Today I begin co-teaching, along with Martin Lohrmann, a new online class at the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia called Catechism as Platform: Teaching the Catechism in a Digital Age.
Here's the course description:
Luther's catechisms were written to invite parents, youth, teachers and pastors into a way of life built upon the good news of Christ crucified and risen for us. In 21st century terms, his catechisms were more like a "platform" than a "page." This course will study Luther's Large and Small Catechisms, with an eye on the many ways they continue to inform faith, worship, prayer and daily life. At the same time there will be a focus on developing fluency in today's digital technology, learning to communicate Luther's "platform of faith" through various social media resources. The course assumes that the catechisms are assets for public theology, sharing the faith both inside and outside our churches.
Needless to say I'm excited about the class, mainly because I think we are charting some pretty new territory when it comes to teaching the catechism in a world shaped by digital social media.
On December 5th I had the honor of preaching the funeral sermon for my mentor and friend, The Rev. Dr. Ronald Thiemann. We lost him too soon and will miss him greatly.
I remember the first time I met Ron Thiemann. It was 1996 and I was a newly minted first year Master of Divinity student at Harvard Divinity School and Ron was the Dean. I was invited, along with all first years, to the traditional welcome cookout at Jewett House, the Dean’s residence. We shook hands in the receiving line and said hello. And that was it. In that brief moment, neither of us could have possibly imagined that our journeys would somehow lead us here today.
I never had a class with Ron, a fact he would later tease me about frequently. I tried to explain that he just wasn’t in my area, but he didn’t buy it. But I did see him often. You know, at Harvard, professors are our versions of celebrities and Deans all the more so. I remember seeing Ron walking hurriedly across the Div School campus. I’d say, “Hey, there’s the Dean!” It was like seeing a theological rock-star. I knew that he was brilliant, important, and busy teaching and guiding the Divinity school, which he did for 13 years.
So, perhaps you can imagine that when Ron and Beth appeared unannounced for Sunday worship here at Redeemer when I was serving as pastor, I had to do a double take. I peeked into the sanctuary from the back door and said, “Is that the dean? That’s the dean!” I walked up and, I’ll never forget, I nervously said, “Hello, Professor Thiemann, I’m Keith Anderson.” And Ron said, “Yes. I know.” Eek! And then I had to preach in front of him a sermon I didn’t particularly like. My heart thumped in my chest as it did for my sermons in the weeks to come. After weeks of calling him Professor Thiemann, he finally had to say, “Keith, please, call me Ron.”
And in the time since, I came to know Ron, not only as the incredibly accomplished scholar and institutional leader, advisor to political, religious, and business leaders, but as a colleague, a wise mentor, and, truly and most of all, a friend.
After one of my recent workshops on social media, one of the participants confessed that she had money riding on my presentation.
She and a friend had wagered on how long it would take me, a Lutheran pastor, to mention the Printing Press.
She won. It was the third slide.
When Lutherans (and many others) talk about social media, we often take the printing press as our starting point. Its our way of describing the amazing revolution that is taking place in communications today - and our way of thinking about how we harness new forms of media to share God's grace.
However, As Elizabeth Drescher argues in Tweet If You Heart Jesus: Practicing Church in the Digital Reformation, the parallels between social media and the printing press may end there.
Yes, they both represent a dramatic shift in communications. However, while the printing press marked the dawn of broadcast (or mass) media - communicating your message to many people at one time with little opportunity for comment, today's social networking actually resembles the communal reading of the medieval period, which was more interactive, social, and crowdsourced.
I wonder: how do we get beyond the printing press? How can we engage social media theologically? After all, the printing press and social media are only tools. Where can Lutherans locate social media in our theological framework?
For me, the most compelling theological category is vocation.
Every mainline Protestant denomination is struggling with declining membership, decreasing financial support, and the question of how best to be the Body of Christ in this time.
In response, my denomination, the ELCA, created the LIFT (Living into the Future Together) Task Force, which was charged with making recommendations on how to change our denominational structures or "ecology" in order to help best fulfill our mission today. The task force issued its final report to the ELCA on April 11th.
My short take is that the task force shows very good instincts, particularly in its overarching recommendation regarding the shift of focus and resources to local congregations. However, I think the report also falls victim to three persistent problems we face in our church ecology.
Last year during Holy Week Boston Globe columnist James Carroll issued a stern warning to preachers.
He wrote that although Holy Week is the most sacred time of the year for Christians, it is also the most dangerous - because Holy Week has often been the cause and occasion for great violence, especially against Jews.
He recounts, as he does at greater length in his book, Constantine’s Sword, the way that Christians have, until relatively recently, blamed Jews for the death of Jesus, and how the passion readings, for centuries, incited people to leave their churches on Good Friday and commit terrible acts of violence against Jews.
It is a haunting legacy that impacts us still. And so, his plea to preachers is this: “preach peace.” Preach peace in Holy Week.
In August 2010 I attended Follow Me: Sharing the Gospel in a 2.0 World, a conference hosted by the ELCA for synod communicators and campus ministry pastors and students. You can find video, presentation slides, and other resources on the Follow Me webpage.
On the whole, the Follow Me conference was quite good. We heard three different and
yet interrelated presentations (plus supporting workshops and reflections from Bishop Hanson) on life in a 2.0 world, which is highly connected and interactive, a flat world that puts us in close contact with people of differing believes and convictions, is increasingly secular, in which technology is integrated into all aspects of our living, where there is a deep longing for meaning and community, as well as a word of hope and grace.
Some of my gleanings:
- Know and love one's own tradition, but be in continual conversations with others.
- Be grounded in the Gospel and the Sacraments. Trust that the heart of our Lutheran theology and practice speaks deeply to people who haven't heard it before
- Seek to deeply understand culture and our particular cultural settings in all their complexity
- It is essential to understand millennial culture
- Listen and engage with others with no expectation of conversion
- Know who you are as a church and be able to express why it should matter to people
- Practice witnessing
- When we speak of faith, focus on Jesus and not on the institution of the church
- Be willing to try, experiment, and fail.