Millions of churchgoers nationwide care about the future of their communities. And, millions of “Nones”—people who tell pollsters they have no religious affiliation—are searching for spiritual pathways that make sense to them. Whichever side of that divide you call home—you should meet Doug Pagitt, a pastoral pioneer trying to forge new connections in our communities coast to coast.
The terms to describe what Pagitt and his influential friends are trying to accomplish are as diverse as their approaches: Emergence, Convergence, Reformation and Blue Ocean are several of the common terms this year. Famous names include Rob Bell, Brian McLaren, Diana Butler Bass, Ken Wilson, David Gushee, Peter Rollins and Phyllis Tickle. (For the names of more cutting-edge writers see the “Stay Tuned” note at the end of this interview.)
Collectively, their work sometimes is described as a “movement,” but at this point it really is a growing community of communities—a network of networks.
The surprising truth is this: Americans already are far more united than most of us imagine and these visionaries are inviting men and women from diverse religious backgrounds to take that truth seriously. As Pagitt writes in his new book, there is far more that unites us than divides us. (You may be asking: Could Americans actually be united in our values? That’s the conclusion of years of research by University of Michigan sociologist Dr. Wayne Baker, reported in his book United America, for which Brian McLaren wrote the Preface.)
To learn more about this newly forming religious landscape, Pagitt recommends visiting ConvergenceUS, a website that explores issues shared by a wide array of new religious activists. Why is this effort so urgent? “We, our children, and our grandchildren face an unprecedented convergence of global crises: global warming and environmental collapse, the danger of cataclysmic violence enhanced by weapons of mass destruction, the rise of unaccountable elites, and the growing gap between the ultra-rich and the multitudes,” that website says.
Who are these people? They’re a surprisingly broad array of Christians—with some men and women from other faiths collaborating as well. The particular ConvergenceUS website that Pagitt recommends puts it this way: “The Convergence Movement is bringing together forward-thinking Catholics, Evangelicals, and mainline Protestants, along with ethnic and peace churches and other willing colleagues, in a growing movement-building collaborative.” But, that website is only one of many that are springing up as this nationwide movement expands. Another key site is the www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com, hosted by Ken Wilson and his co-pastor Emily Swan. More related websites already are going up this year, including an upcoming site for the Blue Ocean movement.
What does this have to do with Pagitt’s new book? Everything. The book is called Flipped: The Provocative Truth That Changes Everything We Know About God. In 200 pages, Pagitt lays out his vision of a religious community that focuses far more on the way God unites us—than on our own individual claims about the little pieces of God we may own.
How does Pagitt describes this “flip”: The “flip” is about our giving up a selfish focus on God “in me“—and discovering the far healthier community that forms when we appreciate that “we all are in God.” Making that spiritual “flip” opens up new freedom, compassion and also real urgency to address the world’s many dire needs. Faith becomes less about “me,” and far more about “us.” In describing the potential “flip” this way, Pagitt dramatically opens up community connections around the world—if his audience is listening carefully and if we respond. Going forward, this could include powerful prophetic voices from the secular community like the environmental writer James Gustav Speth, who has been calling for years for religious communities to rise up and take their responsibility in the global community seriously.
That’s why the new book Flipped is a must-read this spring. Right now all across America, groups of church leaders—and Nones, as well—find themselves talking about their hopes for the future in these troubling times. Flipped is terrific for sparking creative discussions about those yearnings that so many of us share.
ReadTheSpirit Editor David Crumm interviewed Doug Pagitt. Here are …
HIGHLIGHTS OF OUR INTERVIEW
WITH DOUG PAGITT
DAVID: Let’s dive right into the book’s core concept—the flip. It’s “flipping” our understanding of faith, or some might say our understanding of our “religion” or our “spiritual path.” You want us to become aware that we’re already all “in God”—and a key step toward flipping our awareness is identifying what you describe as a dangerous and destructive temptation toward what you call a “transactional” or “If/Then” faith. As you describe it, that “transactional” term refers to assuming that religion is a deal we’re each making with God. It’s a spiritual focus on what I, as an individual, must do each day to maintain my religious “deal”—my connection to a distant God.
Obviously, the Christian journey is a constant search for greater compassion and love. We want to improve ourselves all the time. That’s the message from Jesus to John Wesley to the current Pope Francis. And you, of course, agree with that in your book. But, here’s the key—you’re talking about confronting the malignant patterns that form when we become obsessed with our own daily transaction with God—and all of the rules we want to slap on the people all around us as we compare them to our own holiness.
Mid-way through the book you write that too many of us want “God to be forgiving—but only when the conditions are met. That fits the transactional system, and somehow it seems right. It’s only fair that a person in need of forgiveness do something to merit being forgiven.”
DOUG: When we live in that old transactional system, we keep asking: Am I a greater or lesser possessor of God today than I was yesterday? Do I have more God in me than you do? Are some people beyond God’s love? People really struggle with questions like these that come from that kind of transactional system.
Sometimes when I’m with people who have a deep religious commitment, I begin to feel that many of them want nothing more than to have God be distant from them—and to think of Jesus as this cord or cable that connects them to this distant God.
DAVID: You write in your book that this kind of thinking appeals to people who worry that people won’t be faithful if they’re not scared of losing God. I was just reading Carl Kell’s new book, The Exiled Generations, about the aftermath of the fundamentalist takeover in the Southern Baptist Convention. Then, I interviewed Carl and he describes the old-school appeal of being born again and getting baptized as “fire insurance.” In other words: Better do it—or you’ll burn in Hell.
In your book, you describe this fear as based on the idea that “without the threat of losing God’s love, people won’t be motivated to grow and be better. Why would anyone be driven to improve if there were not the very real possibility of losing favor in God’s eyes? This type of transactional view feels right, in part, because it’s consistent with an incentive-based market economy. If we don’t give people a sufficient financial incentive to work hard, they will just be lazy. Likewise, if we don’t scare people into living right, they’ll thumb their noses at God.”
The problem with this argument, you point out is: “Love is not the reward—but the initiator.”
WHEN CHRISTIANITY BECOMES ‘TOXIC’
DOUG: When I talked about this with Peter Rollins, he told me that he’s also disturbed by this transactional understanding of faith.
As soon as you let yourself think that God is distant and that we need to work to maintain our connection to God, then we’re turning faith into a deal, a transaction. We bob and weave throughout our lives, trying to keep up with this transaction we’ve made. We begin to tell people that you have to follow these steps, or those steps, to be properly purified and to be connected with God most purely.
That’s an unfortunate pinch point in Christianity—and it just doesn’t make sense to so many people today. Maintaining that transaction just doesn’t feel good in our lives. Most of my friends who’ve left Christianity have left over this issue. They want a faith, or a spiritual expression of life, that doesn’t amount to a transactional deal. I’ve heard from early readers of this book that their first reaction is—relief. They feel relief to realize that it doesn’t have to be this way.
DAVID: Now, some readers may be thinking: Well, too bad! Religion is about rules that force people to be good—or else. And that’s exactly how it should be—faith is hard. Having just read Carl Kell’s book about the Southern Baptist Convention, it’s obvious that there are lots of evangelicals out there who would make that argument.
But the problem you’re describing in your book runs much deeper than just giving people a sense of relief for the sake of making faith simpler. That’s not your aim. The deeper problem has been explored by writers like Peter Rollins—or, to point out another important writer on this subject: Larry Dossey’s Be Careful What You Pray For explores the dark side of this kind of transactional faith. Dossey is a famous physician, researcher and best-selling author who is best known for books about the power of prayer. In Be Careful, however, he explores prayers that attack others, toxic prayers—prayers in which one person who feels confident in his or her own deal with God prays to manipulate others in ways that amount to assaults on them.
If we don’t recognize the negative aspects of this transactional approach to faith, it can become toxic.
DOUG: The last 15 years of evangelicalism has become so toxic for so many people that they’re leaving and saying: “Screw it! I’m not even interested in hanging around to reform it!” They just walk away.
Right now, I’m traveling on a book tour and I’m appearing with a musician who told me she was very hesitant to do this tour with me—until she read the book. She told me, “I didn’t know we could talk about Jesus like this, until I read your book.”
There are a lot of people out there who say, “I’m not a part of any church or any expression of Christianity—not because I want to be out here, but because what I see in churches is toxic to me.”
EXPERIENCING THE FLIP AT SOLOMON’S PORCH
DAVID: So, let’s talk for a moment about your home congregation: Solomon’s Porch, near Minneapolis. Even the website for your congregation shows visitors that you’ve already flipped around a lot of expectations about “church.” One page says, “This church is a church of people, not an event created by the leaders.” Another page says, “You will not find statements of what our community believes on this site. Belief is a dynamic, lived reality and doesn’t lend itself to website statements.”
And here’s another way you flip expectations. A lot of famous Christian authors come from mega-churches. Solomon’s Porch certainly isn’t that, right?
DOUG: It’s about a 300-person community. I worked in a megachurch and one of my biggest worries was that I didn’t want Solomon’s Porch to become another megachurch. We have 11 employees who work part time and they all do other things.
DAVID: In other words, this compelling new message in Flipped is actually describing insights that have shaped your ministry for many years, right?
DOUG: Yes, I’ve been Christian since 1983 and I’ve been thinking about these things since then. This book is the best articulation of my experience over the last 32 years. You’re right: This isn’t a brand new idea that just occurred to me. This whole notion taps into the roots of my thinking for a long time.
A NEW KIND OF CHRISTIAN COMMUNITY
DAVID: The book is easy to read—and I mean that as high praise. You invite us into your story and carry us along for 200 pages. I kept wanting to see where your story was going, page after page. In one section of the book, you were sharing some of your earliest influences decades ago in what I’d call the Jesus movement—and we follow your stories right up to the prophetic voices in Christianity today.
So let’s close by comparing your way of describing this new kind of Christian community with the way Ken Wilson and Emily Swan and other leaders in the Blue Ocean Faith movement describe this next wave. Ken, who produces www.ThirdWayNewsletter.com with Emily and other writers, likes to call this “center set” Christianity rather than “bounded set” Christianity. This week, one of their new columns is headlined, “When One Group is Excluded, You Wonder—Am I Next?”
Here’s something Ken said to me in an interview: “The church shouldn’t be a place that’s defined by external boundaries of belief and practice so much as it’s a place where people can come in and move toward the center, which is Jesus. This is a centered-set rather than a bounded-set organization. Bounded-set organizations have clearly defined boundaries and they’re hard to get into, or get out of. In a centered-set organization, you’re welcomed and you feel welcome as long as you’re there continuing to take steps toward the center which is Jesus.”
Your new Flipped message feels similar, but I think you’re pushing even further, right?
DOUG: Well, first, I’m 100 percent liking what I’m seeing from the Blue Ocean people. I’m 100 percent thinking they’re on the right path. I know them and I like what they’re doing. I’m working with Blue Ocean’s Dave Schmelzer on some things.
But, you’re right: I’m taking one more step toward a “relational-set” or “network-theory” of what the church needs to be.
One way to think of this is to remember how most of us were first taught about atoms in school. Remember that? The hard little ball in the middle with these spokes sticking out to the electrons? Well, that’s probably how I would have thought about atoms to this day, but I’ve had opportunities to talk to physicists and that’s not how an atom is understood today. There’s no hard little ball in the center. An atom is a series of microconnections that hold the atom together.
And, Solomon’s Porch is not a center-set organization that requires people to move together toward one center. People are engaged in a web of relationships. It’s through all the microconnections that our community forms, not by a strong center pulling everyone inward.
Now, perhaps we’re not talking about different things here. I could also argue that what people are starting to talk about when they say our communities should be “center set” is really what I mean when I’m describing a “relational set.”
In the end, we’re all talking about the importance of one-ness. When I talk about this “in God” theology, I’m sharing a story of healing and integration and harmony in God.
ReadTheSpirit online magazine is the place to watch diverse new religious communities emerge. In Spring 2015, we will be featuring interviews with many writers who are exploring new spiritual directions, including:
- Eileen Flanagan on her new book Renewable: One Woman’s Search for Simplicity, Faithfulness, and Hope;
- Rachel Held Evans on her new book Searching for Sunday: Loving, Leaving, and Finding the Church;
- Reba Riley on Post-Traumatic Church Syndrome: A Memoir of Humor and Healing in 30 Religions;
- Ragan Sutterfield on This Is My Body: From Obesity to Ironman, My Journey into the True Meaning of Flesh, Spirit, and Deeper Faith;
- Carl Kell on The Exiled Generations: Legacies of the Southern Baptist Convention Holy Wars;
- Ken Wilson and Emily Swan on The Third Way Newsletter;
- And Lauren Winner on Wearing God: Clothing, Laughter, Fire, and Other Overlooked Ways of Meeting God.
Look for these “Cover Story” author interviews on Mondays in March, April and May 2015. Make sure you get all of our upcoming stories: Sign up for our free email updates as new stories are published by clicking on the “Get FREE Updates by Email” link at the top of this page. Or, visit us anytime via our new Facebook page.
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