Embrace The Boundaries

Without boundaries there is no freedom. Unlimited choice is no choice.

In terms of investing and the digital economy, boundlessness makes prosperity impossible, since the only acceptable outcome is more growth. This is Doug Rushkoff’s  contention in the “Bounded Investing” section at the end of Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus, a numbered list of constructive proposals the book makes about how to make life better in the digital era.

Rushkoff is championing investments in enterprises close to where you live, but also enterprises that work on things you care about. “Boundaries don’t have to be solely geographically defined,” he says. “They simply have to define a mutually supportive range of businesses.

Your target could be the business sector in which you work, such as design services, equipment, and Web sites. Or your pool could be the various constituencies in biodiesel manufacturing, comic-book publishing, or natural health care. As long as there’s a network of business that support one another, the boundaries make sense.

This seems to me to be a playing field on which churches–congregations as well as regional and national councils–have a distinct advantage. The local church is geographically bounded. It ought to know more than any institution in town about the kinds of investments that are needed: healthy restaurants? A grocery store? A school? I’m sure there are congregations out there that are modeling this kind of bounded investment in their neighborhoods to make them stronger.

Denominations, for their part, can make investments of their still-considerable resources based on their values. The Presbyterian Church (USA) is working on “Transformational Investing” in places like Israel/Palestine. “Beyond a simple monetary return,” says the website of the Presbyterian Foundation, “The outcome being sought is transformation – hope in place of fear, peace in place of violence, empowerment in place of injustice, changed lives, changed circumstances.”

Boundaries are our allies in changing the world.

This is another post on Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus: How Growth Became The Enemy of ProsperityRead more posts on the book here. Throw yourself headlong into the Rushkoff rabbit hole here.

Steady-State Thinking vs. Church Growth

It’s a weird week when Douglas Rushkoff releases his new book raising the alarm about our culture’s constant growth mentality and two prominent church figures spit on small churches. I’m part of a small subset of nerdilicious nerds who will take note of both those things.

First Bill Easum said that pastors of churches that aren’t growing are wasting their lives.

And then Andy Stanley told his church that people who prefer small churches are selfish (his measurement for a big enough church is odd: enough junior high and high school students to have separate youth groups).

Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus is not about small vs. big. It’s about big enough. It wants to insist that there is such a thing, despite the Just-Keep-Growing code that runs the digital economy and that, to my view, pervades thinking about church as well. It’s an important argument.

Rushkoff advocates “Steady-State” thinking about companies. I’m applying it to churches. “Instead of thinking of a company as an entity that must continue to show growth,” he writes, “Think of it as an entity that must continue to generate enough revenue to pay its employees.”

He compares the former approach to a football game, where there must be winners and losers. The Steady-State approach he compares to a fantasy role-playing game where the goal is to play as long as possible.

And here’s the real kicker. Research shows that the business that employ a Steady-State approach the best are family businesses. The chair of the Italian rice grower Riso Gallo, a family business, says, “We didn’t get this company from my parents, we are borrowing it from our children.”

Every church I’ve ever served has used “family” language to describe itself. This is a no-brainer.





Creating Value Costs. Churches Can Ask People To Pay

This is the second post about Douglas Rushkoff’s new book Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus: How Growth Became The Enemy of Prosperity. Read the first post here.


Churches should add value to their communities, not extract it. But how? And if it’s valuable, can we charge for it?

I’m thinking yes we can. Most churches I’ve known have depended upon a pledge-based annual budget, wherein a fall stewardship campaign interprets the coming year’s ministry goals and costs, inviting church members to pledge giving towards those goals. Revenue projections, then, are based on those pledges.

Mostly, it’s about duty: “You’re a part of this community. These important services aren’t possible without your giving.” Even when pledges are solicited with something more than duty, like an appeal to members’ desire to improve their community or to start some new program, stewardship still relies on a communitarian sensibility.

That works less and less well in most churches, even though it’s theologically sound and a vast improvement over a “pay-your-dues” mentality.

Throwing Rocks . . . is making me wonder how churches might add revenue to their budgets that is based on willing payments made by participants who value particular work the church (and more to the point: particular leaders in the church) is doing. Pledging to the operating budget isn’t going anywhere. But could we go all Amanda Palmer on some things?

Palmer got booted off her record label, so she launched a Kickstarter campaign to fund a new album. She raised $1.2 million from close to 25,000 fans. Rushkoff observes, “She doesn’t need a massive following. She just needs enough people to pay for her music. She may not get rich this way, but she can live on to sing another day.”

Isn’t that a very churchy way of creating value, living on to sing (and feed and tutor and house) another day? What if some of the work churches are doing started to not need the resources from a pledge-based operating budget, but only the support of enough people who care deeply about it for it to sing another day?


It’s about more than fundraising. It’s about creating a connection between valuable work and the people who care about it. That takes more than flyers. It takes personal investment from creative men and women who are willing to put themselves on the line for work that matters to then and to ask people to join them.

Making Paper Cranes: Syncretism


Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s got deadly opposite field power.

Here are posts one, two, and three about the book.

Making Paper Cranes turns to theological reflection in its fourth chapter, “New Flock: Currents from Asian American Theology.” Here the reader finds expositions of Christian theological pillars like Revelation, Creation, Incarnation, Justification, Ecclesiology, and Pneumatology. Mihee’s main conversation partner in this unfolding is Reformed stalwart Shirley Guthrie (who’s Christian Doctrine was required reading for my “Basic Christian Beliefs” class in college.) Along the way she converses with a whole host of Asian American theologians you’ll probably be meeting for the first time: Boyung Lee, Anne Dondapati Allen, and Gale Yee, just to name a few.

It’s an ambitious chapter well worth the effort it takes to read it carefully.

Tucked neatly into her exploration of Pneumatology is a sparkling little defense of “syncretism,” a theological boogeyman of ages past. My seminary studies of  the Christian missionary movements of the 18th and 19th centuries taught me that syncretism–the blending of the Christian gospel with elements from a “non-Christian” culture–was a crippling theological (and moral) fault. The syncretistic theologian “went native” and forgot his Christian (read: European/American) moorings.

How refreshing, then, to read Mihee’s ode to syncretism. It’s the ultimate reversal. If syncretism = doom to American male missionaries venturing into, say, Korea in 1884, then syncretism = life for the  female descendent of Korean immigrants to America in 2013.

Syncretism simply means “relying on the Spirit to reveal God outside of our own contexts and limited assumptions.” Mihee leans heavily on the work of Grace Ji-Sun Kim and Chung Hyung Kyung to advocate a theological posture of openness to the Holy Spirit’s movement beyond one’s inherited cultural experience. What’s she’s after is “an intentional incorporation of other cultures with the attitude that they will help us understand our own stories even amidst conflict and differences.”

There’s an imperative to descriptive theological work here, over against prescriptive theological pronouncements. Yes please. Show us the way, Mihee. Show us the way.




Making Paper Cranes: Feminism


Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s deadly in the low post.

I went to seminary with Mihee, and I was surprised to read this in her book: “I remember avoiding these [liberal] courses and viewing the [theology] department with a sort of desperate fascination.”


Mihee recalls the warnings she received from the well-meaning elders of her home church, alerting her to the pagan dangers of “flaming leftist notions about women’s liberation.” I, too, received warnings like this, and nobody embodied leftism, feminism, and liberation more to me than Mihee. 


Now, I was a neophyte of the purest order, the product of Hellfire pentecostalism become hand-wringing evangelicalism become shoegazing emergence. The conventions of mainline protestantism were as foreign to me as haggis. So I had no reason not to assume that the Asian woman knocking people over in flag football games and striding confidently into theology lectures was a lefty feminist in Christian clothing. 

It tickles me to read the chronicle of Mihee’s flirtation with feminism. Men from church stock such as produced me have a suspicion of feminism drilled into us early and thoroughly. Who knew women do too? And who knew that many Asian women are nurtured on a unique distaste for it? Mihee quotes Pandora Leong:

my experience suggests that within the subculture of Asian women, I am also fighting a cultural consciousness that favors a duty to society over the spirit of independence. Individualism may have been a Western male value, but at least it was a Western value. White feminists only had to democratize it; as an Asian feminist, I must introduce it. Asian society places a premium on social order and the advancement of the community.

For Mihee, Asian American feminism “must counter two levels of patriarch by giving voice to individual experience.”

Here’s what strikes me about this. So much of the discourse that pulses through “educated” cultural circles (including mainline denominational gatherings) takes aim at “individualism” as an insidious force that has eroded a communitarian sense of responsibility to one’s neighbor. Yet, Mihee is holding up an experience, shared by many Asian American women, in which that communitarian sense often muzzles the individual voice, to the detriment of one’s neighbor. 

Ragging on individualism, then, is not enough. It seems those of us in the “dominant” culture need to be more clear about the kind of individualism we oppose, even while we look for ways to accompany our brothers and sisters who are working to cultivate a more holy individualism for their communities and, I daresay, for the church. 

How do we do that?


Making Paper Cranes: Foreigner


Note: Making Paper Cranes is a weekly engagement with Mihee Kim Kort’s New book . . . uh, . . . Making Paper Cranes: Towards An Asian American Feminist Theology. Mihee handles complicated things gently. Also, she’s not afraid to turn upfield after the catch to gain extra yards. Seriously. That’s not a metaphor.  

” . . . for the most part I will use the phrase ‘Asian American,’ which will potentially include people of East Asia (China, Hong Kong, Japan, Mongolia, Korea, and Taiwan), Southeast Asia (Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand, Vietnam, and Malaysia), South Asia (Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka), and the Pacific Islands (Polynesia, Melanesia, and Micronesia), though not all stories will include all groups.”

“I choose to identify myself and this endeavor as ‘Asian American’ rather than as Korean American, though that is my specific ethnicity . . . I make this move intentionally to be as inclusive as possible, so I might address the basic issues that impact the group(s) of people who are lumped together in this category; how people in the United States view Koreans affects how they view those of Japanese, Chinese, Indian, and Vietnamese descent.”

The diversity of experience among “Asian Americans,” as Mihee deftly describes it, is staggering. As an Anglo American, I have almost no relationship to that diversity. Actually, that condition is only influenced by my own ethnicity, not conditioned by it, as the phrase “As an Anglo American” wishes to suggest. I’ve had opportunities. Doors have been open. Afraid, though, I’ve mostly stayed put and so stayed in the dark.

Last year I participated in the ordination of a Korean American pastor. The worship service was entirely in Korean; my English recitations were foreign. It felt so wrong to me that the experience was so novel and that, as a minister in a presbytery where almost half the churches worship in a non-English language, being the only mono-lingual person in the room jarred me.

Mihee’s identification of herself as “Asian American” for the purpose of inclusion makes this project more personal. It’s helping me to appreciate the wide array of Christians–Presbyterians at that– in my own patch of turf who share some aspect of what she’s describing.

Take just one aspect of that experience: being labelled a “foreigner.”  “I have always endured the question of whether or not I am a foreigner,” Mihee writes, even though she was born and raised in the United States. There are remedies available to soothe the discomfort of that question, but they come at a cost.

The “model minority” myth, for example, flatters Asian Americans by marveling at their academic and business success, as well as their family values and deference to the rule of law.  Yet in doing so the dominant culture merely praises what it values most about itself. And not everyone appreciates it, as many grieved white college applicants will attest. Here’s where that leads: “Asian Americans have become pawns, a ‘teacher’s pet’ community, a group resented for their success, who are also targets of violence and hatred by other groups, yet still not even accepted by the dominant culture.”

Keep talkin’ Mihee.

This is hard reading, mostly because I’m not sure what to do with what Mihee’s saying. Perhaps she will have some counsel to offer later. For now I’m grabbing on to her exposition of the way American media stereotypes Asians, an expositions that leans heavily on the work of Franklin Wu. This is something I can pay attention to and work on.

What about you?

Further reading:

Making Paper Cranes, pt. 1 

Making Paper Cranes

Mihee Kim Kort has released her first book on Chalice Press. And Making Paper Cranes:
Toward an Asian American Feminist Theology
is exactly what it says it is. 

Mihee was a seminary classmate (and intramural flag football teammate) a decade ago. Since then she’s been a blogging partner and a contributor to PLGRM, the magazine I help edit. She’s a clear and honest voice.

I’ll be blogging through the book over the next few weeks.

A word about my method. I’m not an Asian American woman. My experience of this book is that of a white guy who knows and thinks highly of the author. That’s perhaps not the best draw for a book, but I think any author would take it. In reading Making Paper Cranes I’m trying to understand better my friend’s experience, as well as that of the many Asian Americans that make up the church in which I serve. Finally (and this is not that big of a stretch, is it?) I’m looking for myself. 

Collision and Fragmentation

The soil of Mihee’s project is her experience of collision and fragmentation. Born to Korean parents, Mihee grew up in the American west, surrounded by white people. Her recollection is vivid:

Growing up going to mostly Anglo schools in Colorado, I got along with anyone and everyone. My close friends were Anglo-American and African American, and I had one Latina friend. I had a few Asian American friends, but in terms of those who were non-Anglo, there were only a few of us. I never received any overtly violent gestures of racism but there were those typical cliché moments when a kid would chant at me in an annoying, singsongy way, speaking gibberish and asking if I understood it, or our class would get a new student who happened to be Asian but Chinese, and the teacher would ask me if I spoke Chinese and if I could translate for them. Every so often there was a breakdown of groups, whether for kickball teams at recess or for projects in class, and though I remember watching groups of white kids sit together immediately, and the black kids slowly congregate together, I would look around, wavering, trying to feel out where I felt I belong the most.

Her upbringing yielded the “ongoing encounter of stereotypes, expectations, standards, and conflicting worlds” that she calls “collisions”. Those collisions, in turn, produced a kind of “fragmentation” for Mihee, “a disjointed state, like being in the middle of a pile of shattered, broken puzzle pieces.” 

I’m struck by the violence of these images. Hidden in that violence, though, is a loveliness trying to emerge. This is where the book gets its title and central image: the paper crane. Recalling her experience of folding cranes with her mother, Mihee describes the task as making “something delicate and lovely out of [an] intersection of creases.” There’s gospel in there. 

These collisions and their resulting fragments are all around, born by people I see every day. Half of the people I share a presbytery with don’t worship in English, and most of those are Asian. My experiences with them bear evidence of the kinds of collisions and fragmentation Mihee is describing. Clearly, I need to do more to understand them, to listen to them, and to honor their experience.

I’ve known collision and fragmentation too. They seem to be markers of modern life. The variety explored in Making Paper Cranes is specific, and it produces specific effects that need to be heard and understood. In listening to it, I’m eager to pay closer attention to the creases, collisions, and fragments of my life to see, as Mihee has seen, what “delicate” and “lovely” things they offer.  

Read Bruce Reyes-Chow’s review of Making Paper Cranes here

Christianity After Religion: Performing Awakening

In the fall of 1995, a revival of sorts washed over the campus of the small Christian college I attended in central Kansas. It consisted mostly in late night assemblies at “The Clock” in the central courtyard where an earringed, shaven-headed leader led earnest and penitent seekers in praise songs and intercessory prayer.

One night we had a guest speaker. She was the older sister of a student who was herself studying at Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. This fact gave her instant credibility. She instructed us from her personal experience that “Revival,” if it is to happen (as we all badly wished it would), “Begins with repentance.”

So we repented. We repented of our impure thoughts, our laziness in devotion, the crushing weight of our sin that we were sure was damming up the Holy Spirit. After a couple of weeks, the enthusiasm faded and the gatherings ceased. The awakening we envisioned never materialized. Or did it?

In the final chapter of Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual Awakening, Diana Butler-Bass suggests that the kind of awakening my friends and I longed for doesn’t just happen. Rather, awakenings are performed as people commit themselves to a set of practices that enliven and demonstrate new spiritual realities. She writes:

Performance has always been important to awakening. In the First Great Awakening, George Whitefield’s preaching was the ultimate colonial theater. In the Second, the camp meetings were theaters of improvisation, where the converted acted out their encounters with the divine. In the Third, both Pentecostals and progressives displayed the public possibilities of racial integration, women’s leadership, and caring for the poor and outcast in the theaters of pulpit and political gathering. American religious history is marked by theatricality, and religious leaders display the faith as much as teach it.

Butler-Bass suspects that preparation, practice, play, and participation are the constituent parts of all of the awakenings that have shaped American faith, including the one she’s describing now. Preparation as people look closely at their faith’s story afresh; practice as people take on new habits of devotion and service; play as people experiment with boundaries and new norms; and participation as people take over the script and push awakening in the direction they need it to go.

This list makes me wonder if an awakening wasn’t happening among us on that campus enveloped by wheat fields at the end of the last century, and if it hasn’t continued unabated in the lives of its crestfallen participants. We encountered in those weeks a certain disappointment as the piety we’d been reared in proved incapable of bringing about the personal and communal transformation we yearned for. But the longer view of our years of learning together suggest to me that the awakening Butler-Bass sees today was stirring in us even then.

One of us is writing today about The Open Source Church. Another is training at-risk youth in Los Angeles to run marathons. Several others are social workers. Though we didn’t know it, perhaps we were performing awakening even then and sowing seeds that are sprouting today in the most unexpected ways. May it continue to be so.

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion

Great Awakening

The Great Reversal

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning

Christianity After Religion: Great Awakening

Note: readers of this series will be interested to read Philip Clayton’s op-ed in yesterday’s Los Angeles Times, in which he sings the praises of the Emergent Church movement.

The charismatic movement that seized my parents in 1983 and turned my brother into a suit-clad 8 year-old missionary was a backlash. The whole complex of books and television shows and music and even stand-up comedy and bodybuilding exhbitions was part of a Ronald Reagan-inspired program on the part of religious conservatives in America to return to the country’s God-fearing heritage.

So it’s characterized by Diana Bulter-Bass in her new book Christianity After Religion: The End of The Church And The Birth of A New Spiritual AwakeningLeaning heavily again on the work of William McLoughlin, Bulter-Bass explores the period between Reagan’s election in 1980 and the mid 90’s as an interruption, an assertive turn away from the egalitarian, feminist, humanitarian “spiritual revolution” of the 60’s and 70’s.

Quoting McLoughlin’s Revivals, Awakenings, and Reform:

“There almost always arises a nativist or traditionalist movement within the culture that is an attempt by those with rigid personalities or with much at stake in the older order” to organize a backlash to “return to the ‘old-time religion,’ ‘the ways of our fathers,’ and ‘respect for the flag.’”

This always happens with awakenings. It has happened with every wave of spiritual awakening in American history, as “Old Light” forces react to the experience and change advanced by the “New Lights” driving the awakening. However, since 1980, something funny has happened to the revivalist evangelicalism that drove earlier waves of American religious awakening: it has become the force opposing awakening. In Butler-Bass’s terrific phrase: ” . . . the New Lights of the old awakenings have become the Old Lights of the new one.”

This kind of retrenchment effort is what I experienced in the tongues-speaking church of my childhood and then again at the evangelical Christian college I inexplicably landed at in 1990. Butler-Bass calls it “dogmatic evangelicalism.” Dogmatic evangelicalism stands opposed to the “romantic evangelicalism” that so inspired Butler-Bass and her college classmates in the 1970’s to challenge poverty and injustice and racism in the social order.

Dogmatic evangelicalism is advanced by “those who want to shore up boundaries, reinforce creeds, and ensure group identity through theological purity and strict behavior.” Romantic evangelicalism “is led by those who wish to connect with people and ideas that are different, to explore the meaning of story and history, and to include as many as possible in God’s embrace.”

This distinction, imperfect though it may be, helps me understand the difference between movements within my own denomination, The Fellowship of Presbyterians and The NEXT Church. The former is organized entirely around reasserting standards and boundaries of belief and behavior. The latter is loosely confederated upon innovation, narrative, and inclusion.

Despite the efforts of nativist retrenchment movements, Butler-Bass is describing a significant awakening of “Romantic Realism” continuing unabated in the second decade of the 21st century. This one, though, is not exclusively protestant as were its predecessors; it’s not even exclusively Christian.  It’s an inter-religious “spiritual” awakening of men and women seeking “connection, networks, relationship, imagination, and story.”

Yet that awakening is not continuing unchallenged. If every awakening gives rise to nativist Old Light reactions, then why would this one be any different? There’s the Tea Party and Westboro Baptist Church and even the Presbyterian minister who was my seminary classmate but who I had to un-friend on Facebook last week for the video he posted and subsequent conversation he facilitated about the many evils of Muslims.

Where are you part of the awakening Butler-Bass describes? Where are you opposing it?

Previous posts on Christianity After Religion:

The Great Reversal

A New Vision–Belonging

A New Vision–Behaving

A New Vision–Believing

When Religion Fails

Questioning The Old Gods

The End of The Beginning

The Beginning