Monthly Archives: August 2015

The Minority Status DNA of the Church

At the present time, do you think religion as a whole is increasing its influence on American life or losing its influence?                                                                                   – Gallup Poll question

Religion is losing influence in American society, according to 77 percent of those recently polled by Gallup. It’s not the first time Americans have been pessimistic about religion’s influence upon society. Gallup started polling on this question in 1957. At the height the Vietnam War in 1970, 75 percent of those polled answered the above question in the negative. During the 1990s, those answering “religion is losing influence” hovered near 60 percent. It was only after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 that increasing influence numbers outpaced losing influence numbers. That positive bump only lasted two years, however.

Could this losing influence trend reverse itself in the future? Absolutely.

Contrary to what the Gallup poll might suggest, the church in America is not in the process of dying. As of 2014, 70 percent of Americans claim Christian affiliation, a clear majority. Not all of these, however, regularly participate in the life of a gathering faith community. According to the Pew Research Center, Catholics and mainline Protestants are currently losing significant numbers of adherents, while the category grouping “unaffiliated” or “none” (many of these young adults) conversely grows – now at 23 percent, nearly one in four Americans.

As a pastor in a mainline denomination (ELCA) that is suffering numerical decline, I proclaim that the wane of religious influence and participation is not the worst thing that could happen. As I’ll explain, it’s a potentially good situation.

For the first 300 years of its life, the Christian church was a minority status organization. The apostle Paul described the believers in the church of Corinth as not measuring up to elevated human standards of wisdom, influence, or nobility. Even so, this small and obscure organization – the gathering community in Corinth being one example – maintained vitality. Its founding DNA, if you will, was infused with an ability to thrive in difficult circumstances.

early church

Roman Emperor Constantine gave his blessing upon the church in 325 CE, thus enabling it to (eventually) grow into what most American Christians know the church as – a majority status institution. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a majority status institution, but care must be taken that corruptions, entitlements, and ineffectiveness don’t infiltrate the institution and desecrate its mission. The American auto industry of the 1970s and ’80s is a prime example – remember the Plymouth Volare and the AMC Pacer? These inferior models, indirectly, helped make the way for the Honda Accord and Toyota Camry – significantly better automobiles, and from foreign manufacturers.

Like the US auto industry, the American church is not what it used to be. In the 1950s and early ’60s, social pressures dictated that respectable citizens be church members; church attendance numbers crested. The pendulum has now swung decisively in the other direction, as attributed by the growing number of “nones” or religiously unaffiliated, and shrinking church memberships.

It’s quite possible that the church is in the process of becoming leaner and more focused. The pendulum has swung far enough to the other side that churches no longer need to try to measure up to what used to be. Our numbers aren’t what they used to be a generation or two ago? So be it! Biggest is not always best. Infused into our organizational DNA is the ability to thrive as a minority institution.

The 21st century could be a time of clarified mission for a number of our churches. Mission that includes cooperation with peoples of differing faith traditions on topics of common interest: compassionate service to the human family for the advancement of common good; an impassioned voice for justice when the economy unfairly rewards the advantaged at the expense of the disadvantaged; the promotion of peace in the face of war. And all these things done in the name of that which we hold to be holy.

When peoples of differing religions operate together in this fashion, positive religious societal influence will proliferate and the world will be a better place because of it.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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Water’s Lesson – The Future Favors Development, not Growth

Third in a series of blog posts on water. Click here for first, second.

A Google search on economic growth yields 65 million results – double that of a search on economic development. Whereas politicians and pundits tout economic growth as the panacea of all that ails us, economic development is the way of the future (and present).

What’s the difference between growth and development? It’s not just semantics, but the difference between 10-11 billion people surviving on one planet or having to look for two to three other planets in order to support lifestyles that are hyper-exhaustive of resources and waste sinks. Whereas growth tends to push aside all other considerations for the sake of bigger and more, development is built upon efficiencies and accepts the reality of limits.

Water1As I said in my first blog post on the irreplaceable and life-enabling resource of water, the freshwater supply on Earth is completely stable, having arrived here some 4.4 billion years ago. We have what we have: we can’t order any new supplies of water on Amazon, nor can we expect China to manufacture new supplies. As population continues to increase (currently 7 billion and projected to be 10-11 billion by 2100), the fresh water that exists will have to be shared. Desalination has become a somewhat cheaper process than it used to be, but its overall yield is minimal. Saudi Arabia and Israel – situated in desert climes – benefit from desalination. But for Americans, surrounded by rivers and lakes, desal is not a great solution.

Charles Fishman’s excellent book, The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), shows over and again that conservation and decreased use of water IS compatible with economic development. Have you been to Las Vegas lately? The desired destination in the desert gets most of its drinking water from Lake Mead, the big pool of water from the Colorado River that sits behind the Hoover Dam. Vegas gets all of four inches of rain annually. The past twenty-five years, as Lake Mead’s levels have plunged due to drought, Las Vegas has been very intentional about its water consumption. Vegas’ water consumption per capita has decreased more than 30 percent since 1990. Yes, its many golf courses and hotel water fountains betray an extravagant use of water, but Las Vegans have adopted a new mindset: conservation of water is the new normal.

Let’s be honest. Conservation goes against what many Americans have grown accustomed to: wanting what we want (now) without having to accept anything less. It’s all part of the just a little bit more spirit. But, alas, all is not lost. We Americans are an adaptable bunch . . .

According to Fishman, American industry leads the way on smart water usage and conservation. Campbell Soup uses less water today to produce a can of soup than it did five years ago. Coca-Cola, Intel, Monsanto, IBM, and GE have this in common: these corporations realize water availability is limited and are doing (and planning to do) what they can to get by with less water. Their present and future vitality – continued economic development – depends upon water use efficiencies.

Are there any purple water pipes in your neighborhood? Purple pipes signify the presence of reclaimed water or treated wastewater. Some cities in California, Texas, and Florida are saving on potable water via increased use of reclaimed water. Is it really necessary to flush our toilets with potable (drinking) water? In the future when our grandchildren’s generation looks back to review our water habits of today, potable water in toilets will be deemed wasteful (even though appreciated by a number of our dogs). Soon enough watering lawns and plants with drinking water will also be a thing of the past – as will be many of those lawns.

Water is the new oil. The sooner we treat both resources as precious, limited, and belonging to the whole human family – including those coming after us – the better. Economic development, smart and efficient, with a nod to conservation is the only economic activity that will survive as this century goes forward. Our understanding of water is now permanently altered due to climate change-induced drought and population growth. The crucial issue of water use deserves our very best attention and innovative thinking as we go forward.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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A Toast to Clean Water

(Second in a series – click here for “Water – The Ultimate Fixed Asset.”)

Making homebrew – far and away my favorite hobby of all time.* When my brother Matt shared one of his first batches of homebrew – a smooth weissbier(wheat ale) – I was hooked. I brewed for seven years or so during the 1990s. My favorite concoction was a Cranberry Wheat; I would make it in November as soon as fresh cranberries appeared in the produce section of the grocery store. Charlie Papazian’s 1984 tome, The Complete Joy of Home Brewing, served as my brew bible. I’m not the only one who can say so: Papazian’s book has sold close to 1 million copies. Take that, macro brews Bud/Miller/Coors (known as “yucky beer” in the Anderson household). Long live micro and home brews!

homebrew

Cranberry Wheat – Houston, TX 1996 — Floral Design Wallpaper – looks like circa 1981?!

No offense intended to my friends who make their own wine. Making homebrew and wine are very similar in process – carboys, fermenting bubblers, specific gravity readings. But the end results are markedly different. A home vintner can ferment something decent, but rarely superior to the category of $10-12 bottles at the wine store. (Home vintners can create unique beverages not found anywhere else, however.) Home brewers on the other hand, consistently kick macros’ asses and can make stuff just as good as the American craft and quality import beers offered commercially.

The great reformer of the 16th century church, Martin Luther, famously enjoyed the homebrew made by his wife, Katharina von Bora. At that time, beer was available for sale (the 1516 Reinheitsgebot law dictated that beer be made only from water, barley, hops and yeast), but homebrew rivaled commercial beer production in quantity and quality. Luther lamented times of travel when he found himself in places where good beer was scarce; he pined to return home: “What good wine and beer I have at home, and also a beautiful lady.”

If you’re a homebrewer, undoubtedly you’ve heard the following narrative: beer, its alcohol content killing the impurities in the water, saved our medieval ancestors from peril and disease caused by drinking contaminated water. It sounds nice – especially to a homebrewer – but it’s mostly the stuff of legend. Many have died through the ages from waterborne diseases like cholera and dysentery, but it’s been clean water, not beer or wine, that ultimately allows for our collective gene pool to perpetuate.

Charles Fishman, in his excellent book on present and future predicaments related to water, The Big Thirst (Free Press, 2011), argues that our attitudes and assumptions about water need to change. Close to 1 billion people in the world lack ready access to reliably clean water. Meanwhile in the developed nations of the world, bottled water is one of the biggest growth markets of the last generation. Both the pros and cons of bottled water are well-known: bottled water is perceived to be safer than tap water in municipalities that have not updated aging distribution pipes; bottled water is a healthier option than sugary sodas; yet, the production of billions of plastic water bottles is an inefficient use of resources and a prolific begetter of pollution; and, the cost of bottled water, incredibly, is higher than milk or gasoline.

In my previous blog post on water, I expound on Fishman’s crowning of the twentieth century as the golden age of water, wherein the availability of potable water – “unlimited, free, and safe” – consequently became taken for granted. Fishman calls the business of bottled water “the final flowering” of the golden age of water. Stop by a quick mart store in Anytown, America and gaze through the glass refrigerator doors to see rows of bottled water available from the French Alps, the Italian Alps, Germany, and Fiji. Yes, Fiji, where more than half of residents do not have access to reliably clean drinking water. “A silly triumph for capitalism . . . the market has created very persuasive solutions for water problems that don’t exist, while failing to find any solutions for real water problems” (p. 137).

Fishman reminds his readers that all water problems are local and regional, and their solutions must be local and regional. Even so, with increasing global population (and an unchanging amount of fresh water available), more people worldwide moving into the middle class (and thus using more water), factories spreading to developing nations (using much more water), and the advance of climate change (more regions of the world affected by drought), our attitudes about water need to change significantly. By 2050, it’s possible that 2 billion people worldwide will not have ready access to reliably clean water.

Water issues and problems will predominate into the twenty-first century. The next time you raise a glass – beer, wine, or water – give thanks for what you have and be not afraid to change your attitudes about water. The survival of the human family, no less, depends upon it.

 

The next blog post continues this series on water and concerns specific changes needed in attitudes about water and related practices.

*Those who know me might think golf is my fave hobby of all time. In my world, golf is best categorized as an obsession – a healthy one, of course.

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be politically hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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