Monday, November 29, 2010

Mistakes Were Made (but not by me)

I wish I had read Mistakes Were Made (but not by me), by Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson before I began my ministry. Unfortunately it wasn’t written yet. It was written in 2007 and I am a little disappointed that I didn’t discover it until the end of 2010. I stumbled on it the way I stumble on many books. Our Directing Pastor here at University, Rev. Charles Anderson has a much healthier relationship with books than I do. He reads them, and when he is done, he gives a whole lot of them away. This one was sitting on the table of books outside his office that are up for grabs. He had mentioned reading the book in a conversation we had sometime back but it was really the subtitle that hooked me, “Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decision, and Hurtful Acts.” It seemed there was a book here that attempted to take on the questions that plague me, “Why do people spend so much energy believing things even when the evidence against them is overwhelming?” or “Why do people continue to believe that something they are doing or have done is right even when all signs point to the fact that it is indeed not?” or, more simply, “Why do people get so entrenched that they just can’t change their mind or admit that they are wrong?” The authors answer quite simply and then quite deeply, “cognitive dissonance” and our need to reduce it. “Cognitive dissonance is a state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent…” (p. 13) This dissonance makes us very uncomfortable and our brains do everything they can to reduce the tension is that is where we run into problems. It seems at some point we commit to a decision and the further we go down the road, the harder and harder we work to justify it. And our brains help us. Once we have arrived at a conclusion, our minds tend to filter out contradictory information (that would cause dissonance) and amplify information that justifies our conclusion.

I am so tempted to give some examples of well known situations of cognitive dissonance in popular culture but, if I did, I would get angry emails. But we all know someone who holds and opinion that we know to be just completely absurd. And we all know someone for whom that opinion is so firm that even trying to share conflicting data is an exercise in futility. The more dissonant the information, the harder they will work to disprove it. So how do people who are otherwise rational get to places of holding irrational views? One step at a time. The authors do a wonderful job of explaining how we take small steps with small incremental justifications until we are so far away from the rational that we just can’t get back there.

I don’t have the time nor the expertise to give this book a full treatment but it is worth reading for chapter 3 alone. Chapter 3 is about our memories, how unreliable they actually are, and how they feed our need to reduce dissonance to recalling most vividly things that fit into the frameworks we create. This might be the most useful part of the book for life in the church. Memory, both individual and corporate is one of the powerful forces at work in the life (or death) of a church. A better understanding of how we process the past might go a long way in our effort to move toward the future.

If you work in the church or just love the church, this might be very well worth your time. You will likely see not only see the behaviors of others in a clearer light, but your own transgressions as well.



Thursday, November 18, 2010


If you are reader who happens to also be connected to the church I serve, University United Methodist Church, and want to learn first-hand about The Pathway to Discipleship, join us this Sunday evening for u|connect. u|connect is a required part of becoming a member of University and it is also a great way for current members to learn more about and get involved in the pathway. The session is about three hours and dinner is provided. Pastor Adam Knight starts us out with a little history and background of the United Methodist Church and then we talk pathway. We learn how we can get connected to a meeting with Jesus, hear the message of Jesus and begin to hear our mission from Jesus.

If you have been a member of University for a while, let me share a few of reasons you might want to join us. First, u|connect introduces new people to our intentional system of developing members as disciples and leaders. As a member of the church, it is important to be familiar with the core ministries of the church. If we are talking about our church to people outside of the church or even answering questions from visitors to the church, we should be able to clearly articulate what we offer and expect.

Second, the entire pathway is a wonderful place to review the essentials of our faith and learn new ways to express them and share them. Someone recently shared with me the fact that they did not need classes like Alpha and Disciple because they were clearly beyond that in their faith walk. I invited them to come in for a quiz. The declined. I work a lot with men and women seeking ordination in the United Methodist Church. I am often asked to help them with the written questions required for commissioning and ordination. I get to see how difficult it can be for people, even with seminary degrees, to express and integrate the most basic points of Christian doctrine. Most of us don't know how little we know until we are asked to explain it.

Third, as a member of a church, isn't it wonderful to meet new members of the church? Isn't it great to be with them as they discover what their new church has to offer? Isn't it wonderful to sit beside them as they learn about the depths of the faith they have covenanted to be a part of? How much might we learn as we sit besides others learning for the first time?

I hope you will consider joining us this Sunday evening at 5:00. The session is free but, since we serve dinner, a reservation is required. You can call the church office at 210.696.1033 and ask for Jessica or Elizabeth or email me.



Wednesday, November 17, 2010

What Happened to Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics?

We are a couple of years into the launch of the Pathway to Discipleship, our systematic effort to help believers look more to Jesus and look more like Jesus. We have learned a lot since launching the pathway including what works and what doesn’t work. Lessons we have learned have caused us to make minor and major changes within the pathway offerings and also totally change some of the components. One component in the message phase has been replaced and one component in the meeting phase, Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics, has been removed and is still awaiting replacement.

You can read more about Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics in an earlier post (Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics) but let me talk here about why we are replacing it in the pathway. The main reason that we are moving away from it is that it simply didn’t attract an audience. The course was presented as an option in the Meeting Phase of our pathway. New members were offered these options during u|connect, our new member orientation and introduction to the pathway. The two other options at this phase are Alpha and Jesus 101. Overwhelmingly, people choose Alpha and Jesus 101. Each time Jesus for Seekers and Skeptics came up on the calendar we would have just a couple of people registered. In an effort to still offer it, we would promote it in as many internal places as we could but to little avail. Also of interest was the fact that we rarely had any people who would consider themselves seekers or skeptics (which actually makes sense but more on that in a moment.)

So why do little interest? First of all, the most obvious point: we were offering a course designed for and clearly titled for “seekers and skeptics” primarily to people who had already made the decision to join the church. Let me be clear, I do believe that there are a number of “seekers and skeptics” who join the church (especially some who join with their spouses or because of their children.) However, I am not sure they self-identify and, if they do, I am not sure they cared to be labeled that way. Second, I am not sure that a population that did self-identify with the title “seeker” or “skeptic” would subject itself to a church retreat designed to convince them of the reality and relevance of Jesus. Pastor Adam Knight has done some thinking in this area (and maybe I can talk him into a guest post). He believes that this can work if there is some sort of “meta-community” such as a college campus. I will say that we didn’t push too far down this road. At some point, even if we could find a population attracted to this offering, it likely wouldn’t be the audience we designed the pathway for, people who have made the decision to become part of the church.

So where does this leave us? We believe a third offering in the Meeting Phase of the pathway is important. The question will be, “to immerse or not to immerse?” We have a clearer understanding of the people we are hoping to reach. We have to try to understand whether an immersion event is an attractive model for them. Some of the people early in their walk with the church (or this church) are still struggling with the level of commitment they will offer. A two-day immersion event sounds like less commitment than a ten week course but that may be a false comparison. If you are new to an organization, the 10 week course is actually less of an upfront commitment. When you sign up you are actually committing to show up for the first session. If it isn’t what you expected, you can always drop. When you show up at a hotel or camp for a two-day immersion event, you are putting a little bit more on the line.

We are still praying and thinking it through. We will let you know what we come up with. Thoughts and insights are always welcome.



Friday, November 5, 2010

What I have been reading

I read quite a bit. I read as a spiritual discipline. I read for fun. I read to stay current on what is going on in the world and I read to stay focused and fresh in my vocational ministry. I tend to read a little faster than I blog so not everything I read ends up on the weblog. So, occasionally, I put a bunch of really short thoughts on what I have been reading in one post. This is one of those posts.

It has been a tradition for me to read way outside my field during vacation. This is the first one I tackled during my time away in October. Author Mark Kurlanksky is quoted on the dust jacket, "If only I had read it before taking chemistry." Amen to that. Science has never been my love. I limped through chemistry in high school and college. Kean makes it fascinating. I think I originally bought the book because I just had to see for myself if the author could make something as seemingly dry as the periodic table compelling. He did. For my non-science brain, I struggled a little bit trying to again understand what all those protons and neutrons are doing. I was rewarded by some absolutely wonderful stories of the personal drama behind some of the breakthroughs in chemistry that have led to our current understandings and a lot of the neat stuff we take for granted.

Before I move on to the next book, a word about why I have the tradition of reading way outside my field. I believe that it makes me a better theologian and pastor. I believe that God created us to be curious and creative. I think humans were uniquely created by God in a way that makes us want to try and understand our world. Our Wesleyan understanding of our approach to scripture even invites us to bring our curiosity, intellect and reason to our study of God's word. As a person who spends most of my days learning, studying and teaching God's word, I want to also always be expanding my ability to understand. I want to always be using my God given curiosity in exploring the creation. I am thankful to authors like Sam Kean and Stephen Hawking (who I will discuss in a moment.) They are much more gifted in other areas of curiosity and exploration and they take the time to write things that allow people like me to peek into parts of the world that I might not otherwise get to see.

In Stephen Hawking's bio on the dust jacket, there is a list of his books for the "general reader." That is a nice way of saying that I wouldn't really be able to read most of the stuff he writes. I am glad that he has taken the time to write some things that ordinary people with ordinary IQs can read. Hawking gets some help on this one from physicist and author of The Drunkard's Walk, Leonard Mlodinow. This book came on my radar because it caused some stir amongst Christians claiming that in it, Hawking denies the existence of God. The reason Christians claimed that is that, well, Hawking and Mlodinow pretty much do that. Right off the bat, on page 8 they write about M-theory, a sort of ultimate theory of everything. There they write, "M-theory predicts that a great many Universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law." This is not the only jab that Hawking and Mlodinow take at religion. Religion has made some pretty decent scientific gaffs over time (although, so has science) and they like to remind us of that. I don't really have the energy nor the intellect to debate Hawking and Mlodinow and I don't really see a need to. Although they appear to dabble in theology here, they are not theologians. And their words by no means upset me. They are sharing what they believe and there is nothing wrong with that. I would say from a theological standpoint that they continue to talk about "how?" questions. I believe theology to be about the "why?" questions. They don't touch those. I loved the book. I learned a lot about how the universe God gave us works and came to be and that makes me more grateful for it.

Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler, Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives

When we think "social networks" lately we think about Facebook and Twitter. But these new technologies are really just electronic representations of the natural reality that has been going on as long as there were enough humans to gather into groups. Christakis and Fowler look to some pretty extensive and astounding research to show how predictable and influential our human social networks are. We all know that we affect our friends and our friends affect us. But most of us don't think about how much our friend's friend's friends affect our decision making and even happiness. Delving into research on disease, voting habits, dating and marriage, and even networked video games, the authors lay out an understanding of social network dynamics that made my brain hurt.

I read this book as another attempt to read out of my field. While this is clearly out of my field, I think this should probably be required reading for pastors of large and mega-churches. The authors do speak specifically about religion but that is not the most important part for pastors. Pastors of large and mega churches might be well informed to understand the dynamics in play in the spread of influence, opinion, ideas and even anxiety. This book is worthy of its own post and, if I find the time, I will get back to it.

I had planned on covering my whole stack of recent reads but this post is long enough for now. More soon.