Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Rebooting Church --The Ultimate 'Wicked Problem'?

New York Times Op-Ed Columnist Ross Douthat suspends a question in the ether of equipoise on July 14: "Can Liberal Christianity Be Saved?"

To his credit, he doesn't offer an answer. He basically focuses on what he sees as the imminent demise of the Episcopal Church in America, and concludes that its leaders should take a breather from their frenetic pace of change and ponder what they really want to alter, and what they want to retain without compromise. As Rob Bell might put it, they need to decide what kind of there they want to have there. Failing this, Douthat says,  the institution "will change, and change, and die." 

I found Douthat's column, and the varied perspectives that followed it, interesting and inspiring. I will go into the details below and will end up with the new question that it led me to -- one that might actually be helpful: Is the decline of the church a "wicked problem?" (I will go on to explain what a wicked problem is, but at the outset stress that I'm using 'wicked' in a special sense -- not in the sense of cruel, morally wrong, evil, etc.)

The op-ed piece says the Episcopal Church is dying out, despite (because of?) its moving to a big-tent, liberal region on the spiritual landscape over the past decades, in part dating to:
... 1998, John Shelby Spong, then the reliably controversial Episcopal bishop of Newark, published a book entitled “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.” Spong was a uniquely radical figure — during his career, he dismissed almost every element of traditional Christian faith as so much superstition — but most recent leaders of the Episcopal Church have shared his premise. Thus their church has spent the last several decades changing and then changing some more, from a sedate pillar of the WASP establishment into one of the most self-consciously progressive Christian bodies in the United States.
Douthat says Episcopalian bean-counters for the past decade find liberalization has not attracted "a younger, more open-minded demographic", and overall attendance has been in "something between a decline and a collapse: In the last decade, average Sunday attendance dropped 23 percent, and not a single Episcopal diocese in the country saw churchgoing increase."

Douthat tosses out token gripes with other churches: The most successful, in terms of numbers of congregants,  "have often been politically conservative but theologically shallow, preaching a gospel of health and wealth rather than the full New Testament message." He says any mainline Protestant denomination -- "Methodist, Lutheran, Presbyterian — that has tried to adapt itself to contemporary liberal values has seen an Episcopal-style plunge in church attendance." Within the Catholic Church he observes that progressive orders have failed to attract new adherents. 

The column ends by wishing "that liberal Christianity recovers a religious reason for its own existence." Douthat wonders what I wonder -- What does the contemporary liberal church offer that "you can't already get from a purely secular liberalism"? In the comments that follow, people mention things the progressive church does offer beyond secular liberalism. Elizabeth Fuller (of Bishop Gene Robinson's diocese in New Hampshire) writes, 
"Where else in this culture do you find institutions made up of neighbors, of people of different social classes and educational backgrounds, even different political stripes, who join together to ask difficult questions, to think about values, to study the wisdom of the past in order to inform the future? Where else can you go to listen (for free!) to the beautiful sacred music, composed over centuries, that is otherwise primarily heard in concert halls to which admission costs have been steadily rising? Where else can you to take comfort in knowing you are not alone in your struggles -- that Job and others like him have agonized over the unfairness in the world and been frustrated by our lack of answers? I could go on and on, but there simply isn't space."
Others note additional reasons people don't embrace the church, including the guess, 
 " that progressive religion is dying in America because, for right or wrong, a very powerful, vocal conservative movement has succeeded in equating institutionalized religion with conservative values in the popular mind, and now children, who have tended to be more socially progressive than their parents for several generations now, find no reason to care about the church at all."
As I was thinking about the column's question, these responses, and my encounters with both successful and declining churches, it suddenly clicked: What we have here is a "wicked problem."  These, unlike "tame problems," are incomprenensibly complex; they have multiple stake-holders, often with vastly different interests, values, motivations, and perspectives. They entail interrelated issues and an incomplete (or in this case perhaps unknowable) list of requirements and driving forces. Solving one bit of a wicked problem may cause unanticipated new problems -- or help reveal directions toward the larger solution. Wicked problems are unique, so past experience is of limited value in their solution. And it is only in the solution that you come to understand what the actual problem was.

As the church slides into decline, I think it needs to steal every tip, every scrap of knowledge that it can from the secular world, including ideas for tackling wicked problems.

It was at the keynote address of a recent meeting of the Association of British Science Writers that I first heard of wicked problems. The speaker, Jay Rosen (a professor of journalism at Columbia University) said that one thing that might help describing wicked problems is having lots of different people tackling different parts from many different angles, around the world, and collecting and sharing experience and data from diverse quarters. A software engineer may get a key ingredient for the solution from a motivational psychologist who may learn from an economist. A group communications expert may have a key tool for incorporating input from essential, but largely unheard voices at the grassroots level, which might turn the problem upside down for the authorities who've been wrestling unsuccessfully with it for decades...

Rosen also suggests iterative problem-solving, like that used to tackle huge software projects:
"... listen to the clients and quickly prototype something that solves one little problem. Then show it to the client, knowing that it will probably reveal further aspects of the “big” problem .... Then you do that again. And gradually you get there ... Jumping back and forth from a global understanding that is constantly in revision to local solutions that are constantly being tested...."
From Rosen's thinking about wicked problems -- and if you buy my hypothesis that the decline of the church is a wicked problem, you'd  have to conclude that Douthat's suggestion --  leaving the fate of the church up to the ponderings of its leaders -- probably isn't going to work.  Wicked problems start "from the limits of professional expertise." Leaders and organizations may be stuck in a rut, lacking the creativity and broad, diverse perspectives needed for the "unmanageable complexity" of wicked problems.

He certainly wasn't talking about the church, but I heard religious undertones as Rosen approached the end of his talk. Writing about wicked problems, he said "preaches humility to the authorized knowers. It mocks the one best answer and single issue people. It seeks to deliver us from denial."

Could the vast distributed network of individuals, believers and doubters, in and out of the church; congregations, benefices, church leaders, religious columnists..... somehow share their knowledge and piece together solutions that might someday define the wicked problem I think we have here? Could someone just magically compile the vast years of vigorous (and diverse) jostling on the discussion boards of the "Ship of Fools" and suddenly see IT?

Post update, September 2013: I found this article by Christian Piatt. It's not a bad starting place for the scary process of rebooting church. Piatt identifies "Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back":
Church buildings ("have become an albatross rather than an asset")
Denominations ("...if you ask those outside of the Christian faith, these divisions not only seem irrelevant; they are part of the reason they have little or no interest in being a part of the Christian faith ....  that is so desperately fractured and fragmented that few of our denominations are really sustainable anymore")
Worship ("in holding tighter to our traditional notions of worship, rather than to the value of community, however and wherever it is expressed, we end up worshipping our own worship services more than we worship God.")
Church Boards ("...as is the case in most systems involving power, it is in the nature of church boards to stay more or less the same, rather than adapt to more accurately reflect the congregation, or even the community beyond the walls.")
Fear ("Too often, our actions in church are governed principally by a response to what we fear might happen, rather than faithfully discerning what God is calling us to do. We assume that the only way to tell if we’re being faithful is if the church buildings are full and the budgets are met. But this mandate is nowhere to be found in the Bible. . .
"...there are an increasing number of people ...who feel some connection to God, but who don’t see the value of using church to explore that connection. This is not necessarily an indictment of us as individuals, but rather a wake-up call to help us recognize what’s really important. As Jesus demonstrated, the relationships matter so much more than our religion, and Jesus’ call is to go out among the people, not wait until they come to us.
"Sure, it’s scary, because it’s vulnerable and a little bit risky. But Jesus never promised us a risk-free faith. Rather, he offered us a life filled with meaning, provided we would embrace the perfect love he offered that promised to cast out such fear.")

By coincidence, the very same day I read the Piatt article, I also saw this video news clip on something called "Sunday Massive" -- a non-religious celebration (including music, poetry and thought) held in a disused church in Hove, England. The point was described by participants as being for "community" and "fun" for people uncomfortable with "the religious aspect" of church. Is this what rebooted Christian faith looks like? Just doing what He said rather than making a religion about it -- doing what Jesus did rather than wrapping it up in traditional worship and preaching about one particular take on it?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Aussie Girl Guides & The Last Week of Life

Two seemingly unrelated items on the news from a few mornings ago throw into sharp relief the parts of Christian faith that I believe will spell its doom -- or prove its salvation.

Exhibit One: The Girl Guides in Australia have changed their oath so that they no longer promise their allegiance to God and Queen. (They now promise is to serve their community, Australia, and "to be true to myself and develop my beliefs.")

Exhibit Two: Research on the quality of life for cancer patients in their last week of life finds that two aspects of religious practice significantly improve their quality of life: A.) Having some practice of prayer or meditation and B.) Care from a chaplain, priest, or other spiritually-oriented person.

As a preamble, I need to turn the pages of the calendar back to March, when the vicar for our benefice penned the priests' column at the front of our monthly parish magazine. The Rev Jane Twitty wrote:
As I write this, there have been recent judgements in the courts that may be seen to marginalise Christianity. Bideford Council have been told they cannot start their council meetings with prayer; a husband & wife who, because of their Christian beliefs, refused to let a homosexual couples[sic] share a room in their B&B, have been fined. There is a feeling that Christians have, if not been persecuted, been marginalised.
Rev Twitty offers encouragement to Christians who are are dejected by these incidents by citing people who had recently spoken up for Christianity, including George Carey, former Archbishop of Canterbury; "Lady Warsi (herself a Muslim);" and the Queen. She concludes her editorial by saying:
We mustn't hide away. Just as the Olympics will be staged in full view of the spectators, both those present in person and those watching on TV throughout the world, so Christians must be prepared to be visible. We mustn't say, as Alistair Campbell did of Tony Blair 'We don't do God'. We need to support each other as the world, and our country, becomes more secular.
I think this is the most public statement our benefice clergy have yet published revealing what I see as anxious, "groupist" Christian defensiveness--"Circle the wagons, we're under attack!"
I felt moved to respond, and sent the following letter to the editor of the magazine:
I am neither vicar nor rector; curate nor reader. But I do consider myself a Christian, and in response to the February Roundabout’s urging from the Team Vicar, to “be visible,” in my faith, I would like to comment on, and politely take exception to the column.
Rev. Twitty said Christians feel marginalized, if not persecuted, by a ruling that prayers before the Bideford Council’s meetings may not be part of the official agenda. Her other example of marginalization is a court’s fining of a couple who would not accommodate homosexuals in their B&B. 
I would disagree that all Christians felt marginalized by these decisions. I personally felt they were a sign that Jesus’ values --including love of God and neighbor-- are soaking into the fabric of secular British life and government.
When Jesus prayed, he wasn’t in-your-face about it. He prayed alone in the wilderness or the Garden of Gethsemane, for example. He prayed in the temple. He gave his disciples the Lord’s Prayer only after they asked Him how to pray. There are no signs Jesus insisted government assemblies or people of other faiths pray in his way – or pray at all, for that matter. 
The Bible in general, and Jesus in particular, never utter the word “homosexuality.” But Jesus does say to love our neighbor—specifically our enemies and those who cannot return our hospitality. He makes a point of extending his love to outcasts, harlots, adulterers, hated tax collectors—even his betrayer, Judas. 
In this light, I see laws against discrimination as signs that Jesus’ acceptance is becoming the standard for our society. And I doubt that Jesus would regret that prayers for the Bideford Council are now spoken in the private, sincere temple of the human heart, rather than on invidious Council agendas.
Like Rev. Twitty, I see signs that organized religion is being marginalized. But my evidence would be decline in attendance at our churches; the advancing average age of congregations; and general disparagement of the church's preoccupation with issues like these.
If the church feels marginalized by matters like these, there is little chance it can rise to the real challenges that Jesus gave us, such as caring for the lost and least. Perhaps, as the Easter cover of Newsweek proclaimed, it is indeed time to “Forget the Church. Follow Jesus,” or as the Bishop of Buckingham blogged, not bail-out but “reboot” the church. 
I sent my letter to the editor. I phoned her to be sure she had it. She said it would be in the next issue. It wasn't. I phoned her to find out what happened. She'd misplaced it. I sent another copy; she said it would be in the next issue. It wasn't. I phoned and asked why -- she'd forgotten. At this point I gave up. Clearly the parish magazine is not going to be the place where anyone other than the clergy are allowed to "be visible" with their beliefs.

When the story about the Australian Girl Guides came over the airwaves, I listened with Rev Twitty's ears and could just imagine her knickers twisting with every word. Another example of the marginalization of Christianity -- that's what I expect she'd hear.

The explanation for the change in the oath is that it was meant to make the Guides feel like a welcoming place for girls from all different backgrounds. Hopefully more girls would thereby join and  find friends, fun, and people to help them grow into good citizens. Those strike me as the important things -- not mouthing allegiance to God and Queen.

Is secularization a bad thing when it's just removing the religious "branding" from things the church actually endorses -- if it encourages a wider range of people to open the package?  Wouldn't the Christian God prefer having more people follow Christ's behavior in deed, even if it meant dispensing with the religious packaging? And why do some people feel such secularization is a threat? How could true, deep faith rely on Girl Guides, or City Councils, or B&B owners saying, praying, or banning gays staying? Surely real faith lies in the stirrings of each human heart.

Turn with me now to Exhibit Two. --a study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine this month (July 2012) of 396 advanced cancer patients and their caregivers. The objective of the study was to identify factors affecting the quality of life (QOL) of patients in their final week of life.

The study found that patients who were very worried and anxious about the future during their 45-minute "baseline" interviews had a worse quality of life in their last week compared to people with a sense of inner peace. Even having a panicked caregiver worsened the quality of the patient's end-of-life. Patients who said they prayed or meditated had a better quality of life at the end. Those who had pastoral care  at their hospital or clinic had significantly better quality of life in the last week. The study's authors write,
"Those whose religious beliefs or activities helped them cope with their illness and who participated in private religious activities before receiving their cancer diagnosis and at baseline had much better QOL at the EOL. "
Overall, the effects weren't huge. By stringing together all of the factors that had an impact on the quality of patients' lives, the researchers  could only account for around 20% of the differences in the quality of peoples' experiences. The strongest factor lowering the quality of life was going into an intensive care unit in the last week of life -- this explained 4.4% of the variance. Similarly, dying in the hospital (rather than in a hospice, for example) lowered the quality of of the end-of-life.

The next most important factor lowering the quality of the end of life was being worried during the baseline interview. This explained 2.7% of the variance. The strongest positive factor improving the quality of life was having a practice of prayer or meditation. This accounted for 2.5% of the variance. 

The setting where patients received their cancer care and the use of a feeding tube in the last week of life were the next most important factors, followed by receiving pastoral care. This accounted for 1% of the variance--a stronger factor than the negative force of having chemotherapy in the last week, or the benefits of having a "therapeutic alliance" between patient and doctor at baseline, which explained 0.7% of the variance.

The researchers arrive at important conclusions, including the recommendation that care providers NOT engage in intensive, intrusive life-prolonging medical procedures, such as chemotherapy or a feeding tube, as the end draws close. Care in a hospice or at home, rather than in a hospital ICU,  offers better quality of life then.

The researchers stress that "terminally ill patients who participate in religious/spiritual activities privately and within the medical setting have better QOL near death than those who do not."

This seems to me like the most ringing endorsement you could hope for when it comes to the genuine core of faith. Meditate. Pray. Talk to a chaplain or your pastor. It works. It makes a real difference at a time when every moment counts.

Church ministers should take note, as should all who feel marginalized by society's rejection of religious packaging, public oaths and prayers, or noisy assertion of your right to wear a cross at work or proclaim "No Gays, Please--We're Christian(TM):  If the church is in peril, as I believe it is, it is urgent that you stop wasting your time, energy, and last bits of credibility on issues that further imperil it. This truly could spell the EOL for the church as congregations dwindle and general confidence in the church/organized religion plummets.  

There are much more important things you should be doing. Visit the sick. Get back to your daily offices and practices of prayer. Help anyone who's interested discover prayer. And if they can't accept prayer due to negative associations, personally or historically inflicted, help them discover meditation or mindfulness. Your faith practices -- are really needed.  They make a difference in people's lives. This is what Jesus said "believing" in him really meant-- trying to do what he did. It's what will save the faith. Stop fretting about the trivia and get out there and do what he said.

Blogger and Methodist minister Dan R. Dick was grumbling about pastors who measure their success by "buns on seats" when he wrote his blog (Methodeviations) for July 8 entitled "Childish Church:"
"Numbers games are for losers.  . .   we take Jesus seriously, we focus on discipleship, we expect people to actually shape their lives by their faith, we hold one another accountable, and our most effective churches will be measured in the dozens rather than the thousands.  The institution collapses and the church emerges."
Coming from this different angle, Dan (sorry, just can't bring myself to write "Rev Dick") basically arrives at the same destination. The church needs to do or die. Or maybe do AND die.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Shades of Doubt

First, a disclaimer for anyone who came to this blog posting because they thought it had something to do with "Fifty Shades of Gray." It doesn't.

My late husband's nephew is a priest in the Episcopalian church in Florida. He's young, handsome, with a lovely family. I love them to bits. He doesn't seem to post much on Facebook these days, but some months ago he posted comments on an article about Obama being the most anti-Bible president in history, or some such. Among his comments was this paragraph:
But WE all know that atheism is not the absence of a world view. It is a very specific world view with its own assumptions, beliefs, and implications built in. Much like a Christian world view. Atheism is not the blank slate upon which religious persons lay their beliefs about God. Rather, atheism is a competing narrative that is laid out, just like Christianity. Atheism proposes, most notably, that human existence is the result of chance, and that human experience is devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose.
I felt obliged to comment that I disagreed with aspects of this:
I've been thinking about this for awhile, Matthew, and disagree with you on several points. Predominantly, I don't think it follows that because someone doesn't believe in God, "human experience is devoid of any ultimate meaning or purpose." I see great holiness in my atheist next-door neighbor, who I'm sure would never say his life is meaningless. I think many atheists find other things -- sometimes including aspects of life and behaviors that Jesus told us to pursue -- that give their life meaning. This blog was mentioned by the "Happiness" movement (I will just quote a couple of key sentences to make the point: "Our lives have meaning when we connect with those we value, who also value us.

"Our lives have meaning when we do things for others, sometimes without them knowing it, often without expecting thanks.

"Our lives have meaning when we take pleasure in small, simple joys.

I agree that atheism is not the absence of a world view, but I disagree that it is "a very specific world view" with a unitary set of assumptions, beliefs and implications. I suspect there are an infinite number of shades of disbelief--as many flavors of disbelief as there are of belief;  As many sorts of disbelief as there are disbelieving people, each with their own personally developed (or undeveloped) set of assumptions, beliefs, and implications.

My husband Dave has this great line that he's rehearsed in case he's ever quizzed on how one should speak to a non-believer: "Tell me about this God you don't believe in -- it's possible I don't believe in him, either."

Consider some examples. I posted previously about the Methodist pastor who had suddenly "discovered" she was an atheist. Of course we don't have close personal details of her disbelief, but I don't think I could not-believe in the way she did. My disbelief is more like the creeping low fog oozing across the plains silently during the night, flowing mysteriously into every low pocket. I don't feel compelled to rage against belief, but rather test to test the disbelief, talk to people about it, see how it compares to what others have experienced. See if it's any more solid than belief. I most certainly wouldn't let it close the doors on old friends.

Another hue emerges from the moments of disbelief presented in this blog post from a postulant who examines disbelief through the lens of his recitation of the Nicean Creed. As I understand it, there are some people who are pressuring churchgoers to REALLY BELIEVE IT WHEN YOU SAY THE CREED!!!!! I wonder if the next step after the video will be bringing back the Inquisition to be sure people REALLY BELIEVE.

But I digress. For those who don't click over to David Henson's blog post, here's a bit of it (boldface is his emphasis):
Perhaps it is in the feeble offerings of each voice, giving strength to the crippled, cracked cries of the next, that the Creed's true power lies. That every time we say the Creed together, we create our faith together, spinning it out of the thin, stained light, the musty, moth-eaten faith of our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters.
How ephemeral this faith is, shimmering on quivering voices, threatening to disappear with its images of God and to leave behind only the smell of stale coffee breath and peppermint gum.
When we affirm our faith with the Creed, are we really simply affirming our faith in the faith of others, past, present and future?
Yet, out of such a beautiful, farcical facade, faith and community can be created, like gold from straw.

Actually, his diaphanous faith sounds almost like my misty disbelief... And I do appreciate his vulnerability in openly sharing his doubt -- much more risky for an Anglican postulant on a widely read blog than for me. I would also claim that faith in community within the church is something that I fall back on when my faith in Faith falters:
 On those days when I disbelieve, I proudly proclaim I am nothing more than a robot mumbling through the Creed and allowing the voices of the saints past, present and future wash over me, like a salve, not to restore my faith in belief, but my faith in community. In these moments, I am much more aware that the community of the church is so much more than the sacred stories that bind us together. And, that somewhere between the two— my faith and the historic faith — lies something holy.
There is laudable equipoise in his conclusion:
The Creed saved my faith, completely, and it continues to as I limp along the path of Christ. But I can't help but feel that sometimes, it damns me just as fully.
Despite these similarities, my disbelief differs. The Creed does nothing for me. Its historic legacy, people uttering it over the eons fails to neutralize the utter dishonesty, the alienation from the community of the church that I feel in saying it. Is anyone in the church looking to see if my lips move? Are they listening to hear whether I actually give voice to phrases I do not believe -- at least not then and there?

I see only the psychology of persuasion at work on Mr. Henson and people in the church over the ages. Keep saying it over and over and over, especially in public and with the imputed backing of the Highest Authority ... and it does transmogrify into truth for some people.

I guess if I had to come up with a recipe for my foggy disbelief, it would include a heavy measure of the scientist's demand that you "prove it;" a few tablespoons of cynicism based on history, politics, power struggles (well, of course the writers of the Bible had to make up details after the fact to "prove" that Jesus was the long-awaited Messiah the Prophets had foretold); and, as mentioned, some pop psychology thrown in the mix.

But I'm content to shove all that seems like tosh in a big box, slam the lid down, and slap a "MYSTERIES OF FAITH" label on it and ship it off to others do with as they please. Yet, even after you pack off (what is for me) the tosh, there are still some very substantive, useful, amazing parts of the Christian faith that I can cling to, fiercely, amidst the fog of doubt.

This man, or perhaps it's this mythologized man, Jesus of Nazareth, left us stories and questions and directives (admittedly sometimes confusing and even apparently contradictory) that can help us individually and collectively live lives that would make the world a better place. What he left us, like the Way of Grace, calls us to do things contrary to the Way of Nature: Love your enemy. Set a feast for those who can't possibly return the favor. Visit and heal the lepers. Gather up the bleeding, wounded victim who isn't from your ethnic group, place him on your donkey, take him to the nearest inn, pay for him to stay until he's fully recovered. Go into the wilderness and pray. Count your blessings.

Contemporary "positive psychology" researchers are now finding that many of these practices increase people's happiness. But I think evolutionary biologists and the Way of Nature would say these ways are utterly nutty -- no survival or reproductive value whatsoever. Grace says the world would be a different place if we could behave like this.... Maybe heaven on earth.