Is the Australian Church NDIS-Ready?

Australia is currently in the midst of a reform called the National Disability Insurance Scheme or NDIS. This reflects a widespread national recognition that change is necessary for the way that we care for and support those with disabilities. This scheme rolls out in 2017 in New South Wales.

Under the NDIS, Australia’s funding will now be allocated to and controlled by the individual with a disability rather than by service organizations, which traditionally provided programs that individuals had to fit or miss out. This change will enable eligible people to structure their income and their activities around their goals.

This potentially opens new opportunities for people with disability, as they gain voice and control and are able to decide what matters to them as a person.

In recent years, there has been increasing recognition that “disability” is not a medical diagnosis, but a bio-psycho-social one, as in the World Health Organisation’s International Classification of Functioning (ICF). This just means that our understanding of what disability often reflects our social environment. Advocates suggest that the word “dis-ability” indicates a limitation on the abilities of a person whom it describes.

With the technology we now have available and use today, many physical limitations can be now overcome – for example, people who wear reading glasses probably don’t see themselves as “disabled” while those of us who use wheelchairs and are unable to get access to the places where we do ordinary life are likely to identify themselves as having a “disability.”

The 2006 United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities or UNCRPD (http://www.un.org/disabilities/convention/conventionfull.shtml) has now been signed by approximately one hundred and forty nations, including Australia. The UNCRPD is a commitment from governments to change the way they provide support to citizens with disability. This is of particular importance because many studies link disability to low socioeconomic status or poverty.

The Centre for Disability Studies, an affiliate of The University of Sydney, has been involved in some of the preparatory work for the NDIS.

And one of the interesting findings is that Australia’s NDIS may mark the potential reappearance (or more regular appearance) of many people with lifelong disabilities into Australia’s religious communities.*

In 2015 at the L’Arche 50-year Symposium conference hosted by The Centre for Theology & Ministry at Melbourne University, Dr Vivienne Riches and Dr Tanya Riches presented their research, outlining the self-reported religious affiliation of 246 Australians with disability during a trial assessment. This was the basis for a scholarly article for AlphaCrucis’ AustralAsian Pentecostal Studies (APS).

Of our respondents, 14 (5.7%) replied that they had ‘no religious affiliation’. The majority of others (92.5%) identified themselves as ‘Christian’, with many specified denominational affiliations.

There was another theme in the interviews with people with disability – staff was largely unable (or, occasionally unwilling) to take people with disability to church. Support for religious activities on the weekends within group homes has been patchy at best.

Now under the new funding arrangements, a person with a disability could articulate their goals as involvement in a faith community, and receive adequate support in order to attend church every weekend, visit the venue each week for music rehearsals, or regularly attend youth or discipleship meetings.

In most Australian cities, this finally marks the arrival of a real weekend for many people with moderate to profound disabilities. The weekend is the time when most people do social things. But until now, support staff structured support around their schedules – and most carers worked midweek.

Interestingly, however, within much of the Christian church, the massive impending social changes that are possible with the NDIS have not even raised an eyebrow. Perhaps this highlights a disconnect with the needs of our community, How much do we really love our neighbour with a disability?

Jesus was highly interested in people with disability – especially those who were dis-abled by their society. Jesus did not see disability as a curse (John 9:1-3). He often healed symptoms, of course, but his main contribution was in solving the wider social problems related to the stigmatisation of people.

Paul wrote several times of his physical weakness (e.g. 2 Cor 12:7-10). The great leader Moses had a speech impediment (Exodus 4:10- 16). Elijah was depressed to the point of suicidality in 1 Kings 19. And one of the most beautiful stories of hospitality in the Bible is the way King David treated Mephibosheth, the son of his friend Jonathan, who had a physical impairment (in 2 Sam 9).

Perhaps the church needs to be more open and connected to the needs of the people within it? …. Is your church community ready to wholeheartedly say “Welcome home” to those rolling over to the NDIS in 2017? new-year-2017-diary-9-2

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*It’s worth saying that service provision is more difficult in Australia’s remote and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities, where services are often further away. In many of these communities, however, there are also different conceptions of what “disability” is, and also different views about social responsibilities to kin.

A Sermon in Three Acts: Of Grief, Of Fear and Of Faith.

Last weekend I preached at St George’s Anglican Church. This is one of Australia’s many churches that use The Lectionary, a three-year plan for each scripture to be read aloud in the public service. Each denomination’s lectionary is slightly different, but most weeks are allocated four scriptures. This is what I was given:

Lamentations 1:1-6

Lamentations 3: 19-26

2 Timothy 1:1-14

Luke 17:5-10

When I got the text message, I shuddered a little – two passages from Lamentations?! These are some heavy going scriptures. Although a preacher doesn’t have to preach from all four, as I thought about it during the week, I realized that there was indeed a deep connection.

So I decided to construct this sermon in three Acts: of Grief, of Fear and of Faith.

Many film writers have used the Three-Act Structure to tell stories. Of course, we don’t experience life as a play. But this is really just an exercise in reflecting upon fundamental human experience in light of the Word of God. In any three-act play, the first act sets the scene. So I will do that here.

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 ACT I – OF GRIEF

Most of the activity in my life at the moment happens under the bed. Let me explain… we live in a terrace house in Annandale that our best friends cut into two. I live in the basement with Tim my husband. In order to make this space work, our bed is on stilts and I sit and work underneath it, on a desk. It also doubles as the closet, which is kind of complicated to explain when I have a Skype appointment.

From under the bed, I encounter the world. I dissertate, and write books and songs. In order to feel some connection to outside, I regularly Facebook stalk.

I have a Facebook friend named Jake Heath. His mother has early onset Dementia, and she has been fading away now for eleven years. He has started to document her life as it is, because that’s all he actually remembers of her. In the last ten years she’s lost the ability to speak, walk, talk, eat solid food or even recognize her family members. She has panic attacks and paranoia. He published some of the events that have structured the last decade of his life in a story called “the long goodbye”. It has been covered by The Huffington Post, the Daily Mail and other papers all over the world. This week, he posted again, and I will read it now:

If you watched the video I posted last night, you’ll want to read this. This time yesterday I had just packed my bags to head down to Batemans Bay. I was trying my hardest not to cry because I knew that if I started that I wouldn’t be able to stop. I knew that trying to drive four hours while having an emotional breakdown wouldn’t be safe. I got here at around 4pm and went straight to the hospital. When I walked in I saw my dad standing over the hospital bed where mum was curled up. She was fast asleep, with tubes hanging out her nose and an IV drip in her arm. He was looking tired and stressed. I choked my tears back and stood there for half an hour or so before dad and I decided to go to the pub.

After all, there was nothing we could do. Mum was warm and comfy, and the hospital informed us that they would call if things took a turn for the worse. She had a fever and had not been able to handle fluids or food for the previous 24 hours. It was finally time to say goodbye. It was time to say farewell to the long goodbye.

After the pub dad and I went home. We watched TV, we had a few laughs, we discussed business – anything except facing the reality that we would be saying goodbye to Jacquie very soon. Went to bed about 1am, but couldn’t sleep, so I woke up exhausted this morning. We made our way to the hospital. I dropped dad off and went and bought us breakfast so that he could have some alone time with her.

… I walked in 15 minutes later with hash browns and coffee to a lot of commotion. “You’ll never believe it Jake…” dad said as I walked in. “She’s done it again.” I looked over the nurse’s shoulder at mum and she was up and active. Dad was feeding her, and she was gurgling with what I imagine was delight at having food. I stood there for a few minutes not knowing how to react. To be honest, I still don’t know how to react. After spending a decade knowing that this time would come, I thought it was finally here.

I knew it would be extremely hard, but I also knew the journey would soon be behind us and we could finally get on with our lives with some sort of closure. So instead of 12 minutes or 12 hours, it might be 12 days. It might be 12 weeks…. Some might say that this is good news, but I don’t think it is. All it means is that the long goodbye is now even longer. It’s like running a marathon and thinking you’re about to cross the line, only to find that the line is nowhere in sight. I thank you for [your many touching messages], but I felt weird ‘liking’ them, so I didn’t. The condolences with early onset dementia are ongoing and still apply, so thank you.

Mum is on her way back from the hospital in an ambulance. When she gets here she’ll go back to her special chair. She’ll get fed and looked after. She’ll continue to barely exist, while we sit here trying our hardest to enjoy life. It’s going to continue being difficult for a while – I truly hope that it’s not too long.
I don’t know what it’s like to watch your mother disappear. But I resonate with Jake’s honesty, and indeed grief, because I think all of us know what it is to lose someone or something that matters to us. And even it’s not this extreme, we all know what it’s like to watch our hopes disappear into a terrible, frightening mess.

This weekend I have spent a number of hours speaking with a family member whose marriage is slipping away in front of their very eyes. It’s barely a year on from the happiest wedding ceremony I’ve ever been to. But the pain between the words they say that gets me, because I love these people. I don’t want them to be packing up each other’s belongings. But neither can back down yet. And so, until there is a glimmer of light, we must live with the grief.

In Lamentations 1 that was read today, the city of Jerusalem sits as a lonely widow, mourning the loss of her relationship. Verse 2 reads,

She weeps bitterly in the night,

with tears on her cheeks;

among all her lovers

she has no one to comfort her;

all her friends have dealt treacherously with her,

they have become her enemies.

It  says that Judah also weeps with loss. The prophet depicts the nation of Israel as ruined by her inability to stay faithful to God.

And therefore God leaves as hurt lovers will do, and Israel is left as a nation to itself. The situation has become more and more toxic, and Zion is silent. There are no festivals or visitors, it is a complete wasteland. Instead, the evil inside her has taken over, and to intents and purposes, it looks like they have won. She is destroyed by them.

The only way for the city again fill with dancing is for Jerusalem to call her lover home and to make amends. But yet she does not, she cannot, she will not.

Under the bed this week, I also encountered Australian politics – or more accurately “the social exclusion of Aboriginal disadvantage” – which structures my research into the intersection of Aboriginal Christianity and The Dreaming. This week, yet another Aboriginal man died in custody. But this time it all played out on my Facebook feed in real time – finding out something had gone awry in the prison, and a call to prayer. Then a heartbreaking final post commemorating his life. A brother, killed while incarcerated by the state. And I thought about the things that we just haven’t done as a nation. The 339 recommendations from the Royal Inquiry into Deaths in Custody that still lie unimplemented.

…. when things are left to themselves, well, it results in entropy. I’m no hard scientist but I feel this lack of order; a gradual decline into disorder in so many parts of my world. It’s like a rot that gets into the fabric of my heart and mind, and it pushes me from life and the Spirit of God.

I don’t think that’s just me. It’s now a cliché, spoken so many times “If God were real then… “ and the things we list after those five words are so meaningful to us. There’s just so much common humanity in those statement.

We cannot protect those we love from death. And yet, so fearful about experiencing this deep grief, we can also spiral ourselves into experiencing the very things that we fear the most.

Which is where the curtain closes and reopens upon Act II, and all the complexities of this story.

ACT II – OF FEAR

The theologian Walter Wink says, “So many people, if the truth were known, live their lives on two levels. The principles they fight about are often at odds with the complicated and often frustrated lives they live. This is why there is so much intensity.”

We find this intensity in another of today’s readings.  After Paul’s release from prison in Rome and his fourth missionary journey, he was again imprisoned under Emperor Nero. During this time he wrote his second letter to Timothy. In contrast to his imprisonment in which he had lived in a “rented house,” he now languished in a cold dungeon chained like a common criminal. Paul knew at this point that his work was done and that his life was nearly at an end.

From this dungeon he proclaims out the words we read in 2 Timothy today, “God did not give us a spirit of fear, but rather a spirit of power and of love and of self-discipline.”

That seems quite complicated.

I can only call it a paradox. If I got to watch more science fiction movies under my bed, I would perhaps be better able to describe how the two realities exist together, and that at any one point in time, we can operate in either realm. There is a red pill and there is a blue pill. We can and do in fact make our very deepest fears come true. And similarly, we can choose to move towards something else, the “deeper magic” that Aslan speaks of in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe.

So, how do we move ourselves from one realm to another? …. Well, as a songwriter, I listen for the narrative arc begin to shift within the lyrical progression. And, in verse 22 of Lamentations 3 it does. In the midst of the lament, comes the turn.

22 The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases,
his mercies never come to an end;
23 they are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 “The Lord is my portion,” says my soul,
“therefore I will hope in him.”

25 The Lord is good to those who wait for him,
to the soul that seeks him.
26 It is good that one should wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.

Although Israel has been turned away, even still, yet Israel’s soul may hope in God.

This is a hesitant, faltering step of faith. It is a incomplete move. But it is indeed faith, as it is “the evidence of things hoped for, and the assurance of the things unseen”.

This narrative turn continues throughout all of scripture. In fact, it is unmistakable as the story of the people of God.

You see, The Bible does not offer people of faith a promise that we will be inoculated from the entropy of the world. Instead, God offers us Himself. But yet, we too often wait in our pain, in our shame, in our failings and our shame, before we take the narrative turn and move towards the Creator of the systems.

 ACT III – OF FAITH

And this leads us into Acts III, the scene of faith. The final scene of a story, is usually the confrontation that brings everything to a finale. In the Timothy passage Paul also writes,

This grace was given to us in Christ Jesus before the ages began, but it has now been revealed through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus, who abolished death and brought life and immortality to light through the gospel. For this gospel I was appointed a herald and an apostle and a teacher, and for this reason I suffer as I do. But I am not ashamed, for I know the one in whom I have put my trust, and I am sure that he is able to guard until that day what I have entrusted to him. Hold to the standard of sound teaching that you have heard from me, in the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. Guard the good treasure entrusted to you, with the help of the Holy Spirit living in us.

This points towards the conclusion of this conflict, which ended with Christ upon the cross. So in verse 8 Paul appeals Timothy his protégé,

Do not be ashamed, then, of the testimony about our Lord or of me his prisoner.

Paul writes this because within the Christian understanding, all the cosmic powers of the world were stopped in their tracks as God hung in shame upon the cross and offered what Walter Wink calls “the third way.” This was the end of the retributive cycles.

And thus Jesus, when he was with the disciples, points towards this potential, the power of the seed as a metaphor for faith. In Luke 17: 5-6,

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.

Traditionally, this verse has been preached in two ways. Many of the Pentecostal preachers I grew up with, they wanted a “power encounter” in which the powers of this world were shamed into submission to Christ’s witness through healings, and the many other miracles that were to take place among the people of God.

I certainly believe in miracles. I do believe that God can indeed heal. I believe that we should indeed pray for healing, for change, for the Creator to break open the systems of the world in the here and the now.

But the greatest miracle of all is that we are no longer beholden to these systems, but can choose a new way thanks to the cross.

As Walter Wink states, “the ‘peace’ the gospel brings is never the absence of conflict, but an ineffable divine reassurance within the heart of conflict; a peace that surpasses understanding.”

I cannot speak for my friend Jake, or to how his long goodbye has affected his faith.

But from the biblical text, God shows us that he does not draw away while we grieve. In fact, he draws near, to indeed experience the very pain of it with us. And, because God draws near to Creation, the promise is that the world and all its death and destruction will be made again new. Renewed.

And thus, the curtain falls upon the world each night we can believe that tomorrow can bring something new, something redemptive, and that we do indeed have hope.

And that is what faith is all about. Not waiting for a quick fix so that we can cope. It is about living life, and life in all its abundance.

Exile Files #4: The Illusion of Online Pastoral Care?

We now live in the age of the corporation. I’m following a case of a pastor having a terrible time with his phone company in Australia. He isn’t an irrational or critical person, so it sort of shocked me when he first tweeted “Arrrrrggggghhhhh Telstra not again!!!!” But it’s a normal event now, that people turn to social media when frustrated. Even pastors. In his latest facebook status, he again complained – but thanked his Telecommunications company in advance for *not* responding with a seemingly helpful but actually useless reply.

It’s interesting, isn’t it, how quickly customer service people respond to social media posts? And responses sometimes ‘convert’ into a solution, but sometimes not. For example, when I was forced to pay a “non-refundable deposit” of $400 to AT&T for an internet router in Pasadena.

“Hang on, it’s either a deposit or a non-refundable payment” I told the sales assistant. “And why do I need to pay this?”

“Because you are not a US citizen” she blithely stated.

“But I have a social security number – so that’s not a real reason!” I argued.

“Yes it is” she responded. “You could leave the country without returning the router”.

I swear to you, this was not intentional, but my last act before our ride to Los Angeles airport was a panicked look at the big, black router. I left it with a neighbor, telling her I would give further instruction on its needs, as if it was a mysterious and demanding pet. Once I landed in Sydney, I immediately tried to contact the company to find out what I was supposed to do with it. I couldn’t, because all emails bounced

“AHA!” I thought. “I will save all other non-US citizens from having to pay a ridiculous non-refundable ‘deposit'”. I will let the company know their service causes disorganized internationals to fail commitment to their expensive equipment”. So I tweeted at this company (which has an annual turnover the size of a Oceanian state).

“I’m sorry for your inconvenience”, a tweet quickly replied. “Please call us to discuss this matter on 133-WECARE”.

So I did… And received the voice message “This phone service is not available outside of the US and Canada”.

No joking, I thought. Well, that’s why you need to charge impoverished international students $400. Another win for neoliberalism.

What’s the main way we engage companies? Online. We expect good service, but yell loudly to our friends when it fails. Perviously we publicized extraordinary service widely, and dealt with bad service face-to-face. Now, we are more likely to publicize failures.

But, to be honest, this reversal makes sense as a consumer. You do tend to get a quick answer on Twitter. Because companies are paranoid about preserving their branding. But, the appearance of good customer service and good customer service are two different things entirely.

More and more, I’m seeing these types of communication patterns moving into the church. Not only are pastors and members intentionally advertizing churches in the social media space “Can’t wait for [insert logo] church on Sunday! <3”, but churches and their staff are increasingly conscious of, and monitoring their brand or image.

When a church moves to thinking like a corporation, it needs to be careful not to absorb corporate motivations – but ensure it’s concerned about the quality of relationships a church can give, and not just manage ‘buzz’.

Don’t get me wrong, I think ‘buzz’ is important. For Jesus’ sake, help church attendees have something positive to say on social media. Nobody tweets about a church where the biggest event is a new dried flower arrangement.

But, as a thinker and lover of the church, I’m also interested in what happens when members go silent, or, heavens forbid, post something negative. Please hear me – I’m not really posting as a theologian, but a pastor for whom something went terribly wrong, propelling me into academics. Now I’ve been out of front row seats for a while, I’ve had many leisurely chats with church attendees.

I think most people (or at least sane ones) do recognize the human limitations of church staff. They sense the weight of the administrative needs of the church as an organization. And there is a lot of empathy for pastors, who deal with the more emotional and spiritual needs of the congregation. People also realize that different churches have different structures and ways of providing care, and some tasks are decentralized – meaning, in theory, anyone can offer them.

But, as I travel often, and investigate congregations quite closely, I’ll be honest – the amount of pastoral support offered by churches in the West has decreased incredibly in the last ten years.

Once upon a time, there was an expectation that if you were a new church member you might get a phone call from the office (or visit from the village Rector). And I’m sure in some places this still exists, but in most you’re lucky to get an automated “Congratulations! You’re registered for the weekly newsletter”.  In especially traumatic or happy periods of your life you might now expect to receive a one-line note, or a bunch of flowers. At Christmas you can expect a Christmas card. We even ask new Christians to log on to register their details and receive more information about God. We need to admit that “clicktivism”, or an online response to real life, has impacted the way we do church.

I’m not saying that the church doesn’t do extraordinary things for people. In fact, I have LOTS to say about the extraordinary generosity of Christians. A friend of mine informed me yesterday that her Baptist congregation committed to pay half her traumatized child’s psychologist bill. I felt so, so proud of her pastors. I attended Reality LA in 2012 when an uninsured student gave the testimony that when he came off his scooter, his congregation pitched in $4,000 worth of medical bills. At Hillsong Church, a single mum of seven was given A CAR. This makes my heart so happy.

I also get overjoyed when I see extraordinary emotional or spiritual support. I just got back from Ganggalah Church, Australia, in which many couples in the church have taken in foster children, and provide each other parenting support. I’m proud of North Hills Church, Brea for being a mid-size AOG church where retired couples intentionally pray for other church members.

Maybe these are the churches with the balance right, I don’t know. But I also hear from hundreds of Christian families who tell me their church has no connection at all with their everyday life. It doesn’t know about the psychological needs of their children, it isn’t empathizing about medical bills. It isn’t even training connect group leaders to make a short, occasional phone call to long-term members with depression. I don’t know how to reconcile these two pictures.

Recently, a pastor friend of mine decided to do exit interviews on four hundred people who had left their midsize Pentecostal church over the last two years. That figure staggers me to the point of nausea. FOUR HUNDRED PEOPLE LEFT THEIR CHURCH DURING A TWO-YEAR PERIOD WITH NO PASTORAL RESPONSE. The scary thing? It wasn’t a church split, or family dispute – just people who filled in communication cards and stopped turning up at some point, but nobody noticed.

Steady numbers can lie in terrible ways. Another pastor informed me that she noticed her congregation’s back door when their colour changed. That sounds ridiculous, but there were an influx of Sudanese refugees into the area, and a dramatic skin colour change in her mega-church congregation visibly showed her how many people had slipped out, and slipped in. I’m not talking about an odd family here and there. I’m talking about an exodus of mammoth proportions in the Western church, with no pastoral response … until it turns up on social media.

Last year, I created a series of posts called ‘The Exile Files’, to talk about the figures that once lingered in church foyers. I wrote a post on the history of the new religious economy, drawing upon mission studies. I then wrote on the differences between biblical passages that deal with interpersonal reconciliation, and the way it now plays out in “self-exile” from six my years of ethnographic work in churches. I finally presented a future-forward image of the dandelion as a metaphor for church in constant change due to globalization.

We are not only in the age of global movements, but also the corporation. And as we stew in the juices of society, it’s to be expected that we absorb some of this flavour.

Is the possibility of pastoral care in this online life an illusion? Well no! There are some ways pastoral care happens effectively in a virtual world. Online interaction can be a force for good. And you don’t need pastoral credentials to begin offering spiritual and emotional care to others. Here are some thoughts to help better pastoral care responses on social media:

  • If you’re seen as representing the church, examine your motives before you post. Are you trying to censor what this person is saying? or listen to grow their narrative beyond debilitating emotions? – 1 Sam 16:7
  • It’s OK to say ‘I’m praying for you’ online, but if you say you will, then mean it. – Matt 5:37
  • It’s important not to just use someone’s timeline if you are discussing emotionally sensitive issues. Not only can it leave them unsure of your motives (being seen to care?), but often they cannot be truly honest in the public space. Interact both on their timeline (as a public show of support) and in emails/private messaging.
  • Being with people in their moment with their emotion is an important biblical principle – Romans 12:15
  • Asking big questions is not wrong, and neither is it “ungodly” – Ps 130
  • A little private ‘R U OK?’ goes a long way, especially if you see something you believe out of character, explosive or inflammatory. If you get a breakthrough, you’ve won a friend for life. – Matt 18:15
  • Don’t assume people know you read their statuses unless you comment or retweet. Likes are not memorable engagements.
  • A few ‘congratulations’ or ‘keep going!’ when things are good earns you credit to say ‘uh… ??’ if you’re seeing self-destructive or defeating behavior.
  • Sounds silly, but you have permission to be real. You can have mutually beneficial friendships and fulfil a pastoral role. Obviously, don’t ignore a professional code of conduct!!!! But don’t be afraid of being honest and transparent, because friendships will sustain you after your pastoral role ends. If you’re a mum, you can authentically engage with mums who are not pastors. If you’re a golfer, you can be friends with golfers. You get the drift.
  • Use social media for updates, but set a face-to-face conversation to gauge motives. Tone is everything.
  • If you don’t have tools for actual pastoral care, you will start to ‘manage’ the congregation’s conversations about your church. Read widely to gain spiritual formation practices: Eugene Peterson, Marva Dawn, Richard Rohr, Wayne Cordiero have great books in this area.
  • Don’t be afraid to refer. You can act as the triage, but don’t fill roles you’re not qualified for. If it’s medical, refer to a doctor. If it’s psychological, a psychologist. Don’t forget that you provide important spiritual solutions such as prayer.
  • There are online ways to support many common congregational issues – for example, software can help you assist a church member manage sexual addictions, exercise, achieve bible reading goals and/or journal effectively. You can even “be” with a suicidal person online even when not in the same city ( I know because I’ve done it while waiting for back up to arrive). Don’t be afraid to use these tools.
  • Pray and ask God to make it entirely clear when you need to drop everything and drive over to a house. It might feel stupid, but you could save a life.
  • Beware of a “leadership” focus in any other place than the highest levels of management. Use synonyms to broaden what you mean by this word, and think carefully about it – when you “leadership”, what does it mean for your community? Obviously, for vision casting, and organizational impetus, leadership is a goal. And preaching on leadership can help congregation members aspire to these roles – but it’s not the core business of church.
  • Church is about the business of following Jesus. – 1 Cor 11:1

Religion, Not-for-Profits, and those “endlessly-advertising Christians”

This week I thought a bit about social media, particularly for generation X & Y. Obviously, many of our interactions changed by moving online – but now, our online lives also affect our offline lives. For example, I’ve recently experienced awkwardness at what was once a very normal face-to-face question, “So! How have you been?”

It’s more difficult to answer when we regularly publicize personal information. To repeat a list of top recent statuses may result in a frustrated “oh. yeah, yeah, I know! What else is happening?” But, asking “umm… have you read my updates recently?” could be taken as an act of arrogance, and even set off a “Oh! I’m not into social media [rant]”. One small example of how real life interactions are changing.

It’s not only personal, but also group interactions. We’re now more likely to read the same media sources our friends read — especially when they actively share them on our timeline or tag us in a post. But conversely, I don’t know if you’ve also recently wondered “where do they get that from?” after stumbling into a conversing group from another industry, or the opposite political persuasion. Yet, everyone else is nodding along with the conversation.

Because I’m a student of Christianity (and its culture), I’m interested in the impact changes are having upon our faith commitment, and the reverse – how religious groups shape our world(s) through new media. I’m especially interested in how globalization affects the world’s margins, but I’ll leave that for another time.

Today, I read an article that discussed social media use for high profile Christians. It describes what I call “preach-tweets”. You know, a statement intended for instruction or teaching. Christians commonly receive this type of communication in a sermon. I actually don’t mind a strong “preach-tweet” from my pastors, or the theologians I follow.

But I find unsolicited “preach-tweets” hard to take. Perhaps because I don’t actually want, nor can I take advice from everyone.

The thing is, Sunday sermons once were relatively closed communication, meaning that the audience was mostly members and a few observers (often called “soon-to-be members”). It’s now the total opposite, we are broadcasting our sermons online and on YouTube to people who are not Christian (or at the very least, not attendees of our congregation).

However in the new world, the playing field is level – everyone is equal as a content creator. So there’s no easily discernible difference between a seasoned, seminary-trained pastor and an ordinary, enthusiastic lay Christian “preach-tweeting”. My atheist friends can’t even see the difference between a Westboro Baptist Church member and Miroslav Volf. It’s an interesting dynamic.

Discussion of media use for religious groups is a boom area for the academy. This is probably fueled by the fact that the Christian message has been conveyed incredibly successfully over two thousand years, with relative little attention paid to the “marketing techniques” of Christians.

You see, Christians long used mass-media to get the message of Jesus out to the world.

Apparently the mailing list kept by the leaders of the Asuza Street revival at the turn of the century is perhaps why many credit this site as the birth of Pentecostalism, despite many similar global movements. Just up the road in Pasadena, Charles E. Fuller was a simple orange farmer who pioneered an evangelistic radio show in 1937 – his name is now associated with the world’s largest evangelical seminary. Aimee Semple-McPherson broadcasted the Christian message from the 1920s through to the second world war with tours and publicity stunts. Billy Graham’s mass evangelism campaigns were unprecedented in size, and often televised. Kathryn Kuhlman, Oral Roberts… The ethos of these Christian greats continues into the late modern (or post-modern) era.

But I wonder whether a serious change in media platforms requires Christian leaders to now make serious shifts in how they communicate. Not just that, but push themselves beyond simple participation towards adopting, or forming strategies that convey their values.

I’ll explain..  in my four-year MPhil thesis undertaken at the Australian Catholic University, I outlined some marketing strategies of Australian church Hillsong as they grew exponentially between 1996-2006. The music was evangelistic, but with a twist – it was explicitly made for corporate use, in Christian communities. There is no doubt that excellent marketing of this music contributed to its success.

But most contributors I interviewed admitted they never expected the kind of success they achieved. All the people I spoke with would concede is that they consciously tried to evolve an inevitable need for publicizing their music releases (they use the word resource) into something that felt more authentic in the public space. For example, they wanted to value the key contributors but also challenge North American individualistic celebritization. They didn’t want young families to have worship leader parents on the road for forty weeks of the year, and so they slowly de-emphasized tours. They started a conference in their home town. Incredibly, Hillsong’s “marketing strategies” now are the model for the Australian church.

To me, it’s clear that if your church is creating music CDs with the intention of becoming “the next Hillsong”, you’re not only the gambling type, but probably ignorant as to what that even means.

How should we strategize, as people professing faith? Should Christian people (or leaders of churches) market their teaching or music? For example, should I promote my own CD? And if so, what are the right motives for marketing it? How widely should I push it? And which avenues should I use? Biblically, and ethically, it can be very unclear.

After writing my thesis, I met a scholar (genius) friend Tom Wagner, based in London. He had a deeper grounding in communications and marketing. We talked a lot about this, and agreed that Hillsong had strategically moved from marketing to branding, which also allowed it more authenticity regarding its message. As it moved from iconic-celebrity-heads CD covers towards a name, a logo, and cover art that vaguely depicted a community, most consumers became aware that Hillsong was not Darlene Zschech’s band, but a group of Christian believers, i.e. a church. We wrote an article on this, published in The Australian Journal of Communication.

However, the question about ‘best Christian practice’ still niggles at me. Of course, it also plays into the globalization of religions. On one hand, many would like Christians to abide by a ‘no proselytizing’ rule. This is the type of rule seen in France, and apparently one third of the world’s countries. The idea is, any communication directly intended for conversion shouldn’t be broadcast into the public space (usually because the public space is seen as an extension of a person’s personal space)

This is kind of what I want to say to the men wearing chicken costumes that ask me for donations “for the environment” when I’m on my way to the car with my hands full of groceries.

On the other side of the spectrum we have die-hard telly evangelists that want to take over every radio and television channel at once to present their summary of the gospel message – because people die daily without an opportunity to receive Christ as their personal Lord and Saviour. They would maybe follow a media shut down with a black screen and scrolling sinners’ prayer. Well… that’s seen as propaganda by most media people I know. It’s one thing to promote the name of Jesus briefly in Times Square, or put a star on the Hollywood walk of fame, but it’s another to have this type of communication as an aspiration. For the record, I don’t know any Christian in Australia that seriously believes they have the power to make this happen. So despite all joking, it’s not a serious position.

A personal clue I’ve clung to that helped me navigate this over the years was a small comment in the margins of my MPhil thesis, written by Australian Catholic liturgist Gerard Moore. While he noted that I had successfully charted the development of Hillsong’s marketing, he wanted to know how this information connected to the spirituality of the organization. He seemed frustrated that I had spent all my time outlining a mode of communication with basic content (entry to the community), but never really getting into the feedback loop regarding Hillsong’s implicit model of a human, or evaluating the effect its music has had in forming its ideal Christian character.

You see, the problem with Christian scholars viewing the “marketing practices” of a church through a secular communication lens is that it doesn’t answer the question “what does this church/congregation/organization believe a Christian to be?”

Being or becoming Christian is a theological inquiry – but we can ask the question more precisely, “How does this [Christian person/organization/NGO]  form its people to be Christian?”

… that is a liturgical question. And one I can’t answer here in this blogpost, so I won’t even try.

Recently I’ve connected with more theologians and pastors on my facebook page, and followed them on twitter. I’ve watched as they engage public conversations. My continued interest is in the religious values that drive Christian desire to communicate their faith with other people, and evaluating whether or not the methods they choose are conducive to

a) communicating the content they desire, and

b) forming themselves and other Christians in line with the values they hold.

While the medium is the message, according to Marshall McLuhan, neither mediums nor messages are the whole picture.

I think there are a number of theologically defensible reasons as to why Christians (particularly preachers and theologians) advertise Christianity as a product. And why they appear as corporations. Some seminaries and churches loudly communicate these reasons as the key identity markers of Christianity. The most obvious is that all media produced by or that publicizes Christianity is (by extension) spreading the core Christian message of Jesus, i.e. is an act of ‘evangelism’. Presumably this is the core motivation that causes a pastor to start a television ministry, or print tracts, believing this act to be essential to their Christian faith.

The question is, is this type of “preach-tweet” catching millenials?

All millennials now understand that with social media platforms, it’s easy to advertise a religious community’s events and products to its members. Email is a great example… Free! Facebook groups… Free! Even group smses are low cost. In regards to local evangelism, you can run off pamphlets and the Post Office will deliver them for you. All of these mediums have their drawbacks. But, by far the greatest costs incurred are in extending the message beyond your existing community to a city-wide, national or even global stage.

Today I scrolled down my facebook and twitter feeds – and found status after status advertising church events. Books. CDs. Teaching series in corporate-looking video links.

Do we really think that one-way blasts about our products satisfy the deeply-held Christian imperative of evangelism?

And this also made me ask my liturgical question: how is this use of media forming us?

The gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) show that Jesus had a group of small disciples with whom he spent most of his time. Most of his energy was spent in two-way communication, with a much smaller portion on mass-media type “preaching”. He didn’t seem to market himself much at all. You can imagine disciples yelling out during the beatitudes, “Mmmhmmm… that’ll tweet!” … but most of their personal development was in the context of his accessibility to them for dialogue.  This sets up a biblical value of discipleship. There’s no manual given for this in scripture, but it’s clear that conversation was an incredibly important teaching tool for Jesus.

For me, this begs the question, are we Christians placing enough importance, time and effort on two-way communication? Or are we just blasting at our friends, workmate and neighbours?

Because maybe that’s one key difference between the type of communication seen in a corporation, and that seen in the Bible …??

How do you navigate these tensions in social media?

Worship as prayer; and good people doing good things – Women of Hope International

There’s always a lot of noise about what’s wrong with the world; disgruntled and hurting people, legitimate and non-legitimate complaints and offenses. But I was taught that if you’re going to complain, you’d better roll your sleeves up and be a part of the solution. Perhaps that’s because my mother is a clinical psychologist and Professor, working in the field of disability. In 2011, I was honored to work with my mother on the research team for The National Disability Insurance Scheme, a $4 billion dollar Australian project to redress current funding inequity, and improve everyday lives of people living with a disability. Previously, I was a part-time academic, part-time pastor overseeing the creative arts department of a medium-sized local church. One thing I found unexpected, and even astounding, was how many unprompted comments about human spirituality I received from families I talked to. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit it. I guess in my time as a pastor, I’d never intentionally sat down and listened to multiple stories of people physically prevented from getting into the church building, or ways in which these people experience God. I found out that difficulty accessing buildings often didn’t equate to a lack of faith or even involvement; these people had profound observations about worship services (and what they communicated to people like themselves). These anonymous conversations inspired many of the songs on my solo album ‘Grace’, released in 2012.

A couple of months ago while in Los Angeles working on my PhD I found myself reflecting upon this experience. I put up a Facebook post that I wanted to find a Christian organization doing some good in regards to disability. A friend, Professor Paul Neeley, read it, and responded in an email that simply amazed me. He pointed me to Women of Hope International. If I had begun to experience compassion for Australians living with disability, it completely broke my heart to see the beautifulimage_13397049586651339704957 faces of those living with disability in the resource-limited nation of Sierra Leone. Women of Hope made visible people who were completely invisible in our air-brushed, image conscious world. We don’t often actually see people with disability, but these images bestowed such honor and dignity upon women! Their aim is not to “rescue” people with disability, but help them make a unique, valuable contribution to society. Often, this happens through access to devices such as prosthetics, or working out what someone can do, and providing training for employment and enterprise. But more often, due to the rejection and ostracism these women faith, this has more usually meant a place of acceptance and love, motivated for these workers in the acceptance and love they’ve found in their deep faith. Kelsey, one of the founders says “God … actually loves [these women] and has good plans for them IN and THROUGH their disability. When they discover and learn to believe that they are not cursed, that God is not angry with them, and that He can use even their disability for their good, His glory and the benefit of those around them – it literally transforms them almost before your eyes”. Wow.

I thought for a long time about how I could help – as an international student, I don’t have a lot of financial resources. But, as a worshiper I know God asks so much more than just singing from us. I love the words of this scripture, Micah 6:8:

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good.
    And what does the Lord require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
    and to walk humbly with your God.

I finally realized I could just use what I do have in my hands, and help make these strong, beautiful women more visible. If you are a worship pastor or leader, I believe you could too. Church is not just entertainment, it is an opportunity to build community.  Definitions of community abound, but the words ‘common’, ‘shared’, ‘together’, ‘unified’ are often used. One way we can build togetherness is developing common awareness about community issues, and connecting together to help practically both in our local area – but also globally. The worship service is a window into our world seen through God’s eyes – and it gives us a chance to respond in prayer and reimagine our world in the power of God’s Spirit. The bible has a phrase often written about Jesus; “he saw, and was filled with compassion”. This phrase is usually followed by a miracle – a person’s life being changed, healed, made complete. Compassion is a particular emotion that inspires healing action. I believe worship pastors and leaders can help teach compassion.

We talk and sing a lot about blessing in the Western church, but we usually only mean it for ourselves. Focusing upon our own blessing (or lack of) just builds entitlement in us – instead, each worship service is an opportunity to realize how blessed we are already, and to pray for those less fortunate than ourselves. Each service is an opportunity to practice compassion.

Trevor Hodge and I wrote the song “For Those” based in The Beatitudes, found in Matthew 5. I think the bridge lyric sums it up for me:

“We will sing and believe, turn our hearts to such as these”

Sung prayer is powerful, and effective. So, I hope this video inspires you to think of ways your own local community can pray for blessing upon women living with disability in Sierra Leone, the workers of Women of Hope International and other people who are currently invisible to your church.

Here is a link to the video so you can sing along with us:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YbXCpdWU230&feature=c4-overview&list=UU_srFcEqf9xdNWKxt6kgLeg

And, if your community is blessed with financial resource, Women of Hope are raising money for their Hope Center, and I would be SO, SO excited if this video led some people to support this venture! There are many ways to practically do that on the website… to give, hold parties to sell WOHI products, host information sessions… let’s get the word out there about this fantastic organization and what it does!!

T.

The Exile Files #2: Or, self-exile hurts a lot more than excommunication

In my first post of the The Exile Files #1, I outlined the agony of individuals choosing (or leaving) a church congregation in what is described as the new religious economy. As the market increasingly distributes religion, and we place emphasis on the individual as the spiritual self (religious identity), the stakes get higher, and the available worship options become overwhelming.

I want to acknowledge a common pastoral critique of damaging effects of “church-hopping” (a phrase used to show lack of commitment to community-building), but also add that a need for community seems in-built to humans, and happy congregants rarely continue the output the necessary energy to keep relationships and time commitments at multiple churches. The way individuals now move fluidly through church spaces is often a serious attempt to grapple with historical changes, and conflicting religious commitments.

Unfortunately, many pastors are unaware of the conflict lines that emerge from our ordinary, non-sacred spaces of gyms, local interest groups, workplaces and family homes. And we’ve moved from church pamphlets towards various identity markers (meaning aesthetics common to a group, whether short-sleeved checkered shirt, and WWJD bracelet, or bald head and expensive whiskey brand) as ways to construct (and reconstruct) Christian identity. But that also means that each individual creates themself religiously in the same way they use fashion or lifestyle. This was certainly not true in a medieval world, where group identity created self-definition.

In this post, I’d like to interrogate the practice of ‘excommunication’, meaning an intentional breaking of relationship between an individual and their community (usually done with intention of restoring them back into the faith).

The bible outlines guidelines for excommunication. If you’re interested, there is a good post on generally accepted interpretations here. But I’ve been thinking about our application of excommunication in an age of social media. My interest is the “lived experience” of church members and the way reconciliation processes work in a late modern or postmodern age. Here is a biblical passage where Jesus directly addresses interpersonal problems:

Matthew 18 :15 -17 “If your brother sins against you, go and tell him his fault, between you and him alone. If he listens to you, you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, take one or two others along with you, that every charge may be established by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church. And if he refuses to listen even to the church, let him be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector”

I’ll just point out, this was in the context of a Jewish synagogue, in a Greco-Roman world. For the Greeks, rhetoric (or public persuasion) was such a high art form that the floor was usually left open for any member of the “church”. Debates were common, less like our emotionally-driven YouTube responses to grumpy cat and more like during the radio era; well-thought-out smack downs in front of a politely clapping audience.

Thus, Jesus could stand up and announce Isaiah 61 fulfilled (recorded in Luke 4) without causing too much trouble. In contrast, not many of us can walk up and gain the floor today in most Western (read tightly-controlled) church worship spaces. And, even if we did shimmy on up to the platform to declare a personal beef against another member, the odds are that a sound operator would intelligently mute the microphone once we started listing our deep hurts. The immediate twenty-first century example this scripture brings up is Ricki Lake. Not classy, not cool.

Honestly, I don’t personally know any Protestant churches that have recently excommunicated members. There was one quasi-excommunication I heard of in the case of a high-profile philandering pastor, but behind the scenes, I found out he was moved to a more rural location (luckily for him, with a waterfront view) and a network of mega-church pastors provided him “personal support”.

Maybe in this case the practical biblical interpretation was ex-communication from his regular Christian audience, I’m not sure. For outsiders, it initially came across as professional Christians hiding him, but he shot out onto a platform as soon as the social media furor died down. In the meantime, his audience had greatly diminished, which was, I guess, his atonement for sins.

For “normal” Christians, our application of this text tends to be self-excommunication, or self-exile. In the new religious economy, regular attendance in the church worship space serves as expression of commitment to a community, agreement with its pastors and leaders (and their collective values and morals). To attend regularly is to commit to uphold the community’s ethos, and therefore to attend irregularly can sometimes be an act of disorganization (like when my phone battery died this weekend) but can also be an act of non-commitment, or even an attempt to communicate dissatisfaction.

Should certain relationships, practices or ethics become troubling to a member, then self-excommunication, or the act of leaving the community is expected, and even encouraged. If my theory is correct, then this might be our actual application of the above passage in a social media age:

Actual Member Application: “If a leader misses the mark, falls below your expectation or acts against you – particularly when violating a value or moral you believe is scriptural – email the fault, between you and him alone. If he emails you back an apology you have gained your brother. But if he does not listen, mention your issue to three or more people in passing that every charge may be tested by the thoughts of two or three committed members. If there is no change and the leader/pastor refuses to listen to these voices you hoped would complain on your behalf, then you have no choice but to slip quietly out of the church. And if he refuses to follow-up with an exit interview to hear your side of the story let the church become to you a tricky part of your history you seldom talk about.

But of course, here is the other side of that relationship transaction:

Actual Church Leader/Pastor Application: “If your member states that you’ve missed the mark or fallen short of their expectation and wants change more quickly than you can give it, ignore him, keeping the problem between you and him alone. Hopefully this issue will die down and become a non-event. And, if s/he figures out a way to adjust his/her expectations and co-exist within the community, you have gained your sister/brother. But if s/he does not listen, and you continue to hear rumors and swirlings that s/he is unhappy, send a message to her/him through his friends or a pastoral staff member he likes, in order that the issue might be sorted, or at the very least, every charge s/he presents may be refuted by the comments of two or three committed church members. If there is no change and the member refuses to be quiet about this issue even after hearing from the voices you gave permission to speak on the institution’s behalf, then s/he has no choice but to slip quietly out of the church. And if s/he does leave, let the member be to you as if they were never there, and remove them from the congregation’s oral history.

The Bible models a useful way of bringing a community into unity, through direct communication and channels of relationship, facilitated by both proximity and distance. And yet, in the example above, which represents decades of interactions I’ve seen as a church member and pastor, little reconciliation occurs.

The member generally appears at another church, with a history of negative interaction with pastoral staff who didn’t care about them.

And, the pastor is left smarting that a church member didn’t respect their authority, criticized their approach, and failed to stick it out for the long haul.

In most self-exile cases, the person has no future way to restore relationship, no dialogue occurs and the church community loses any and all vocal dissenters, which makes it all the more obvious when another one comes along. Short of pleading for unwieldy members to reconnect (generally when a pastor says this they mean coming back to listen to their sermons), the pastor has no recourse but to put the episode down to a bad microwave lasagne.

For this post, I chose not to present 4 easy steps towards change, because my fear is that we have not wrestled with how we do contextualize this scripture, or how we should apply these passages to communities of worship in a digital age.

But some of these questions are going to take deep, deep soul-searching work.

How do we deal with sin in the church today? How do pastors expect members to deal with very normal grievances that arise from walking together closely over years? How do members respond when pastors fail to meet their every whim and i-demand? How are pastors supposed to know when it’s a legitimate criticism, and when it’s just a run of the mill “you didn’t baptize my dog” complaint? How do we do this in a context in which we can simply press a button and “unfriend” someone forever?

No wonder we are left reeling from the pain of broken relationships.  But Christianity in its truest form gives us vocabulary to talk about that pain, and even envisage a future.