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The Buddy System,” an article in the Oct. 2009 issue of Wired looks at “the infectious power of social networks.” In the middle of recent H1N1 outbreaks, that’s an ominous-sounding phrase, but what the article’s author, Jonah Lehrer, shares instead is the theory that the people in our social networks may have more influence on us than we realize — especially on things like happiness.

albumBack in 2003, researchers Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler began an extensive review of the Framingham Heart Study – but they weren’t looking at vital statistics and cholesterol numbers. Instead, they looked at subjects’ social networks.

Graphically mapping out these networks, they looked at certain characteristics (such as obesity) and behaviors (like quitting smoking) over time. What they discovered is that changes occurred in clusters. For example, as smoking rates dropped between 1971 and 2001, the network patterns showed that people were far more likely to quit if those linked to them had quit.  Quitting didn’t happen evenly or randomly across the network.

And Christakis and Fowler found that while the greatest influence was exerted by friends, there was significant influence among friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.

While the Framingham data was based on traditional social networks, Christakis and Fowler applied the same thinking to Facebook. They discovered that, while people still maintain about the same number of really close friendships as before, the extended networks of acquaintances still exert influence. Last month, they published their findings in Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How they Shape Our Lives.

This is fascinating, but it raises ethical questions too. So we discover that one of the ways to pursue and assure our own happiness is to be connected to positive, happy people. What if we gravitate toward them and away from those who are depressed, ailing, poor, unattractive, introverted, and socially undesirable, and less tech-savvy?  Should we de-friend (or ignore) those grouchy people who complain too much? And as those who are less desirable become more socially isolated and disaffected (and in theory, less happy), then what?

Scott Stosssel, in his NY Times review of Christakis and Fowler’s book, does an excellent job of getting at those questions toward the end of his (mostly positive) review. If you don’t want to read the whole review, you can skip to the last few paragraphs.

What do you think?

Photo: Shahram Sharif (Creative Commons license)

Photo: Shahram Sharif (Creative Commons license)

If you’ve ever passed someone on the street and said “hello,” but the other person didn’t acknowledge your greeting, you’ve experienced something called disconfirmation. According to Julia T. Wood, in Interpersonal Communication: Everyday Encounters, we “confirm” someone with both non-verbal (a nod, a smile) and verbal (a return greeting, or even a friendly grunt) communication. “We disconfirm others at a fundamental level when we don’t acknowledge their existence,” Wood writes.

Most of us have a tolerance, perhaps even an acceptance, of a certain level of disconfirmation in life. We probably don’t give that passing stranger another thought. On the other end of the spectrum, the church member or family member who repeatedly snubs us with the silent treatment might cause us greater angst.

Each advance in communication has brought with it the potential for all of us to be the recipients of more disconfirmation, as well as to add to it. The unreturned phone call … the email that went unacknowledged … and now, the requests to connect and be “Friends” and follow someone back. There are more ways to connect, but there are also more ways to miss each other and to miss opportunities to confirm and affirm each other.

Furthermore, as followers of Christ, who went out of his way to “confirm” those who were disconfirmed by many, I believe there’s a faith dimension to the issue.

Some, like social media expert Chris Brogan, treat social media as legitimate items on the “To Do” list, and schedule them in daily or weekly. I like this idea, because I’m the kind of person who needs structure, methods, and tools to get things done. Still, I’m not as good at managing my communications as I’d like to be, and if I’ve disconfirmed you, I apologize.

What do you think? How do you keep up with social media? And are Christians called to attend to the problem of disconfirmation, at least in our own lives, if not in the world?

trust agents If you are anywhere near Orange County, California tonight you should make every attempt to go hear Chris Brogan speak at Disciples-related Chapman University. Chris is well known in the world of social media and blogging. I read his blog every morning, because I appreciate his short, actionable posts and his analogies. The comments are always a good read too. If you’re interested in going to hear him, you can get a ticket through EventBrite. P.S. It’s FREE!

Chris and Julien Smith just released a book called Trust Agents: Using the Web to Build Influence, Improve Reputation, and Earn Trust. I’m about halfway through – it’s interesting. I’m reading it with an eye toward what DisciplesWorld might learn and employ, but also with the Church, churches, and Christians in mind.

Anyone out there going? If so, come back and post your thoughts after the presentation. I’ll be watching the comment stream on Twitter (type #broganoc into the Search box to see Tweets from the event.)

Last week, I wrote about Starbucks’ Green Apron Book and asked whether the 5 Principles that Starbucks’ employees are trained to follow might guide the church in its efforts to establish and maintain a presence on social networking platforms. That post prompted some great discussion, not only about social media (in fact, mostly NOT about social media) but about broader topics such as the art of creating experiences, whether other comparisons between Starbucks and the church are valid, and even whether or not they have good coffee. I agree, the jury’s out on that last one, but I’d also argue that people aren’t paying $4 for coffee (a product) – they’re paying for coffee PLUS the experience (or at least, in the case of drive-thru customers, the emotional connection with the brand).

Photo: Randy OHC (Creative Commons license)

Photo: Randy OHC (Creative Commons license)

But it was Jerry’s comment that sparked today’s post: “Let me know when you figure out how to celebrate the Eucharist on the social media.”

There are the mechanics of ‘figuring it out,’ but what I think Jerry was getting at are the bigger questions and issues. Before we launch into a big discussion or debate, what I’d like for you (reader) to help me do is identify the important questions. Let’s start there. Then I think we’ll have a better discussion.

One place to look for the questions is online. Some churches are already celebrating Communion there – evangelicals in multi-site mega-churches experimenting with online church and Communion, yes; but also Methodists and Anglicans, and probably some Presbyterians. Maybe even Disciples!

In reading around  (see the list at the end of this post), here are some of the issues and questions that come up. Some of these don’t apply to the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), but they’re worth knowing about. These are specifically about Communion, not the broader topic of online church.

  • The need for participation to happen in the context of a physical community (I’m deliberately staying away from using the word ‘real’ here) such as a Sunday morning worship service in a church.
  • The amount of need for control over who can participate (members of that particular church or denomination only? any baptized believer? anyone?)
  • The role of the clergy or celebrants with regard to the sacraments (Do celebrants have to consecrate the elemants? Online, is BYObread-and-juice ok? What about a ‘virtual’ sacrament, like in Second Life?)
  • What is Communion all about in the first place? Is it a ‘love feast’? A memorial? Is Christ present, and if so, how? Is it a means of receiving grace and forgiveness?

Some practical considerations:

  • People who can’t get to church (i.e. homebound, institutionalized, incarcerated, those with disabilities, etc)
  • What happens when public health concerns or natural disasters force people to stay home? My experience with online Communion was with a Disciples congregation dispersed across several states in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
  • Might participating in online church (and Communion) lead someone who otherwise would not go to church to eventually connect with a local congregation? Or does it keep people from coming to a brick-and-mortar church by aiming to replace it?
  • What about those whom the church has hurt? Or those from whom the church has distanced itself?

Theological considerations (beyond those surrounding Communion):

  • In most of the discussions I’ve seen, the predominant theological question seems to be “What is church?”
  • A less-discussed theological topic is “Where is God in this?”

Help me out here….what other questions should be in the mix?

I hope you’ll follow some of these links and read what others have written, and then come back and add your questions:

Rev. Thomas Madron’s site (click on the PDF link to read his paper in favor on online Communion…written from a Methodist perspective but still fairly relevant for Disciples) – a multi-site evangelical church that also offers an online worship experience, with Communion.

Newsweek’s Belief Watch: “Click in Remembrance of Me?

This post by John Saddington on Church Crunch, about Online Church, which includes several helpful links.

An interesting discussion in ChurchCrunch’s Forums

Not long ago, I posted my interview with Disciples theologian and author Rita Nakashima Brock, founder of Faith Voices for the Common Good and a member of the Axis of Friendship — a coalition of individuals and groups reaching out in solidarity with the people of Iran.

With the visit of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the U.N. this week and the ongoing concerns about its nuclear aims, the spotlight is once again on Iran, as it has been off and on since the highly-contested elections of this summer.

On Wednesday,  Brock and fellow Axis of Friendship member Amir Soltani had an opinion piece, “An Empty Roar from the Lion of Islam,” published as an op-ed in The Boston Globe.

In another article, published the same day on the Dog Canyon blog, Brock asks “What has Christianity to do with Iran?” and answers “A lot, it turns out.”   Her article there, “Iran and our Axis of Friendship,” is a fascinating look at the role of Persia (now Iran) in the world at the time of Jesus’ birth.

What are your thoughts on Iran, and on Ahmadinejad’s visit and speech?

Photo: darkensiva (Creative Commons license)

Photo: darkensiva (Creative Commons license)

There have been several humorous comparisons between church and Starbucks. If you haven’t seen the YouTube video, “What if the Starbucks Marketed Like the Church?” come back to this link after reading this post and check it out.

Now let’s turn it around. What if the church behaved more like Starbucks? What I’m suggesting has nothing to do with coffee…and everything to do with something called The Green Apron Book.

The Green Apron Book is a booklet that Starbucks gives its baristas. My stepdaughter worked at Starbucks for a while, and passed along the booklet. It outlines Starbucks mission: “To provide an uplifting experience that enriches people’s daily lives,” along with 5 Principles for doing exactly that:

1. Be Welcoming: Offer everyone a sense of belonging
2. Be Genuine: Connect, discover, respond
3. Be Knowledgeable: Love what you do. Share it with others.
4. Be Considerate: Take care of yourself, each other, and the environment.
5. Be Involved: In the store, in the company, and in the community.

Others, like Jeff Myers of the Slumdog Disciple blog, have already picked up on the notion that The Green Apron Book might have something to teach us about the experience we create for people (whether we claim that aspect of ‘church’ or ignore it). Darrin at the Hands and Feet 2.0 blog wrote a series of posts. Both Darrin and Jeff also mention the book, The Starbucks Experience by Joseph A. Michelli (McGraw Hill, 2006) for a more in-depth look at the 5 principles. But if you don’t want to go into that much depth, Jeff says The Green Apron Book is yours for the asking at Starbucks.

Here’s what I’d like to add. These 5 principles are a good guideline for Christians and churches when it comes to social media. Think about it. As Will Boyd of 3StoryChurch has pointed out in past posts like this one, there’s a lot more you can do on Twitter, Facebook, and other networks than just promote your programs, classes, sermons, and worship services.

We live in a world with abundant information. What people seem to be looking for are authentic, positive experiences. If your presence online and in the realm of social media is about creating that for them, even in small ways, they’ll be more likely to come to your website to see what else you have to offer.

And of course, follow through is important. If someone who connected with you or your church via social media shows up on Sunday morning, they should expect an in-person experience that matches the online presence. [For more on that, click the link to the YouTube video at the beginning of this post].

So how about it? Would you take a copy of The Green Apron Book to your next church board meeting, elder’s meeting, or small group discussion?

Photo: kkalyan (Creative Commons license)

Photo: kkalyan (Creative Commons license)

On September 12, 2001, thousands of people around the world lit candles in solidarity with the United States following the terrorist attacks of September 11.
Recently, the 2009 General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting the Axis of Friendship initiative encouraging Disciples to light a candle on September 12, and to hold services of candle-lighting and peacemaking in local churches. Disciples of Christ theologian, scholar and activist Rita Nakashima Brock, of Faith Voices for the Common Good, was a catalyst behind launching the Axis of Friendship in 2008. Brock is in London, but had an email conversation with Rebecca Bowman Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, this week.

Rebecca Bowman Woods: How did the Axis of Friendship begin?

Rita Nakashima Brock: Last July, Rev. Pat DeJong [senior minister] at First Congregational Church in Berkeley, Calif. (FCCB) and I met to discuss what we could do about the demonization of Iran, and HR 362 making its way through the House, which included a naval blockade against Iran, an act of war under international law. It was clear the US military was in trouble in Iraq, so starting a war with a country 3 times its size whose legally elected government the US overthrew in 1953 was of great concern to us.

We decided to meet with others in the East Bay we had worked with previously in trying to stop the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. At that meeting, I suggested that another war protest would not be news and we needed to include some Iranian Americans to create a strategy they could support. We invited leaders of the Iranian Student Association at Cal Berkeley, an organizer for Iranian voters in the South Bay, and a friend of mine, Amir Soltani, with whom I’d shared a Harvard connection and with whom begun to work on poverty in Oakland.

The Iranian Americans said no one from their communities would show up for a political protest (because of danger to their families and themselves, and disillusionment with such protests), but they love festivals. We decided to hold a US-Iran friendship festival in San Francisco’s Civic Center Plaza with food, music, art, and speakers, ending with taking children’s peace art to Nancy Pelosi’s office near the Plaza. We had the speakers first (nine leaders from various faiths and communities, plus a middle school group, which read peace poetry) and called a press conference (excerpts from the event are at

Faith Voices for the Common Good [which Brock founded] is the fiscal home for the Axis of Friendship, but a number of churches and organizations are part of the network that supports the work of it that joined together last summer.

RW: How did you settle on September 12 as the date?

RB: The first feasible date for the event last year, given all the political conventions that summer, was September 12, a Friday afternoon. Amir, who had worked as a journalist, pointed out that on that day in 2001, 10,000 people had stood with candles in the streets of Tehran in solidarity and sorrow with the tragedy of 9/11. So, our choice of date seemed ideal to point to the global friendship that emerged that day all over the world. After discussing what to call it, we settled on the Axis of Friendship. A Festival of Friendship seemed to vague and general and needed explaining. Whereas Axis of Friendship directly linked the festival to the aftermath of 9/11 and the invention of an “axis of evil” in January of 2002, which was used to launch “preemptive” wars of aggression.

We decided to hold a candle lighting vigil as the conclusion of our festival and invited other communities to do so. Both Chapman University’s church relations office and the community at Pilgrim Place in Claremont, Calif., decided to hold vigils, and our festival in San Francisco was very successful.

RW: Who was involved in writing and submitting resolutions to the Disciples’ General Assembly and the UCC’s General Synod in support of Axis of Friendship Day?

RB: In its aftermath, Pat, Amir, and I thought we needed to do further work on education about the people and country of Iran (Pat had visited Iran with the Fellowship of Reconciliation’s Iran program). Amir and I had written an op ed, published Sept 11 in the Boston Globe, about the Axis of Friendship, and Pat and I used it as a basis for creating a resolution to go to the United Church of Christ General Synod. She invited other churches to get involved.

I approached the Oakland congregation to see if we might do something similar with the General Assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ). They jumped on board with enthusiasm, so I invited DJAN [Disciples Justice Action Network] to provide some support. I also knew that Park Avenue Christian Church [in New York City] had a strong peace program, and they too supported the initiative and joined as another church sponsor of the resolution.

Amir, in the meantime, both became a member of our Faith Voices board and was recruited to become the operations director for Omid for Iran. We continue to work on ways to further the work of the Axis of Friendship.

We are pleased that both the UCC and Disciples passed resolutions in support of Axis of Friendship Day and will continue with ways to promote it in the future, including adding more organizational members. While we are currently focused on Iran, the Axis is not limited to friendship with Iran.

RW: Things have changed in Iran, and here in the US, since last year. Do you feel more hopeful that we can foster diplomatic relations with Iran, and avoid the alternative of conflict or war? And with Iran’s recent elections and the accusations over the outcome, what role can friendships and an Axis of Friendship play in making the voices of the people of Iran heard and in learning what’s happening there?

RB: One of our objectives last summer was to put a human face on Iran and to de-demonize its people (who were demonized during the hostage crisis under Carter). The aftermath of the June election fraud in Iran this summer did this. I think many Americans could identify with their struggle, after our own difficult elections. But the courage of the Iranian people who continue to work for democracy has its own amazing and inspiring power.

We hope via the Axis of Friendship to keep Iran in the U.S. public consciousness and to create new ways to develop people-to-people exchanges to other countries where people struggle for human rights and dignity, especially as opportunities develop via Global Ministries’ work in many such places.

RW: What else is important for people to know?

RB: I think there are many ways for Christians to promote peace. The work of overseas ministries is an underappreciated and underutilized avenue for positive work for peace. At the same time, we have an increasingly diverse society and amazing opportunities to strengthen the Axis of Friendship with people in our own regions. We need to be reaching out to Iraqis, Afghanis, and Iranians who are our neighbors, and befriending them.

I first came to appreciate Iran in college because of work I did in Biblical studies and the impact of Persia on Isaiah and on Christianity. Then over a decade ago I met an Iranian Muslim feminist in London, Roxanne Zand, who introduced me to feminist writings she translated and to modern Iranian artists she was supporting as an art curator. And, of course, I have learned a great deal from Amir and the Iranian Americans I have come to know in the East Bay.

Photo: StarMama (Creative Commons license)

Photo: StarMama (Creative Commons license)

I’m not known for being an optimist. In person, I can be a little sarcastic, ironic, and cynical — and the people who know me also know that’s part of who I am. They “get” me — at least I hope they do.

But in the realm of social media, I’m discovering, sarcasm sometimes doesn’t play as well. No one can see the arched eyebrow,or the quizzical look, or hear the inflection of irony in your voice. There’s no context – just your comment standing out there, all by its lonesome. Sometimes, it still works, but sometimes, it doesn’t.

Now, that doesn’t mean that you have to suddenly craft a whole new persona for Facebook and Twitter — one where your updates are nothing but “Chicken Soup” platitudes. As I wrote a couple of months ago, it’s important to be yourself on social media. But being yourself doesn’t mean typing the first remark or response that comes to mind.

One good bit of advice that I’ve seen floating around is to balance the negative or critical with at least 10 times more positive remarks, tweets, and updates. Social media can build up, support, encourage — but it can easily tear down, crush, and undermine. I don’t have any ready-made criteria for deciding to post something or not (if you do, please share it). Just stop, think — and if you change your mind, you can delete it.

Sometimes, just like in the ‘real world,’ an apology is in order too.

What do you think? How can we make social media a positive space? When is critique, irony, or negativity okay?


rbw square Rebecca Bowman Woods is news and website editor of DisciplesWorld.
You can follow her on Twitter.

Audrey Borschel, Disciples of Christ pastor and author

Audrey Borschel, Disciples of Christ pastor and author

Audrey Borschel is an ordained Disciples of Christ minister, and the author of Preaching Prophetically When the News Disturbs: Interpreting the Media (Chalice Press, 2009) During the upcoming General Assembly, she’ll lead a resource group on Saturday, August 1 from 3:45 to 5:15 p.m.

Rebecca Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, spoke with Audrey in late May.

RW: So what will you be talking about during the resource group?

AB: The focus will be on media literacy — helping people to understand how the news is produced, how stories are framed, how biases creep in inadvertently, and what gets left out. We need some tools to understand this, and to get a bigger picture.

Here’s a good example — I agreed to be a community blogger for the Indianapolis Star. I’d been doing this for a couple of months, and I noticed one story they ran about recycling. It said that three percent of our stuff in Indianapolis gets recycled, while in other places, it’s 30 percent. They quoted Mother Jones [magazine] and called it a ‘progressive liberal’ magazine. So I went to the source, and I found out they [the Star] were quoting a waste management newsletter that Mother Jones had quoted in full.

RW: So there was a difference between the information the newspaper presented, and how Mother Jones presented it?

AB: Yes. We almost have to be investigative journalists….And then it gets into the definition of ‘political’ — a term that’s misused so much.

Everything is political, if you think about it. The case for Jesus’ ministry was overtly political. He wanted to evoke change among the people and he wanted people to continue that change. In our society — a democratic society — it’s all about this.

RW: Do you find that people in congregations want to hear about things that are perceived as ‘political,’ or do they want to avoid the subject?

AB: As far as people coming to church and what they expect, I’ve heard it both ways. In one congregation I was accused of being too political. I realized that I needed to do more educating. In other places, I’ve found that people really thirst for connecting the world and their faith. They wonder where the nexus is between the faith and culture.

As far as awakening a congregation to social justice issues — it’s not so difficult if people understand that social justice is all over the gospel.

RW: Your book is about preaching. What do you see in today’s preaching that causes you to be concerned?

Complacency and fear. Those are two instances when preachers don’t attend to the task of bringing the scriptures to life, and engaging the people actively — helping them think about the scriptures and the relationship to their way of living.

And a lot of preachers will stay away from the big news stories, even though they intersect really well with the scriptures. On the other hand there are people who are fearless, and if they see that something needs to be said, they’ll go ahead and say it.

RW: Are some clergy worried about the legalities of preaching on social justice issues?

AB: There’s probably some confusion — about the IRS, about the First Amendment — I cover this in a section of the book. Once people know that clergy are free to speak on many subjects and once people know what they can’t do — that should help some of the pastors who would like to preach on justice issues.

RW: Do Disciples have any particular challenges?

AB: One of the challenges, among Disciples, is in identifying the audience. Even though we purport to be pretty progressive, there are many congregations that haven’t had the exposure to a lot of the conversations that others of us have had. Because of that, they don’t have the background to understand some of the material that a preacher who might be an activist would try to convey.

Take Jeremiah Wright. That was obviously an example where a little sound bite caused terrible commotion and harm. My advice is to hear the entire story, and if it’s visual, then hear and watch the entire thing and understand the context. It’s all about context. When I saw [Wright’s] preaching, I could understand [his comments] because I understand the context of black preaching and theology.

The same for Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. From the get go, I knew people would cherry pick her ‘wise Latina’ comment about making decisions at the appellate level. But we need to be able to look for context.

RW: Do you think most journalists would prefer a media literate audience? Are there some who perpetuate media illiteracy?

AB: I’m not sure that journalists don’t want people to be media literate. I might question some of the radio personalities or blog commentators who are so biased that they want their point of view to be the dominant one.

But in my book, there’s a chapter about op-ed writers. There is a lot we can learn from op-ed writers when we compose our preaching. The way that some of the commentators use images and structure, cinema, all kinds of things — it’s great. And they want to be understood.

I haven’t really become cynical through this process of learning and teaching media literacy, but I do tend to look at some news stories and wonder, what are the facts, what’s missing, and why are they framing it in this particular way?

RW: What about blogs?

AB: As a blogger, I’m well aware that bloggers are criticized for being inaccurate. Some of them do misuse information. For example, using e-mails as source of information can be misleading.

RW: How did you become interested in media literacy?

AB: When I was doctoral student at the Aquinas Institute of Theology, somehow I had this idea about the intersection between preaching and ‘disturbing’ news, and about doing theological reflection on the news. An advisor hooked me up with someone who had done a lot of work with the news. The framework for my doctoral thesis was media literacy for preachers.

RW: What will people learn by coming to your resource group during General Assembly?

AB: I’ll be trying to lay the groundwork for why [media literacy] is important. I will be giving some of the tools for media literacy — how to identify pieces of stories, for example. We’ll discuss the different types of news media, so that people see that there’s a variety of print and electronic sources, not only newspapers. I want to make people aware of how they get the news, and how the new sources of news can be intimidating, and sometimes misleading.

They’ll also gain insights that will be helpful not only for preaching but for pastoral care. When we do preaching, we are doing mass pastoral care from the pulpit. If there’s a crisis for the community, preaching on it can be a way to help people understand the relationship between their faith and the events that happen around them. There are great pastoral implications for it.


Audrey Borschel’s book, Preaching Prophetically When the News Disturbs, is available through Chalice Press. She will be doing a book signing right after the August 1 Resource Group. Audrey is also a member of The Intersection.

Jason Byassee

Jason Byassee

Jason Byassee is a former assistant editor with Christian Century and currently executive director of Leadership Education at Duke Divinity School. He writes for and edits Duke’s Faith and Leadership online journal and its “Call and Response” blog. He earned his master of divinity and doctorate degrees from Duke.

At the Disciples’ upcoming General Assembly in Indianapolis, Jason will share his advice on writing theologically for a broad audience during a resource group on Theology and Writing, on Friday, July 31 from 2:00 to 3:30 p.m.

Rebecca Woods, DisciplesWorld news and website editor, spoke with Jason Byassee in June.

RW: So you’re leading a General Assembly resource group on theology and writing. What will you cover?

JB: I’ll encourage pastors and others to think about themselves as writers. It’s not hard [at least for pastors] because every pastor is already writing sermons. But I want to encourage them to think about having a more expansive audience.

Many pastors write for their church newsletters. I suggest that they do this with as much care as they take with their sermons; and from there, to consider writing for a broader audience — religious publications and secular settings.

This has been made easier because of the Internet, but it’s harder than ever to make any money at it. So…there’s not necessarily a reward for this type of writing. It has to be seen as part of a pastoral lifestyle.

The question isn’t whether a pastor is going to be a writer…it’s the kind of care that they’re going to take in writing. And not only every pastor, but every Christian. Writing is a way of transforming feeling into thought.

RW: How does this type of writing fit into the pastor’s role?

JB: I’m convinced that this kind of broader writing changes the way a congregation views its pastor. I remember when my own pastor started publishing. Suddenly he had a new authority — I listened to him with a different set of ears.

Some may think, if you do that kind of broader writing, it takes away from the local parish. It may do that in the short run, but in the long run, it changes the way people listen.

RW: What sources from the Christian tradition do you draw on to make your case for pastor-as-writer?

JB: I really love some of the sources from the ancient church, about learning how to discern Christ in surprising places, and learning how to pay attention to Jesus in strange forms. I draw on a number of ancient and modern sources — from Simone Weil and Annie Dillard, to Augustine and the Desert Fathers.

RW: So what are some of the obstacles to writing that pastors face?

JB: There’s something every writer has to get over — the discipline of clearing space to write regularly. Because as important as it is, it isn’t urgent. Nobody is saying “You have to get this to me by Thursday.” So you have to clear space for it, even though nobody can see what you‘re doing. Later they may see the value, but maybe not right away.

And then there’s the mystification of the publishing process. I want them to know that people on ‘that side of the curtain’ are always looking for newer and better writers. And pastors are involved in things we editors can’t see. They’re involved in day-to-day things that we want to honor.

The tasks that go along with being a pastor contribute to being a writer. For example, noticing is a kind of pastoral activity. Noticing is also a crucial writing activity. I’m fascinated by the overlap.

Also, being a writer is not just about publishing your sermons. Often sermons don’t translate well to print. There are ambiguities [in sermons]…it can be done, but it has to be done with real care.

RW: How did you become interested in helping pastors to develop as writers?

JB: I was doing doctoral work, and I was frustrated. I wasn’t sure if I dropped dead that anyone would notice. I couldn’t figure out how I was helping anyone.

Then I became a local pastor. I was pastoring a rural church in North Carolina with about 80 people in it. And I knew that whatever else I might do during the week, I had done something on Sunday that mattered.

So I had this desire to be in between academia and pastoral work. At the Christian Century, I could pay attention to what was going on in the academy, but I could also pay attention on behalf of pastors.

RW: How did you end up working at the Christian Century?

JB: I was at a conference and the editor of the Century told me he was having a hard time getting people to write about movies. So I started there, and then the job came up [as assistant editor] and they hired me. Even when I was writing for them from the parish, I would never have thought it would become a job. Yet, I worked for the Century from 2004 to 2008, and I’m still a contributing editor there.

RW: So why did you move on to what you’re doing now?

JB: What led me back to Duke? While at the Century, I was adjunct teaching. I was thinking about how the academy is good at saying, “Here’s something new that you weren’t already thinking about,”…and asking critical questions about it. I did a lot of thinking about the distance between the academy and the parish.

And at the Century, I reviewed other people’s stuff. In a sense, I passed grades on it. [Christian writer] Andy Crouch, in his book Culture Making, says Christians shouldn’t be just evaluating other people’s creative works, they should be creating their own.

So I’m back at Duke, and I get to teach the kind of writing that I do. Really, there’s not a big emphasis on this kind of writing in most places in theological education. And Duke is the place that taught me to care about this stuff… [professors and writers] Lauren Winner, David Steinmetz, and Greg Jones are now my colleagues.

I also have a minor administrative post called special assistant to the dean. In an informal role, I am advising students and faculty on how to publish more broadly.

And I’m editing this new website at the Divinity School. We call it a publication — Faith and Leadership magazine.

RW: What was the first thing you ever wrote that was published?

JB: It was a piece on Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose-Driven Life, published in the Christian Century back in 2003.

RW: What are you working on now?

JB: I have a book coming out next year. It’s about the theology of the small church, and Abingdon is the publisher. It’s partly theology, and partly rooted in the pastoral experiences I had in the small church. It’s tentatively called The Gift of the Small Church.

RW: Any advice for writers?

JB: You’ve got to read what you want to write. There’s a famous writing book — Reading Like a Writer. There’s a great deal of overlap between reading and the writing life.

RW: So what are you reading?

JB: I’ve spent some time lately with a book by Christine Pohl — Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition. And there’s a new book by David Hart, called Atheist Delusions. And Dana Robert’s Christian Mission: How Christianity Became a World Religion.

I’ve also been reading a novel called Cutting for Stone, by Abraham Verghese, about a mission hospital in Ethiopia. It’s about a family’s life serving in this place.

RW: Do you have a favorite writer?

JB: Flannery O’Connor is probably my favorite author, from the 20th century. Augustine is the great one for all time.

Paul Elie’s The Life You Save May Be Your Own is another good one.

I like paying attention to people who are sort of writing not on their home field — theological writers who are writing in some other vein. For example, David Steinmetz writes editorials in places like USA Today.

I like Marilynne Robinson, her novels and essays. And Andy Crouch — I stop what I’m doing when I see his name.


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