Monday, June 22, 2009

Growth in Mainline Protestant Churches: Thinking Out of the Big Box

(reflections on Laurene Beth Bowers, DESIGNING CONTEMPORARY CONGREGATIONS: STRATEGIES TO ATTRACT THOSE UNDER 50. Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 2008.)

Laurene Beth Bowers, a pastor for twenty – six years in a congregational church, often asks questions about church to “post – modern” people, defined as those who are technologically and culturally up to date probably under age fifty. They say that God is everywhere, but that churches “think they have a monopoly on God” (46), that churches “only want my money” (15), and that church is a place for “everybody’s grandmother” (46). Yet she also hears that they’re interested in going to some church if they can find one, and, yes, they admit sadly, they do “need a grandmother – like person.”

The core question of Bowers’ book is how to reach that kind of post – modern believer. More broadly, she wants to replace the perception of church as “one more thing to do in an already busy week” with the notion of church as “the grounding base that energizes us to be involved in everything else we do during the week” ( 47).

Her solutions do not include modernizing the service to make it “glitzy" like the big box churches that measure "growth" in numbers. She would look for other ways to measure growth.

For Bowers, a church that does not generate energy for service both inside and outside of the church is “depressed”. Chronic symptoms of depressed congregations include “constant anxiety about money, fear of losing long-term members by taking a stance” on controversial issues, and what she calls “multiple hat syndrome” where the same people head all the committees. When efforts to “contemporize” the services fail to draw “the crowds,” a depressed church blames the pastor or the denomination (19).

She sees one “window of opportunity” in the postmodern believers’ interests in “spirituality.” While postmoderns think of “religion” as something preached by authorities, they like “spirituality,” which encompasses for them Eastern traditions and social causes. Far from being non – religious, she says, they are extremely interested in what the church can offer, but put off by the church they see on TV and in town. They like ritual, and come to have a child baptized, by which they mean “blessed.” They’ll come for a wedding or a funeral. Bowers disapproves of how, burned by couples who showed up for a baptism and then disappeared, some churches deny rites to non-members. She thinks a better approach is to group such people with each other in a seminar or cell, so that they come to the rite already part of a group with whom they have much in common ( a child, a new marriage ).[Read about another take on "spirituality" by Richard Rolheiser.]

Perhaps the central idea of her book is her understanding of “church.” Church should be more than a school where the pastor teaches, more than a country club where the pastor is a sort of activity director, and more than a service organization such as the Kiwanis club (46). She writes:

We embrace a relational theology through which being a disciple of Jesus means that we have signed up for service to be an instrument of God’s blessing through each other: We believe that God’s intervention can only happen through a human agent. (48)

This service to each other can take place, she says, in “designer cell groups” of kinds based on a common interest or common stage of life (56). She makes a side note about youth groups that function as mere social “fun” groups. “An indicator of a church’s emotional health is the functioning of its youth groups. …An effective youth minister is one who does social activities in order to … provide a place where the youth can openly share their faith and practice doing so in order to evangelize other youth.”

By “Evangelism,” she does not mean “selling” the church but simply sharing our defining moments of faith. She cautions against merely “being warm and friendly (like every other church)” to those who step through our doors on their own, because such people are already a “certain personality type.” A sign that says, “The Episcopal Church Welcomes You” is outdated. She recommends charging the congregation with inviting a diversity of people in, and she recommends service to the community. Building a Habitat House, for example, she found many curious about what had motivated her church members to come out and to do the work (62).

She recommends improving the church’s “curb appeal” (65-67). Where a “modern” member sees “beautiful and traditional,” a post-modern person sees “old fashioned.” Have members list the church’s artworks, furniture, relics in categories for “keepers” and “discardables.” The middle category was for any physical object that excited debate, and the agreement was, “We’ll put it away for a year, and if anyone misses it, we’ll restore it.” In the places of these objects, she suggests bright colors, artwork produced by members of the congregation (maybe in rotation through art workshops).

She cautions against letting visitors observe how things are done before getting involved, and she also cautions against involving them in committees where there are “a few positions open.” Instead, she says, ask, “What do you believe you have to offer us?” and put them onto it, or offer a way for newcomers to discern their particular gifts. A survey is one way to start, but may reveal a person’s interest more than a person’s gifts (81). A striking example of “gifts” is a talent for “visitation.” She recommends training for visitors who may end up dealing with people who are depressed or dependent or abused (81).

In every case, Bowers recommends that the pastor distribute “power” and “energy” away from herself to cells and the talents of the congregation – precisely what we at St. James discussed in our Vestry retreat.

She also means for the church to be reaching out even when members, scared of shrinking resources, say, “Shouldn’t we take care of our own?”

She says that postmoderns expect a diverse congregation, and will be put off by a homogeneous one. She explicitly recommends taking a stand for inclusion of gays and lesbians. In a digression about critics who charge that this is to deny Scripture and core beliefs, she argues the opposite, that the critics are citing authorities who themselves have misunderstood poor translations of Scripture (39).

She writes that, if a church is to attract anyone, its worship should be a source of energy to “handle life’s challenges,” to “heal traumas,” and to “work for social justice” (29). Her emphasis here is on liberation more than theology. “Social justice” for her means assisting the “have – nots” in assailing the “power structures” that keep the “haves” in dominance over the “marginalized” (88). Later, she denies all “dualism” dividing the world between “us” and “them” (116). I guess dualism is okay for her if it’s from the point of view of “have nots.” Leaving aside liberation theology, she makes the point, “While we may not all agree on what causes those social issues, we are likely to agree on a method of intervention”(86).

CABARET by Atlanta's Lyric Theatre: Still Fresh

(a reflection on the production of CABARET, book by Joe Masteroff, music and lyrics by John Kander and Fred Ebb, original production directed by Harold Prince.)

Seeing CABARET for the first time in thirty years, I was struck as I had not been before by the power of the "book" songs.

The show is famous for its creators' new approach to musical theatre, using the songs of performers in the "Kit Kat Club" to comment on developments in the story. The creepiest example is the song that follows a heart - breaking scene in which a German woman rejects her beloved Jewish suitor because of the Nazis' growing influence. That's the cue for the Emcee to dance with a gorilla (it's in a tutu) while singing, "When we go walking together, I hear society moan / But if they could see her through my eyes, / Maybe they'd leave us alone." The title number is ironic, sung by a woman deluded in thinking that she has a future as a singer in Berlin, singing "No sense permitting some prophet of doom / to wipe happy smiles away! / Come to the Cabaret!"

But there are songs for other characters that express the same attitude. The aged landlady sings a good - natured song about why she'll take in an impecunious young American for half the usual rent, "The sun will rise, and the moon will set / And you learn how to settle for what you get... " This song, like many of the others, employs a dissonant interval (here, a rising major 7th) that alerts the audience to danger in a conventional attitude.

Another example is the young man's haunting song to the cabaret girl Sally: "Why should I wake up? This dream is going so well!" But the storyline is telling him to wake up. He and the other characters dismiss the rise of the Nazis as "politics," irrelevant to their daily concerns.

Near the end, the elderly woman confronts the young man. He has told her that she "can't" let other peoples' prejudice stop the marriage. She tells him that she's near the end of her life, and all she wants is to live peacefully, and she stands to lose everything if she associates with a Jew in the new political climate. "Go on tell me," she sings, "I will listen, what would you do if you were me?" The tune drops by the interval of a major 7th, the same distinctive interval by which her first song rose. That's got to be a musical metaphor to mirror the way that she has now progressed from insouciant apathy in her first song to bitter resignation in her last.

Bob Fosse's movie of CABARET escapes the back - and -forth, real life v. cabaret pattern that grows tiresome in the Broadway show. But Fosse jettisoned most of the "book" songs to do it, and they are underrated treasures.

Saturday, June 06, 2009

Stretch the Sketch: TRADIN' PAINT

(reflection on TRADIN' PAINT by Catherine Bush. Produced by Theatre in the Square, Marietta, Georgia. Directed by Jessica West)

Photo: Kate Donadio as Lucky, Chad Martin as Skeeter, Eric Mendenhall as Coty, and Veronika Duerr as Darla.
Source: MJ Conboy

"I just hope my past history ends real soon," says the character Darla Frye near midpoint of TRADIN' PAINT, a play by Catherine Bush.
Truly, by midpoint, I felt the same way as Darla: I was getting a bit tired of character's "past histories" exposed in stand up comedy routines.

By then, she has already made the first step out of thirty years of passivity and self - deprecation by enrolling in an adult GED program, and the play is about to stretch the bounds of comedy sketch territory.

If her story weren't packaged as an extended comedy sketch about NASCAR culture, it's doubtful that Theatre in the Square would have been packed with laughing adults. A flag man lectures us on NASCAR for any "Yankees or atheists" in the crowd; Darla's dimwit boyfriend Coty relives his gridiron agonies with the Polka, NC "Dots"; and we get a lot of jokes about the play's fish out of water, a black gay English professor and NASCAR afficionado whose name is a joke straight out of the index of the playwright's American History textbook: Halley Smoot (one letter off from the infamous tarriff).

Just when I was afraid that I was in for a couple of unpleasant hours a la the predictably snide GREATER TUNA the characters begin to interact in dialogue, bumping up against each other. That's what "tradin' paint" means in NASCAR lingo, we're told.

The sketch format gives Playwright Bush a lot of flexibility. In Act One, we meet Lucky Tibbs, self - confident, competent, and tough -- everything Darla is not -- and she treats us to "the condensed version" of her courtship of racecar driver Skeeter Jett. In Act Two, Darla confronts all her demons, as well as God and Dale Earnhart. Darla confronts Coty, Coty confronts Lucky, and the coming together of all these characters touches us as much as stand - up cartoon cut - outs of act one can.

It's a great pleasure to watch, and the sketch format is a good one to emulate, though I don't think I need to see something like it again any time soon.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Poet Todd Boss: Story and Rhyme

(reflections on YELLOWROCKET, first collection of poems by Todd Boss. See

While Todd Boss’s rhymes jump out at unexpected places, his persona lays back to appreciate or figure out what’s up. It’s a pleasing juxtaposition, like finding mint chips in your vanilla shake. I know from reading the sometimes snarky commentary in the journal POETRY that rhyme and narration are both scorned by a large segment of the “poetry community,” and the pleasures of this book make those self-righteous critics look as foolish as vegans at a barbecue.

Boss organizes this collection almost in the shape of a novel. Part one is memory of parents, grandparents, farmland. Part two focuses on a pivotal event, a storm of July 15, 1980 “Still the single worst natural disaster in Wisconsin state history” his note tells us in the appendix. Part three gives us turbulence of another sort, between husband and wife, with some ups and some violent downs, characterized by “Don’t Come Home” words more damning than I hate you, he says. Part four seems to be about waiting and a need for reconciliation. Five brings us home, with tributes to “Things, like dogs” that are glad to see us in the morning, and a poem about a sleeping son, leading to part six, which brings us to appreciation of nature, his “joy doubled” by perceiving that his young daughter perceives it.

That middle section of conflict is certainly the sharp center of the book, but not its best part. She throws clothes down at the poet, “Tangled Hangers and All,” and she floods the kitchen to make a point, and it’s all effective in the way that staged confrontations in movies are. I’ll remember these poems about conflict, and the ones about the aftermath – such as “Six Nights in a Hotel” that seem to chronicle the man’s exile after being told not to come home, beginning with the very simple and effective lines…
My wife and I

a mile apart
All of these poems take off from narrative events, such as a waitress’s mistaking the poet for someone else. He uses the occasion to think that he has become someone else, and, by placing the poem at the end of this section, Boss strongly suggests a transition from conflict to renewal of relationship.

But other parts of the book feel less stagey and more substantial. I never had two grandfathers, I never lived on a farm, but Boss’s memory of sitting with his grandfathers as they played cards is so vivid and rich that I’ve appropriated it.
they often held me on their laps,
their arms about me, so I could see
their hoards. Their buckles poked
and I fiddled with their braces.
I studied their hewn and stubbled

He puns on the suits of the cards a few lines later as he reflects, “I had no words / for how it felt to sit so intimate with kings, their hearts, their diamonds / fairly dripping through their knuckles / when they dealt.” As usual, he slips in some rhyme, here “felt” and “dealt,” and earlier, “braces” and “faces,” an effect rather like the pleasure of turning up a card that fits the hand.

I wonder what would be lost if Boss put rhymes at the ends of lines? End rhyme has that satisfying feeling of word and idea clicking into place, giving any couplet a feeling of inevitability and unassailability. He does it occasionally, as in a witty epigram called “Wish” from that turbulent middle section of the book:
You’ve never not been negative,
I wouldn’t know you if
you weren’t. You never wish
but in the subjunctive,
candles to the frosting burnt.
He could have written out the lines in a quatrain to emphasize the rhyme, but it’s strong enough. He certainly seems to have stayed up all night to find sound – related words, and a couple of the poems here seem to be more about sounds than sense (such as “Ere We Are Aware”). I suppose that Boss prefers to follow the internal logic of each poem’s content, using rhymes for incidental emphasis, rather than to let rhyme shape the piece.

A couple of poems stand out for opposite reasons. “She Rings Me Up” strikes me as a stand up comedy routine, as the comedian plays the innocent guy who believes that he’s picking up on flirtatious vibes from a grocery store clerk. He pretends not to get what’s happening, while we can all figure it out. This same persona is Boss’s throughout the book, but here’s the egregious exaggeration of it.

“The Day is Gray and the Lake” develops a conceit with impersonal but alert interest: the day is the work of “the maker” who “can’t make up his mind, always fussing.” The lake “shifts, mercurial, / like modeling clay, / the million thumbs / of wind at work upon it.”

I heard Todd Boss read a new poem on the NPR program “The Splendid Table,” concerning the taste of freshly harvested apple pieces, enjoyed all the more because he shared them with his father, sitting silently during a break in their work, on the back of a pick up truck. He admitted that he moved to the city as soon as he could, and spent a decade denying his rural past. Now he embraces it.

The poems are richer for the background story.

Thursday, June 04, 2009

Swedish Detective Wallander: One Step Behind

(reflection on ONE STEP BEHIND by Henning Mankell, translated from Swedish by Ebba Segerberg)

Reading for the first time from this highly - acclaimed series, I'm struck by the extent to which the detective novelist's job is simply stringing the reader along. I could be irritated by that, or I could enjoy the experience: I haven't decided which reaction I'm feeling.

There is some admiration of how he does tease us. We know in the first chapter everything we'll ever know about the personality and motivation of the murderer; only his name is withheld. He shoots three young adults while they indulge in a midsummer night's dress - up fantasy. While Detective Kurt Wallander and his team look into the disappearance of those three young adults, we wonder, when will Wallander figure out what we already know? Later, when we know where the murderer is lurking, and what he is planning, then there's page - turning suspense. That's a good thing, and it kept me up reading past midnight.

Meanwhile, however, we do have irritating iterations of the phrase, "something was not right," as Wallander can never seem to put his finger on the source of his intuitions. If he did, gosh, the novel would be over in two chapters. Even the detective's mid - life health crisis is drawn out so long that it wears thin: okay, Wallander, you have diabetes. So?

The Martin Cruz Smith books set in Russia, and Walter Mosley's books set in the same streets as Raymond Chandler's LA give us a strong sense of alien, beautiful, intriguing settings. Sweden seems to be a place where everything is within an hour's drive, and where two murders in a summer is enough to get the national news media up in arms about lawlessness. I'm willing to revisit Mankell's Sweden, but it made a bland first impression.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

REVERSE MENTORING by Earl Creps: It's Not Just About Technology

(Reflection on a book by Earl Creps, REVERSE MENTORING: HOW YOUNG LEADERS CAN TRANSFORM THE CHURCH AND WHY WE SHOULD LET THEM. Leadership Network Publications, 2008)

"Words don't stick" for our younger church members, not the way they did for those of us who are Boomers or older.

For Creps, information came in words, and these were mined with great effort and skill in hard - to - reach sources, to be mulled over in essays, with all these words to be kept in files and notebooks as treasures, and their possession gave a person authority. That's certainly the way I've always thought of words and information. And the subject that I teach in middle school, History, is based on that model.

But for those raised on the internet, information is no treasure, but a utility as easy to turn on and off as water. It's there to download anytime; no need to treasure it or to keep it.

Then there's the issue of "playlists." Boomers were raised on radio, while younger members take for granted that they can instantly choose their music, tv shows, and anything else. The typical church experience for them is "too homogenized," one size fits all, like radio. They want their own playlist.

So what are People of the Book supposed to do, especially in our liturgical church that proudly preserves its texts and rehearses them every time we meet? How can we draw younger members into an experience when they balk at lectures and three - point sermons?

The first step, according to Creps, is simply to ask for their help. First admit, "I'm not cool," and ask, "What is that? Who is that music group? What matters to you?" He suggests a number of models for doing this formally, and strongly suggests that church leadership should approach this informally, over a long period of time, meeting at coffee houses, getting help with technical things, meeting two (young) on one (older).

Creps admits that this generational conflict has been around "since the Tower of Babel," and he describes the show-down brewing between current "Gen - Xers" and the even younger "Millennials" (i.e., those who grew up watching 90210 on TV or Dawson's Creek). His Gen - X youth leaders complain that "Millennials" can't do anything, and that they are "immune to instruction" unless it's a humorous video or else "about me" (119).

Creps also seems to have forgotten earlier manifestations of the hunger for "authenticity" for which he admires his younger colleagues. When Boomers were in High School, it was the hunger for "relevance" and it re-shaped the curriculum. A generation earlier, folk music was "authentic" (and Peter, Paul and Mary were "too commercial"). In years before that, the badge of authenticity was whether one appreciated be - bop. So I'm not too impressed with a huge chunk of this book.

But he does put his finger on some issues to be aware of:

- Boomers, like every generation before them, are afraid that they will be "ignored to death" (81).

- Relationship is more important than information; leaders should begin with the idea that they won't just present and guide, but will learn from those they lead (124) and very few churches have a coherent strategy for doing this (152).

- God conveyed his lessons by sending a human being -- texts came after. A young audience wants to know what the Kingdom of God means to the ones presenting the lessons and sermons; Greek roots and quotes from authority don't carry weight with them (137)

- "engagement" of the younger audience isn't about information, even if it has pictures, but about asking questions and telling personal stories... as Jesus must have done when he told parables that had no easy interpretation.

- Our younger members are also largely ignorant of the overarching story of God's purpose in the world. Creps likens the typical young person's experience of a sermon to his own uncomfortable lack of comprehension when he watched the second movie in the LORD OF THE RINGS cycle without being familiar with the books or with the first movie.

Ideas for St. James: "iPod byGod?" Some kind of mentoring by young members re: technology they take for granted... Wiis and iPods etc.

Borrow Creps' idea of sending text messages to the preacher during the sermon for review later... just to get fleeting impressions of how the message is getting across, and to keep young ones engaged.

Some kind of shadow Vestry -- commitment by Church leaders to meet with pairs of younger members regularly.

Monday, June 01, 2009

Georgia Festival Chorus presents "Total Praise"

(reflections on a concert May 31 at First Baptist Church, Marietta, Georgia by The Georgia Festival Chorus, Frank Boggs, founding director, David Scott Associate Director, Ken Terrell, Assistant Director, Cathy Adams, Pianist, John Innes, Organist)

The theme of Sunday night’s concert by the Georgia Festival Chorus was set at the start by an intense, brief segment of John Ness Beck’s anthem “Total Praise.” The rest of the piece was held in reserve until the end of the evening, when founding director Frank Boggs rose, still recuperating from emergency heart surgery just three weeks ago. At that point, it was an emphatic statement of thanks and praise. But at the start, the piece was a wake – up call, and Associate Director David Scott tied each piece to that theme.

Another theme emerged as the three directors put the Georgia Festival through their paces: contrast. That opening statement by Beck showed contrast in texture and contrast in dynamics, beginning with a soprano’s earnest solo line, joined by full chorus, and suddenly swelling as the choir sang “You are the source of my strength / You are the strength of my life.”

Immediately, that contemporary piece was contrasted to Haydn’s classical balance. Sopranos were especially noteworthy, floating their high notes without vibrato above the roiling counterpoint of the lower voices in the “Kyrie” from the Lord Nelson Mass. For “The Heavens are Telling,” the chorus sang grandly over Haydn’s playful keyboard ornamentation, executed presto by pianist Cathy Adams and organist John Innes. The chorus exuded joy – classically contained -- bringing each iteration of the word “firmament” to a perfect unison “tee.”

A setting of the Lord’s Prayer by a composer named Cain (any first names, program writer?) set up a different kind of contrast. After Haydn, we were treated to unaccompanied voices piling up in a chord that expressed anguish and need as the words addressed “Our Father who art in Heaven.” The chorus slid through the contemporary harmonies accurately and emotionally, bringing the piece to reassuring consonance only at the very end.

The next piece, Beck's setting of Psalm 90 ( “Canticle of Praise” ) began deceptively as one of those generically heartfelt ballads of the 70s identified with Barry Manilow, but it cut loose from its pop moorings around the line about our lives being as the grass that is cut down and “gone.” There was a special effect here as each voice part alternated the syllable “gone” on a different pitch, descending into gloom. From then on, all stylistic bets were off: sunny harmonies broke through, but kept evolving until we were into strong choral writing with keyboard antics that sounded more like Bartok than Barry Manilow.

Assistant director Ken Terrell introduced a set of hymns arranged by someone named Wilberg, where there were fewer compositional pyrotechnics and therefore greater exposure of the Chorus’s technique. Women sounded lovely above bubbling flute accompaniment in “All things Bright and Beautiful.” For “The King of Love my Shepherd Is” the men sustained convincing unison, basses and tenors together, on some high pitches – very difficult to do right.

Again, for contrast, a select ensemble of voices came forward to sing a cappella “E’en So Lord Jesus Quickly Come” by Paul Manz. It’s an especially moving piece, expressing yearning with open harmonies and surprising melodic turns.

We also heard fine arrangements of Broadway tunes, including “Somewhere,” credited to Bernstein. (Attention program writer: The lyrics were enunciated so well. Who wrote them?) “Georgia on My Mind” was warmly harmonized, punctuated by Cathy Adams’ piano stylings, and notable especially for the bridge, sung by the women with warm tone quality and jazzy phrasing. These people know what they’re doing when they switch genres!

Throughout the evening, the choir showed off amazing control with long crescendos, sudden decrescendos, and every combination of the two.

Rising to thank his choir for their support of him during his illness, and then to conduct the full rendition of “Total Praise,” Frank Boggs showed off the choir’s chops by dramatically elongating a fermata. Conducting the final phrases of the song for an encore, Mr. Boggs again varied the sound.

As always, the evening ended with the lovely Lutkin Benediction, sung by the choir spread throughout the hall.