search this site

Enter your email address:

Delivered by FeedBurner

Get the eNews

* indicates required
Email Format
This form does not yet contain any fields.
    find ben simpson on facebook
    twitter updates


    Transient. Distracted. Elsewhere. :: Planted. Attentive. Present.

    Of the pairing above, which set of words resonate most fully with you?

    Our world is changing, and is undergoing further change.  And as changes take place all around us, they form and tailor us to navigate our world in ways that could be healthy but could also be to our detriment, and if not for us, then perhaps for our neighbors.  This is why it is critical for us to engage with our world in a discerning way, analyzing the emerging patterns, habits, and ways of being that define our age.  In many ways this type of quest is an attempt to hit a moving target, for in many instances the moment we grasp a hint of "what is going on," something new is going on.  The landscape changes.  But that does not mean we should stop trying to hit the target.

    Among my hobbies stands the study of sociology.  I love to know how people work, think, act, and relate.  I love to follow trends and read statistics, particularly when they intersect with patterns I've sensed in my own community.  I also believe that sociologists have much to offer us in understanding ourselves.  And it is just such an offering that Dalton Conley has provided us in his book, Elsewhere, U.S.A.: How We Got from the Company Man, Family Dinners, and the Affluent Society to the Home Office, Blackberry Moms, and Economic Anxiety.  The title captures the content well.

    In his book Conley traces the transition of the common American worker from 1959 to 2009.  He notes many changes.  Whereas his grandparents worked hard to retire at 50, today the world of work "means working more and more hours as you move up a towering ladder of economic opportunity (and inequality)."  Whereas his grandparents enjoyed socializing with friends and family, the modern "knowledge worker" has social ties that are normally just an extension of their work, for one has no idea from whence the next project or great opportunity will come (I see this in my own life.).  While his grandparents, whom he describes as having a "relatively progressive marriage," would eat meals at home with family, he observe that his own family never cooks.  They eat most meals at restaurants or on the run.  Conley observes that the modern individual constantly juggles one's calendar, particularly when one has a family, and most move hurriedly about from place to place.  When people are asked how the are doing, the most common answer is "busy."

    Conley observes that even when we are "here," we are often never "all here."  There is always some distraction.  Email, cell phone, or the constant reviewing of the millions of things "to do" that roll through our mind keep us from being fully present with our friends and loved ones.  As a result, we live in an Elsewhere society that blends work and leisure, home and office, investment and consumption, and public and private.  Conley does not decry this state of affairs.  Instead, he exhorts his readers to come to terms with it.  To live it.  To give in to the Blackberry.  This is reality, he believes, and we are best off joining the game rather than longing from some nostalgic yesteryear to which we can never return.

    Conley ends his book by asking, "Do I make sense?"  It is an appeal.  He knows that as a sociologist he can only formulate a theory, propose it to the reader, and the return will be up to his audience.  Does he tell a compelling story?  Does it fit the grid?  To paraphrase Jonathan Z. Smith, "Does the map fit the territory?"  And to all of those questions I would say yes.  We are more transient.  We are more distracted.  We are elsewhere.

    But for Christian communities, our role is to subvert these realities.  Our story is one of incarnation and grounding, attention and focus, presence and care.  Our story is also one of patience, gratitude, and slowness. We are friends of time.  While Conley's story is compelling, it does not constitute a truthful narrative in which we are called to live.  In fact, it unearths dangerous realities which threaten our life as followers of Jesus.  He names for us the principalities and the powers. And we have good news to share in the face of those realities, which are not realities at all.  They are simply illusion.

    Are you transient, distracted, or elsewhere?  If yes, how can you become planted, attentive, and present, and invite others into that same type of life?


    Kara Powell @ CT's Out of Ur Blog :: Youth Ministry & "The Age of Segregation"

    I have served in youth ministry in the past few years. I've given thought to intergenerational ministry, and have always had a concern that the widespread, accepted approach to youth ministry programming as a "subset" component in the life of the church was undermining our end goal of raising up disciples of Jesus Christ. Students are not exposed to mature Christians, or the wisdom of the generations, and thus lack the resources to imagine for themselves what an exemplary Christian life might look like.  

    I wanted my students to be in worship with a full complement of the saints, both young and old. And I wanted my students to have leadership within those worship gatherings. So do most youth ministers. But our approach to separating the generations has, at times, drawn people into segregated fellowships at the cost of a collective gathering where our witness is more robust.

    This quote from Kara Powell, executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute at Fuller Theological Seminary, appeared on CT's Out of Ur blog a few days ago, and captures well the development of youth ministry in the last half century and what I can only hope will be the future of youth ministry (bold emphasis mine):

    "[The church] realized in the 1940s that we were not offering teens enough focused attention. So what did we do? We started offering them too much. All of a sudden churches had adult pastors and youth pastors, adult worship teams and youth worship teams, adult mission trips and youth mission trips. And there's a place for that. But we've ended up segregating--and I use that word intentionally--our kids from the rest of the church. Now we tend to think that we can outsource the care of our kids to designated experts, the youth and children's workers.... I think the future of youth ministry is intergenerational."

    The comments on this thread are interesting.  Check it out.


    Do We "Need" Virtual Community, Or Is It a Bonus?

    I love Facebook, Twitter, and, after a shaky start, I've come to enjoy blogging. Never mind that I wonder how many people actually read the stuff that I write, or my concern that information glut makes it even more difficult to find those places on the web with quality content, or that social networking is an addiction for certain people that I know (like me). I think social media tools are fun, and they've enabled me to broaden my network and involve myself in conversations I could not have accessed otherwise.

    Social media tools have a lot of advantages. I was reminded of this by an article in the June 30, 2009 edition of The Christian Century. Lenora Rand contributed an article entitled, "The Church on Facebook: Why We Need Virtual Community," that was quite enjoyable. In the article Rand shares a personal story of a friend who makes "The Feed" on Facebook a source for her prayer life. Rand also notes that churches are now using Facebook and Twitter to keep parishioners abreast of the latest happenings in the life of their congregation. She sees these virtual communities as a great help in supplementing community, and throughout her article notes the numerous advantages such technological tools lend to our daily lives. Rand strongly concludes:

    These days...given the busyness of our lives and the distances we're separated from each other and from our church buildings, we...need the virtual church. We live in a world in which it takes a lot of commitment to carve out an hour or so on Sunday morning to meet with others for worship, and in this kind of world we need the Facebook and Twitter church, where on a daily basis we can confess our sins, weep together and laugh together, know the intimate details of one another's lives and pray for one another in very specific ways.

    Rand is not saying that Twitter and Facebook should replace our face-to-face gatherings.  She makes this clear in her article.  And I agree with her.  But I won't go so far as to say that we "need" the virtual community that Twitter and Facebook provide, and I refuse to give into the idea that such networks allow us to maintain some form of close connection in a busy world.  I would argue that our "long commutes" to our church communities, or Rand's description of the tremendous amount of commitment now required to gather for an hour on Sunday morning point to a larger problem within our networks.  You could diagnose this problem as hurry-sickness, sprawl, or consumer-Christianity that bypasses the parish church (imagine if we did have to gather at a church near our neighborhood, rather than drive to the congregation of our choice?).  You might have another diagnosis.  But there is a problem.  And Web 2.0 will not solve it.  In fact, it might mask it.

    To cite an example, my cell phone bill recently revealed a rather atrocious reality.  I found that the minutes credited to my data plan--the minutes used to access Facebook, Twitter, or the web--far outnumbered my minutes spent talking with people during the day or at night.  Even if you include my text messages, my time on Facebook and Twitter still dwarfed those totals.  I spend more time voyeuristically monitoring statuses than I do in direct conversations with friends.  Thus, I am able to feign relationship with others at a distance.  I feel connected.  But am I?

    We do not need virtual community.  But we have it.  It is a bonus.  Not a need.  Let's not overstate the case.


    Limitations of the Church Online ::

    Catalyst pointed me to this article from LifeChurch about the limits of the online church.  Check it out.  The comments are particularly interesting.

    When it comes to the church online, it is my observation that practice has been more formative for the theology of this type of ministry, rather than theology driving practice (there is a dynamic relationship here, of course).  In many ways I believe the "online church" expresses a weak ecclesiology, privileges certain institutions and personalities over others, and shifts focus from what has become a critical need in all sectors of Christianity--the identification, equipping, and sending of a new generation of leaders to actually, physically dwell amongst a community of people and disciple them as followers of Jesus.  I wrote an article for Collide Magazine on the strengths and weaknesses of internet campuses and multi-site ministries earlier this year.  You can read it here.

    Until someone makes the case that internet campuses and ministries can fully embody the gospel in a way that reflects our doctrine of the incarnation, I'm going to remain unconvinced that these type of ministries are fully for the good.  While I recognize that some pluses do emerge from these types of ministries, I believe they fail to depict the church as anything more than a voluntary association of individuals who have happened to assent to some of the same creeds.

    Christianity is about more than having the right information.  It is about living a particular and common way of life together while following after Jesus.


    Question: The Rite of Confirmation - What is it about?

    On my pilgrimage following after Jesus, the idea of "confirmation" did not mean much until I was given charge of a "confirmation class." I took a position as a youth pastor at a new church start, and many of my students were new to the Christian life. Some of them had been baptized, though not all. Whether they had been baptized or not, most of them expressed a desire to grow in their life of discipleship to Jesus. And for those that expressed deeper commitment, the opportunity to be confirmed in the faith presented a compelling opportunity.

    As students participated in the life of our group, the students learned the beliefs, practices, and commitments that went along with the Christian life. Each student exhibited a different degree of understanding. Some had made clear commitments, and were active in asking questions and putting what they had learned into practice. Others were simply along for the ride. They enjoyed pizza, dodgeball, conversation, pizza, and the presence of caring adults. They were surrounded with the stories of Scripture and participated in our rhythms, but their degree of commitment to Jesus was difficult to measure. Our youth group consisted of a real mixed bag. But they were a delightful mixed bag.

    I have mentioned that "confirmation" did not mean much to me until I was given charge of a group of confirmands. I grew up in a "believer's" church tradition, wherein confirmation was not a central rite. Those who received baptism did so following a profession of faith. While growing up I do not recall attending or even being invited to the confirmation of friends or neighbors from other Christian traditions. I had heard of confirmation, but had never witnessed it. Therefore, I had no firm grasp of the concept--why it would, or should, be carried forth, what role it had played in the life of the church, or how "confirmands" should be led or instructed. After receiving some input from my pastor, I decided that if we would confirm anyone, we should do our best to teach the basics of the Christian faith, including important points of doctrine, history, and practice. I also decided that this instruction should take place in a healthy, vibrant environment of love and fellowship carried out in the name of Jesus. I needed other Christians to be the loving presence of Jesus for our students. And I was blessed to have people like this who were willing to help.

    My experience leading confirmation was a delight. We created space for sincere questions, and engaged in doctrinal discussions that included the authority of Scripture, ecclesiology, christology, anthropology, soteriology, and the history of doctrine. We talked specifically about the development of Methodism, the importance of John Wesley to Methodist people, and the distinctives Methodism now offers to the world and Christianity. The students displayed keen understanding, and made connections to their everyday lives. They were able to receive prayer during our retreats and meetings, and they were able to serve the community either through helping the confirmation gatherings take place or by serving in the city as part of a designated service project. Confirmation was a time for the students to live into the commitments their parents had made on their behalf in baptism, and to take ownership of the Christian faith in a way that was appropriate to their stage of moral and cognitive development.

    Such observations will explain why it was to my great surprise to read Martin B. Copenhaver's critical thoughts about the rite of confirmation in his article, "What's Confirmation For?" in the June 2009 issue of The Christian Century. Copenhaver begins by sharing recent changes to the rite of confirmation in his congregation. He explains that confirmands, most of them ninth graders, would compose individual statements of faith at a yearly retreat and present those statements to the congregation on a Sunday morning, who would then ooh and ah as each confirmand recited their statement of theological conviction. Copenhaver remarks that, "Typically, some statements were somewhat stumbling attempts to capture those enduring mysteries, while others could only be called statements of doubt." Copenhaver reports that, "One year, when the statements were particularly eloquent and seemed to bear startlingly accurate witness to the God who is worshipped in that sanctuary each Sunday, a member of the congregation said, without irony, 'After listening to those beautiful statements, God must be feeling especially good today.'" He was unimpressed. Upon hearing this, he found it doubtful that "the God who hung the stars in the heavens and set the earth in its orbit had spent a sleepless Saturday night anxiously awaiting the verdict that would be rendered by a group of 15-year-olds the next morning."

    Instead of expressing delight in what God might have been doing through the power of the Holy Spirit in this confirmation experience, he states plainly, "Over the years I have come to realize that I am just not that interested in a 15-year-old's reflection on eternal matters. I think we do youths a disservice by implying that they have anything important to say on such things at that point in their lives. Doing so may only create more adults who are overly infatuated with their own opinions." But Copenhaver's lack of interest in the theological reflections of a 15-year-old reflects more about him than they do a rite which, in his estimation, needs revision.

    Copenhaver goes on to say, quite rightly, that "The proper focus of the rite of confirmation is not on what any individual believes but on what the church affirms." As a result, confirmation rites in his congregation were changed to ask students if they wish to be followers of Jesus, a more devotional type of commitment, but one that directs the students toward the idea of journey and pilgrimage rather than destination. Copenhaver is not totally satisfied with this approach, but he believes it is at least better than the prior procedure, which focused on the theological convictions of a 15-year-old above the theological confession of the church.

    Copenhaver is still seeking a better alternative. He suggests that confirmation is a rite now "in search of a meaning." He examines historic practice of confirmation, in which a bishop would anoint and lay hands on confirmands following their baptism, and wonders if the separation of baptism and confirmation has created problems that cannot be overcome. Copenhaver believes that "when confirmation is understood apart from baptism, the emphasis is mistakenly placed on a confirmand's qualifications rather than on God's unqualified gift." He states, "In such an understanding, confirmation is no longer about the church confirming a person's baptism. Instead, it becomes an opportunity for the individual to confirm--or not--what the church has done in baptism."

    Copenhaver notes that the rite of confirmation is now perceived by some to be "our last chance to lay some claim on [teenage confirmands] before they leave the fold." He knows many will leave, though he does not care to reflect on why this may be the case. Because Copenhaver believes that some will leave for good and some will return, "confirmation" or a similar rite performed during the teenage years should be a time the church can "confirm" or reaffirm the vows the congregation made in the youth's baptism, "no matter what they may believe at the moment or where life may take them." If the youth leaves the church after such a rite, at least they will know they are loved and that "those commitments would be like a light kept in the window until they are ready to return home."

    Copenhaver believes that a normative age for confirmation should be abandoned entirely, and that such a rite should be reserved for those who return to the church as a young adult. These are the same young adults who were confirmed as teenagers, left after moving away from home, and now return to the church with their children, having discovered that "there is another child, the one within me, who wants to grow." After recommitting themselves, Copenhaver believes, a rite of confirmation at such a time "would not resemble a graduation ceremony so much as another kind of celebration--a joyous homecoming."

    While such celebrations are welcome, Copenhaver's account appears to assume that the church is a voluntary association of individuals who happen to arrive at some of the same theological conclusions, rather than a body of people constituted by God in Jesus Christ and entrusted with unique, peculiar truths.  His account of confirmation as homecoming appears to betray his conviction that the church and her confessions are more important than the individual and their personal statements of belief. We simply wait for people to "come back around" to a point where they can submit their lives to the church's creeds, rather than actively inviting those (even those who have strayed) to share in our confessions.  I see such persons as being little different than 15-year-olds composing their statements of faith. I assume Copenhaver exercises greater respect for such persons because they can now "think for themselves," as opposed to 15-year-olds, who, Copenhaver assumes, have no such capacity. 

    Copenhaver's account leaves me wondering how many church leaders share these same concerns, and how many church leaders have examined why they observe a rite of confirmation for their teenagers. Does our liturgy effectively demonstrate the church's conviction that the God who "began a good work" in the baptism of our children is working to bring it to completion? Does our liturgy accurately reflect that confirmation is but a witness to the grace of God that has sustained and nurtured the young in the life of the church? As we explain what is taking place during the rite of confirmation, do we make it clear to our young people that the church is entrusting to them the stories and traditions of the Christian faith, and that confirmation is not only an act of approval and acceptance, but a commissioning to live a particular type of life?

    I put this article down believing that the confession of the church is central in the rite of confirmation, but not in the same way as Copenhaver. I believe that the confession of the church is important inasmuch as confirmands are making that confession their own. I acknowledge that, yes, some confirmands will go their own way, but that is not so much the fault of our confirmands as it is the strength of our connection as the Body of Christ. In addition, the flight of many can be attributed to the degree to which we form our students in the spiritual life before they leave the church. In other words, we are seeing people leave our fellowship because of what we are doing, not in spite of it. And the reality is, we can do better.

    One step in the direction of "doing better" will be to take the theological reflections of 15-year-olds seriously. Questions will arise, convictions will change, waver, deepen, and, hopefully, become sure. Along the way, we will be blessed by the companionship these young people provide, and for those that continue to journey with us our prayer should be that of thanksgiving, for their presence truly is a gift from God.

    I haven't given up on confirmation as a rite of young adolescence. And I don't think we should.