Tag: communication

The Echo Chamber of Religion Leads To Extremism

The strange case of Warren Jeffs, the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints’ leader, ended today in Jeffs’s conviction for child rape.

We wonder how it is possible in the 21st century for hundreds of men and women to be deluded by Jeffs’ bizarre, perverted religious expression.  Jeffs and the FLDS are the extreme result of religion unmoderated by common decency and the wisdom of the greater culture.

Put differently, isolated individuals tend to believe what their leaders tell them.  Cut off from media and outside contact with non-FLDS acquaintances, the FLDS compound reinforced daily that the word of Warren Jeffs was the word of God.

The nation was riveted to news coverage when authorities raided the FLDS “Yearning For Zion” compound near Eldorado, Texas, in April, 2008.  The isolated FLDS women and girls drew comments for the homemade, plain-style dresses they wore.  But, the real oddity was that this break-away sect of the Mormon Church had refused to give up the practice of polygamy and child marriage.  Jeffs was their leader, and his word was regarded as divine by his followers.

The clincher in the case was an audio tape found in Jeffs’s possession when he was arrested as a fugitive. The tape reveals sexual encounters with three underage girls, which Jeffs characterized as “heavenly comfort” sessions .  The  earthly reality was that a jury found Jeffs guilty of sexual assault on these poor girls, ages 12-15 years.  The conviction carries a potential life sentence.

Of course, this is the activity of a cult, we tell ourselves.  But looking more closely, it isn’t hard to find examples of those who live in their own echo chambers, listening only to their own voices.  There are many sad examples of those who cut themselves off from the corrective conversation that engagement with others provides. And, examples come from both the right and the left of the religious spectrum.

When Barack Obama was campaigning for the presidency, he found himself embarrassed by the sermons of his pastor, Rev. Jeremiah Wright.  Wright’s fiery pulpit presence and his condemnation of America was understood by his parishioners within the context of his own church sanctuary.  But the sermon in which Wright called on God to “damn America” did not play well in the wider culture.   No explanation of the context, or the tradition of the church, or any other disclaimers mitigated the uproar over Wright’s sermon.  Obama eventually disavowed Wright, distancing himself from a pastor who was understood by his constituency but who was not ready for national media coverage.

Media experts tell us the internet enables us as never before to listen to media personalities who reinforce our own positions.  This “silo effect” insulates those who only watch Fox News or Keith Olbermann, for example,  from legitimate challenges to their ideology.

The same effect is present in the religious community.  The most strident opponents of other religions are usually those who listen only to their own voice.  Rev. Terry Jones, the vitriolic anti-Muslim pastor from Florida, represents the same extreme dressed up in evangelical garb.  Of course, Jones’s ministry is more like that of another cult figure, Tony Alamo, who also isolated his followers, compelling them to work long hours for no pay in order to enrich himself.

But the tendency to one-sidedness tempts all of us.  In his new book, Elusive Peace: How Modern Diplomatic Strategies Could Better Resolve World Conflicts, Douglas Noll, a lawyer-turned-peacemaker and international mediator, cites one of the primary reasons international peacemaking fails — opposing parties will not listen to each other’s stories.  Noll also adds “group identity,” with its “us-versus-them” mentality, to his list of peace impediments.  In other words, the failure to listen to each other, and to value one another as human beings prevents the resolution of many conflicts.

When religious leaders whip their constituents into a frenzy with exclusivist claims that “we have the truth and no one else does,” they do a grave disservice to the common good.  When we listen only to ourselves and those like us, we cut ourselves off from our brothers and sisters who might feel and think differently than we do.

To those who object that we must hold up the banner of truth, and keep ourselves apart from “others,” Jesus had a story to tell.

It was about a Jew who set out on a journey, got beaten up, robbed, and left for dead.  Those like him, devout religious leaders, passed him by.  But a man from Samaria, whose religious beliefs were anathema to the Jews, and who were engaged in a centuries-old feud with Jews, stopped to help the Jewish man.  He gave first aid, carried the man to the safety of an inn, paid for his lodging, and left money for the victim’s recovery.  In a rhetorical end to the story,  Jesus asked, “Who was neighbor to the man who was beaten?”  The obvious answer was someone unlike him in faith and practice, someone despised  and reviled by the victim’s people, someone who should have had nothing to do with the victim.

Conversation with others who are not like us, religiously or culturally, tempers our own tendency to isolation-induced arrogance.  Interfaith dialogue, racial reconciliation, tolerant conversations, and engaging with a diverse culture helps us see our common humanity, and serves the common good.

Do you have a community manager?

With the rise of social networks, new job titles emerge.  One new job is Community Manager.  CMs  focus on customers and clients for large businesses.  They help gather the community, encourage participation, deal with comments, and provide hospitality for the online community.  

All of that got me to thinking about church.  The number one complaint I hear is something like, “Why didn’t I know?”  That complaint could apply to not knowing someone was sick, or not knowing about a meeting, or not knowing about a  decision.  Folks in small churches like to know.

Suppose you identified a church community manager.  They would stay in touch with the congregation, and help create a network of connectivity.  Of course, most of our small churches already have networks, but this one would be a force for positive expression and involvement.  

I think I’m going to play around with this idea for a few days.  I’m not talking about connecting everybody on Facebook or any new social media.  I’m just thinking about good, old-fashioned staying in touch, but with a little more guidance.  What do you think?  Could this work?  How would you go about implementing a community manager?

Tribes and church

A friend of mine sent me Seth Godin’s new book, Tribes.  All Godin’s books pack lots of new thinking between their small covers.  I’ll post more about it after I’m finished, but already I’ve run across these gems:

  • “A  tribe is a group of people connected to one another, connected to a leader, and connected to an idea.” -p 1.
  • “Heretics are the new leaders. The ones who challenge the status quo, who get out in front of their tribes, who create movements.” -p 11.
  • “Leaders have followers. Managers have employees. Managers make widgets. Leaders make change.” – p 14. 
  • “‘Established in 1906’ used to be important. Now, apparently, it’s a liability.” -p 17.
  • “People yearn for change, they relish being part of a movement.” -p 18.
  • “Great leaders create movements by empowering the tribe to communicate.  They establish the foundation for people to make connections, as opposed to commanding people to follow them.” -p 23. 

Okay, more later, but you get the picture.  Tribes is about leaders, followers, connection and movements.  Sounds like the first century when the church was young.  Maybe it can happen again — a real movement, a genuine groundswell of people gathered around Jesus, connecting with each other, passionate about doing God’s work in God’s world.  Anybody up for a movement?

The last to know

We have an answering machine on our home telephone.  My cell phone number is posted and regularly published at our church.  Our office phone will actually call my cell phone when someone leaves me a voice mail.  In short, I am absolutely available 24/7, even when I’m out of town.  But, despite my urgent assurances that I want to know when someone is sick, in the hospital, or has a crisis, here’s what happened:

Last Wednesday night I walked into our fellowship hall for our Wednesday night dinner.  Two people greeted me with questions:  Is so-and-so out of the hospital?  (names changed to protect the innocent)  Of course, I didn’t know so-and-so was in the hospital, which had apparently happened the night before.  No one called me.  

Just the day before I received a similar call — Did you know so-and-so died early Monday morning? (this was Tuesday).  So, my question is — are you as a pastor the last to know what is going on with your congregation?  How do you solve that problem?  I’d be interested to know.  And, not last this time.  Thanks.

The way we relate is changing

Two articles from PSFK, plus one from Kevin Kelly illustrate that how the way we relate to one another is changing, especially the younger you are. 

  1. NY City high school students who get good grades will receive a cell phone and free ringtones or minutes, even though cell phones are banned in school.  They can’t use them there, but it proves the  power of the cell phone among teens as a primary communication device. 
  2. Heard of Warcraft, the huge online game played by about a zillion kids?  Now there’s Datecraft, which gives a whole new meaning to “playing games.”  Here’s what the article from PSFK says — “However, the site really illustrates how the web is changing 1:1 relationships across the board. In 2005, 12% of American newlyweds met online thanks to the slew of dating sites out there. But recent polls show that the Internet can also be a love substitute = potential social dysfunction. So it’s encouraging that gamers are reaching out past their keyboards to make real-life social connections.”
  3. Kevin Kelly of Wired magazine really has the zinger though.  Kelly says that we are headed toward a global machine — OneMachine — of which the current internet is only a component.  We’ll all be plugged into this OneMachine for everything.  Kelly says —

    The next stage in human technological evolution is a single thinking/web/computer that is planetary in dimensions. This planetary computer will be the largest, most complex and most dependable machine we have ever built. It will also be the platform that most business and culture will run on. The web is the initial OS of this new global machine, and all the many gadgets we possess are the windows into its core. Future gizmos will be future gateways into the same One Machine. Designing products and services for this new machine require a unique mind-set. 

Kelly goes on to describe the immensity gPhone prototypeof the One Machine and predicts that sometime between 2020 and 2040, the One Machine will exceed the computational power of all humans combined — over 6-billion human brains.  Imagine that on your DSL connection. Computers will become gateways to the One Machine where all computing will be done online.  Google is already headed there with Google Docs, gmail, google maps, contacts, and about 30 other apps they have designed.  All accessible from anywhere on earth from any computer.  And the Google gPhone will be able to access all of it, anytime, anywhere, on any system, with any handset.  Begin to see the ramifications? 

But lost in the hoopla about the gPhone was the Google announcement that they are developing Open Social which will allow any website to create its own Facebook application.  So, your church could develop it’s own social network.  And those in the network would not be restricted to geographic proximity — they could live anywhere.   And, theoretically, your church Facebook could be linked to other churches of similar flavor, or other ministries, or sold to advertising companies to generate revenue for the church, or have ads pop-up when individuals log on to their church account.  Some pretty wild and scary applications could result. 

This is where we are heading.  This also makes the conversations we have at church about worship styles or other issues pale by comparison.  What do you see implied in this new way we will relate to one another for the future of the church?