Are We on the Verge of Participatory Church?
In an op-ed piece in this Sunday’s New York Times, former NPR correspondent Eric Weiner describes his feelings as he faces the holiday season as a religious “none,” as in “none of the above.” Weiner is currently “unaffiliated,” but he writes, “We Nones may not believe in God, but we hope to one day. We have a dog in this hunt.”
That hopeful note is followed by a description of the kind of religion Weiner would like to see in the world (and particularly the United States):
“We need a Steve Jobs of religion. Someone (or ones) who can invent not a new religion but, rather, a new way of being religious. Like Mr. Jobs’s creations, this new way would be straightforward and unencumbered and absolutely intuitive. Most important, it would be highly interactive. I imagine a religious space that celebrates doubt, encourages experimentation and allows one to utter the word God without embarrassment. A religious operating system for the Nones among us. And for all of us.”
I would like to suggest to Weiner — were we sitting together at Starbucks or Caribou having a conversation over a cup of joe — that for more than a decade, the emerging missional church movement has been seeking to agitate for and begin to construct such a path. My friends and colleagues who have been the architects and thought leaders of this movement may not be so bold as to claim that title or status as “the Steve Jobs of religion,” but I’d like to be bold enough to say that Brian McLaren, Doug Pagitt, Rob Bell, Shane Claiborne, and Peter Rollins (among others) have each, in their own way, played this role to some extent.*
Besides acknowledging the Jobs-like work that has already been done, I’m beyond ecstatic to hear this clarion call from a self-described “None” for “a religious operating system” that will serve both the Nones/Unaffiliated and the rest of us. This is what fuels the work I’m doing with Hope Partnership for Missional Transformation and TransFORM Network.
And I’d like to suggest that faith leaders — from across denominations and traditions — need to begin reflecting deeply on this idea of participation. What Weiner calls “highly interactive” and “experimental.” It’s essentially the same message that Landon Whitsitt wrote about earlier this year in his book Open Source Church, and it’s an idea that Dr. Ryan Bolger, from Fuller Theological Seminary, has been playing with recently, as well (see video below).
In an interview with Luther Seminary, Bolger suggests** that we are now living in a post-postmodern era that is characterized primarily by the participatory nature of the Internet and technology culture that has shaped it:
Bolger says, “The shift from postmodernity to participatory culture means people find their identity through what they create as opposed to maybe what they consume. … Our churches are still structured in such a way that we do it to them, not inviting them to create worship with us. So, if that’s the case, there’s really no space for people who’ve been formed by our participatory culture in our churches.”
Bolger’s provocative comments, coupled with Whitsitt’s book and Weiner’s op-ed in the Times, beg the question: Who will create the religious communities of the future that will engage participatory people?
That’s a revolution I want to be a part of.
* Yes, I’m very aware that these are all white males, and that has been the legacy of the first 10 years of the emerging missional church movement. The next 10-20 years promise to be far more rich and diverse, with broader participation from women and people of color as this leveling of hierarchies provides greater opportunity for developing platforms for greater influence. Stay tuned …
** Forgive me, Dr. Bolger, if I’m putting words in your mouth! I think my interpretation of what is said in the video interview is accurate, but it is my interpretation and may not reflect the actual views held by Dr. Bolger. In other words, results may vary.