Blank Slate -- Review (Lia McIntosh, et al)


BLANK SLATE: Write Your Own Rules for a 22nd-Century Church Movement. By Lia McIntosh, Jasmine Rose Smothers, and Rodney Thomas Smothers. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2019. Xvi + 172 pages.

                It is common knowledge that the church is struggling, at least in Europe and North America.  Younger generations are increasingly less inclined to participate in so-called "organized religion." Older generations want to know why younger generations choose not to come to church. While older generations are often accused of holding up progress, I have members in their 80s and 90s who have been faithful members for there are entire lives, and they are genuinely open to change if it will help. At the same time, they would like to see their own experiences honored and celebrated. So what is the answer? Many books and articles have been written, offering analysis and suggestions for addressing the challenges facing the church as we move through the twenty-first century. If only there was a magic bullet that would solve all our problems, but the reality is, there are no third-grader solutions. Most solutions will be localized. While generational theory can be helpful to a point, but too often it overgeneralizes.  People tend not to fit the slots designated for them. Yet, the books and podcasts from the experts (usually megachurch pastors) offer us a one-size-fits-all solution. That makes the work of the church even more difficult. 

Blank Slate is an attempt by three United Methodist clergy, one of whom is a local pastor, while two others are conference staff persons, to find a path forward. They suggest that it's time to start fresh, with a blank slate (John Locke would be proud) so as to pursue a new agenda for the church, one that will better connect with the emerging generations. The subtitle is revelatory: "Write your own rules for a 22nd Century Church Movement." I will admit that I read this subtitle as the "21st century." After all, we're just two decades into the 21st century and we're still dealing with the realities of the last century. I will be long gone by the time the 21st century gives way to the next, though I’m assuming the earth will still exist in some form in the next century (maybe we’ll have developed warp drive by then so we can explore the stars), there is an increasing number of people who will be alive as that century dawns.

At the heart of the long-term vision offered by the authors is the demographic realities of the United States, which if trends continue as expected, will lead to an increasingly diverse country. Portions of the country are already there. The same is true of many large metropolitan areas, such as the one in which I live.  Thus, the church will be wise to begin looking at how they can better reflect that diversity. While most of our congregations remain largely homogeneous, it would appear that the future is moving toward more racially/ethnically diverse congregations. With that vision in mind, the authors offer a book with five sections and fourteen chapters. The book is not long, so the chapters tend to be brief. It's a readable book, but as you might expect they major in generalities.

The first two sections describe the "Old Rules" (Section 1) and the “New Rules” (Section 2). My Generation X friends might be chagrined to know that they are now numbered along with we Baby Boomers as those who embrace the old rules. The authors suggest that there are three generations that have controlled the conversation and represent old ways of doing things. That would include just about everyone over forty. Now the authors acknowledge that these demarcations and rules are not monolithic, but they still make use of them. If the older generations represent old ways of doing things, millennials (the generation of my son) and Generation Z (the generation that includes everyone ages 9 to 23. People in third grade to college), represent the new rules. Here's where things get tricky. What does a third-grader have in common with a recent college graduate? What is true for these two emerging generations (and the one yet to be named) is that their lives are more fully defined by certain forms of technology. Most of them have grown up with the internet and perhaps the ubiquity of social media platforms. People of my generation like to remark on how much better it was back in the day of the typewriter and black and white TVs, but I’m not sure that those younger than us would agree that they are missing out on something wonderful (I remember my father regaling me with tales of growing up with only the radio). The point here is that the authors believe that the emerging generations will write the rules going forward. They may be right. Though I hope we can have fruitful conversations across generations so we can learn from each other. There might be a few of the old rules worth keeping. I’m hoping that not everything that Boomers like me have believed or experienced is so old hat that they can be cast off into the dust bin of history. There is wisdom from the ages that might help. At the same time, I have been blessed by my conversations with my millennial colleagues. 

While the first two sections describe generational realities, the section that follows, which is comprised of five chapters, lift up five entities the authors believe exemplify the future. They are offered as potential models of existence. They're not without their problems, but the authors see them as useful points of contact with the new realities. There is Facebook, though younger generations seem to be moving away from it, while Boomers and earlier generations make greater use of the platform—I have folks in my congregation over 90 who are regular users).  Facebook has faced great scrutiny because it has been manipulated by malevolent political forces (so perhaps it’s not the best exemplar for the 22nd century). Remember that My Space was once the rage and it is a pretty marginalized entity today. Then, there is Starbucks, which apparently gives people "memorable experiences." While memorable experiences are sought after, I’m wondering if a five-dollar cup of coffee is really an authentic experience producer. Might the much less expensive version of the drink found at the local 7-11 (or similar convenience store) be enough? They move on to Uber. While I’m a Facebook (social media) user and occasionally go to Starbucks for coffee, I don't know what to say about Uber. It may be the future, but I’m still skeptical. They move on to Netflix, though word is, this service is struggling as it competes with its rivals. I did find it interesting that they describe Netflix as specializing in online streaming services and offer a DVD-by-mail service. I may have missed something, but I think that the DVD service has gone the way of Blockbuster. They suggest that Netflix is a company that disrupts, customizes, and diversifies. We’ll see! It was at the forefront, but it seems to be on the way toward being eclipsed by others. Finally, there's Disney, which delivers, in its theme parks, "experiences." Now, Disney isn't new. In fact, it began life even before I was born. Yes, it is about experiences, but are these truly authentic ones? I’ve enjoyed going to Disneyland (not been to Disney World), but is it really a model for the church? Disney is about entertainment and fantasy. Is that what the church is about? Again, I don't know. My take on section 3 is that the entities that it lifts up could easily be swept away in a matter of years, though of all of them I expect Disney to have the greatest longevity! These are early 21st century entities (Disney is really a 20th-century entity), so will they be around in the 22nd century?  

Section four provides some new models of ministry or at least offers ways of exploring them. There is a game that can be used by congregations to increase conversation about the future. It may prove useful. Then there is a chapter on mindsets and actions that lead to transformation. Nothing really new here, but they're good talking points. Willingness to fail when trying new things is valuable. The same is true of innovation. The church exists to this day in part because it has found ways of adapting and innovating. I expect it will continue to do so.

The final section introduces topics for further thinking. These include interfaith and intergenerational dialogue, "ubuntu" or multi-cultural and intergenerational mission. Finally, they suggest the need for intergenerational and multi-cultural atonement, reconciliation, and peace. These are all good points of contact, especially when engaged intergenerationally. All voices need to be heard, young and old. Each generation knows the reality of being left out of the conversation by those older than them. So, when they get their opportunity to take control, they (we) don't like letting go. Thus, the cycle continues from generation to generation.

So, what is my assessment of the book? First, it's readable, which makes it useful for congregational discussion. At points, it will be read as a bit overly Methodist, but I think most ideas are transferable across denominations. I do wonder about section 4, in part because I'm always skeptical about using commercial entities as models for the church. Adaptation is important, but in many ways, the church has been one of the more adaptive entities in history (or should I say, religion itself has been adaptive). What is found here isn't exactly new, nor is it 22nd-century ready. But being aware of demographic changes, whether generational, cultural, ethnic, etc. is always helpful. I the end, if we can prepare ourselves for the 2020s that might be useful enough.

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