Change, Community, Communion, and Curation

It often seems unnecessarily radical to change one's ways of doing things.  When systematic ways are changed, either by brute force or previous failure, many many react negatively.  This is happening in Congress as the GOP-controlled House fights against the already-lawful-and-upheld-by-the-Supreme-Court-as-constitutional Affordable Care Act (Obamacare). It's something different, very different, being treated with hostility because of its difference and perceived (and somewhat realistic) hardships.  

Difference and change are difficult for so many to comprehend.

There are viable reasons for this. Many arguments made against Obamacare are valid and backed up by numbers and inevitable cost to typical Americans. In many ways Obama will take more money from each American in order to make health insurance for all Americans a reality.  It is very different from how America has traditionally treated her citizens since her beginning.  Valid concerns are heard, but change keeps on trucking.

The thing about change, historically, is that it is easily delayed but essentially unavoidable.  It only can be re-steered to go in the "proper" direction. Change is inevitable; direction of that change is somewhat controllable.

[Quick change of scene.] 

As a United Methodist, I have a common joke I make about our church: we are always 20 years behind.  It's only a joke but it strikes a strong chord on the reality guitar.  Take contemporary worship music for example.  Simply put, the United Methodist Church, for better or for worse, ignored the contemporary worship scene for years upon years.  "Contemporary" worship music pushed through the evangelical and hippie-ish movements in the late 60s and early 70s and began to refine itself in the mid-late 80s and early 90s.  Evangelical churches (read: non-United Methodist churches) were often the first to jump on board.  There might be many reasons for this, of which the fact that many of those churches do not submit to any larger governing body ought to be at the top, but evangelical churches by and large beat Methodists to this punch. United Methodists have moaned and groaned about how badly the music is written and how non-theological the lyricism is ever since, but the general public has seen some churches grow and some die.  United Methodist churches have been on the dying side of things far too often.

We are late to the game and they seem to be "winning." How to combat this then? Well, of course: We have to raise our numbers so that our church doesn't die! We must start a contemporary worship service! How then do we do that?  Well let's look at some resources.  Where are these resources?  Oh great, there are tons of resources available!  There is tons of music available! Who is providing this music? Oh! The Evangelicals. Great!  Let's hire a worship leader!  Great! Most of the good worship leaders are at the evangelical churches, so we'll get the pretty-good ones.  They should be able to lead the United Methodist Church into the next generation of worship! Great! This is going to be so great! 

And, what do we end up with?  We end up with a church whose tradition of well-written, theological singing is nearly lost because in the switch to the new medium/genre, we picked up someone else's tradition and theology simply because it was already there for us. We blindly took the cookie left for us without considering the consequences. Change came and we got on board and took the road-too-often-traveled without considering where it was taking us.

20 years behind, then, may mean that we need to curate a bit more than we'd expect.  What's the trade-off of simply using someone else's work?  What's the trade-off for our congregations and disciple-building? Have we fully examined this change, its constant insistence upon itself, and where our destination lies?

The same has happened in online communities.  Online communities, if you can believe it, are old now.  They began, essentially, with the advent of email and have continued to be refined and refined over time. What one sees in Facebook, and all Facebook is meant to be, is simply and refinement (albeit a very well done refinement with its share of quality innovations) of the original idea of communicating and communing online. Online communities may seem like a new thing to people (and maybe especially to United Methodists) but they're simply not.  Hey, United Methodists, you're late again.

And so we pick up where we left off. Many non-UMC churches are offering well-done online churches in which a church attendee can log on, converse with a online pastor, watch the worship service, and even pray online with the guidance of the pastor.  The difference is, of course, one doesn't feel the pastor's hand on your back as you pray; she's generally miles away from you.  This sort of idea isn't new, it's simply new to United Methodists.  A popular church in Florida is doing just that (a high school friend of mine is heading it can check it out at  

The new conversation (happening right now in Nashville, TN) is whether or not United Methodists ought to offer the sacrament of Holy Communion over the internet.  Practically speaking, it's exactly as it sounds.  The viewer (and I use that term intentionally) provides their own bread and grape juice (or wine), while the pastor blesses the elements through your computer or TV screen.  It's along the same lines as that pastor praying over you but without being able to physically feel their presence...except it's with the sacrament of communion.

Perhaps this is an controversial concept to speak about because many of the other churches don't hold communion (Eucharist) in the same regard as United Methodists (or, if we're speaking honestly, maybe many of them actually hold it in HIGHER regard simply due to their insistence on the frequency of participation in Eucharist) . In other words, maybe Methodists are trying to graft United Methodism onto a medium and evangelism technique that someone else, someone different than us, already created. The difference is that the penalty for moving in that direction on that road of change is a loss of traditional practice that has been important to Methodism. In my mind, it's not much different than us trying to sing that one song and trying to change the lyrics because the song is We couldn't write a comparable one!  We just have to graft Wesleyan theology onto whatever trends come because we were late to the game and not innovative enough to pull ourselves out of the hole.

Goodbye, Wesleyan sense of community.  Goodbye, Wesleyan understanding of Jesus's presence in the Eucharist and the necessity of physicality for incarnation to be experienced.  Goodbye, sung Wesleyan theology with an emphasis on the unending and unchanging love and grace of God. 

I'll maintain until I die that change is inevitable and good in this world.  But, change comes with responsibility.  Change comes with the need for curation.  Change also comes with the need for innovation and outside-of-the-box mentalities. And, while all those seem so poorly connected, it is indeed necessary that they all work together cohesively so that the good parts of what we have are not lost. The danger of Calvinistic theology creeping into Wesleyan churches--even if only through the music--is, and has been, upon us.  The danger of cultural definitions of "community" and "experience" is creeping in on us and our livelihood is at stake.

Online communities are coming.  The challenge and calling is there for churches to attend to.  People want religion and they want to be online.  Ignoring it seems silly and simply jumping on the bandwagon blindly seems sillier. Change is necessary and inevitable.  Curation and innovation are necessary and often forgotten.

Let us not be so persuaded by a new movement that we forget who we are.  Maybe, just maybe, we can feed a need within our society in a new and better way.