Thursday, December 31, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era, Part II

Oral Roberts Crusade Poster from 1957

Oral Roberts, among others, pioneered a "new" media (TV) of their day as a vehicle for spreading a message of miracles that proceed from a good God along with Oral's popular notions of Seed Faith. By this means, the former tent revivalist had extended his reach far beyond the canvas of a tent or even the concrete of a large auditorium to an audience that never had to leave their homes to hear and see him in action. Of course, other preachers and religious personalities were also experimenting with TV's promise and pitfalls. Each of them brought their own twist and carved out their own audiences. Meanwhile, the next generation of TV preachers such as Joel Osteen and T.D. Jakes watched and learned.

But TV ministry is expensive. Getting viewers to underwrite the broadcasts requires a constant flow of giving which, in turn, demands a message that will constantly delight an audience rather than confront it. Television ministries, therefore, perfected their "product": inspiration.

All of this was not lost upon churches that wanted to grow large. Even if they were not broadcasting their services, they found their own ways to keep the inspiration flowing and the confrontation at a minimum. "Old school" sermons turned into inspirational sermonettes with testimonials and contemporary MOR music filling out the mix. It was Oral Roberts and others whoe pioneered this shift from the televised "crusade" to the religious variety or talk show format. Compared to a televised Billy Graham crusade -- or even the old days of Oral Robert's televised miracle services -- these programs were far more in keeping with the broader sensibilities of the culture. While it is true that Dr. Graham was still getting away with preaching a longer message with a confrontational "make a decision for Christ" challenge at the end, it must be remembered that he didn't have to keep a weekly TV show on the air!

But, once again, the revolution in the delivery of information is changing things and will, no doubt, continue to powerfully redefine the communication of Christian messages and values. The monopoly of old-fashioned broadcast TV with its several channels -- the medium that supported Oral Roberts and other TV preachers of his time -- has been replaced by cable, satellite, internet and the other Tweets and Tubes of our times. If you are reading blogs like this one, then I don't need to tell you about the power and variety of today's communication technology. Oral Roberts lived to see this revolution begin, but neither he or any of us now living can truly imagine where things will go from here. A long time ago, the printing press changed the world, and we are still living out the implications of that fact. But now we are living in a day when everyone's last name can be Guttenberg. What will that mean 200 years from now (should the Lord delay His return!)?

I recently learned of the 25 year old San Francisco Bay Area resident, Austin Heap, who figured that the world out to know what was going on in Iran in the days following their last (rigged?) election. When he found out that the authorities were blocking the abilities of the people to Twitter out footage and reports, he cobbled together something called "Haystack" which allowed the people in the streets to get around the government chokehold. What kind of a communications environment are we in when a young man in his mid-twenties can get the drop on both the government of a pretty large country and CNN? What will this mean to the propogation of the gospel and the spread of the church? I'm not sure. But it might just represent the same kind of leap that Oral Roberts made when he traded his tents for a TV studio and, in his own way, changed the world.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Oral Roberts and the End of an Era

In mid-December, noteworthy evangelist Oral Roberts died at age 91. For many people, Oral was a sort of quirky has-been -- a relic of America's tent revival past who traded up for TV cameras and a pioneering role as one of his generation's very first "televangelists". Of course, there is a respectable University in Tulsa that bears his name, but even ORU has had to come up with ways to survive some of its founders controversial statements and actions over the years.

So now Oral is gone and no one (trust me on this) is going to replace him. My confidence in that statement can be explained by the simple truth that Oral Roberts was a product of his times and times, as they say, have changed. But lost in the shuffle of the story of the stuttering boy from Bebee, Oklahoma who claims to have been healed by God of his own tuberculosis at age 17 is the reality that Oral Roberts changed his world, especially the Christian world of his time, even as it changed him. Several of these shifts were nothing short of revolutionary while others were merely remarkable.

For one thing, Jack Hayford (among others) points out that Oral Roberts -- the classical Pentecostal healing evangelist and tent preacher -- was a key figure in paving the way for the charismatic ministry of the Holy Spirit to overflow into the mainline Protestant denominations. Rev. Roberts' decision to join the United Methodist Church in 1968 shocked many of his oldline Pentecostal contemporaries, not to mention quite a few Methodists. For decades, classical Pentecostalism had been treated as the embarassing bumpkin cousin of the mainstream denominations by the leaders and adherents of those church systems. With the undeniably influential Roberts' crossover affiliation, the lines were blurred and the rules were changed. The rest, as they say, is history.

Oral was also visionary about his use of media -- especially television in its early days. While many preachers had been broadcasting services and sermons on the radio for decades, Oral Roberts boldly brought cameras into his healing miracle services so, as he said, people could witness the miracles for themselves. This move changed everything from television broadcasting itself (the first "reality" shows?) to American religious practice and perception. It changed Oral, too. The "new" televangelist Roberts consistently preached the message that "something good is going to happen to you" thanks to the faith promises of a "good God" who wanted nothing but "good things" for the viewers.

It was a message that was free of both fundamentalist pronouncements of impending hellfire and liberal doubts about Scripture and the historical Jesus. American viewers quickly got the message that there was a new, positive gospel in town and that was far more "inspirational" than the stuff preached in their churches. The brief, dramatic testimonies and seed faith promises on the tube opened up a new outlet and the ministry marketplace was suddenly born again. Now there was a whole new level of competition for people's time, attention and money! Once the dust began to settle it was clear that churches, broadcast media, evangelists and consumers of religious teaching would all come a long way from where they started.

Space does not permit me to continue to name all the changes Oral and his kind made in the religious landscape of their generation. However, I feel it is more important to hold up their accomplishments to the white hot light of the present times to see what shines through, what burns up and what blocks out the light altogether. That is what I will do in my next post.

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

U2 Speaks on the Price of Originality

Starting into "U2: At the End of the World" by Bill Flannagan and I thought these thoughts of Bono's on their originality were worth repeating (something one cannot always say about Bono and his thoughts on every subject known to man). In this case, he actually knows what he is talking about. Oh, and by the way, in case you didn't know, Bono has, ummm, potty mouth and so I took the liberty of quoting him without spelling out the expletives...

"U2 are the world's worst wedding band... For instance, we were always jealous of the fact that we never knew anyone else's songs. That started a lot of B sides where we did cover versions and tried to get into the structure of songwriting vicariously and than apply it. This is a band that's one of the biggest acts in the world, and we know *#%&@@! in terms of what most musicians would consider to be important. 'Cause all of these bands, including this new crop, have all played in bar bands, they're all well versed in rock & roll structure -- which is also why they're all so well versed in rock & roll cliches."

Something about that statement grabs me in that it hints at the cost of originality. While there is nothing new or admirable about being original and unsuccessful, boring or pretentious, I admit that I am attracted to those who are original and, somehow, widely appreciated, successful and continuously innovative. Bono continues:

"Imitation and creation are opposites. The imitative spirit is very different from the creative spirit, which is not to say that we all don't beg, steal, and borrow from everybody, but if the synthesis of it all is not an original spirit, it's unimportant".

I think the last word, "unimportant", is the most powerful one in his entire statement. We live in an age that is overflowing with entertainment, political posturing, religious activity, economic ebb and flow and information overload. However, it strikes me that so much of this is "unimportant". So much will blow away in the wind. Including this post, but try to enjoy it anyway.

There's a price to originiality -- a risk that cannot be calculated in advance. One must synthesize, wade in, collaborate, offer up the result and hope that it stands the test. Today, I thank God for those who are willing to pay the price and share the results.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

How the Israeli Army Can Really Help the Chuch

Newsweek's feature on the phenomenal number of Israeli Nasdaq companies (Nov. 23, 2009) credits the Israeli Army for its role in contributing to the rampant innovation and ongoing success of Israeli entrepreneurs. I was struck by the fact that nearly everything in the article has profound implications for the Church in our time. Here are a few things that stood out to me:

The article poses the question: "How does Israel attract, per person, 30 times as much venture capital as Europe and more than twice the flow to American companies? How does it produce, for its size, the most cutting-edge technology startups in the world?"

The answer the writer poses credits, in part: "...the Israeli military's role in breaking down hierarchies and -serendipitously- becoming a boot camp for new tech entrepreneurs".

The stated mission of Vineyard at Home, our house church network, is to "empower everyday people to take the ministry of Jesus to everyday place". One of the fundamental components of such empowerment is to break down a rigid church hierarchy in order to equip believers to truly own the ministry themselves. While spiritual authority is a reality, it is evident that it is also fluid -- defined by mission and the requirements of servanthood -- as Jesus kept reminding His disciples (Mark 10:44).

The article continues:

"Innovation" is hardly the first word most people associate with the military. "improvisation" is even less likely to come to mind. And "flat" -- as in anti-hierarchical and informal -- would be completely counterintuitive. Yet these are exactly the attributes that employers have come to expect from young people emerging from their stint in the Israeli Defense Force."

Do our churches, seminaries and other ministry training environments empower innovation and improvisation or are they, by and large, bounded by traditional hierarchical modalities that feature a limit number of "job descriptions" within a top-down system? The article continues...

"Talk to an Israeli Air Force pilot and you will see why. "If most air forces are designed like a Formula One race car, the Israeli Air Force is a beat-up jeep with a lot of tools in it".

Most churches would be ashamed to describe themselves as "beat-up jeeps" loaded with tools rather than svelte and fine-tuned systems. But I am convinced that the mission of God needs more and more "jeeps" in our day if we are to break out of the missional quagmire.

"In the Israeli system, almost every aircraft is a jack-of-all-trades", the article continues: "You do it yourself," one pilot noted. "It's not as effective (as the complex American-style waves of air infiltration), but it's a hell of a lot more flexible".

Israeli soldiers, battling for the very survival of their tiny nation, appreciate flexibility, innovation, seat-of-the-pants decision making and broad-based empowerment given the fact that they will never outnumber or intimidate their enemies by sheer force. Is this not the position the church finds itself in, in these times? We are in need, it seems to me, of modes of empowerment that keep simple and focused ministry outreach and discipleship rolling out. We tried grasping after all the levers of power in American society and that strategy failed us. Maybe its time to move the ministry of Jesus into the everyday, grassroots, real-time/real-life quadrants of society.

The article goes on to describe the IDF as "a unique space within Israeli society where young men and women work closely and intensely with peers from different cultural, socioeconomic, and religious backgrounds. A young Jew from Ethiopia, the son of an Iranian immigrant, a native-born Israeli from a swanky Tel Aviv suburb, and a kibbutznik from a farming family might all meet in the same unit".

Bonds forged under such conditions create relationships that transcend the normal comforts of social compartmentalization. Danger, mission and active duty forge new alliances. The learning curve is high and the price of failure unthinkable. Is this the attitude we have in our churches? Or have we settled for them to function more as social clubs that gather homogeneous pods of people together in their quest to hide away from all the ugly stuff "out there" in the world?

The article describes the unique and remarkable way these military associations, experiences and disciplines affect reservists as they return to working society. "Rank is almost meaningless in the reserves," he (a lawyer quoted by the writer) says. 'A private will tell a general in an exercise, 'You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way.'"

Do our "generals" in the church work closely with the "privates" in the rank and file in order to maximize the impact of our gospel calling? Are our generals truly and available and open to feedback from the "troops" along the lines of "You are doing this wrong; you should do it this way"? What would happen if we truly opened the feedback loops and ownership of ministry resources (time, talent, treasure) to "the ranks"? Has this not been the net effect of reformation and revival movements of past times? Do we really need to wait for the crisis to reach so high of a peak before we reconsider what we are really structured for in the Western church?

"Israeli soldiers are not defined by rank: they are defined by what they are good at." Now there's a notion the church might do well to embrace!

"Innovation often depends on having different perspective. Perspective comes from experience. Real experience also typically comes with age or maturity. But in Israel, you get experience, perspective, and maturity at a younger age, because the society jams in so many transformative experiences when its citizens are 18 to 21 years old. By the time they get to college, their heads are in a different place than those of their American counterparts."

Lots to think about and, better yet, incorporate into our present day philosophies of ministry, mission and church structure -- wouldn't you agree?

The article continues:

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bill's "Best Of 2009" List

Okay, I lied. This is not really a "best of" list because "best" is so subjective. I'm officially calling it my "stuff I talked most about" list instead. The criteria is simply that it had to be something I personally experienced. So, here goes:

Most Talked About Musical Group: Fleet Foxes

Love these guys from Seattle. Can't get enough.

Most Talked About Theatrical Release:

It Might Get Loud (already blogged about it if you wanna look it up)

Most Talked About City:

Tie between: Seattle/Bellingham, WA

What a wonderful, beautiful, engaging and charming part of our wonderful country

Most Talked About Live Sports Event:

Watching the LA Galaxy (with Mr. Beckham) play in Los Angeles -- who knew live soccer could be so fun?

Most Talked About Musical or Theatrical Event:

I only went to one live Theatrical event (A Christmas Carol at SCR - last weekend!) so it wins and I don't think I went to any live music concerts this year -- but Robin and I got tickets for U2 next June.

Most Talked About DVD - re-watched category:

This is tough, but it is either Lars and the Real Girl or, possibly, The Fall.

Most Talked About DVD - first-time viewing category:

Probably "In Session" season one (blogged about that already, too).

Most Talked About Commentator, Radio Category -

Dennis Praeger, per usual.

Most Talked About Commentator, Print Category -

Mark Steyn. What a snappy, witty writer.

Most Talked About Guilty Pleasure:

Watching UFC bouts. There, I said it.

Most Talked About Personal Spiritual Experience:

The Miraculous "Skunkworks" Mug

Most Talked About Pipe Tobacco -

Tobacco Barn's lovely Ebony Gold blend

Most Talked About Accomplishment -

Tie between the rapid rise of my pastoral counseling practice and Robin's amazing graduation and hiring at Biola.

Most Talked About Book:

"How Healed Do You Want to Be". Duh.