassed by the fact that I had given God so little of my Christmas season).

Of course, I am in no way trying to advocate for a wholly unreflective mentality toward holidays.  What I am trying to say is that reflection on a holiday does not need to be separated from partaking in a holiday, and furthermore, the traditions we partake in are not secular, but are in fact an equally valid, and equally holy form of celebration. Thus, I am saying that singing carols, baking cookies, and giving gifts can be just much a form of worship as my childhood attempts to contemplate the Christ child in silence.

This makes sense to us in secular holidays, because we no longer experience pressure from a false dichotomy. We no longer fear that the sacred will be contaminated by the secular.  Thus, we partake freely of fireworks and hotdogs on the Fourth of July.  We gather with friends to watch the Superbowl and laugh at the new commercials.  We plan special date nights for Valentines day.

In these cases, it is the activities that are focused on: the gathering of family, the eating of food, the giving of gifts, etc. Furthermore, it may be helpful to note that a focus on activities during holidays is not without Biblical precedent. In the Jewish customs of the Old Testament, holidays are celebrated with traveling, feasting, the wearing of special and lavish garments, etc. And, whether or not we admit it, it is these same things that we anticipate within our celebration of Christian holidays, albeit with a large side dish of guilt that we are giving in to that which is “secular.”

“But what about that issue of reflection?” you ask, “If modern Christian holidays are supposed to learn from, or even regain a long-lost sense of celebration from these secular holidays…where does the reflection come in?”

2) What is a “liturgy” again? And are you sure it’s not just a boring church thing?

Enter in liturgy. Though many Christians perceive the concept of liturgy as nothing more than meaningless ritual practiced within the “Catholic church” or an “old people church,” the actual word refers to the format or structure of worship within a church, and defines not only what is done at the Catholic, Lutheran, Episcopal, or Presbyterian church down your street, but also what is done in your contemporary, non-denominational, even mega-church service. One church service might include hymnals, an organ, and the lighting of candles. Another church might include a rock band and a big screen.  In both contexts, a particular form of liturgy is followed in order to structure and direct worship.

To follow James K. A. Smith (Desiring the Kingdom), in somewhat more broadly defining liturgy as the daily, communal actions that (perhaps unconsciously) order our hearts, desires, and objects of worship, we see that holidays, when fully embraced and celebrated should naturally give way to daily reflection, and a never ceasing perspective of ourselves as incarnately grounded within the global church, aka: the body of Christ.

This means that reflection is not restricted to Christmas and Easter, and then forgotten for the rest of the year, but rather, reflection grows out of a lifestyle, where worship is daily and constant, and ever in anticipation of celebration through holidays. In much the same way, the Christian week does not consist of “holy time” on Sunday, and secular time throughout the rest of the week.  But rather, Sunday service is a time of celebration for a community of believers who are already doing life and worship together.

This concept of liturgy is, again, easy to perceive in the areas of our lives that we consider secular. Take for instance, the liturgy of a high school football team. In this analogy, the players worship daily through communal practices that orient their hearts, minds, and bodies toward a uniting purpose. Friday night games, thus, become holidays in which that unity is celebrated. Reflection is present, but nearly inseparable from their actions both in preparation for and during the holy game, and as they continue to participate in this culture of sports, they continue to become grounded in liturgy and worship.

Though it may seem like a new concept to the contemporary Christian, such practice is not without precedent in the history of the Christian church. It may be dusty, but the Liturgical calendar is alive and well, or, at least alive, in many churches throughout the world.

The reason I hesitate to fully acknowledge it as “alive and well” is simply because, like our modern way of practicing Christian holidays, the use of the liturgical calendar often fails to move past simply encouraging church members to “reflect” on the holiday.  If any action is done at all to commemorate the holiday, it may not be more than simply changing the color of banners and flowers that decorate the church building. Thus, if the church is to revive the tradition of liturgy, it might not hurt to start with reviving the liturgical calendar.

Though some churches have started experimenting with bringing back traditions such as Lent and Advent time, much focus still seems to be on the prelude to Christmas and Easter, and the rest of the year seems largely unaccounted for. For instance, why do Epiphany and Pentecost get little to no attention?  What about All Saints Day? And then, there is Ordinary Time, which is not so ordinary after all, but filled with several important feast days of its own.

Furthermore, I think that more can be done to actually celebrate these holidays. In keeping with the theme of this post, that it is the actions and traditions that affect us the most within holidays, I think it would do churches well to start brainstorming ways in which members can actively engage and participate in the celebration. And no, I am not talking about just responsive readings or themed hymns. I am talking about fasting during Advent, visiting graveyards on All Saint’s Day, laying on hands and commissioning members for ministry during Pentecost service.

Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate the traditional 12 days of Christmas, churches might encourage families to plan a special celebratory activity on each of the days, which end with Epiphany, the revelation of God’s incarnate nature, literally to the Magi, and symbolically to the Gentiles. Perhaps, in an effort to celebrate Ordinary Time, which bears the color green, and runs longest from spring to harvest, the church might encourage its members to participate in a church garden, or at home personal gardens, the fruit of which can be shared or given away to the community.

Such activities may do more for encouraging reflection than simply commanding it, and would certainly seem promising for promoting a lifestyle of liturgy where worship is not separate from daily life, but embedded in it.  It may just also help Christians regain a healthy sense of holidays: how they fit into the Christian life, how they inform our sense of time, how they encourage daily reflection, and how they affect the focus of our hearts, through our partaking in tradition and embracing of celebration.