Saturday, March 17, 2018

A new illiteracy

A new type of illiteracy seems to be emerging as an unintended side-effect of technological progress. Many people have some competence using one or more electronic devices such as smartphones, tablets, and computers. Few people are familiar with all of the features and capabilities of their device(s). Very few people actually understand the software and hardware required to make those features, much less have the knowledge to modify or to create a new feature or capability for their device.

This new illiteracy especially strikes me because I remember how easily I learned to program in Basic and Fortran as a largely self-taught high school student using a computer at a local college. After mastering those two languages, I learned that particular computer’s machine, which required mastery not only of software but also the design of the computer’s hardware. Neither the high school nor the college then offered courses in programming. Nevertheless, the college did require students in some courses to program and to use its computer, expecting its students to learn those skills on their own time. Today, fifty years later, both the high school and college offer computer programming classes as electives, a reflection of the growing complexity of software and hardware.

A few software designers and creators are still largely self-taught. Most, however, acquire their skills though formal education and training programs. Hardware design has advanced to the point where only the well-funded and well-educated have the resources and knowledge to innovate.

The rest of us are electronic illiterates. What are the potential consequences of this new illiteracy?

First, the new illiteracy results in a new elite. The trend toward greater utilization of and reliance upon electronic devices seems likely to persist for years. Will this new elite continue to earn disproportionate incomes and power (think of pay in Silicon Valley and the influence of tech billionaires and venture capitalists)? If so, what will be the consequences of this for the rest of humanity?

Second, will the new illiteracy coupled with the potential ability of machines to program and then to design themselves (a new form of self-propagation?) tip evolution away from humans towards a new, non-animal entity (calling it a life form feels wrong)? If so, will that trigger the extinction of humans or human enslavement to serve the needs of their electronic masters?

Third, where is God in all of this?

Fourth, is this future inevitable? Alternatively, will a new electronic literacy emerge that mostly eradicates the new illiteracy?

Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Is the Book of Common Prayer too wordy?

A friend who is an Episcopalian suggested that the Book of Common Prayer (the 1979 edition, which he has used for 30 years) is too wordy. He wondered if the Episcopal Church overloads people with too many words, too much spirituality.

What do you think?

The length of Episcopal services compares very unfavorably with the length of Tweets. Twitter accounts are now much more popular than are blogs, in part because Tweets are so much briefer.

Our culture is moving towards more video and more images, away from words.

Where in the Book of Common Prayer, now being considered for a possible revision, would you suggest cutting words? Where might images become a regular element of Episcopalian worship and services?

I look forward to your thoughts and comments.

Wednesday, March 7, 2018

Following the Prince of Peace and ending gun violence

According to a widely reported statistic, there are 89 privately owned guns in the United States for every 100 citizens. Other estimates place the number of guns as high as 101 for every 100 citizens. These are necessarily estimates since the US does not mandate gun registration. Citing the lower estimate helps to avoid unresolvable arguments that are tangential to the problem of gun violence.

Of course, 89 guns per 100 citizens does not mean that 89 of every 100 citizens owns a firearm. Many citizens own multiple guns. Others own no gun. However, the approximately 290 million privately owned firearms result in the US ranking number 1 globally for gun ownership, with almost twice as many guns per capita as Serbia, which ranks second with 58 firearms per citizen.

Enacting tighter restrictions on gun ownership, mandating background checks, and repealing the Second Amendment (the right to bear arms) – all measures which I support – in many respects resembles closing the proverbial barn door after the cow has escaped. Legislation may reduce but will not end gun violence.

Nevertheless, actions by local, state, and federal legislative and regulatory bodies can help. Restricting access to guns is one vital step. A Florida law preventing 18-year-olds from purchasing firearms might have prevented the recent school shooting incident in Parkland. Gun registration, mandatory background checks, laws requiring locked storage of firearms, and other measures would almost certainly reduce the shockingly high levels of gun related domestic violence, suicides, and accidental deaths in homes. Allowing the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to fund research on guns and gun related violence, now prohibited by federal law, would enable evidence-based government policies and programs intended to reduce gun violence.

However, those actions, regardless of their completeness or reach, cannot solve the problem of gun violence in its entirety. Reducing gun violence requires better laws but also changes in attitudes and culture.

In Switzerland, all healthy males between 18 and 34 serve in the national militia and keep their military firearm(s) at home. Many Swiss also own guns for target shooting and hunting. Overall, an estimated 20-25% of Switzerland’s population own guns (Switzerland does not maintain official statistics on gun ownership; hence the use of estimates). Switzerland’s level of gun violence is far lower than in the US. Gun related homicides, for example, occur in Switzerland at approximately one third the rate in the US. In short, the attitude of the Swiss and their culture significantly contribute to avoiding gun related violence.

Christians individually and through their institutional Churches can and should lobby for improved gun control laws. However, the precise nature of changes to laws and regulations most congruent with Christianity are not always apparent. Christians rightly debate these issues and speak in multiple voices. For example, not every Christian agrees with me about repealing the Second Amendment.

Christians do immediately and universally affirm that Jesus is the Prince of Peace. The Prince of Peace did not advocate the violent resolution of conflicts. Indeed, he advocated just the opposite: giving a second garment to the person who stole one, turning one’s cheek to someone who attempts to start a fight, and so forth. The New Testament and Christian tradition are conflicted about whether these teachings apply to relations between nation states or only to individuals. While Christians may debate Jesus’ attitude toward hunting, the New Testament clearly shows that Jesus had no objection to fishing. Finding New Testament teachings to support or oppose target shooting requires creative eisegesis. Rather than be distracted by disagreements on national defense, hunting, and target shooting, Christians beneficially focus on Jesus as the Prince of Peace.

Consequently, as a priest, I consistently preach, teach, and counsel against violence, including gun violence. I attempt to model non-violence. I have done this throughout my ministry, including twenty-four years of military service as a Navy chaplain. In retirement, I financially support and participate in organizations that work to end gun violence and war such as the Episcopal Peace Fellowship and the Center on Conscience and War. These organizations welcome my involvement even though I, unlike some of their members, support the concept of Just War as a rare necessity to prevent evil triumph’s, e.g., to stop the Holocaust. In of my individual and cooperative efforts, I seek to emulate Jesus. That is, I aim to shift attitudes and our culture toward peace and away from violence, especially gun violence.

More generally, Christians and others can actively unite in efforts like these to change individual attitudes and aspects of our culture that support gun violence:

·       Challenge widespread and sometimes entrenched insistence on individual rights over collective well-being as antithetical to the Prince of Peace’s ethic, e.g., challenge stand your ground laws and laws that value private property over a thief’s life.

·       Refuse to perpetuate once arguably correct but now patently anachronistic ideas such as gun ownership constituting a crucial safeguard against tyranny. If that were still true, rebels around the world would not invariably beg the US and other nations to supply them with heavy military arms, all of which are presently illegal for US citizens to own, e.g., anti-air missiles, rocket propelled grenades, jet fighters, etc. Rebels recognize that these weapons are essential if they are to overthrow the oppressor regime.

·       Expose mistruths and lies used to support a gun culture. For example, contrary to the NRA, gun ownership is not a basic human right. Indeed, limiting gun ownership promotes the most basic of human rights, the right to life.

·       Not watch TV shows or movies, or play violent video games, that glorify gun violence or create unrealistic, mythic heroes (Rambo, the Terminator, and the Equalizer are among names on the long roster of these heroes). These plot lines explicitly use the hero’s invulnerability to promote violence as the preferred means of conflict resolution. Avoiding these activities keeps one’s mind free of images of gun violence while concurrently making a small dent (sadly, a very small dent) in the sponsor’s profitability.

·       Assertively and vocally object when people voice pro-gun violence attitudes by politely identifying the attitude and then objecting to it.

·       Oppose glorifying the military or its weapons. Most recently, I, like many veterans, viewed the proposed military parade in our nation’s capital as a deeply disturbing specter that promotes the wrong values and attitudes.

·       Truthfully advocate for smaller defense budgets. More is not better. Bigger is not better. Illustratively, at least one leg of the nuclear triad that formed the basis of the US’s Cold War defensive posture is now obsolete. Missile silos, today easily targeted using available geospatial data, cannot be reasonably hardened against a nuclear strike. Meanwhile, politicians falsely assert that the US needs to update its nuclear triad. US land-based missiles create good paying jobs in sparsely populated Midwestern areas; updating nuclear weapons will pump one trillion dollars into the military-industrial-political complex, benefiting those same politicians. Alternatively, one trillion dollars would pay for roughly two-thirds of the identified backlog of vital, unfunded infrastructure projects. Defense is necessary. However, as President Eisenhower and others have observed, spending a single dollar more on defense than the absolute minimum required to ensure an adequate defense is unjustifiable and immoral.

·       Resist the temptation to believe that more guns and more armed people will diminish gun violence. Arming teachers will reinforce the wrong attitudes, perpetuating the mistaken belief that guns and killing can end school violence. Ending “gun free zones” on military bases will similarly not end mass killings or diminish domestic violence but have the opposite effect by reinforcing the attitude that guns are the preferred solution to tough problems. The Prince of Peace points towards disarmament, not towards more guns and more armed people.

The time has come for Christians to lift high the Prince of Peace’s banner in public discourse. School shootings and mass murders are not indelible aspects of human attitudes or culture. With God’s help and working together, humans can change attitudes and our culture to promote peace instead of violence.

Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Time to market the Church

Occasionally I read books on business management. I read these books partially out of my continuing interest in the subject and partially because I learned much about people and organizations through my undergraduate degree in economics and graduate degree in business administration. Although marketing was never a special interest of mine, I recently read two books about marketing. That reading prompted two lines of reflection about the Church.

First, the Church spends too little on marketing. There are some exceptions, e.g., some megachurches. But in general, the Church spends very little money or time on marketing, an activity which in ecclesiastical language broadly connotes telling the church’s story and evangelism in particular. Businesses, by contrast, routinely spend ten or twenty percent of revenue on marketing.

The history of Christian marketing is familiar to many of us. In the beginning, the Church focused on marketing. Even before the Church existed, Jesus devoted a substantial portion of his three-year ministry to forming twelve disciples committed to perpetuating his mission. After Jesus’ resurrection, the disciples’ primary focus became proclaiming the good news of God’s love in Jesus through their deeds and words. The Apostle Paul had a similar focus in his ministry. Consequently, the Church enjoyed several centuries of spectacular growth.

Then came establishment. For centuries, the missionary impulse largely waned. To be born in Christendom was practically synonymous with becoming Christian. Instead, Christians sporadically struggled amongst themselves over the correct definition or formulation of Christian identity, struggles that sometimes erupted into open warfare. Those struggles intensified as some Christians began to question how many of their baptized contemporaries truly believed and practiced Christian teachings. Still, the normative myth endured until at least the eighteenth century: to be born in Christendom meant being born into a Christian identity.

Today, Christendom is dead. To be born into a Christian family is no longer tantamount to becoming Christian. The average age of Christians and their clergy in the US and Europe is increasing. The number of Baptisms is down. Practices such as friendship evangelism in which one shares, as opportunity allows, one’s Christian faith with friends and family have obviously proven insufficient to reverse the outgoing tides of attendance, belief, and membership. Few grandparents who live in geographic proximity to their children and grandchildren can realistically expect to see those family members in church.

We Christians need, along with the Church, to return to active marketing.

Most basically, prioritizing marketing means investing time and money in telling Jesus’ story through deeds and words. Deeds may include feeding the hungry, visiting those in prison, housing the houseless, participating in healing the sick, caring for the lonely, and so forth. Words connotes explaining our motivation for performing those deeds, motives rooted in our Christian identity.

A parish with an average Sunday attendance of 100 probably has at least 300 hours per week of paid and volunteer time. Paid hours include those of the rector, sexton, musicians, administrative staff, etc. Volunteer hours include time spent in worship, education or fellowship programs, outreach ministries, and other activities. Such a parish, committed to marketing, would therefore choose to redirect 30-60 hours per week to marketing. Furthermore, if that parish had revenues of $150,000, then the parish would devote $15,000 to $30,000 to marketing. Similarly, if The Episcopal Church (TEC) prioritized marketing, TEC would realign its triennial budget of approximately $129 million to spend $12.9 - $25.8 million on marketing along with a comparable realignment of staff and volunteer time, including all time now spent on General Convention and other governance processes.

The parish numbers are hypothetical, but their import is clear. No Episcopal congregation (or diocese) of which I am aware devotes twenty or even ten percent of its time and money to marketing. Prioritizing marketing obviously entails costs for the parish (or mission or diocese) that many organizations struggling to survive would deem excessive. However, one lesson I’ve learned from the business world is that if a business fails to market itself successfully, it inevitably goes bankrupt and disappears.

Congregations struggling to pay a priest and to maintain their building may postpone the inevitable by not marketing themselves. But the only realistic chance that those congregations have for longer-term survival is to market themselves aggressively, even if that means mortgaging the building or replacing beloved ongoing ministries that cater to members with marketing initiatives.

How can a congregation (or a diocese or TEC) market itself successfully? Or, in theological language, how can God’s people through their deeds and words tell the story of God’s love manifest in Jesus in a way that attracts people who want to experience that love personally? Or, in even more conventional theological language that often leaves Episcopalians feeling vaguely uncomfortable, how do we engage in effective evangelism?

No single set of answers will fit every context. Thankfully, multiple answers are readily available. Among many helpful authors are Diana Butler Bass, James R. Adams, Michael Curry, and Kennon L. Callahan. We should also not hesitate to hire public relations firms and consultants to help us strategize and develop our marketing.

In our increasingly internet centric culture, the Church needs websites focused on newcomers and searchers, expanded reliance on electronic communications (resisting this step because current members prefer paper deemphasizes marketing), and beneficial ways to exploit social media (Twitter, Instagram, etc.). TEC and dioceses can leverage their geographic reach to support congregations by making Episcopalian Christians a constant presence on broadcast and cable TV as well as radio.

Underlying every marketing effort is the question of why anyone would choose to attend, participate in, and belong to a Christian congregation. Grappling with this question was the second set of reflections triggered by my reading on marketing. Businesses without a clear understanding of their product(s) or service(s) cannot market themselves successfully.

Historically, the Church’s answer to the question of why anyone should become a Christian was that unless a person obtains remission of her/his sins through belief in Jesus the person, when s/he dies will go to hell instead of to heaven. Today, belief in heaven and especially in hell has waned sharply among Americans and Europeans, including among Christians. In the absence of an alternative credible answer, many Christians lack clarity about their motive(s) for attending worship, participating in a church, or believing in the gospel. The good news is no longer good or news.

Decades of ministering to mostly secular adults in their 20s and 30s, reading in spirituality and psychology, and personal examination have convinced me that twenty-first century people seek at least four things that the Church is uniquely positioned to provide.

First, a large number of people seek to experience God or a deeper spiritual reality. Well done worship services using liturgies from the Book of Common Prayer and other authorized sources can draw some people deeper into the mysteries where we believe people can experience God’s presence and love. Too often, however, our worship consists of poorly read lessons, hymns sung half-heartedly, prayers read mechanistically, and a sermon that at best offers yesterday’s answers to today’s real-life questions.

Second, many people want to know the meaning of life, or at least the meaning of their individual life. This desire is closely connected to the search for God. In this secular, scientific age in which life is frequently viewed as a product of opportunistically driven evolutionary processes, finding the meaning of one’s life can be very challenging. Whether we agree with the material, discussion groups based upon books by popular authors such as Bishop Spong, Barbara Brown Taylor, Neale Donald Walsch, Lauren Winner, Karen Armstrong, and the Dalai Lama afford individuals an opportunity to explore life’s meaning. Conversely, many post-moderns have little initial interest in the Bible.

Third, individuals frequently share a commitment to make the world a more loving, more just place. The Church, when not preoccupied with its own existence, frequently offers excellent opportunities for persons to join with like-minded people in working to make a more just, more loving world. Meaningful opportunities to serve one’s neighbors may be a first step in person’s spiritual journey as s/he discovers the church strives to incarnate God’s love for others with integrity and purpose.

Fourth and finally, humans flourish in community and Christian congregations ideally are communities in which a person may safely seek God, explore life’s meaning, and work with others to bring the world closer to God’s vision for it. Sadly, I commonly hear of churches that unintentionally have become closed or broken communities. Members of twelve step groups frequently tell me that their groups embody more genuine caring for each other than does any congregation with which they are familiar.

The time is long past for Christianity to from defense to offense. This requires our regaining clarity about why anyone might choose to attend, participate in, or join. Then TEC – its congregations, dioceses, and national structures – must actually prioritize marketing the gospel, creatively adapting proven business practices.