The Pea in Landon’s Mattress: Like-Mindedness and Sleepless Nights

Landon Whitsitt has posted a thoughtful and carefully considered response to my last post. He’s been irked since the NEXT Church Indy event, and my post pushed the right buttons to bring that irk . . . age clearly into focus. You’re welcome, Landon.

You should read the post, you should read Landon’s book Open Source Church when it comes out this spring, and you should read his Open Source Gospel ebook now. Landon is an innovative thinker who is widely read and who leaves fewer stones unturned than most when it comes to proposing a way forward for 21st century mainline protestant Christianity.

Also, we’re tight. He and his wife sang in my wedding. I baptized one of his kids. You get the idea. Speak uncharitably of him and I’ll hurt you.

What Landon takes issue with is my lack of alarm at the like-mindedness that characterizes both the NEXT Church conversation and the Fellowship of Presbyterian Pastors one.  Much of the criticism aimed at that latter group centered on its lack of gender, ethnic, and vocational diversity (they’re mostly white male pastors of big churches).

Yet the NEXT gathering betrayed much of the same bias (far less so, though, in the area of gender), and that has caused many hopeful progressives to throw up their hands in despair. Landon is among them.

He writes:

Regardless of a group’s defining characteristics, when group members are similar, they tend to become cohesive – or “like-minded” – fairly quickly. The more similarities, the faster the cohesion is achieved.  This cohesiveness is deceptive. We interpret it as a good thing because it seemingly allows us to get our work done more effectively and efficiently. But the actual effect of this cohesion is that it promotes reliance upon the group to such a degree that members become insulated from outside opinions.

Insulation from outside opinions is a serious threat, and Landon is right to worry about it. But I don’t agree that cohesion in a like-minded group has to lead to this effect. Both the Fellowship and NEXT groups have thrown their doors wide and invited everyone in. How people are greeted when they accept the invitation–that will be the test of insularity. It’s not a foregone conclusion.

More to the point, I don’t think any association of individuals who are trying to change an institution can get very far with an unlimited plurality of opinion. It just won’t work. I’m no slave to the mantra of efficiency, but conversations like NEXT and the Fellowship PC(USA) are after some kind of concrete change. That requires a modicum of like-mindedness.

Both James Davison Hunter and Steven Johnson were mentioned at the NEXT gathering, and both have written about the importance of “networks” in innovation and cultural change.

Hunter says this:

the key actor in history is not individual genius but rather the network and the new institutions that are created out of those networks. And the more “dense” the network—that is, the more active and interactive the network—the more influential it could be. This is where the stuff of culture and cultural change is produced.

Johnson says this by way of explaining the rapid rate of innovation that took place as people transitioned from nomadic hunter/gatherer societies to life in cities:

In the dense networks of the first cities, good ideas have a natural propensity to get into circulation. They spill over, and in that spilling they are preserved for future generations.

Both Davidson and Johnson used the descriptor “density,” which I think is far more helpful than like-mindedness.  The latter is a marker of the former. From a Christian theological point of view, we could substitute “community” or “kinship” for density and bring the issue more clearly into focus: how do dense networks that begin with like-minded thinkers expand to become effective communities characterized by diversity?

The church is charged to model Kingdom-of-God type community. To me, that means people at cultural margins are heard equally with those in “tall steeples.” It means that racial and gender diversity are not optional. And, for Presbyterians, it means that pastors’ voices are not privileged over the voices of Ruling Elders.

Both the NEXT and the Fellowship efforts have serious holes with respect to that charge, as has been amply pointed out by Landon and many others, and as those efforts’ organizers are well aware. But I don’t see those holes as crippling, at least not with respect to the NEXT gathering, for two reasons (I’ll save my reasons for limiting these qualifications to NEXT for a later post):

First, networks aren’t about themselves but the people in them. The people behind the NEXT conversation are people both Landon and I trust. I trust them to have their eye on the need for a diverse community of voices as they host conversations about contentious subjects. This first one, admittedly, got away from them, and you can’t expect people in progressive circles to let something like that go. They haven’t.

Second, it’s a beginning. One of the organizers tweeted in response to Landon’s post that the planners of NEXT saw the Indianapolis event as a “beta” test and not a “full release.” This was not the launch of a strategic program but of a conversation with undetermined outcomes.

The pea in Landon’s mattress is a divinely-inspired caution against self-righteous retreat into safe enclaves of shared opinion. I hope that pea gets into all of our mattresses. But I also hope we can reach in there, take the pea out, look at it carefully, and decide if it’s really worth losing sleep over.

For me–right now–it’s not. But that could change.

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