Pushback on Participatory Church


There’s been a lot of great comments shared in response to my initial post “Are We on the Verge of Participatory Church?” including some great follow-up posts from Rachelle Mee-Chapman, Adam Copeland, and Dave Owen-O’Quill.

Here are a few of the other more critical comments that were posted, which I think are really worth considering and wrestling with. (These were all posted on Facebook, but the writers have graciously granted me permission to publish them in this public forum.) …

Jim Henderson writes, “[Weiner] identifies a unique opportunity that stares us in the face to bring to the world (like Jobs and Jesus) something they don’t know they need — something that delights them. With that in mind I dont think that the emerging-missional movement will get there since it is too deeply embedded in the evangelical ethos. But as always I could be completely wrong.” I think Jim articulates the “Steve Jobs of religion” idea in a way that’s very helpful, and while I appreciate his skepticism about the emerging-missional church, I’m holding out hope that we can be part of the response that Weiner’s op-ed piece begs for!

Ken Bussell points out that the common examples of participatory Web culture are also very consumeristic: “The fact is that YouTube and Wikipedia have far more consumers than they have participants. And the same is true for church. Additionally, the success of a participatory model is dependent on scale. If every neighborhood or town were limited to their own Wikipedia or YouTube, the quality of the overall content and user experience would suffer.”

Bussell points to Michael Sandel’s Justice course at Harvard as an example of a “very participatory, yet guided” teaching style that could be a model for preaching in new faith communities.

Finally, perhaps the most important feedback comes from Chris Hill, a self-described “None” who lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Chris writes, “I don’t believe there is really a place in most Christian churches (even many Emergent’s) for an ‘Agnostic by Default,’ or a ‘None.’ I should know, because though I am a practicing spiritual contemplative (and I am a part of a Christian community), in my heart of hearts I believe that all of humanity has it within each one of them to connect with The Source of All That Is, whatever ‘it’ may be.

“Most Christian churches have their unshakable dogmas that leave spiritual agnostics feeling like they are outsiders simply because there is so much which must be believed (or at least listened to week-in and week-out as being literally so). I can see how ‘participatory’ can be applicable for those who are already ‘in,’ but it can remain very difficult (with conditions) for those who are more pragmatically-minded, seeking ‘god’s truth’ wherever it may be found. God’s truth is usually set on equal ground with ‘that which not only appears to work well, but that which seems truly good for all, or at least for most, involved.’

“I believe that ’emergence’ is on a good path to somewhere worthwhile, but it doesn’t go near far enough for me (which is quite fine, I don’t expect it to — but it is much better than various fundamentalisms). I think Progressive churches tend to take it to the next level, and ‘churches’ such as the UUs [Unitarian Universalists] are even more inclusive.

“For me, love is the bottom line: being transformed by it and being a part of transforming others through the dispensing of it. Regardless of one’s controlling narrative, love can almost always be possible. But dogma and doctrine do not only divide, they exclude. Again, this is what I mean by ‘with conditions’ from my own, admittedly so, idiosyncratic perspective, as open-minded as it may be. I must also admit though, that I’m not very open-minded about spiritual/religious exclusivism. I accept exclusivism as a reality and that love can manifest itself from within such communities, but I also believe it tends to do more harm than good, at least as these very subjective interpretive lenses have both experienced and pondered over.”

I think Chris identifies perhaps the greatest challenge to the vision Eric Weiner described in his New York Times op-ed piece, and that is: Can we truly collaborate with religious “Nones” in the co-creation of new kinds of religious/faith communities? Or will our commitments to institutional structures or ecclesiological/denominational traditions keep us from experimenting together?


UPDATE 12/14/2011: Don Heatley, from Vision Community Church in upstate New York, has a great blog post today responding to Eric Weiner’s NYTimes op-ed, and he offers three more conclusions of pushback and critique for those of us in the emerging missional church to ponder as we aspire to create religious/faith communities with and for “Nones”:

1) The institutional church will never be Apple. Money quote: “If the institutional church attempts to be Steve Jobs and create a church for Nones, it will more likely resemble a Zune than an iPod. Need I say more?”

2) The Steve Jobs of religion will not be a product of the traditional church.

3) The Steve Jobs of religion may produce a way of being religious that is not Christianity.

Read the whole post



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Posted on 12-13-2011


  1. Bob Cornwall says:

    December 14th, 2011 at 9:43 am

    I’ve not yet read the Weiner article, but regarding Steve Jobs and the church, it should be noted that Jobs as a notorious control freak who sought to control every dimension of the company. If we’re suggesting that he be the model of the church, I’m not sure that will be very participatory. Instead, it would seem to me to be highly centralized in the leader, whoever that might be.

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