A Second Life for Presbyterians

**This is the first of a planned 4 part series I’ll be doing this summer on Presbyterians, Emergents, and Presbymergents in the popular virtual reality world, Second Life.***

If the birth of a real Presbyterian ministry in a virtual world isn’t evidence of the church emerging, I don’t know what is. And as strange, foreign, (or even silly) as the concept may sound to some, the more I explore the world of Second Life, the more convinced I become that this is a new context in which God is already at work, and God’s people across the world are already engaged in a diversity of ministry.  I think we should join God, and join them.

For those not already familiar with Second Life from various news reports, magazine articles, and other usual sources of hype, to explain would take up more space than would be wise in this blog post.  Instead, I recommend starting here. It’s eye opening reading, I promise.

When I first started exploring Second Life, I found plenty of evidence of minstry — from a United Methodist Chapel, to a Lutheran Pavillion, to a Taize Sanctuary 500 meters in the sky!  I found the Anglican Cathedral of Second Life, started two years ago by Rev. Mark Brown, which now has 800+ members and conducts five virtual services each week.   I also found a community — Koinonia Congregational Church — that can best be described as “emergent” and meets weekly in a beautiful sanctuary without walls or doors.

I searched for Presbyterians.  It was pretty bleak…but I did find one person — in real life she’s an elder at a Presbyterian Church in California — who has been keeping the proverbial light on, and started a group called (no surprise here) 1st Presbyterian Church of Second Life.  She reserved the name with the hope and a prayer that someday more Presbyterians would come along.  And now, that’s started to happen…

After several weeks of talking to people, dreaming and visioning, the number of Presbyterians in Second Life is growing — most of us are new, and probably feeling a culture shock not unlike what immigrants to the US feel (SL has a steeper learning curve than FB or twitter).  But we’re starting to connect, have conversations, explore opportunities for ministry that is uniquely Presbyterian, but also uniquely Second Life.  Just yesterday, our esteemed moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, jumped in (his SL name is Esteban Radikal), as did Philip Lotspeich (SL: Philip Lionheart) from the office of Evangelism and Growth.

So, in true Presbyterian fashion (maybe a bad thing, mabye not?) we’ve acquired some land, threw up a building (both were WAY easier and cheaper than in real life) and will be gathering on Saturday nights 9pm CST / 7pm SLT for fellowship, conversation, and perhaps eventually something like worship, too.  Tomorrow night will be our very first gathering of Presbyterians in Second Life, and anyone is welcome to drop in. May God’s Spirit breathe through the bits and the bytes into a new context (for us, at least)!

  • To find our meeting place in Second Life, click here. If you don’t have an account yet, you’ll have to create one.
  • If you’d like to get involved with what we’re doing in Second Life, contact Neal Locke via twitter, facebook, or email neal at mrlocke dot net.
  • If you created an account in Second Life but are utterly confused and lost, use the search engine to find me: I’m Neill Loxingly in Second Life. Add me as a friend, and I’ll come to your rescue, or send another SL Presbyterian to help :-)

Presbymergent Has [gasp!] an Organizational Structure

Many wonderful things “emerged” from the first gathering of Presbymergent’s Coordinating Group last month in Louisville, and hopefully you’ll get to read more about them in the weeks and months to come.  One thing in particular that grew out of our discussions, shared interests, and dreaming was (surprisingly?) an organizational structure.  Now, at this point I imagine the Presbyterian readers are cheering and saying to themselves, “It’s about time!” while those with more emergent sensibilities are dusting the dirt from their sandals and saying, “Well, it was nice knowing you.”  However, it’s not as simple as that (it never is with us crazy post-modern types, is it?).

It’s true that many of us in the Presbymergent conversation have, over the past two years of our existence, cringed at the thought of becoming more structured, fearing that first step towards institutional irrelevance.  It’s also true that the “Presby” side of our heritage embraces things done “decently and in order.”  So the challenge for our tribe has always been to live in the tension between these two natures — the organized and the organic — being true to both and not letting one dominate the other.

When we gathered last month, there was energy around several things — some were proposed events, others were ideas, and some were goals for Presbymergent and related communities.  We quickly realized that our dreams outnumbered our hands, so only those things which gathered enough hands, feet, and commitments were carried forward.  Several “clusters” emerged, each with a point-person committed to shepherding the dream into reality over the coming year.   More specifics on the different clusters to come soon!

The cluster I was part of named itself the Organ(ic)izing Group to reflect our dual nature (and because parentheses are just sooo emergent) — or just “OhGee” for short — and was given the blessing of the Coordinating Group to accomplish the following:

  • Establish 501c3 Non-Profit Status for Presbymergent
  • Establish bylaws, budgets, transparent record keeping and accounting systems as needed for non-profit status
  • Constitute a new Coordinating Group through broad and open invitation, with concern toward diversity of gender, age, ethnicity and geographical location
  • Develop a “Conceptual Document” for and about Presbymergent (kind of like a mission statement, but more flexible, organic, and living)
  • Serve as a point of contact for inquiries about Presbymergent and for administrative decisions on behalf of the Coordinating Group.

Basically, while the other clusters are having fun being creative, the OhGee gets to do the “dirty work” of administration :-)  But not in a centralized, authoritative or controlling way, — rather with the desire and intent of empowering the other clusters to accomplish their tasks, mindful that our authority originates from and flows through the Presbymergent Coordinating Group.

There are eight members on the Organ(ic)izing Group:  Jan Edmiston, Heather Grantham, Chad Herring,  Carol Howard Merritt, Ryan Kemp Pappan , Neal Locke, Adam Walker Cleaveland, and David Williams.  Members were chosen by interest and consensus within the Coordinating Group (some volunteered, some were drafted) to serve for one year until the next gathering of the Coordinating Group, which will take place next February in Atlanta, GA.

As a final thought on venturing into a new way of existing, I find the metaphor of Wikipedia helpful:  On the surface, it would seem that wikipedia (and all wikis) are chaotic and ever-changing, where anyone has the power to contribute or change the content.  But if you look one layer deeper, Wikipedia is a software application, written in PHP and MySQL. In other words, it has a framework, a structure, a scaffolding, that, rather than locking down and controlling the website, actually preserves and protects the openness of wikipedia, helping it to accomplish its open-source goals.  We hope that we can do the same for Presbymergent, in an organized — but organic — sort of way.

Twitter of Faith

Legend has it that one afternoon on November 22nd, Presbymergent founder and about-to-be-ordained-minister Adam Walker Cleaveland was trying to come up with a statement of faith for his Ordination service.  So he did the usual thing any 20-something uber geek would do…he asked his twitter friends how long a statement of faith should be?

After many responses of the usual sort (one page, two page, red page, blue page) fellow presby-geek (and World of Warcraft guru) Shawn Coons tweeted back : “instead of a statement of faith, how about a twitter of faith? Anyone else up to the challenge?”  And so it began…

Here’s the challenge:

  1. If you’re not on twitter yet, click here to see what it’s all about and why you should be.
  2. If you’re on twitter (or just joined), log in and tweet your personal statement of faith…in 140 characters or less.
  3. Add the hashtag #TOF somewhere in your tweet. That will actually make it 136 characters, but it also makes it easy for us to find and compile all of these statements.
  4. Encourage your friends to take the “Twitter of Faith” challenge, too – imagine how cool it would be if this meme spreads, proclaiming the gospel across the internets (well, at least across twitter).

UPDATE:  Adam, Mark, Chad, Wendy, Cobus, Matthew, Makeesha, Geoff, Adele, Drew, Cameron, Dan, Greg, John, Ryan, Angela, John, Greg, Molly, MattDave Zimmerman from InterVarsity Press, and our distinguished moderator, Bruce Reyes-Chow, have all posted this to their blogs.  If you blog it, let us know in the comments so we can link to it here, and feel free to use the above image (designed by Adam) for your post.

UPDATE: There’s now a facebook page and corresponding event, too.  Even if you’re not on Twitter, you can click here to scroll through the many TOFs that have been filling up the web in the past few hours.

Re-Imagining Politics: Shane Claiborne @ Broadstreet Ministries

For anyone in the New York, New Jersey, Philly area, Shane Claiborne and Chris Haw are finishing out their “Jesus For President” tour at Broadstreet Ministry (one of our presbymergent friends!) in Philadelphia this Saturday night July 26th.   The event is free and open to anyone.  Doors open at 5pm, a community dinner is at 6pm, and Shane and Chris will be teaching at 7pm, followed by an 8:45 worship service led by Broadstreet’s Bill Golderer.  Oh, and did I mention that Derek Webb will be doing the music?

Anyhow, if you need more info, directions, or want to help advertise, here’s a brochure.  Hope to see some fellow presbymergents there!

Grill the Mods, Part II

Several months ago, we tossed out a post asking our presbymergent community to come up with some questions for the candidates for Moderator of the General Assembly. Here are your questions, in poll-style — vote for your favorites, and we’ll present the top five to the candidates.

Hint: You can stuff the ballot box (vote often) if you wait 24 hours and then vote again.


Millenials and the PC(USA)

Rhett Smith has an excellent post on his blog today entitled What Is the Millennial Generation About? He summarizes some key points of an interview with the authors of a recent book on the Millennial Generation, and then offers some analysis of how these trends might pertain to the PC(USA). He makes some good points, and I started to respond in a comment, but then it become one of those long blog-post length comments, and I saw an opportunity to draw a few more people into the discussion.

So first, before you read my response, head on over to his blog and read his original post.

Back already? Ok, here are my thoughts: While I think Rhett’s points are all spot on, I walk away from them with a little more hope for the PC(USA).

I did my undergraduate work at Oral Roberts University, a mecca of Evangelical Christianity. And as top-down-hierarchical as mainline denominations are, I know firsthand that non-denoms are often far worse. Usually there’s a pastor, and he IS the unquestioned authority. The heirarchy then flows down from him (and yes, I did intentionally say “him”). Contrast that with the PC(USA) which, as Rhett points out, so often functions as a top-down hierarchy. But within that hierarchy is a framework that is also surprisingly peer to peer, bottom up self organizing. Think of the autonomy of local churches and sessions, and the democratic values inherent in the Presbyterian system. That will have appeal to millenials also, especially those raised in Evangelical churches looking for an expression of faith that more closely reflects their own values.

The gay issue is certainly dividing our church, but at least we’re talking about it — millennials made up their minds long ago on this issue, but so did Evangelical conservatives, and their decision was to exclude. Period. End of discussion. Because there is still a discussion in our denomination, I believe there is still hope that we will emerge on the inclusive side of this one.

Rhett points out that there is no gender divide among millennials — so I think those millennial women who feel called to ministry are going to be far more likely to find a home in a denomination that has embraced and empowered them for a long time now. And finding a home, or a tribe, a “brand” or a community — these are things that are also important for millennials of either gender. And since they’re two to one more liberal than gen X’ers or boomers, some might argue that the PC(USA) is the obvious home for them anyhow. Certainly for a generation focused on social justice, our denomination has a rich history and tradition of to offer them. True, sometimes we forget about it and focus on other things, but our church has often in the past stood up for issues of equality, justice, and globalism.

And speaking of rich history and tradition, Rhett notes that “Millenials do not like to desert their elders — even when they do crazy things” Or when they live by crazy books of order, perhaps? Where non-denom and Evangelical mega-churches often have little history and tradition, the PC(USA) does, and I think that’s something millennials are finding their way back to.

I think the greater danger with this generation is them leaving “the church” altogether, especially in its less-tolerant, ultra-conservative incarnations. But that’s why I think it’s such an important time for those denominations (like the PCUSA) who have something to offer to this generation. Remember that the church, at the end of the day, is people. I have hope and faith that a Presbyterian church of millenial people will look a lot different than a Presbyterian church of boomers. And if we hang on to our crazy elders for a little while longer (and maybe even learn from them and work alongside of them), I think we can bridge that divide and bring the PC(USA) into the next generation, if not the next era. Maybe that’s what presbymergent is all about anyhow.

So…that’s my response. Would love to hear yours, but I’m going to turn off comments on this post, and direct you back to Rhett’s post to carry on the conversation there.

UPDATE: Tyler and Drew have joined the conversation with posts of their own, plus some interesting conversation back on Rhett’s original post.  And now Bruce Reyes-Chow has also responded on his Moderator Blog.

Buddhimergent, anyone?

A friend passed on this link from Salon ,and I just couldn’t help but smile in recognition as I read about the struggles that aging Buddhist teachers are facing to keep their practices relevant in a changing culture…

But we’re a small group, and off and on we wonder what the American Buddhist future will look like. What’s going to happen when our teachers — part of the generation that launched the spiritual tradition in the ’60s and ’70s — grow too old to teach and we don’t yet have a new crop ready to take their place? And while I eventually felt more comfortable with Buddhism — now, the rituals and the chanting in my practice seem necessary, not foreign — what if some people who might connect with the teachings feel too intimidated by the window dressing to walk through the door?

Ah yes…the seeker-sensitive Buddhist movement 😉 And then the Emerging Buddhists quickly follow…

Walk into many American Buddhist meditation centers, and you’ll see a majority of white, middle-aged faces. That’s not the case with a Dharma Punx gathering. On a Tuesday night meeting last fall, Korda sported a trucker’s cap, long plaid shorts, a bowling shirt and massive Buddhist tattoos. After a 20-minute guided meditation, many in the audience — arty hipster types in their 20s, 30s and early 40s — sprawled casually across the cushions while Korda and his co-teacher, Craig Swogger, gave a classic Buddhist teaching on the origin of suffering (using the word “stress” instead of “suffering,” though, and punctuating their points with a few expletives).

Wow.  They even cuss.  And did I mention they’re really into social justice, too? Anyhow, it’s a neat article, and a good reminder that we’re pretty connected as human beings in our struggles to find deeper meaning and spirituality in a post-modern, hyper-consumer age. The full text is here.

Renewed Challenge to Emergent Authors

Two months ago, I asked a question of the Emerging Church conversation: Are we writing the things we’re writing because we want to sell books, or are we writing the things we’re writing because we want to change the world? And if our bottom line really isn’t book revenues, then why not make copies of some of them available for free, online?

My thanks and respect go out to Carol Howard Merritt, the lone emergent author who, though not completely on board with the idea, at least engaged in the conversation. Emergent Village‘s Coordinator, Tony Jones, was asked about his response to the article in an interview, and had this to say:

I’ve read that post, and there are some really good points therein. There are also some naive misconceptions about the publishing industry … In the early days, many of us were committed to publishing everything for free on the Internet. But, at this point, that is just not feasible.

Apparently, however, no one sent that feasibility memo to one of the publishing industry’s oldest and most respected names: Harper Collins. Here’s what the tech-news blog Mashable has to say about it:

HarperCollins will be offering free electronic editions of some its books on its website. In an effort to increase book sales, HarperCollins is adopting a web-based “try before you buy” approach to book promotion, both for online and on the iPhone.

If a profit-driven company can see the wisdom in doing this for good business practice, how much greater would it be for those of us in God’s Kingdom to do it for the sake of spreading the message, the ideas, and the stories that are at the heart of our mission?

And if award-winning author Neil Gaiman can let his fans vote on which of his best-selling novels to put online for free, shouldn’t Tony Jones (or Brian McLaren, or Doug Pagitt) at least be open to considering the idea, rather than dismissing it as naive and infeasible? Surely at least one of Emergent’s three different publishing partners is forward thinking and/or courageous enough to give it a shot?

I had seriously hoped that Emergent, as innovators crying out that “Everything Must Change” could have led the industry on this one and set a bold, generous, example for the secular world. Now my hope is that we can at least not be the last ones to change, as so often happens in the church.

Ah, well. At least Harper-Collins was founded by a Presbyterian. He must’ve had naive misconceptions about the publishing industry…

Grill the Mods, Part I

With General Assembly approaching, and three candidates for Moderator already declared, a few of the presbymergent editors have been tossing around the idea of coming up with a list of questions we’d like to ask the candidates.  This seems to be a time-honored tradition among groups as diverse as the Presbyterian Outlook, the Layman, Witherspoon, Covenant Network, etc., so it might be an interesting way to see what issues are important to presbymergents, as well as a way to engage with the GA Moderator conversation.

Here are two questions (submitted by presbymergent editor Jim Bonewald) to get your creative juices flowing and serve as examples:

  1. How can we (and you as moderator help us) re-frame the conversation in our denomination so that we can move away from the polarizations of the past and can move forward with the gospel in this new millennium?
  2. Why aren’t we planting new churches in our denomination? Why have efforts at new church plants failed?  What new approaches do we need to take? What does a post-modern church plant look like? Why do we look for land before we build a community?!?!

Now it’s your turn:  leave a comment on this post to ask your own question (or questions).  Let’s not spend too much time discussing, debating, or answering our own questions just yet – we can discuss and narrow them down once we have a good number accumulated.  For now, dream big and ask the questions that you would ask a Moderator candidate if she or he came knocking on your church door looking for support – especially questions that have special significance among our growing community of “loyal radicals.”

A Challenge to Emergent Authors

I love my post-modern culture. I think I understand it well-enough, and I certainly embrace (and embody) it most of the time. But are there ever times when my “emerging faith” calls me to cry out against the times? This time of year, one such case stands out pretty clearly: Consumerism.

If the industrial era was acquainted with consumerism, and the modern era flirted with her, then surely post-modernism slept with her and made LOTS of babies (mostly plastic ones in a post-modern assortment of sizes, shapes, and bright neon colors).

Enter the Emerging Church, which (to its credit) takes post-modern tendencies like deconstructionism, subjectivity, and diversity right in stride without skipping a beat. But what does this conversation have to say about consumerism? Better yet, what actions back up the voices in the conversation?

I do hear lots of voices. Mostly in the form of a never-ending stream of books from emerging authors. Don’t get me wrong — I love these authors, and I consume every word on every page of just about every book I read from them, and they have been more than helpful. In fact, there probably wouldn’t be anything emerging if not for the books. But therein lies the problem: I consume what often seems like the flagship product of the Emerging Church — books.

That in itself isn’t entirely bad. Books are great. I’m an English major; I love books. The Bible is a book. But books are decidedly tangible, material, products that both cost money and generate money, not just for their authors, but for large publishing companies as well.

There are exceptions. I hugely admire Shane Claiborne, who practices what he preaches at The Simple Way, and gives away all the proceeds from his book Irresistible Revolution to a slew of noble causes and organizations.

I’m also not against authors making a living (especially because I hope to be one, and make one someday) and being compensated for their time and effort. But there seems to be something wrong with the idea that the very best in emerging ideas and resources:

  • are available primarily to those with the cash to keep buying them
  • are protected by strict copyright laws designed to limit the spread of information
  • often generate more revenue for their publishers than for their authors
  • are not freely available as shared online resources for all

This is where we could take a lesson from the Open Source community, where software is written by talented programmers, and reflects many of the qualities emergents aspire to: it’s generative, collaborative, open, transparent, free, good, and people are passionate (or “evangelical”) about it. Just ask anyone who uses Firefox, Linux, or OpenOffice.

Or consider the rapidly changing music industry, where artists are experimenting with creative ways to share their music with listeners — the band Radiohead recently released their album In Rainbows directly from their website (bypassing record labels) where listeners can pay whatever amount they feel is appropriate, including nothing. All indications thus far are that sales are strong, fans are happy, critics are happy, and the artists still receive more than they would have through traditional distribution methods.

Even closer to the literary medium is Creative Commons — an organization that allows writers (and artists and composers, etc.) to retain some rights while giving others (like the right to distribute and share) away. Cory Doctorow, a respected and award-winning science fiction writer who released his first novel both in print (through a publisher) and online (via Creative Commons license) has this to say:

However an author earns her living from her words, printed or
encoded, she has as her first and hardest task to find her
audience. There are more competitors for our attention than we
can possibly reconcile, prioritize or make sense of. Getting a
book under the right person’s nose, with the right pitch, is the
hardest and most important task any writer faces.

All forward thinking writers should read the full text of Doctorow’s article, which is deeply insightful and visionary.

I guess it all boils down to this: In the emergent conversation, are we writing the things we’re writing because we want to sell books, or are we writing the things we’re writing because we want to change the world? Do our ideas, our theologies, really belong to us or to they belong to a King and a Kingdom that transcend profit? And if it’s possible to give those ideas away, to reach more people, (while still selling books and supporting the labor of the thinkers and writers), isn’t that worth trying?

I visited the Emergent Village website today, and noticed two interesting things, side by side at the bottom of the page: A Creative Commons license for all of the web content, and a disclosure that Emergent Village is underwritten by a grant from Abingdon Press. My first instinct was to be cynical: Why is the leading voice in the conversation financed by the corporation that stands most to profit from it? But my second (and better) instinct was this: Perhaps both paradigms (traditional publishing and P2P information sharing) can co-exist, and even help each other. And if it works with a website, couldn’t it work with all these books?

So here’s my challenge to any and all Emergent Authors, both aspiring and accomplished, from an avid reader, supporter, and customer:

  1. In addition to selling your books through traditional publishers, consider making them available for free online distribution as well, through Creative Commons, or another similar open source license. I doubt your sales (or livelihood) will suffer significantly, but I’m confident that your audience will expand, which will benefit not only you in the long run, but also your audience, the Emergent Conversation, and the Kingdom of God.
  2. If that’s too big a leap, consider making some or all of your earlier works available for free distribution online — especially if some of them have gone out of print, or are otherwise difficult to obtain. Again, you might pick up a few new readers who will then go out and buy your latest.
  3. In the process of making your words and ideas more available, less exclusive, and less profit-driven, you’ll undermine the consumeristic tendencies of our post-modern culture, live up to the words and ideals of the Emerging Conversation, and set an example of generosity and sharing that are entirely fitting companions to the gospel we proclaim.

I promise I’ll still buy your books. And attend your conferences. And tell my friends about you. And maybe, just maybe, in the midst of this hijacked consumer holiday we call Christmas, the gift of your words to a hungry and hurting world might remind us all of another gift from long ago — a gift given freely to all people, from the Author of the universe, on a star-filled night in Bethlehem.