Waking a Sleeping Giant

*Originally posted at my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – Sacred Duty

A few weeks ago there was a “wikiconference” of Christians in Katy.

Wondering what that is?

The term “wiki” was popularized by the ever popular site Wikipedia that allows users to add and edit content on the site in a collaborative manner.

A wiki conference is more than conference, it’s about collaboration.

This wiki conference in Katy is a collaboration of sacramental mission leaders and church planters hoping to come together to learn, collaborate and grow for the sake of the mission of the Christian church. It’s called Five Two, based off the idea that God provides what the church needs for mission (as he did in the story of the five fish and two loaves – Mark 6:38).

Predominantly made up of Lutheran attendees and a few others from mainline and non-denominational churches the Five Two wiki conference promises to serve as a “missional matchmaker seeking to connect you with the people who have been where you want to go.  We desire to help you reach God’s lost people in a sacramental, community-focused way.”

The Lutheran church, particularly the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod of which many of the participants at this wiki conference are members of, is typically made up of a pretty traditional and conservative bunch. To say the least, the LCMS is not popularly known for its contemporary worship styles, its community oriented programming or major mission focus.

Billy Graham once called the Lutheran church in America the “sleeping giant,” implying that if it woke, revival was sure to come to the whole Christian church in the U.S.A.

The leaders of the Five Two network who are putting on this wiki conference are hoping to inspire, coach, collaborate with and connect various sacramental (read “predominantly Lutheran”) church planters as they seek to reach out to their communities and grow the church.

Such an undertaking comes with its fair share of challenges.

I had the opportunity to ask Bill Woolsey, a member of the Five Two leadership team and Sr. Pastor of Crosspoint Community Church here in Houston, what the greatest promises and greatest challenges are for Five Two, the Lutheran Church and other sacramental church planters in the years to come.

The greatest challenge Pastor Woolsey could identify is what he called a “post – even pre-church culture” that is  “not church-centric” and generally beyond or not familiar with Christianity. He noted that if the Christian church, and in his context specifically the Lutheran church and its congregations, did not recognize this “culture shift” then there would difficult times ahead for the church’s mission in the world. Churches would die. Church planters would struggle. Numbers would dwindle. The sleeping giant would slip ever deeper into its comatose sleep.

David Campbell and Robert Putnam in their comprehensive tome on the state of American religion, American Grace: How Religion Divides and Unites Us, note that following a shock (the cultural liberation of the 60’s) and two aftershocks (rise of the Religious Right and a backlash against) the present American culture is quite adverse towards mainline churches (Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Methodists, Episcopalians and Lutherans). According to many sociologists the mainline church is on decline and its churches are dying amidst a culture that no longer cares for its message or finds community within its walls. The LCMS, and its fellow mainline brethren, face an uphill battle if they desire to grow in the years to come.

Nonetheless, Woolsey didn’t leave the conversation on a sour note. Instead, he spoke of the great hope he had in “grace” oriented church planters who understood that it is God who takes the initiative in our relationship with him and in the mission of the church. He shared that a group of grace oriented believers armed with a “no ‘buts'” grace-oriented theology would see miracles happen in their community as they grew and matured together as a community Church.

Certainly, his is a hope-filled vision in the face of a difficult cultural context.

There have been other attempts at mission advancement and revival in years past. There were various challenges present then as well – theological challenges, practical impediments and cultural hurdles. Many mainline churches, in their struggle to be more missional and yet hold on to their sacramental, or more traditional, practices often wind up with two camps in their tribe: one ready to bravely step into the culture around them with their Christian message and another who is happy to maintain the status quo, even it means dwindling numbers and eventual church closures.

They will have to navigate not only the external culture of their community, but also an internal culture that may not go along with such a mission focus.

Only time will tell if this missional movement within mainline denominations like the LCMS will effectively take hold. The Five Two wiki conference is a brave attempt by a group of like-minded folks hoping to stem the tide.

This week as the Five Two folks get together to collaborate they will be sure to discuss what promises, and challenges, lie ahead as they attempt to awake a sleeping giant and redeem what they see as an ever secularizing culture around them.

As can be assumed, waking a sleeping giant is not an easy thing to do. It’s big, it’s ugly and it’s fast asleep. The Lutheran church, and mainline churches like them, are all sleeping giants well sluggish in their slumber; no minor movement and no little effort will awake such a beast.

*I must admit that this blog verges into the territory of our Houston Belief Lutheran pastor/blogger Pastor Charles St. Onge and his blog Lutherant. I encourage you to check out his blog and learn more about Confessional Christianity from a Lutheran perspective.


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Texans Love Their Crosses

*This is a repost from my Houston Chronicle Belief Blog – A Sacred Duty 

At a Drops Like Stars event in Tempe, AZ evangelical speaker Rob Bell asked how many people in the crowd were wearing crosses. A little over half the crowd raised their hands. Bell wondered aloud why it is that so many people wear ancient symbols of torture, pain and death such as the cross. It was a fair enough question.

Bell offered the explanation that it has to do with the art of solidarity; that God sent Jesus into the world to scream alongside of us. He says in book form, “This is why for thousands of years Christians have found the cross to be so central to life. It speaks to us of God’s suffering, God’s pain, God’s broken heart. It’s God making the first move and then waiting for our response.” For Bell and, as he argues, many Christians the cross is a symbol of redemption through suffering. Jesus suffering with us, redeeming that suffering and standing in solidarity with all of humanity that screams out in this present darkness.

So the cross serves as a symbol of suffering and pain, but also one of victory and redemption.

Then there are crosses in Texas.

In Texas, crosses are, well, odd and fascinating pieces of art.

Since moving to Texas some ten months ago I’ve seen more crosses than I’ve seen anywhere else in the entire world (albeit I’ve not yet been to the Lithuanian hill of crosses). In every boutique, on living room walls and diamond studded on tee shirts, hats and women’s hand bags there are crosses of varying sizes and carrying assorted messages.

Britannica encyclopedia states that religious iconography, or symbolism, serves religious communities with “basic and often complex artistic forms…to convey religious concepts and…[to represent] religious ideas and events.” As a religious symbol, the cross has remained a strong sign of Christianity throughout the ages conveying the Christian belief in the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth and testifying to their concept of redemption for humanity through that suffering. The art of the cross is a wide and diverse stream and the cross has been transformed and translated throughout the ages to speak in new ways to new people for various contexts. I’ve experienced this first hand. While traveling around the world my wife and I amassed a diverse array of crosses with a sundry of forms, crafted from a myriad of media and reflecting each culture’s unique take on Jesus and the cross.

In Texas the cross has taken on a whole new form reflecting both Texas’ strong belief in its “Christian heritage” and its rough-and-tumble independence. Thus, in Texan shops and homes you’ll find crosses made out of leather belts replete with belt buckles at the apex, a cross with the state of Texas smack dab in the middle with words like “reign of God,” “LORD God Sabaoth” and other militaristic/kingdom oriented words from Scripture etched into the frame, a cross made from cowboy rope, a cross studded with turquoise or diamonds or the ubiquitous barbed wire and star cross with barbed wire wrapped around a cross of rough wood and christened with a texas star in the middle and a horse shoe to boot

Texas is Texas that’s for sure.

When you meet people and ask where they are from native Texans respond with pride telling you that they are from Houston, Austin, Dallas, Odessa, Lubbock or Midland. For those not from Texas the standard line is, “I’m not from Texas, but I got here as fast I could.” Texans support their respective colleges and universities with unabashed loyalty and a hint of hubris. They believe in the Texas ideal and flirt with secession. The Lone Star Republic still means something to Texans and so the large tri-color flag flies right next to the American flag with patriotic zeal. In Texas, BBQ and Tex-Mex are sacramentally akin to the bread and wine of Christian communion and on Friday the football stadium is church.

Texans garner these attitudes and convictions from a history of rugged independence and pride of roots formed on ranches and fields bringing forth cotton, cattle and oil.

Unsurprisingly, such perspectives find themselves reflected in Texas cross art.

If, in general, the cross is a symbol of suffering and an icon of redemption and victory through pain and death then in Texas the cross serves as a symbol of freedom, ingenuity, rough-and-tumble independence and strength.

When religious scholars and leaders suppose the cross to be a symbol of suffering and by association, a sign of humility, their hypothesis does not stick when reviewing the crosses of Texas.

Every cross in Texas is imposing or impressive or both. In that way they reveal something telling about Texan Christianity, and in some ways, Texan religion in general.

It’s loud, it’s proud and it is undeniably Texan.

This forces us to ask, “what hath the cross of Texas to do with the cross of Golgotha?”

Certainly, Texas crosses acknowledge the suffering, but associate it with their own hard fought road to freedom and glory (notice the rough hewn wood, the dark colors and the barbed wire). More than any other country or cultural context I’ve witnessed, they add a strong dash of pride to their cross. In some way, this pride might even come to overshadow the humble carpenter’s son from Jesus who Christians claim died on a cross almost 2,000 years ago.

In another way, it reminds us that the cross of Texas is less a symbol of a religion and more an icon of a culture – a distinctively Texan culture where every cowboy, rancher, service man or woman, football player, student, oil refiner or engineer is meant to be hard working, independent and faithful to God, family and Texas.

Viewed in such a light it makes perfect sense for every cross to bear a belt buckle, some bling, a little barbed wire or a boot. For more than speaking to God’s suffering and Jesus’ redemption of the world through his own pain and death, the cross in Texas conveys a culture’s pride in fortunes won through blood, sweat and tears and reveals a cultural ideal of faith in God and country.

Therefore, if you visit Texas you will find the cross proudly displayed in homes, in shops, in restaurants, on trucks and in fashion. After all, if Texans brazenly fly their flag they expectedly brandish their cross as well as a sign of what it truly means to be Texan.

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Young Americans Less Religious…For Now

Read the original post at Ken’s Blog for the Houston Chronicle – Sacred Duty

According to a recent Gallup poll, if you were to run into a liberal-independent male doctor from, say, New York who is 29 years old, there is a slightly higher chance that he is an atheist.

Good to know right?


But what to make of it?

Various news agencies and religious commentators are making different observations concerning the findings of the recent Gallup poll on belief in God. According to their statistical survey, liberals are less likely to believe in God or a supernatural being than conservatives, independents less likely than Republicans or Democrats, people living in the East less than the West, North or South, males less than females, younger people less than older people, postgraduate educated individuals than those with high school or less.

The real “discovery” is, despite the differences, Americans are still fervently full of belief and, by proxy, intensely religious.

For the sake of this article I want to keep this point in mind while focusing on the greatest statistical gap that the Gallup poll recorded – the 10 point difference between 18 to 29 year olds and every other age group. According to the survey done by Gallup, only 84% of Young Americans between the ages of 18 to 29 believe in God or a universal spirit, while among people 30 or older 94% believe.

This may strike many readers as a major generational shift occurring between the Baby Boomers/Generation X and the so-called Millennials (Generation Y) and to a point, it is definitely something that religious leaders and observers should take note of.

However, I think it is important to keep in mind the characteristics of the Millennials when interpreting Gallup’s, and other survey’s, data regarding Generation Y’s belief in God and their subsequent faith and religiosity.

According to a Pew Forum report on Millennials, they are, as a group, generally less interested in money and religion and more concerned with family and friendship. They are comfortable with technology and enjoy communication. They are less defined by racial boundaries and more open to other world views. While they value family they aren’t rushing to the altar, and many of them (nearly 80%) remain single into their late twenties.

What is important to note is that yes, Millennials are less likely to believe in the divine or an ultimate deity and that they are less religious, but that this fact might change in the near future as they grow older, settle down and have a family. As Robert Putnam and David Campbell note in their tome on contemporary religion, American Grace, there is a difference between generational change and lifetime change. What we may be seeing here is a mixture of both. While the Millennials will probably believe less than their parents (Baby Boomers) and their older siblings (Generation X) the difference will not be as striking (10 percentage points) once they grow up a little more.

Many religious statisticians and observers note that belief in God and participation in religion increase once individuals settle down, get married and have a family. Life cycle changes generally trend towards more religiosity as individuals get older. Thus, we can expect that Millennials, currently in the 18-29 range, will be slightly more religious and, by association, more believing in their later years with another decade of growth.

In addition to this sociological progression, there is also an immigrant influx of believing young people from the Southern and Eastern world to consider. As Philip Jenkins notes in his work The Next Christendom, people from Central and South America, Africa and many nations in Asia are much more religious (not just Christian) and that this has major implications for Europe and America as it pertains to immigration of such individuals to the U.S.A. Since they are moving here and the Millennial generation itself seems to be more ethnically diverse and open to other world-views, such an immigration shift may impact Millennial belief patterns.

While I don’t believe there will be a major change in their religious practice or belief in God, I think we have yet to see just how believing and religious the Millennials will be when they are in their 30s and 40s. In the end, I believe that their belief and religiosity will rise a few percentage points and that America will continue, for another generation, to be fervently religious.

Furthermore, it is one thing to discuss the amount of Millennials’ belief and religiosity and another thing entirely to discuss the content of their faith and practice. What we can infer from their general characteristics is that being more open, being better educated, being more ready to communicate and dialogue with others, being more oriented towards the family and being less partisan than generations that came before them the 84% or more of them that do believe and put their belief into practice will be much more open minded when it comes to the religious other. In addition, they will continue to be wary of religion as it is associated with religiously conservative politics (although as they grow older, Millennials may turn out to be more “conservative” politically than they once were given that older family men and women tend to be more conservative in their politics as well).

Rather than being bad news for the future, this may very well come as a “sigh of relief” to many Americans and other, less religious, countries who often associate America’s propensity for religious belief and practice with stubbornness, close-mindedness and ignorance when it comes to the religious other.

For now, Millennials aren’t quite as religious or believing as their generational predecessors, but that may change given time. I’ll get back to you after Gallup releases its statistics from surveys regarding belief in 2021; then we can see if I was right. In the meantime, it is best for the general populous to not pigeonhole this generation of believers and non-believers, we may yet surprise you.

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Identifying with the Religious Other

At the close of another term of teaching world religions I feel it is an ample time for introspection and evaluation.

As I wrestle with the class’ outcomes and prepare the student’s evaluation there are certainly educational outcomes to consider, but above all I hope that one thing was attained through this class.

A little less religious ignorance.

And so, I decided to craft the class’ final examination off of the Pew Forum Religious Knowledge Survey, which many of our American compatriots failed (often miserably). I will let you know in a couple weeks how they do and, by association, how I did as a professor.

No matter their scores, I earnestly hope that these students learned a little more about “the religious other” as they listened in class, participated in religious events, read religious texts and dialogued with people from other faiths.

I care because I believe that religious literacy is vitally important in our world today, as it always has been.

Religious literacy, and its vehicles of religious education and experience, are crucial components in combatting religious cluelessness and its antecedents of bigotry, deconstruction of human identity and religious/sociological/racist/cultural violence.

As Yehezkel Landau says in an article entitled Teaching the Religious Other from the U.S. Institute for Peace, “We need to develop educational strategies to overcome the ignorance that leads to prejudice, which in turn leads to dehumanizing contempt, which in turn breeds violence.”

And if you think that type of prejudice and dehumanization only occurs elsewhere let me share a story with you: Just the other day, in one my master’s classes, a student responded to a discussion regarding the victimization of Muslims in the Middle East by emphatically declaring, “Muslims aren’t the victims, they’re killers!”

Sadly enough, he’s training to be a religious leader. It is a humbling example of how ignorance of the religious other leads to prejudice and even the “dehumanization” that Landau speaks of. Thankfully he is enrolled in the program’s course on world religions next semester, I pray he listens and learns.

While this story makes it obvious that ignorance, prejudice and dehumanization of the religious other may be prevalent in American society I am gracious that, as of yet, there is minimal religious violence in the United States (although it does happen). However, as many religious educators have noted, it is when these factors (ignorance, prejudice etc.) are coupled with ethnic, economic or political factors that violence begins to fester. As I often tell my students, “When religion and power (be it economic, ethnic or political) mix, people die…” The seed-bed for such an amalgam is already festering in some parts of the United States. Religious education is needed to undercut such a trend.

David Smock of the U.S. Institute of Peace writes, “One antidote to hatred among religious communities is to teach communities about the beliefs and practices of the religious other.”

While the goal of this religious education is not to convert the student it is, in the words of Scott Alexander, to urge the student to the point where they “can honestly say to the other, ‘I am not you, but I am incomplete without you. My dignity as a human being and as a person of faith is never fully realized unless I can assert your dignity as a human being and person of faith.’”

That’s ubuntu. That’s what this blog is all about.

Of course, you can only lead a student to water…you can’t force them to drink.

However, there are religious education methods that have borne fruit in the past and are important to keep in mind for religious education in the future.

Method (pedagogy) is important as we endeavor to teach others. It is one thing to study it from a polemic/apologetic standpoint and quite another to do some from a vantage point of methodological atheism, or at the very least, respectful theism. To engage in such a method it requires the instructor to make what is taught about the other religion identifiable to an adherent of that faith. This is done best when the religious education is done in the presence of “the other” or is even facilitated by “the religious other.” Then students will be able to not only learn more about the precepts of another religion, but also what draws adherents to that belief or practice.

Beyond exposing students to religiously “other” individuals it is beneficial to introduce students to the writings and practices of another faith via direct experience.

This may mean a student reads the Tao or pages through the Qu’ran. It is realized when a student visits a Hindu temple or attends Mass at a Catholic Cathedral. Such experiences “re-humanize” the religious other more than lecture or in-class discussion. Beyond learning, students are then able to identify with “the religious other.”

Finally, the religious instructor should endeavor to guide students towards dialogue with “the religious other.” It is one thing to learn about “the other” and another to be in relationship with them. While the teacher cannot force students to engage with people of other faiths, she can provide a framework for fruitful future dialogue.

I am encouraged to see these very things happening in religious education ever more often. However, I look forward to the day when religious education, as described in this article, is part of our regular secondary education. It is quite a sad testament to our populous and potential peace when I look at my class and note that every single one of them is in their 30s, 40s or 50s. I am thankful that they’ve learned now, but wish they would’ve learned earlier.

Let us not make the same mistake the last generation made and instead, let us endeavor to sow a little more religious literacy in our world through more prolific and excellent religious education.




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New Venues for Spreading Religious Literacy

I truly enjoy exploring other religions, sharing experiences and information with others and learning through dialogue, discussion and direct exposure.

That’s why I am so excited about some recent opportunities that arose for greater dissemination of Ubuntu Spirit’s exploration of religion, religion and culture and religious literacy.

This week a piece I wrote about the Confession App was published in conjunction with the Martin Marty Center for the Advanced Study of Religion at the University of Chicago in their Sightings Publication. Take a look at the article on the Sightings site.

Likewise this week, I was offered to join the blogging team at Houston Belief, the religious arm of the Houston Chronicle and its blogs. I am working with the site’s producer to discuss the tone of the blog, but it will be very much like the Ubuntu Spirit blog and cover religion in general, religion in Houston and religion as it interacts with culture, politics and the public sphere. From time-to-time my pieces will (hopefully) be published in the Houston Chronicle newspaper.

One element of this new opportunity is a new, more easily grasped, title for the blog. I have a few thoughts, but do you, the readers, have any suggestions? Please leave them in the comments section below and I will let you know when the transition happens.

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Houston’s Diversity: An Airport Addendum

A few weeks ago I blogged about Houston’s Stunning Diversity, sharing the numbers of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims and Christians in Houston and sharing stories about Houston’s religious hotspots. I took you, the reader, on a virtual tour of a Vietnamese Buddhist Boddhisatva temple, a Swami Devotee Hindu Bhakti Temple and a local Muslim Masjid.

Of all the places I escorted you to, I did not take you to Houston’s Hobby Airport.

This then, is my airport addendum to that post.

Here at Hobby, waiting for my flight, checking my bags, standing in the security line and getting a coffee I am met with a microcosm of Houston’s stunning diversity.

Currently, I am on my way to California and sitting in Houston Hobby Airport’s food court . Enjoying my vanilla caramel soy latte, I am struck again by how religiously and racially diverse Houston’s populous is. It reminds me why I love this town.

Raised in California, I treasure heterogeneity and seek out cross-cultural contact. When I think about my childhood in the Los Angeles area I fondly recall having Muslim, Hindu, Jewish, Evangelical and Atheist friends and neighbors.

Galavanting across the world over the last few years – in New Zealand, South Africa, Europe, Indonesia, Peru and Singapore – I’ve sought to gain a greater understanding of this world, its people and its religious soul-beat.

Now, living in Houston the world has come to me. It takes all of five minutes to find somebody who thinks, speaks and acts differently than me because of their cultural background or religious devotion. Here, in Houston Hobby, all I have to do is look to the person sitting next to me (who, by the looks of it is a Hispanic Roman Catholic replete with a rosary).

From Caucasian Khalsa Converts (Sikh) to Coptic Christians and “God Bless America” Baptist African-Americans, Houston Hobby has it all and I’ve seen all of these adherents here today.

I share this with you because I hope you may share the same awe. If you live in Houston, I encourage you to look around, open your eyes and see the stunning diversity that exists around you.

If you live somewhere else, have you noticed how melanged your hometown is? The USA is growing more diverse by the day. Maybe you live in a small town and you feel like your trapped in a homogeneous cage. Look again, and you will find pockets of religious and cultural miscellany in the most unlikely of places. Take a moment the next time you are in a public place – a mall, a post office or an airport – and recognize the mosaic that is your community. I even encourage you to go a step further and get to know someone different than you.

As I prompt my world religions students to do, take some time to introduce yourself to someone from a different religious background. Ask questions, listen to stories, share your own and dialogue with a Catholic, a Sikh, a Hasidic Jew, a Copt or a Hindu. As corny as it may sound, try sharing instead of staring.

Odds are you will come to appreciate your town for its cultural and religious multiplicity like I do. At the very least you will learn something about the world you didn’t know before.

On that note, goodbye H-Town, I look forward to seeing you again and hope to bring back some new stories from California. Until then, you stay stunningly diverse now you hear!

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If The World Ends on Saturday

The very fact I am writing about this on the Ubuntu blog is a testament to the power of media in religion today.

The hash-tag #iftheworldendsonsaturday is numero dos on Twitter right now…

…and that’s weird if you think about it.

A relatively small radio station and Christian ministry named Family Radio  has got half the world talking about whether or not May 21 is doomsday.

After a million dollar ad-campaign involving road-side billboards, bus tours and picket signs the internet took care of the rest of the hype. Spurred on by YouTube videos from Harold Camping himself, self-reporting iPhone photos and videos about doomsday billboards, plenty of blogs like this one and a whole Bible’s worth of clever doomsday Tweets everyone is talking about an obscure California preacher’s judgement day mathematics.

A few weeks ago I posted a blog about the strange relationship that religion has with media tools these days (Clairvoyant Radio Ads). That relationship just got stranger than when Michael Jackson and Lisa Marie hooked up this last week.

The whole “is-May-21-the-end-of-the-world?” thing is fascinating, not because it’s another doomsday prophecy (they’re a dime a dozen), but because everyone is talking about it – from pop-music radio stations here in Houston to CNN and folks at the local bar.

And why?

Because of a careful combination of radio, print and grassroots media hype with the added steroid of modern social media sites like YouTube, Twitter and Facebook (check out some of the buzz here).

Whether or not the world ends tomorrow is not my “concern” as it were. I have a bike ride to go on, a recital to attend and oddly enough, a sermon to prepare for Sunday morning.

However, this is just another example of the power of media, and more poignantly social media, in today’s religious landscape. To study religion today, to be religious today, is to contend and seek to understand how to navigate the spiritual worlds of YouTube, Twitter, iReporting and Facebook.

So, if you are raptured tomorrow try to Tweet about it.


-Ubuntu Spirit

*For more on media, religion and the interesting relationship between the two read the following Ubuntu Spirit posts – 

Everybody Wants to Be Heard

Confession Confusion

Clairvoyant Radio Ads. 

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