Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Presbytery meetings can be good

I’m writing this up following last night’s regular meeting of the Presbytery of Cincinnati (which, for those of you not familiar with Presbyspeak, is the gathering of all ministers and elder representitives from the 70-ish churches in and around Cincinnati. The meeting is to encourage, provide worship opportunity, and serve as a forum for discussion and decision making).

Tonight, we heard from Dale Andrews, professor of preaching and worship at Louisville Seminary. Don’t let the title fool you – this man is no ivory tower academic. After thundering in the pulpit about how Jesus radical grace, Andrews then had us on the edge of the pew, challenging our mainline protestant complacency.

He made the oh so very clear point that Presbyterian preachers work in privileged pulpits. Though we may compare our salaries to the executives and doctors and lawyers in our midst, the more apt comparison is to other preachers – many of whom work for far less. Globally, many of our colleagues struggle to survive on a day to day basis (see yesterday’s post). He proposed that we all, in a sense, preach a prosperity gospel – when we preach “me centered” sermons about personal salvation, personal effectiveness and how we’re going to personally respond, we miss out on a significant part of the good news, which is transformational. Simply put, Jesus saved us that we might be personally changed, and be a part of a community that is being transformed. And that community is charged with being salt and light in a world of pain. The gospel is about something far beyond ourselves and our personal blessing.

He gave an honest and fair recap of what Megachurches (churches over 2000 in worship attendance) do well and what their dangers are. He charged us to learn from megachurches in their seeking out new ways to contextualize the gospel and reach people where they are, but not to fall into the trap of making the good news a commodity that is peddled for the sake of getting tushes in the pew. Then he gave us some really good stuff about how technology can lead us to information without relationship – we are able to receive and give information without accountability – a pitfall to which we must be sensitive.

The Question and Answer session is what plucked my gander. Cinda Gorman of Westwood First asked how important the web is to Generation X. Dr Andrews responded rightly that it is very important, but that there is no standard for evaluating web quality. At which point, I challenged him – the blogosphere is a huge society of mutual accountability. Bloggers found inaccuracies in Dan Rather’s story about the President’s military record; bloggers raked Google over the coals for violating its own principles. Bloggers have mutual accountability by distributing eyes and ears all across the world.

Dr. Andrews came back with two questions. To the best of my recollection they were 1) who do I know that is doing this kind of evaluation and 2) what standards of evaluation do I personally know about. At this point, you must understand, my brain shut down. This is why I never did Quiz bowl in high school, because in the moment of pressure, I went from being an honor student to Rain Man. Tammy keeps telling me I should go on Who Wants to be a Millionaire, but I know it would be a short time because as soon as the first question would be asked, my mind would blank entirely.

So I muttered that I couldn’t think of a standard of evaluation, but on the drive home (you know how that is – you’re driving back and you say “that’s what I should have said – yeah, it’s brilliant”) I realized that his questions could be applied to any extant medium. Where is the objective criteria for evaluation in the print media? The whims of the publishing houses are run entirely by profits, not pursuit of truth. Meanwhile, academic peer review is subject to the same kind of power politics and ego posturing that are endemic on the web. Magazines can print all kinds of inaccuracies, but without readers catching them, they simply get away with it.

Are there dangers to blogging? Of course – but there are also dangers to uncritically accepting any communication. Readers (and viewers) need to be better critical thinkers – to learn to say “Where’s the support for that argument” “what proof does he offer” “do his references check out” “does his logic hold up” “she is stating an opinion, not a fact”. These are basic critical thinking skills that I was taught in school, and yet I need continual reminders.

The web as a medium is neither more nor less dangerous than any other medium. We do need to be aware of the dangers, but it is most important that we’re aware of how to use it. My neighbor Aaron Klinefelter referenced BusinessWeek article that is a really terrific argument for using the medium. I’ve already referenced Seth Godin’s rant on the digital divide. Our challenge as good Calvinists is to find how the medium can be used in a redemptive manner.

I heard Marva Dawn speak at my alma mater about worship styles – she talked about how her church incorporates many different instruments in worship – and each instrument had a distinctive voice that can bring praise to God in a distinctive way. A saxophone for instance praises God in a distinctive way that drums just cannot do. I believe the same argument can be made for media – every media form has a distinctive way (or ways) that it can be used to praise God that cannot be replicated by any other media. Our task will be to discern how God can be uniquely praised and served by web resources (all the various resources: web pages, discussion boards, blogs, etc), and then throw ourselves into that. We need to be salt and light on the web as well.

I believe one of the great advantages of blogging is that it allows the conversation to occur – and so I’m sending this post to Dr. Andrews and a few of my Presbyterian colleagues and asking them to come and comment – essentially I’d like to continue the conversation. I’d also really be interested in hearing from some of you house church guys on this – what are some of the reasons you find people interested in house church rather than traditional church – that ties in to the topic as well.

Soli Deo Gloria