Books, Church, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus

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.

Church, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus

The Startup Won’t Save Us

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.

There’s a chirpy critique of startups near the end of Throwing Rocks that makes for great reading. It amounts to an observation that starting a new company with the aim of sustainably delivering an excellent product or service, along with consistent dividends to investors, doesn’t work in a digital economy insistent upon unchecked growth. For many startups (and the venture capitalists funding them) like mobile game maker Zynga, the game is to grow as quickly as possible, then get bought by Facebook and cash out.

The acquisition or the IPO is not the beginning of their company’s impact but the end.

“Startups are not trying to earn revenue (which is a liability),” Rushkoff notes. “They are setting themselves up to win more capital. They are not part of the real economy or even the real world but part of the process through which working assets are converted into new stockpiles of dead ones.”

The goal is not to own a real company. The goal is to sell a fake one.

I read a steady diet of startup literature as a way of thinking about innovation in church life and entrepreneurial leadership. Pastors and consultants in the circles I run with throw around terms like “Minimum Viable Product” with ease. We listen to Tim Ferris and fantasize about having that many ideas and the energy to bring them to life.

But I’m not so sure where that’s getting us. If that game is rigged to convert everything to capital and to leave behind the empty shells of the projects we cashed out before we moved on, then why am I listening so intently to startup “experts?”

Where are the experts in making an enduring impact in the real world?


Books, Church, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus

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.





Books, Church, Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus

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.


Church Should Add Value, Not Extract It

Douglas Rushkoff’s new book came out yesterday. It’s called Throwing Rocks at The Google Bus, and I read the first chapter yesterday. On a bus.

Rushkoff’s core contention is that the imperative for growth is killing us. Here’s a money quote from the introduction.

“We are running an extractive, growth-driven economic system that has reached the limits of its ability to serve anyone, rich or poor, human or corporate. Growth is the single, uncontested, core command of the digital economy.”

He’s talking about economics, but I’m thinking about churches (surprise!).

Most churches are not growing. Membership decline has been the reality in most of our churches and denominations for as long as I’ve been in ministry. There is no shortage of anger and guilt among the remaining church members and their leaders over that fact. People like Bill Easum go so far as to assert that pastors of churches that aren’t growing are “wasting their lives.”

I once had an earnest conversation with a pastor who was leading her church out of the PC (USA) who, in addition to theological scruples, was deeply offended by the denomination’s decline. She was moving to a new denomination, she said, because, “I want to be part of something that’s growing.”

I’ve never been able to square Jesus’ claim that one must lose her life in order to find it with the equation of church growth with discipleship. The decline of church participation in our context is an organizational problem, and a deadly serious one at that. Yet a theology of church growth commits the same sins that Rushkoff is laying at the feet of Uber and Facebook: it extracts value from people rather than making value for them.

Growth was never the goal for the Church. Growth serves a bigger purpose, namely the formation of a community of disciples embodying the grace of Jesus. That community ought to thrive. Where it doesn’t we have work to do. Getting it to grow, though, is not the focus of that work.

Rushkoff’s subtitle is great: How Growth Became The Enemy of Prosperity. I wonder if an assumption of growth–and guilt over its absence–has become the enemy of something in our churches.


Churches Have Time To Give

Douglas Rushkoff has a new piece up on Pacific Standard today. Here’s the money quote:

Looked at in terms of human value creation, the industrial economy appears to have been programmed to remove human beings from the value chain.

And this:

Once we’re no longer conflating the idea of “work” with that of “employment,” we are free to create value in ways unrecognized by the current growth-based market economy. We can teach, farm, feed, care for, and even entertain one another.

“Work” is more than “employment.” “Value” is a much better ideal to pursue than “growth.” That is as true for churches as it is for economies.

What if the question guiding our work, both as people and as congregations, is, “How do we add value to the community?” and not, “How do we get bigger and add more?”

Churches add value to their communities in some concrete ways and some abstract ways. They have public space for gatherings, which is valuable. They have leadership that, often, is among the most educated folks in town. Churches make things, like gardens and crafts and meals. All of these add value.

But so does time, which feels more abstract. Our neighbors are starved for time, not in the sense that they need more of it, but in the sense that they hunger to get more value–more connection, more joy, more impact–out of it. Churches create spaces where time is experienced differently. If our communities are not identifying our congregations as places that will give them time, we are missing an opportunity.




Affinity or Community

Doublas Rushkoff made a prescient observation in an opinion piece about Donald Trump for Digital Trends yesterday, but instead of Trump it has me thinking about youth group. Here’s the observation:

Digital media, on the other hand, is all about choice and boundaries. We don’t have communities so much as affinity groups. We choose evermore specific sets of connections and feeds of information – and if we don’t, Facebook’s algorithms will do it for us. Your Google search is different than my Google search, because the company’s algorithms know how to parse what is different about our predilections.

I’ve been a big advocate of an “affinity-based” youth ministry approach over the past three years. My enthusiasm for it stems from my reading of Youth Ministry 3.0 and my interactions with the author, Mark Oestreicher, through of of his organization’s Youth Ministry Coaching Program cohorts.

One of Marko’s keen insights is that adolescent development has a lot more to do with finding affinity today than it did in previous iterations of youth culture, when you were either “in” or “out,” you belonged or you didn’t. Humans almost always seek out belonging, and that search is particularly urgent in adolescence. What’s important to note is that, in the Google and Facebook world Rushkoff is pointing to, “It’s easier to find a place to belong,” as Marko observes.

So I have focused a lot of my youth ministry efforts on working within groups where teens already have some affinity with one another. The best example is these weekly after school groups of youth who come as a group. They are one another’s people already, and they’re together when they’re not at church. At church, we do something different.

I’ve focused a lot less effort on building community among divergent affinity groups or among teenagers on the margins who don’t feel like there is a group for them. Rushkoff’s assessment stings a little bit and makes me want youth ministry to model a different way.

Affinity is not the same as community. Community is harder.



A Whole Meeting With No Phone

I borrowed Sherry Turkle’s latest book from the library last month and got about 2/3 of it read before I had to return it yesterday. It’s arguing that digital communication technologies inhibit the creativity that can only come from face-to-face, analog communication. It’s a long unpacking of Douglas Rushkoff’s insight that digital media are biased toward connecting people across great distances but biased against connecting people who are sharing the same space.

So I’m keeping my phone off the table at meetings and meals. Yesterday I sat in a project meeting for over two hours with five other people working, and I took my phone out only to check calendar dates relevant to our project.

I was more engaged in that meeting than I’m typically able to be. Of course, the urge to check or send an email occurred to me. Of course I considered tweeting something prescient someone had said. Of course Facebook and Messenger made frequent appearances in my consciousness.

But (mostly) I told them all “No,” and the benefit was clear to me. Creative possibilities got proposed, mulled over carefully, expanded, revised, adopted, and planned. It was interesting and it was fun. Those two hours of focused engagement fueled the rest of my day.

My laptop and phone are not the enemy of my work. Turkle is making a case, though, that in-person conversation is a stronger ally of our work by far, and that defaulting to electronic tools for communication is diminishing both our work and our enjoyment of doing it.

Not everybody’s buying it. Jonathan Franzen:

When she notes that Steve Jobs forbade tablets and smartphones at the dinner table and encouraged his family to talk about books and history, or when she cites Mozart, Kafka and Picasso on the value of undistracted solitude, she’s describing the habits of highly effective people.

After yesterday, though, I’m saying score one for Turkle.



The Present Shocked Church: Chronobiology

I’m making my way through Douglas Rushkoff’s new book, sharing observations for the church as I go. The book’s received complimentary reviews in the New York Times, among other sources, if reviews are important to you. My first post on the book is here.

Here’s what Douglas is worried about:

Instead of demanding that our technologies conform to ourselves and our own innate rhythms, we strive to become more compatible with our technologies and the new cultural norms their timelessness implies. We compete to process more emails or attract more social networking connections than our colleagues, as if more to do on the computer meant something good. We misapply the clockwork era’s goals of efficiency and productivity over time to a digital culture’s asynchronous landscape. Instead of working inside the machine, as we did before, we must become the machine.

We’re conducting something of a “listening campaign” in my church that involves lots of one-on-one conversations conducted by a trained group of people who then share what they’re hearing with one another. We’re hearing what Rushkoff describes, particularly from folks in the prime of their working years who also have school-aged kids. They expect machine-like efficiency and precision of themselves in their jobs, at home, and even in their community commitments. And the youth I work with? Of course they’re addicted to Instagram and Facebook, but not for the reasons grown ups think they are. It’s actually worse. They must be social networking machines because they’re terrified of missing out, and thus being left out, of the social life of their peers. One of my students recently confessed her guilty angst that she missed a text from a friend in need at 1:00 in the morning.

One obvious asset our church has to combat this “digiphrenia” is the liturgical calendar. To people who expect mechanistic productivity of themselves all day every day, every day of the week, whatever the season, the liturgical calendar offers a valuable narrative canopy and rhythm for life. The colors, stories, and songs that attend Advent and Lent and Easter and–my favorite–Ordinary Time are a lifeline, a road to stroll, not march. People badly need that.

But there’s more to this. In an era of participatory decline, anxiety abounds about the future of the church. Many in my denomination have left to start something new out of protest over liberalizing theology, yes, but also over worries about decline (which they clearly tie to the liberalizing theology). One departing colleague said to me, “I just want to be part of something that’s growing.” You could hear the yearning in her voice.

There’s a clear expectation here that the church be always growing. Getting smaller raises all kinds of fears and longing for a more robust era or church involvement. Like the price of a stock, we fret and strategize when church attendance goes down. What else would we do?

Present Shock gives two examples of businesses that have built regular decline into their planning, even into their identity. One of those is Duncan, the toy company that makes the famous yo-yos. The toys

“enjoy a cyclical popularity as up and down as the motion of the toy itself. The products become wildly popular every ten years or so, and then retreat into near total stagnation. The company has learned to ride this ebb and flow, emerging with TV campaigns, celebrity spokespeople, and national tournaments every time a new generation of yo-yo aficionados comes of age.

There’s also Birkenstock.

Birkenstock shoes rise and fall in popularity along with a host of other back-to-nature products and behaviors. Instead of resisting these trend waves and ending up with unsold stock and disappointing estimates, the company has learned to recognize the signs of an impending swing in either direction. With each new wave of popularity, Birkenstock launches new lines and opens new dealerships, then pulls back when consumer appetites level off.

Could we see church “decline” as something more cyclical? Could it be something that happens naturally, something that we allow to shape our experience of the church’s story (death and resurrection?) rather than kicking against the goads to get the thing running like it did back in ’55?

What say you?

Bonus points to the first person who comments with the details of their Duncan yo-yo.






The Present Shocked Church

Douglas Ruhkoff’s new book arrived this week, and, predictably, I’m hooked. I’ve devoured nearly everything Rushkoff has written in the past decade, and my interview with him for PLGRM Magazine last fall was a landmark experience for me. The Douglas Rushkoff tag on this blog is dense.

Present Shock is concerned about the ways that contemporary life is thoroughly simultaneous. To his great credit, Rushkoff worries about stuff, and the stuff he worries about he writes and talks about. Now, he’s worried that texts and Facebook and The Simpsons have driven us all to be present RIGHT NOW to lots and lots of stories and people in disparate places.

Example 1: the collapse of narrative. Present Shock is full of nuanced and searching analysis of the ways in which the traditional narrative arc has stopped working. Broadcast media are rapidly learning that the interactivity ushered in first by the remote control and then by the internet has rendered the traditional narrative arc a dull weapon. That arc rewarded the storyteller who was able to lead her audience into greater and greater states of anxiety before saving them with a climax (read: a product) that resolved all the conflict. Rushkoff is arguing that audiences won’t stand (or, rather, sit) for that anymore.

[excursis: “The Bible’s stories–at least the Old Testament’s–don’t work quite the same way. They were based more in the oral tradition, where the main object of the storyteller was simply to keep people involved in the moment. Information and morals were conveyed, but usually by contrasting two characters or nations with one another–one blessed, the other damned.”]

Here’s my assertion: modern evangelical and liberal theology is dependent on the traditional (non-Biblical) narrative arc, and part of the “decline” of these expressions of Christianity is the result of peoples’ media-trained immunity to that arc. For Evangelical theology, one’s salvation and the threat of personal damnation is the conflict that is solved by the climax of the cross and empty tomb. Yet for people who don’t go with the evangelist into the conflict, the climax holds no meaning.

Similarly, liberal protestant theology unfolds a story of increasing conflict not over an individual’s salvation but the state of humanity and the planet. The climax comes with values (typified by Jesus) of sharing, self-sacrifice, and, of course, love.  But for a religiously plural populace, the question is: who’s values are those and why should I trust that person?

In place of the narrative arc we now have The Moment. People live in The Moment, love in The Moment, believe in The Moment, and search for The Moment. Where is faith in The Moment?