Checking back in with Jason Byassee (pt. 1): Theology, Writing, Social Media & the Local Church

For our series on “Loving the Church” in all its grit, grime and glory, we had some exchanges with Jason Byassee.  Before accepting an appointment as Senior Minister at Boone United Methodist Church (North Carolina), Jason worked at Duke Divinity School, heading up their Center for Theology, Writing and Media.  Since a lot of our posts here at Hopeful Realism have prodded and poked around with the idea of the pastor-scholar or pastor-theologian (most recently, see here and here), we were intrigued with the news of the job shift—it is not everyday that someone leaves a coveted academic post at a prestigious university for the pastoral trials of the parish.  We interviewed Jason last year (click here) in what turned out to be one of my top five favorite posts of 2011.  We thought it would be fun and helpful to check in and find out how plying the fused craft of theology/writing/ministry was faring….


Writing and Reading as a Pastor

HR: How have the past several months as a pastor shaped your writing?  Any change in style, content, length… or changes in topics of focus? 

I certainly have a less romantic view of the parish! The small church cured me of that in one way (I wrote about this in The Gifts of the Small Church), but a largish church (1400 members, 700 on Sunday) cures in another way. There are more critics. There are also more selfless servants. And those are often the same people! Sunday is more of a performance, and that’s not a bad thing. We can do more in mission. We’re also a tall steeple in a town that’s still Christendom enough that being a visible member can help you advance in your career. Odd—but there’s nothing to be done about that other than to receive it as a gift. We’re in a university town with an entrepreneurial spirit. Those are all gifts, all potentially dangerous, potentially sources of grace.

I’m struck by how much of my job is leading staff. I have no idea how to do that other than not to do what supervisors I’ve had did that I disliked. Of course merely avoiding things is no way positively to lead. I find myself faking it far more often than I’m comfortable with. But lots of senior pastors tell me they’re doing the same.

I find my view of theological education growing. Smart people are right to demand sophisticated intellectual engagement that respects and takes them seriously. But academia often serves up inside baseball debates when it thinks it’s being intellectual. Who has the patience for that outside the guild? Folks want preaching that engages their life with the treasures of the church and harsh realities of the world and takes their minds seriously. Some sui generis geniuses can do that, but that’s not most of us.

I’m sure all that’s shaped my writing some. It comes in smaller bursts of time, certainly. To be honest I know what I’m doing when I write but not when I’m leading, so writing can be an escape in the negative sense for me.


HR: How has serving as a pastor expanded (or constricted) your reading and studying? 

I find I read more fiction. I’m not sure why exactly. I wish I had a theory that I found narrative helpful in reading scripture or reading the congregation or working with words but it might just be fun. I certainly read more commentaries and sermons. When I get ready to preach I see if I have a sermon on a text and am sure to read it. If I’m being extra diligent I’ll read commentary on it, but not always. Modern commentary always feels the need to act more clever than anything that came before, so I get annoyed and distracted by that.

I also read things parishioners give me. Not email forwards usually, but books, and I try to work what I learn there into sermons. I both want to show them we can discover things together and I want genuinely to know what they’re reading and thinking about.


HR: How does your process of sermon-writing differ from the research and writing you have done for more academic purposes?

More is at stake. A sermon declares the word of God in a specific time and place, a word that judges and saves, contradicts and makes whole. Academic work also has its place in God’s purposes, but less is up for grabs. It’s second-order discourse (borrowing from Robert Jenson here): it offers reflection on scripture or church at a remove, potentially correcting or encouraging things being said in first-order discourse like sermon or church teaching. But if an academic piece gets things wrong, who cares?

That said, ideas do have legs. Terrible theologies of suffering or salvation or politics get disseminated from a variety of sources and can do harm. I’m also aware of my own post-liberal training more than I have been. The temptation is to try to turn people into liberals before they can be turned into post-liberals! Of course there’s no credit for doing that. The better goal is to approach Jesus together and see how we’re changed for having done so.

It certainly matters who I imagine will be listening on Sundays. I often find myself thinking how specific people will hear things. I hope that’s not selling out on the gospel—I believe it’s not, but it seems unavoidable anyway.
HR: You have devoted considerable amounts of time and energy to studying Patristic exegesis.  Do the approaches of those early writers on Scripture give shape to your own exegetical practices as a pastor?

They must, but I’m not sure how. Augustine is rigorously textual in his preaching. Graham Ward calls this a “letteral” sense—Augustine’s paying exacting attention to the letter, but not doing what we moderns think of as “literal” reading. Scripture has a fulsome sense, it includes history and letter and language, all that is remote. Yet it’s also brought near us in Christ, as he leads us in discipleship now. The fathers know this: that the bible is both far away and unbearably near. Monica is a good image for Augustine’s preaching. She’s uneducated but fiercely intelligent, pious and superstitious in one way, in another dramatically dedicated to Jesus in ways that affected generations. My parishioners are far more educated than Monica in a formal sense but not in theology—otherwise it’s a perfect bullseye.


Media as a Pastor
As a Research Fellow with the New Media Project, I know that you spend a lot of time thinking about media.  How are social media incorporated in your pastoral ministry?

Not near as well as they should be, but better than they were when I arrived. We had a 90’s era flash presentation on site that just screamed “dated.” Now we have a pretty nice looking site, put together by a lay staffer and good consultant. We have a Facebook presence where we had none before. We’re not using it very well yet. I’m struck anew by how difficult it is to connect to people in social media as an institution. They work so much better for individuals. I’ve got 2500 Facebook friends; something like 160 people “like” Boone UMC. So we’re trying to ask people what I ought to preach on etc. But it’s slow.

Personally I find it much easier to connect to people via text message or Facebook than it ever was with the tools around when I was last in the parish—phone and email. I like praying on people’s Facebook wall on their birthdays. Social media is a great way to connect with first-time visitors. All that is borrowed from folks we studied in the New Media Project. I like Tony Lee’s language—pastor of Cathedral of Hope AME in DC. He says new media increases his “pastoral touches.” Sure enough—folks I’d never connect with in person, who don’t elbow their way through the greeting line to get in the pastor’s attention—I can connect with really well digitally. It only works if face-to-face and social media work integrally.

But I don’t claim to have this figured out at Boone UMC in the slightest.


[Part 2 of the interview will be up in a couple of days on ” The Rift between Church and Academy and the Pastor Theologian“…. ]

Here are Jason’s books if any of you are interested—








Churches and the Church: Soaring Vision | Messy Reality

This new series is devoted to loving the church.

A hard sell.  Especially for younger Christians for whom leaving the church, or at least heftily criticizing it, is vogue.  Those departures and critiques not entirely without some justification.  I wrote in my book on cynicism toward the church that as “an untidly conglomeration” of damaged, sinful people lunging toward redemption, we are bound to generate a lot of “in-house wounds.”  Church on-the-ground is often messy and hurtful.

In “loving the church,” we are not interested in just loving the ideal of the Church—capital ‘c’—but also with loving its local instantiations around the corner and up the road.  We want to love the Church conceptually… and to love local churches practically.

Many of us are disgusted with the “local church” because of how poorly it measures up with the concept of “Church” presented in the New Testament.  And it is right to be disgusted… though not because we are indignant idealists.  And our disgust should be grounded in love and should stretch only as wide as our compassion.

What I am hoping to clarify in this blog series is that the New Testament writers who have offered us such a robust, lofting vision for “Church” were in no way removed from the messy realities of local churches.  They did not write as ecclesial idealists.

If our vision of church/churches is taken from the NT at all, then we will be quite at home in the tension between the soaring theological vision and the ugliness of the actual situations we find at the ecclesial ground zero.  The most extensive treatment of the powerful church-as-body metaphor is found in 1 Corinthians, a letter addressed to a church doting foolishly on celebrity teachers, divided by socioeconomic castes and fragmented along lines drawn between the hyper- and the hypospiritual.  There was even a case of sexual immorality that would make the pagans blush.  The Galatians were carefully instructed in the theological largesse of the Gospel, and then exchanged it all for some hotshot apostles who rolled into town with a different message.  Even the highly praised Philippian church had its struggles—two hard-working church matrons (Euodia and Synteche) seemed to have had a falling out that was spreading throughout the congregation.  Outside of Paul’s letters, we see that the Apostle John had much to critique about “the seven churches that are in Asia” (Rev 1:4).  Peter and the writer of Hebrews had to exhort churches to exhibit stronger endurance in hard times.  James offered a wisdom-styled critique of public speech, wavering faith and reliance on wealth.  And in spite of the deep Christology of the churches under Johannine influence, that divisions were underway seems clear from 1, 2, and 3 John.

And yet all these writers offered a dense, powerful, ecclesiological vision of the Church as a Bride of striking splendor (Rev 19, et. al.), as a “royal priesthood” (1 Pet 2), as “a pillar and buttress of truth” (1 Tim 3).  Our divine status as a holy people is so unspeakably high that we find this prayer in Ephesians,

“…that you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power toward us who believe….” (Eph 1:18-19).

Soaring vision, yet messy reality—it is all part of the entire ecclesial kit.

Luke seems to be the NT author most called on as a witness against the contemporary church.  Specifically, Acts 1-4.  There we have pristine church.  Pure church.  Simple church.  We sing the song of wanting to be like the early church, the church of Acts.  But let’s not forget that within a few days a couple is lying about their property gifts (Acts 5) and a huge interracial dispute erupts when widows are found to be going without meals.  Luke may have presented an idealistic picture of the newly generated church, but he was no idealist.  His vision is tempered by accounts of the actual struggles of the earliest communities.

I am wanting to experience church not as an idealist and not as a cynic, but as a realist (a hopeful one, to be precise!).  It’s ugly out there in the pews and trenches.  That need not surprise us.  Neither should the beauty lingering between the same pews and in the same trenches… if we have the eyes to see it.

Christian Theology and the Colorado Theater Shooting

Like you, I’ve been following the Colorado theater shooting news. I’m saddened and sickened and somewhat afraid.

I watched The Today Show on NBC as broadcasters and commentators struggled to make sense of it. It’s a serious struggle indeed, but Christian theology seems to be uniquely equipped to enter into the difficulty and address the reality. David Zahl, of Mockingbird, mentioned in a conference message, “There’s no distinction between ‘reality’ and ‘Christian reality.’ There’s just reality. And Christianity either addresses it, or who cares?”

Zahl is right. I can’t help but think that Christian theology was made for days like these.

First, Christian theology holds that evil is very real, personal, and serious. This may offend modern sensibilities, but Christian theology makes space for an Adversary, the demonic, etc. This is important. Christian theology has an accounting for this. Not a perfect tidy explanation, but an address of the issue. I’m reminded of Sheriff Ed Tom’s musings in Cormack’s McCarthy’s No Country for Old Men: “…explains a lot things that otherwise dont have no explanation.”

Second, Christian theology has a very low anthropology, and for good reason. We believe that, by nature, sin, rebellion, and brokenness are cemented and situated at the very core of who we are, individually and corporately. This infection has invaded our being on every conceivable level. In classic terms, the depravity is “total.” This doesn’t mean that every person is as bad as they can possibly be. It’s a term of reach and scope, rather than one of degree.

And this infection is actually more than a sickness. The picture painted in Scripture is that of death. We are dead in our sins. Straight up. No qualifications. Depraved, dead-in-sin-people-walking shoot up theaters because they think they are the Joker or simply because they want to unlock a safety and spill blood. This is the reality.

As a result, we believe that human persons (not to mention the breaking and groaning universe) have to be re-made, re-born, and re-created. Hearts of stone must be made into hearts of flesh. Swords need to be beaten into plowshares. Lambs need to get cozy with lions. Infant hands must be made to pry around in adders’ dens. Nothing short of a New Heavens and a New Earth must arrive.

Our anthropology also has a caveat, an important nuance. We cannot trumpet “total depravity” without remembering the first pages of Scripture’s narrative. We must not forget that human-persons are also made in the image of God, bearing unique, precious worth and value. As CS Lewis reminded us, you’ve “never talked to a mere mortal.”

That’s why Christian theology can pray, “Oh Lord would you slay the wicked?” and “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do” at the same time. Christian theology is capable of righteous anger and broken, crucified compassion simultaneously. Two very good resources on a day like today.

Third, Christian theology holds that this full-scale total work of redemption is exactly what we believe the God of the Bible to be doing in our world. Sin and evil are widespread and reach our world totally, but we believe that in the person and work of Jesus, sin’s curse is being turned on it’s head more totally, still.

One can feel the tension. There is a sinful, depraved reality and there is a new-creation, resurrection, redemptive hope. They exist simultaneously.

For now.

The resurrection hope happens to be more real than the depraved reality because it will endure.

I’ll never forget watching a video clip of a bull-fight on TV. The bull was bleeding, wounded, weak, scared and panicky. A mortal wound had been dealt. Its death was sure, but its death was not quite yet. Out of nowhere, it made a final surge, leaped the wall, jumped into the crowd of spectators and started thrashing about. It didn’t know what else to do. It was finished. It knew it. So it freaked.

There are lots of bull-thrashing-about moments in our lives and in our world. I propose the Colorado theater shooting to be one of those.

Sin. Satan. Evil. Death. Violence. Murder. Shooting-Sprees. Blood-thirst. Cancer. Pain. Bitterness, Hate, etc…fill in the blank. They’ve had their time and they might have some more time still. But, the clock is ticking, winding down. That is very certain and very sure.

Evil (personified in Anton Chigurh) in No Country for Old Men may be at large and roaming free in our world, ready to surface anytime and at any place, locked and loaded.

But, the Man, Jesus Christ, walked right out of the tomb. He is on the loose too, redemptively moving about, ready to show up. As Andy has reminded us, when a formerly dead, recently Crucified Man walks out of a tomb, nothing can be the same. The world is not quite what it appears to be. Something has been up-ended. Evil has been served notice. To death, a formal announcement has been declared.

This Crucified King will return and set everything right; the process is already underway.

None of this, makes dealing with tragic events easier. Let’s not pretend that it does. But it does pave the way for genuine and authentic hope. A hope that’s on the far side of struggle and pain, rather than a simplistic, not-wanting-to-deal-with-hard-things counterfeit hope.

So be encouraged and don’t lose heart.


The Process of Missional Engagement – Part 4

“White Man’s Burden” – Mission as North American Takeover

After a little hiatus, we’ll resume our Process of Missional Engagement series.The idea up-and-running is that, as pastors, we need a better way of leading people to engage the mission of God.

In my experience, there seems to be an observable path in which Christians involve themselves and fairly consistent frameworks of thinking brought to the table.

People begin with an awakening of compassion (I noted that here), and proceed to travel on a trip as somewhat of a Christian adventure (and wrote about this here), and move to a new tier in their Christian discipleship. Both paradigms have serious weaknesses, short-comings and dangerous assumptions. However, these thought-processes are often necessary steps. As pastors/leaders, we need to be aware of these frameworks and push further.

After going on a Christian mission trip adventure, a strange thing happens. God legitimately burdens hearts with the pressing needs of the world. Going to broken places can serve to jostle us out of our slumbering, comfortable and sleepy existences. There is a world — some would call the real or majority world — out there. When this happens, we can become saddened, burdened, broken, shaken, indignant, etc. This is often good and right.

However, a stranger thing can happen. From these experiences, our inner handy-man is awakened, too. There are so many things to fix. We’ve got so many ideas, methods and resources that no one has ever thought of, right?. Get resource A to place B. How simple is that?

Surely we can tinker, adjust, provide, accomplish and rescue. Just give us control and we’ll take it over and fix it. North Americans are the total solution to the difficult problems there, right?


I want to be clear. Very few people would think of it in these terms. Very few people are conscious of this thought process. I know it creeps up in my head all the time. I’m a learner here. These instincts are well-intentioned. As leaders, we have to push further.

I’m also not saying that North Americans cannot offer anything in the work of mission, or any that attempt to do so is necessarily unhealthy, dangerous and wrong. But, we have to be careful.

“White Man’s Burden” is a loaded phrase. I know. Originally, “White Man’s Burden” was a poem by Rudyard Kipling. Lots of different interpretations have been proposed in an attempt to analyze Kipling’s thought. In this post, I’m not attempting to delve into the baggage of the colonial/post-colonial debacle. I’m not trying to push it to that level.

Instead, I’m using it more in the sense of William Easterly’s The White Man’s Burden: Why the West’s Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good (Penguin Books: 2007).

North American/Western takeover in the field of international mission doesn’t have a very good track record. North American takeover in the field of Christian Mission doesn’t have a very good track record, either.

It may seem as simple as “fixing,” but I can promise you things are much, much, more complicated than that. As one example, I’ve heard stories of how well-intentioned North American Christians nearly put a solid, healthy, employing-locals, Christian-owned Haitian business out of business.

We need to take the right and healthy sense of burden and channel it in a different direction. A proposed way-forward will be our final two posts.

For now, a quick set of thoughts:

1. When we’re burdened, try to be burdened for the right reasons. For example, spending hours hand-washing clothes is often considered to be a rich community-building cultural practice in certain cultures. Don’t offer to supply washing machines. Don’t be burdened about that. We must distinguish legitimate needs from developed world conveniences.
Try to buy local goods or hire locally in ministry/mission projects. If a building needs to be built, what makes more sense? To bring a North American team, or hire locals? The answer may be different in different places. Ask the questions.

2. Let local Christians lead and set the terms of engagement and set the agenda. Let’s clearly position ourselves in service of local Christians. Let’s really mean this. Then, let’s demonstrate that we mean this in our actions. Further, set things up so that local Christians get the credit for anything accomplished.Building on this, try to accomplish what they ask you to do, rather than what you think will be a meaningful experience for your team.

3. Think carefully about how we should define efficiency and accomplishment. Make sure we are thinking concretely and locally in our decisions. What is needed here? What is efficient, here? What will fly in one place/culture, does not in another place/culture. (As a side note, we need a better theology of place anyway, don’t we?)

4. First, visit a location, culture or ministry. Build relationships and friendships before you try to accomplish something.

5. In your reporting back to your congregation, embody a healthy sense of Jesus’ “don’t let your right hand know what you’re left hand is doing…” principle (Matthew 6:3). Perhaps, Jesus meant for this principle to be lived quite tangibly. This will be hard, by the way. So many difficult tensions to hold in how we go about doing this.

Let’s shepherd, lead, push, and prompt.

No one expects perfect people… just perfect churches

Two ongoing series are underway here at HR.  Joel Busby is writing on “The Process of Missional Engagement.”  We are also looking at the church in all its splendor (and disappointing ugliness) through a series called “Loving the Church.”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

This anthropological confession easily rolls off the tongue (more easily than “anthropological confession”).  Most of us know by brutal experience that perfection is a foolish, impossible goal.  Even those of us struggling with that  awful malady of “perfectionism” know that we are being quite silly when we demand that we get everything right all the time.

But many of us seem to expect perfect churches.  We want a church that is “the perfect fit” for our perspectives and our gifts.  We want a church that meets this standard and that expectation.  Even if we are not personal perfectionists, many of us are ecclesial perfectionists.  That is, we want a church that perfectly satisfies our needs.

In this series of posts we are looking at the church in all its splendor, but also in all its ugliness.  It is much more trendy to write observations about the latter.  We love to express dismay at the latest dumb thing some churchy somebody said.  Balking at the latest church scandal has come to be good sport for many of us.

But ecclesial perfectionism is as cruel an expectation as personal perfectionism.

In fact, I would not want to be a part of a perfect church.  If I were part of a perfect church, then that would mean I would have to be perfect, because I am one of its constituent parts.

But “nobody’s perfect, right?”





The Surprise of Self-Righteousness

[“Loving the Church: The Soaring Theological Vision | The On-the-Ground, Messy Reality” is a new ongoing series for HR.  The Process of Missional Engagement is still underway, and there will be random blog posts from here and there,  some from guest contributors]


The church is beset by ailments innumerable, of which many voices in the blogosphere regularly remind us.  One of the churchly plagues most off-putting for younger Christians is self-righteousness, that religious disorder of assumed superiority, a superiority (falsely) premised on the grounds of better spiritual performances or loftier spiritual perspectives than others.  Young believers have a highly keen sense of smell when it comes to self-righteousness—they can sniff it out instantly.

But here is the surprising thing about self-righteousness: the moment you hear or read the term “self-righteous” and you immediately think of someone else, then you know you are self-righteous yourself.

If on reading the opening paragraph of this post you thought of someone other than yourself, or if you thought about some demographic of Christians other than your own, then it may well be a sign of self-righteousness.  We can sniff self-righteousness all over the place… except when it is stuck on our own clothes and eking out of our own souls.

The purpose of the “reader entrapment” underway here is simply to point out that self-righteousness is one of those plagues you don’t even know you have.  That’s the nature of this disease, isn’t it?  Self-righteousness comes with a spiritual pride that blinds us to all self-righteousness except that which is in others.  Hence that haunting question posed by Jesus:

“Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye?” (Mt 7:3).

Self-righteousness is not a disorder stereotypically unique to the church establishment.  A mutated strand of the disease is flowing through my own veins.  It has infected as well, perhaps, an enormous host of our younger generation of disgruntled Christians for whom critiquing the church is now rather vogue.

Let’s consider that parable Jesus told “to some who trusted in themselves that they were righteous, and treated others with contempt” (Lk 18:9-14, emphases added).  In the scenario he creates, Jesus contrasts a Pharisee and a tax collector, both of whom “went up to the temple to pray.”  Here is the account of how the Pharisee prayed…

“The Pharisee, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other men, extortioners, unjust, adulterers, or even like this tax collector.  I fast twice a week; I give tithes of all that I get….”

Could we possibly re-word the voice of the Pharisee in the parable to express the attitude that many of us in the younger crowd have toward the church…?  Something like this, maybe:

“The embittered young Christian, standing by himself, prayed thus: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like the institutional church-goers, legalists, homophobic, hypocrites, or even like this older lady who has been attending that traditionalist church up the road for years.  I am culturally savvy; I give to social justice causes….”

You get the picture.  And it is a picture I have found myself in many times.  Enlightened in my 20s by an authentic experience of Christ and Christian community unfettered by traditionalist trappings, I have at times assumed a position of spiritual superiority over “institutional church-goers.”

I am not suggesting that the institutional church—its cultural irrelevance, its politicizing tendencies, its neglect of the poor—should be immune from critique.  I am just thinking that if I myself dare to offer any sort of critical observations, my preliminary discipline should be that of ripping all the massive, ugly logs out of my own eyeballs… because I’m stricken with many of the same spiritual diseases.






Theological Thinking on Social Media…

By Sofiaperesoa (Own work) via Wikimedia Commons

In what may well be an unlikely turn of events in my fledgling writing career, I have been directing considerable energy toward media issues.  “Unlikely,” because I am not very tech-savvy.  “Unlikely,” because I have often been a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to social media.  And I should admit that I don’t have a Kindle or an iPad or even an iPhone.  My only access to an i-anything is my wife’s iPod, which I am not quite sure how to work.

But I am intrigued conceptually by media.

My current book project is tentatively called ‘TheoMedia’ (with Cascade Books).  The draft is due in September (yikes).  Meanwhile, I have begun writing as the theological editor for a site here in the UK called BigBible.  Their emphasis is on Biblical Literacy in a Media Age.

For BigBible, I have a series underway called “Blogology” that is devoted to thinking theologically about blog-writing and blog-reading.  Here are the first three posts if you would like to check them out.


1] Toward a Theology of Blogging

2] The Blog as a Non-Biblical Genre for a Biblical Practice

3] Bloggers as ‘Un-Ordained’ Voices…?