Architecture of thought

January 8, 2014

In the past we have had a sort of architecture to our religious thought in the United States. 

We have the foundation, which has been books and publishing. I’m reading Matt Hedstrom’s The Rise of Liberal Religion which explains the thorough endeavor to cultivate book culture and teach the American middle class how to read.

We have the structural integrity, which would be our educational institutions. Seminaries allowed us to build on the foundation of books when professors taught students. They highlighted certain material and taught them the history of thought and events. Students learned how to interpret the Scripture and wrestle with theological ideas.

Then there was the interior of the home. The largest communal room was the church sanctuary, where we learned to articulate the theology, history, and culture through the lens of the Scripture. The side rooms were Sunday school classrooms, Bible studies and confirmation. There were also important magazines, like the Century.

I like to think that with all of it, we were also swinging on the porch, staying engaged with the social justice issues.

Things changed with the radio. But for historically progressive denominations, we listened to the Protestant Hour which highlighted sermons, so it didn’t have too much of an affect on our structure of thought. Television moved in, and had a bit more of an impact (although the denominational churches largely ignored it). Now there’s the Internet, which has opened up all kinds of conversations and friendships across lines we rarely transgressed. I love what is happening. Since I have moved frequently throughout my career, my most important intellectual mentors and friends are people with whom I engage on social media. But I wonder what the Internet and other factors are doing to our architecture of thought.

Books. I learn about books through blogs, Twitter and Facebook. Our brick and mortar stores are closing. Our denominational body no longer has a resource room. I don’t have access to our denominational publishing catalog. I get to magazines through social media. I read the NYT and the Chattanooga paper, but for the most part, I get to newspaper articles through social media. In other words, I only know about new books if their authors interact with social media.

Seminaries. Seminaries are for professors training students. But if we take an honest look at what’s happening at many of our seminaries, we can see that enrollment is going way down along with tenured positions. The tenured positions we do have are largely populated with white men who are at retirement age.

What are we doing instead? In many institutions, we have increased efforts into building up the endowment and bolstering the mid-level management. I shake my head at some seminaries, where there seems to be one VP for every five graduates. A small seminary classroom can be brutal, because one verbose student (especially of the preacherly type) can completely dominate and shut out everyone else.

The Board is made up of money people—which usually means that they’re not pastors and they don’t know much about the small churches we serve. They don’t understand the curriculum or professors we need. They know that we need more money. They may be good-hearted and loving, but building the endowment is their job. The problem is that all of this can eat away at the structural integrity of our architecture of thought. 

Churches. Churches are learning to experiment with different ways to educate. Some people are working with sermons so that they are not one-way monologues, but dialogues. Or they work to integrate different media into their sermons. Other people are using an Academy model instead of a Sunday school.

I could go on, but let me get to the point. Our intellectual architecture is being dismantled. But it is also being reassembled. I use the “architecture” metaphor, because what we are creating will be in place for many decades to come. Some of what is happening, we don’t have any control over. Yet we can be strategic about a lot of it. Are we remembering the important purpose of our thought? Are we creating structures that will allow us flexibility, diversity and sustainability? Are we building foundations, bones, rooms and porches that will be engaging and enlightening?


How can the relationship with money persons be more beneficial?


I appreciate your very interesting thoughts. I always look forward to your columns in the Christian Century.

As someone who would probably loosely be considered a 'money person' (at the congregational level) a question, as well as a comment, came to mind as I was reading.

The Question: what suggestions could you offer to 'money people' for them to better understand the needs of those in ministry, or the church? How can we better help meet those needs?

The Comment:  I grapple with, how can a 'money person' help the Church and others serve God and participate in His mission? How can we do this beyond being simply a deep pocket (or a door to deep pockets), or someone who has some special technical knowledge? Do we personally have anything of value to offer, from ourselves? Sometimes I feel like all I am to my teen-agers is a wallet, and would hope I could be just a little more than that to God.

Perhaps 'money people' can offer this toward the integrity of the church:

Often (but certainly not always) money is an indicator of the level to which something resonates with, helps, or makes God present to, the people of the church.  Since God, for whatever reason, has placed us in a world of scarce resources, we unfortunately have to make decisions about where to spend those resources. Perhaps the non-clergy 'money person' can offer discernment of and discipline about doing what the body of the church feels is valuable. When this discernment is not offered or paid-attention-to, and money is abundant, sometimes the leadership pursues things that  are great in-and-of-themselves, but which don't impact the laity, and the body of the Church doesn't care about very much. I think this has happened at times in the Presbyterian Church, and can be damaging.

What a beautiful question!

What a beautiful question! Thank you so much for asking it. And I apologize if my "money people" description was too flippant or diminishing.

The answer, of course, is different for each person. People have varying skill sets and gifts.

But I'll tell you one thing--when someone who knows about money and can lower the anxiety around it, that can be invaluable. I served alongside a couple of Treasurers who were incredibly gifted that way.

We have a multitude of deep spiritual issues around money. Some people have survived poverty, and keep that lingering fear of scarcity with them. Others see money as a reflection of their own success/failure as a human. Society teaches us to show affection with money. Some people confuse money with God's blessing. All of these aspects create anxiety when money is tight.

In seminary we're taught to have a "non-anxious presence." Often when a pastor has that sort of a presence in budget talks, s/he might be brushed off as ignorant of the situation. But when someone who is financially astute has less anxiety, then it is a huge gift of sanity for any discernment process.