Wednesday, March 30, 2011

An organizational culture view on strategic planning

From Eastern Mennonite University, Harrisonburg, VA
I used to work in places like this; Photo by st3ve (CC lic.)
Strategic planning has been on my mind a lot recently. It all started a few months ago when my friend, Josh Brockway, blogged about the church needing to be less strategic and more tactical. Yet he works for a denominational board that just underwent an extensive strategic planning process, producing the Church of the Brethren Mission and Ministry Board Strategic Plan 2011-'19 (PDF). The implementation of this plan will purportedly guide that board and its work for the next eight years of its organizational existence.

Then my organizational studies professor at the Center for Justice & Peacebuilding, David Brubaker - from whom I've taken an organizational leadership course and will take a congregational conflict course this fall - sent me the following article/blog post from Nilofer Merchant at the Harvard Business ReviewCulture Trumps Strategy, Every Time

Adventures with a Sri Lankan myth-buster

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
In Faiths in Conflict? : Christian Integrity in a Multicultural World, Vinoth Ramachandra explores the profound challenges to the integrity of global Christian witness in the church's encounter with two major religious traditions, Islam and Hinduism, as well as the considerable forces of pluralism and secularism in their various forms. In addition to working with these challenges, Ramachandra investigates aspects of the Christian faith that not only make it unique amongst other religions, but also how those unique resources position the Christian faith to be a compelling gospel in our late modern world. Much like the Newbigin text I just reviewed, this book holds up quite well despite its being over ten years old. Especially in the final chapter on secularism and the nation-state, his reflections make use of the work of William Cavanaugh and Charles Taylor, among others, who are still very much pushing out these questions on secularism and democratic capitalism in our post-9/11, post-global economic crisis context.

What strikes me in his reflections on Islam and Hinduism is how Western myths so often rush in to provide conversational frames. With Islam for instance, the “clash of civilizations” argument forwarded by Samuel Huntington in the early 1990s has quite often been the frame for post-9/11 conversations on “Islam” and “The West.” Ramachandra dryly quips that while “Huntington's civilizational paradigm has the merit of simplicity” (15), it is precisely that merit which is the argument's greatest weakness. No civilization is as self-enclosed as Huntington proposes, for as the author states, “cultures and civilizations, far from being sealed into watertight compartments, have always interpenetrated and borrowed from each other” (22). Indeed, Muslim contributions to Western thought and earlier Christian contributions to Muslim cultures have been “largely ignored by Muslims, Western Christians and secular writers alike” (24).

Thursday, March 24, 2011

The secret of mission: Humility

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Lesslie Newbigin's The Open Secret: An Introduction to the Theology of Mission  says so many things well it's hard to know where to start. While this is a book about theology of mission, it is just a flat-out excellent book of theology in general. But not just theology, because Newbigin is simultaneously doing some startlingly lucid reading of Western societies and cultures. It perhaps shows my tacit Western belief in progress, but I was consistently amazed throughout the book that it was first published in the late 70s. All of his descriptions are still relevant, and in fact a few are downright prescient and/or prophetic. This book is a masterful blend of orthodox Christian theology and rigorously postmodern thought, adding a splash of critical engagement with Marxist theories and liberation theology. For that engagement, Newbigin affirms and applies what's helpful to his project while also clearly drawing the lines where those frameworks become unusable to his theology of mission. He is articulate and nuanced in ways that many of us can simply hope for, and elucidates an unapologetically Christian theology for mission that short-circuits what many people - including many Christians - associate with Christian mission (namely its legacy with the imperialistic colonial impulses of Europe).

In terms of the broad arc of the book, Newbigin front-loads a general theological exploration of standard Christian doctrines, but does so in such a way as to make mission inevitable “by the logic of (the church's) own gospel” (121), before then going on to discuss more practical yet still theologically-rich implications for mission work. At the outset, Newbigin locates the beginning of Christian mission as the "vast explosion of love, joy, and hope released into the world by the resurrection from the tomb of the crucified and rejected Jesus" (3). He then charges through this history of mission to its most recent expressions in the West this side of the Enlightenment, quickly naming some of the challenges associated with that positioning. One of these challenges is the dichotomous nature of mission work as it's presently understood and practiced. Some see mission as primarily a soul-saving endeavor while others see it as taking “action for God's justice” (11), manifest in liberation theologies but also in what Anabaptists might call peacebuilding. The nature of this split means that mission as development or peacebuilding gets carried out in large organizations mostly divorced from congregational life. Newbigin laments this split (and I with him), as both need each other to sustain a robust and faithful Christian mission.

Monday, March 21, 2011

The rhythm and rule of Christian life

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Photo by Ferran Jordà (CC lic.)
A bittersweet season of university life is drawing near: Graduation. Last year was the first time I felt this sting at EMU, as I watched my friends in the class of 2010 graduate from the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding with their MA's in Conflict Transformation, a two-year program which we'd started together in 2008. This year, many of my friends in the Seminary are graduating with their Mdiv's, a three-year program. Meanwhile, I'll be hanging around for another full year to complete my work for both degrees.

One of my fellow seminarians, Adam, was conducting a short-answer survey for his senior capstone project on the "rhythm and rule" of Christian life, a cute seminary phrase for "spiritual disciplines" or the virtuous, worshipful habits that shape our faith.  "Rhythm and rule" always makes me think of drum circles, which seems like a decent metaphor. A drum circle group that's really keyed into the rhythm is transcendant while an arhythmic circle sounds like a car crash. What do we want our lives to sound like?

Anyway, my answers to Adam's questions seemed like good material to adapt and post here, so read on for a bit of my reflections on the spiritual disciplines that have developed for this busy grad student...

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

An old Brethren take on Love winning

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Pastor Rob Bell
(photo by feyip, CC lic.)
Rob Bell's new book, Love Wins, has caused quite a stir in the U.S. Christian blogo/tweetosphere for the past few weeks, the stink getting so bad that even mainstream media has taken note and sales for the book have already been wildly successful (as of this moment it's #5 on all of Amazon). When the uproar over whether or not Bell is now preaching age-old heresy of universalism started, I immediately thought of an old Brethren teaching of "universal restoration," which sometimes got labeled (usually pejoratively) "universalism."

Last summer when I was working on my Brethren studies, I read quite a bit out of The Complete Writings of Alexander Mack. Mack was the first Brethren leader in central Germany in the early 18th century. He had a Reformed upbringing and was later influenced by Radical Pietism and a warm engagement with the Anabaptist-Mennonites around them. The movement that started out of that eventually resulted in the stream that I now stand in 300 years later, the Church of the Brethren.

Mack's belief in "universal restoration" held that hell is real, but punishment would not continue for all time, ultimately all are restored to God's love, but there was a sense of levels and those who went through hell "would never attain the high state of bliss possible to those who chose to follow Christ in life" (4).

This notion of levels of bliss helped hedge against laziness, I suppose, but Mack still cautioned: "(I)t is much better to practice this simple truth that one should try to become worthy in the time of grace to escape the wrath of God and the torments of hell, rather than deliberate how or when it would be possible to escape from it again... Even though this is true, it should not be preached as a gospel to the godless" (98-9, emphasis mine).  It's worth noting that recent sociological research done by Brethren scholar, Carl Bowman, has shown this early Brethren belief to have been almost completely abandoned. Anecdotally, though, there are a few young [thx, Paula!] Brethren who probably think this is worth taking seriously...

Friday, March 11, 2011

Restorative or transformative theology?

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Howard Zehr
For the past few years I've had the joy of assisting Howard Zehr in the administration of his restorative justice blog. As I mentioned in my very first post back in October 2009, the name of this blog - Restorative Theology - takes its cue from the field that Howard helped shape over 30 years ago, a field in which I've studied and done a small amount of work. So in addition to simply helping administer, I also look at Howard's blog as a conversation partner to this one.

Howard's posts tend to be be reflective inquiries into the state of restorative justice as it's presently understood and practiced. Perhaps the primary concern in his work at this stage of his career is helping practitioners in various arenas keep true to what he sees as the values and principles of restorative justice. He's just put up an interesting post with the following query:

Read on for some of the ways in which I think a theological conversation shifts the concerns underlying such a question. I'll also make a case for restorative, transformative, and theopolitical Christian practices...

Thursday, March 10, 2011

Extensions to the Body of Christ?

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
On this dreary, rainy evening in the Valley, I had the pleasure of consulting with a local Mennonite congregation, facilitating a dialogue on their use of technology (after they fed me which was great). Major topics of discussion centered around the church website and social media, technology in worship services, and what to do with the diminishing use of the church library. It's a congregation that already has a lot going for it in those areas and the knowledge for where to go seemed to already reside in the group, so hopefully my facilitation helped corral that and point it in positive directions.

As I was driving away from the church after the meeting, a thought struck me from Shane Hipps' book, The Hidden Power of Electronic Culture. He talks about all technologies being extensions of our human bodies. So a hammer is an extension of our hands. Rollerblades and cars are extensions of our feet. A camera is an extension of our eye. Microphones, websites, e-mail, Facebook, Twitter, are all extensions of our mouths. The reading of stories, textbooks, news articles, or essays all supplement the intellect housed in our brains, and the knowledge we acquire can then work itself out through other parts of the body. And in general, any form of communication involves the use of our rational and imaginative capacities. So all these things involve a body or bodies.

I like this embodied way of thinking about technology because it offers interesting ways to talk about my favorite metaphor for the church: the Body of Christ. Christians are all members of that body and if we're being faithful we're helping the body be healthy. So in our use of technologies - extensions of our various members/body parts - how can we use it in such a way that maintains faithfulness and edifies the body of Christ? That's an important thing to keep in mind when congregations start talking about the myriad technologies, because there are so many details involved with using just even one, that you can quickly get dragged down into the weeds and lose sight of that overall purpose: worshiping and glorifying God.

So as we extend the body of Christ through our use of technology, let's do so wisely and discern with the Holy Spirit in our midst, so the wielders don't end up being the wielded.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

No villain, no hero... Just faith

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Periodically, stories arise from the Anabaptist traditions that shock and sometimes offend sensibilities of the broader society. Perhaps most prominent in recent American memory is the 2006 Amish school shooting at Nickel Mines, Pa., and that community's response of near-immediate loving outreach to the shooter's family. Another story that exhibits costly Christian grace comes from a Mennonite family from Chewala, Wa., whose five children were killed in a car accident five years ago. But the story doesn't end there as this piece from the local TV station details...

Monday, March 7, 2011

Joshua (hilariously abridged)

From Bethany Theological Seminary, 615 National Rd W, Richmond, IN 47374-4019, USA
After last night's intense post about militarism I'm happy to offer something a bit more lighthearted this evening. A fellow Brethren from Bethany Theological Seminary has put together this wonderfully funny abridged account of the book of Joshua in a series he calls "Scribble Theology." Check it out:

Sunday, March 6, 2011

Military porn, military infidelity

From Eastern Mennonite University, 1200 Park Rd, Harrisonburg, VA 22802, USA
Scrolling through my Facebook news feed tonight produced two links that worked together to create quite a series of knots in my Christian pacifist guts...

First, a handful of my family members and friends, all of whom I respect and love, serve in various branches of the United States military. Most, if not all of them would call themselves Christian. One of these men, with whom I've discussed Bonhoeffer and Christian pacifism, posted on his Facebook wall the video which follows the break. I caution against watching the video, which I would classify as "military porn." I reluctantly did so and became very sad at first and then furious at the end, when I heard the quote: "We've all been taught 'Thou shall not kill.' Now hear this: Fuck that shit." Wow. At least they're honest.