Phil Snider

Subverting the Norm 2: Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches?

Every so often a conference dares to ask the big questions about church, ministry, and theology without guaranteeing simple, sugar-coated pat answers, and that is precisely what is happening this April at "Subverting the Norm: Can Postmodern Theology Live in the Churches?" (April 5-6 at Drury University in Springfield, MO.)

Featuring dozens of provocative and influential postmodern theorists and practitioners like Peter Rollins and John Caputo, Subverting the Norm is the premier place to be for all those interested in the future of the church. Participants will reflect on questions such as:

Can the actually existing churches speak meaningfully and persuasively to those who aren’t so sure about the supernatural or the magical or the metaphysical, which includes the fastest growing religious demographic in North America, the “nones,” those with no formal religious affiliation?

Can the church retain a viable role in a world where God is often viewed as a relic of the past, or as a grand Santa Claus in the sky, or perhaps even as a narcotic or neurosis that we’d do well to get rid of?

And if the churches are to be faithful to the revolutionary event that gave birth to Christianity, or if they are to recover their theological voice in a compelling and transformative way, is it possible to do so by listening to voices on the margins of the church, or outside of the church, including even those who might rightly pass for atheists? And perhaps more to the point, why are voices on the fringes of the church, or outside of the church, becoming more influential on church leaders and practitioners than the traditionally “orthodox” voices inside the churches?

With tracks related to ministry, liturgy, worship, preaching, community organizing, art and much more, Subverting the Norm is the place to be for everyone interested in the future of postmodern ministry and the church.

To take advantage of the early-bird registration rate (expires Feb. 28), or to learn more, visit http://subvertingthenorm.wordpress.com.

Many thanks to co-sponsors Drury University and Phillips Theological Seminary for making it so affordable, even for students!

Is it time to re-imagine theological education?

The following is an excerpt from Phil Snider's blog.

If mainline theological education is broken, it's not for lack of interest from prospective students.

In the book The Hyphenateds, which will be released next week, Nadia Bolz-Weber notes that in the seven-year history of Church of the Apostles (an emerging church in Seattle that is deeply rooted in both the Episcopal Church and the ELCA), nearly thirty participants have enrolled in seminary. Thirty participants in seven years.

Nadia is an ELCA pastor at House for All in Denver, Colorado, where in just seventeen months of weekly worship they have sent three young adults to seminary.

In the congregation where I pastor (Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, MO, a Disciples of Christ congregation), we have sent seven participants to seminary since we started The Awakening in 2005, a worship gathering that combines progressive theology with alternative expressions of liturgical worship. (The number of participants that went to seminary in the previous 45 years of Brentwood's history? One).

The ratio of participants from emerging mainline communities who enroll in seminary is nothing less than astonishing, even as the number of established churches that are available to support traditional full-time ministers rapidly decrease.

What is it, I wonder, that draws so many participants from hyphenated congregations to ministry? What does this mean for the church as a whole? How do established mainline structures cultivate in-depth theological education and training in ways that constructively address the needs of hyphenateds who are likely to lead innovative ministries on the fringes of church life that will (ironically) result in even more seminary students drawn to ministry on the fringes? How do seminaries respond to the questions raised in Deacon Gus's thought provoking post "Does it make sense to go to seminary?"

By drawing on examples from United Methodist practices, Elaine Heath, professor of evangelism at Perkins School of Theology, writes the following in her contribution to The Hyphenateds:

One of the biggest obstacles at this time for United Methodists who participate in what the Holy Spirit is doing through emergence is an ordination system that no longer fits our missional context. That is, every person who is planning to be ordained as an elder and receive full membership in an annual conference (the level of ordination necessary to have full voting privileges and to enable one to rise to significant levels of leadership, including bishop) must also plan to receive his or her full-time income and benefits from the local church. People aspiring to be elders cannot plan to be bivocational, working as a pastor of small, possibly impoverished faith communities while earning a living doing something else. The only exception to this is for people like me who are already ordained as elders who, at some point after having served in local churches, are appointed beyond the local church to an extension ministry such as teaching at a seminary. Cases where persons are ordained as elders and immediately sent to extension ministries are extremely rare.

There is one more piece to this troubling puzzle. We also have qualified, gifted, called, fruitful candidates whose elder ordination is delayed because there is nowhere to send them for the required, guaranteed, full-time appointment, because so many United Methodist churches are shrinking and closing. These candidates are rarely told that the reason for their deferment is that there is no room at the inn, but it seems clear that this is what is going on. Sadly, this is one of the big reasons that young candidates leave the denomination and go elsewhere, and that some young seminarians decide not to pursue ordination in the first place. The great frustration at this time is that the more innovative and socially entrepreneurial the candidate is, the more suited to generativity, the more at home working in the margins of society, the more interested in bivocational ministry, the less likely it is that she or he will ever make it through to ordination. Without ever having planned for this outcome, then, our ordination system and our guaranteed appointment system work hand in hand to actually prohibit some of our most gifted young adults from answering their call to missional, monastic, and generative ministry within the United Methodist Church. Small wonder that we are having a hard time attracting young adults to ordained ministry in the UMC these days, and keeping the ones who are focused on emerging, missional work!

So it is that across the nation our bishops, chairs of boards of ordained ministry, seminary deans, and clergy are wrestling with how to change the systems in order to accommodate necessary movement without compromising the sanctity of ordination to word, sacrament, and order. Meanwhile, under the radar, out on the margins, and right under our collective noses increasing numbers of Methodists are answering God’s call to create new faith communities that use nontraditional leadership structures, in order to go and make disciples. Most of them don’t care if they ever get ordained. What they do care about is living the gospel in the manner of the early Methodists: faithfully, holistically, as good news in a broken world.

How might mainline communities and structures respond to these concerns? This is just one of many subjects explored in The Hyphenateds, and I look forward to the conversations and possibilities that emerge as we reflect on the future of the church together.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Springfield, MO. His books include Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations (winner of the 2011 Mayflower Award for best book in church and society) and The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices.

How to connect with young adults: The secrets are revealed!

I have been a member of the Disciples of Christ denomination for 15 years, and I have attended four out of the last five General Assemblies. Time and again, I hear conversations about the need to listen to young adults and connect with young adults and fund young adult ministries. As a young-ish adult (I am 37, so about the only place I am consistently referred to as “young” is in the mainline church), I often hear well-intentioned members of graying congregations say they desperately want the “younger” people to join their respective churches, and they often ask me “What will it take for the younger people to come to our church?” I have a very simple answer to this question, but first let me tell you what young adults, for the most part, when it really gets down to it, don’t care about:

Young adults really don’t care if you have screens instead of hymnals.

Young adults really don’t care if you have a guitar instead of an organ.

Young adults really don’t care if you have couches instead of pews.

Young adults really don’t care about your church having the slickest marketing gimmicks out there, including a savvy website coupled with a working knowledge of Twitter and Facebook and Google+ and whatever else comes next.

But what do young adults care about? What will help your congregation connect with young adults? I will give you one simple example, and it is largely representative of what is missing from this General Assembly, as well as previous ones: the explicit, unambiguous affirmation of gays and lesbians into the full life of the church.

It is a travesty to me that our denomination, which prides itself on being a movement for wholeness in a fragmented world, is not offering an affirmative communal voice for our gay and lesbian brothers and sisters who have been deeply wounded by society in general and the church in particular. If justice delayed is justice denied, as Dr. King reminded us, will we stand idly by while organized religion remains one of the last vestiges for valorized homophobia?

What is particularly striking to me is that our polity (unlike that of the PCUSA or ELCA, each of which recently joined our Episcopalian and UCC brothers and sisters by taking major stands on behalf of the GLBTQ community) doesn’t even bind each congregation or each member to have consensus of opinion on this matter, yet we can’t even have a resolution or a conversation that points toward affirmation?! Years from now, will our denomination look back on the early part of the 21st century and say that we stood on the side of justice, or are we content discerning ourselves to death, convincing ourselves that our efforts of offering hospitality are related to our abilities of mastering the world of Twitter? Do you really think that is a compelling vision for younger generations, especially when over 70% of young adults are open and affirming of gays and lesbians and view the church as the last place that will be welcoming and inclusive of them? Despite whatever rhetoric we might employ, all of this gives me serious reservations about referring to our denomination as “progressive,” at least in the best sense of what that word harbors.

To be sure, there are those who will say that offering hospitality to the GLBTQ community will lead to the loss of members, and I am sure that some members will indeed leave our congregations and denomination. I say that as a pastor who recognizes the dynamics of doing ministry and dealing with church politics and the like. But I am also convinced that far more young adults will come through our doors if they view our congregations as places of welcome and affirmation. Indeed, if congregations would quit worrying about superficial concerns like screens and hymnals and embody communities of welcome and affirmation instead (communities that take progressive theological convictions seriously), then young adults will flock to our churches. Not because of Facebook, but because of the good news of the gospel.

The young adults who walk through the doors of Brentwood Christian Church aren’t doing so because we’ve put together some hip and trendy and cool worship service. They are coming through our doors because we offer a theology of welcome, affirmation, and justice. And in the past six years, ever since we decided to become a community that cultivated what Presbyterian pastor and author Carol Howard Merritt calls “unambiguous inclusion,” we have seen over 100 young adults become active participants. I’d like to say it is because I’m quite the happening pastor. But it is because the good news of the gospel, and the healing that it offers, is a gift to young adults hungering for the inclusive love of Jesus Christ.

I close with words that aren't from any "missional" or "emerging" Christian, but from Dr. King's Letter from Birmingham Jail:

There was a time when the church was very powerful--in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being "disturbers of the peace" and "outside agitators."' But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were "a colony of heaven," called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be "astronomically intimidated." By their effort and example they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an archdefender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church's silent--and often even vocal--sanction of things as they are.

But the judgment of God is upon the church as never before. If today's church does not recapture the sacrificial spirit of the early church, it will lose its authenticity, forfeit the loyalty of millions, and be dismissed as an irrelevant social club with no meaning for the twentieth century. Every day I meet young people whose disappointment with the church has turned into outright disgust.

True then, true now.

Phil Snider is a pastor at Brentwood Christian Church in Springfield, Missouri. His books include Toward a Hopeful Future: Why the Emergent Church is Good News for Mainline Congregations & The Hyphenateds: How Emergence Christianity is Re-Traditioning Mainline Practices (forthcoming). He blogs at www.philsnider.net.