Thursday, March 21, 2019

Faith Works 3-30-19

Warning: this is NOT for this Saturday, but for next, since I'll be out of town early next week.

Faith Works 3-30-19

Jeff Gill


DeChurchification, continued



Last week I mentioned the strongly developing trend to have weddings anywhere but in a church setting, and funerals increasingly having no religious context (if a memorial service happens at all).


For generations, getting married was when people "came back" to church. A young adult might skip Sunday services for a stretch, but then a wedding and babies would bring you back.


Delayed age of first marriage, and later childbearing, have all increased the gap, and contributed to many churches losing not just their teens but their twenty-somethings and beyond. A three or four year gap in regular worship participation became more like a decade, and that's a long time to be away.


I bring this up because historically I think you can find back in the Fifties and the Twenties and even into the 1800s where people bemoaned how often older youth and young adults would not maintain their faith community connections. But they did tend to come back, and I think the wedding day and infant baptisms or baby dedications were a big part of that.


It's not that we've stopped doing something that once worked in many mainstream religious traditions, as much as we're still relying on a mechanism for retrieval that's broken, and maybe in the short term unrepairable.


Meanwhile, the most significant numbers for young adult participation in worship are found in contemporary style settings, which to many older Christians doesn't look much like "church."


To which many younger believers say "exactly."


Again, I'm not saying my awkward phrase of de-churchification describes something entirely bad. But for any church looking forward, it's an aspect of the cultural landscape we all have to take into account. Another way of putting it is that "church culture" is no longer closely allied to the general culture, and if we're going to teach our faith and practices to our children and youth, we're going to have to do it better, sooner, and more clearly on our own terms.


Is that going to be through Sunday school or Vacation Bible School or church camp? I'm less sure than I used to be of those old wineskins being able to hold the new vintage. Like many preachers, I'm pressed by long-time church goers to pour new wine into them, and then folks are distressed when (Luke 5:37) they burst and end up holding nothing.


The new wineskins won't look right at first. They won't look like church. They're already being put into use, and we're often overlooking them because they don't look like what we're used to.


They're life groups and phone apps and podcasts; they're blog posts and mission trips and hands-on ministry. They're messages in worship, whether on a Sunday morning, evening, or Tuesday night, that aren't as much a lecture as they are guided discussions.


Just like the "flipped classroom" model where teaching is viewed on devices during the learner's own schedule, but the group meeting is where homework is done, so is the direction of Christian formation. Not movies in church basements (or filmstrips in darkened classrooms, remember those?) and then a workbook at home, but video lessons you watch on your own time and then the blanks get filled in when the group gets together – in person or online.


And part of me suspects that even at these examples, which may sound ridiculously out of step with historic traditions and practices as it is, may be rooted in yesterday's technological models, and that the immediate future might look even stranger than this. But rows of chairs and students all reading out of the same paper curriculum with a single teacher sitting up front: that's not coming back. And maybe isn't as timeless as we think.


But what about weddings and funerals and those life events we think of as central to our church fabric? Well, in the same way, they aren't as essential to the vitality of church communities as we might think. Until after World War II, in most of our religious traditions, weddings were in the parsonage at most, often in the bride's home. Not a church thing. Funerals? There's a reason we have the term "funeral home" because they rose up to replace the long time practice of laying out a body and having the wake in the deceased's own home.


What churches DO have to attend to are marriages, not weddings; to the practice of dying well, not reclaiming funerals; to Christian formation, not just traditional education. There's church, and then there's faithfulness, and maybe we shouldn't confuse the two.



Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's not happy about dechurchification, but he's thinking it's not all bad, either. Throw him more examples at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Notes from my Knapsack 3-28-19

Notes from my Knapsack 3-28-19

Jeff Gill


Spring is flowing through the county



While reading an absolutely delightful blog post by a fellow named Gerry in Liverpool (and if you don't understand how that can happen, you probably don't spend much time on the internet, and good for you), which you can find at, I found the inspiration for my last column and this one.


He cites another author speaking of the London suburbs while trying to prise apart the landscape of his Liverpudlian surroundings. Specifically, Gerry quotes:


"As Gillian Tisdall remarks in The Fields Beneath, her wonderful study of the landforms that lie concealed beneath her own London suburb of Kentish Town, 'the town is simply disguised countryside':


Main roads, some older than history itself, still bend to avoid long-dried marshes, or veer off at an angle where the wall of a manor house once stood.  Hills and valleys still remain; rivers, even though entombed in sewer pipes […] Garden walls follow the line of old hedgerows; the very street patterns have been determined by the holdings of individual farmers and landlords. […]


From this, it is only a short step of the imagination to envisage the onetime fields being still there, with their grass and buttercups and even the footprints of cows, merely hidden beneath modern concrete and asphalt – as if you had simply to lift up a paving stone in order to reveal it."


So a quote within a quote, but a reality all around us in Granville. I work in Newark, and much of the same sort of thing is going on there, as well. Water will out, you might say, as the rain falls, the spring floods rise, and it all has to go somewhere. We channel and guide and re-route, but we can't make it run uphill (without pumps, anyhow) and it will always tend to seek out the path of least resistance.


Which has had me fascinated for years by Log Pond Run, a name that itself evokes some interesting questions of our Ohio narrative and a landscape formed by both nature and history.


Log Pond Run actually starts north of the village, just off of Route 661 southeast of Cambria Mill Road and what you might still call North Street that far north of Granville. In your car heading that way you might catch a glimpse of a small pond to your right, the land dropping away to the left and the right, a break in watersheds.


It meanders down to the area behind Goosepond, one name of Newark's former northern marshes more broadly called "the log pond," and down behind the mega Kroger and then east under 21st Street, meandering through post-war neighborhoods, and then down past Moull Street and into older, oddly angled streets. It cuts across under Mt. Vernon Road, past the cabin where Edward Roye was born in 1815, and below Elmwood Avenue, named for the stately home of Israel Dille built in 1837 but now ironically facing Hudson Avenue.


Then no more than a littered ditch it creeps around the southern edge of the Owens Corning fiberglas plant and enters the North Fork just above the renewed totem pole at Truck One.


Log Pond Run is easy to ignore today, but its course has shaped streets and infrastructure still prominent in today's city. Smaller streams have had their impact on Granville, as well.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's got a few more cricks and runs to tell you about. Mention a stream that's caught your attention to him at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Faith Works 3-23-19

Faith Works 3-23-19

Jeff Gill


The DeChurchification of almost everything



It was when I looked up some information about an event venue that it hit me.


"The wedding ceremony must take place at the event center for us to host the reception."


It wasn't a local location, but I can see it coming. And I get their point.


If the wedding is happening in a church, and you as an event center have the caterer and the DJ and the other parts of the program of the day, and especially if you're an event center that hosts multiple occasions per weekend, you lose control if the ceremony is somewhere else. If the organist or photographer or minister holds things up for any reason, there you sit.


And let's be blunt. That's where the major money is being spent. They hold those deposits, those investments, and they hold really most of the cards in the game of "Your Special Day" so why not just play the Ace of Spades.


"The wedding ceremony must take place at the event center for us to host the reception."


In my own ministry, I see it more often. And not just with weddings. Funerals are not what they once were, even in regards to funeral homes and memorial services. When I came into the pulpit at the church I serve, I didn't make a big deal out of it, but I made sure that people knew funerals at the church were not only okay, but we could make some aspects of the service easier and frankly more affordable for them. We saw an uptick in the number of funerals happening in the church.


But at the same time, the increase of cremation, in no small part because of costs, has meant that the time tables and sequence and yes, locations of services have changed. In general, most of my colleagues report fewer memorial services at church; for funeral homes, fewer of them involve clergy. If you haven't been to a funeral recently, you might not realize it, but the nature and leadership of memorial services has changed greatly over the last decade or so.


And an increasing number of people specify no memorial service at all; or the family chooses not to have one. Some of this is because there's no religious affiliation, some has to do with cost (or perceived cost). But it's an increasing reality, and even death notices in the paper aren't always placed.


There's really nothing I can add to the discussion around Sundays in general or the mornings in particular as "sacred time." Nope. All sorts of events, from youth sports to more and more public events are verging into Sunday morning. Preachers and church leaders can call for commitment to attendance in worship all we want, but the pressures are huge and not often resisted – other than by choosing not to participate at all, a protest which doesn't register much in this world – to not only do practices and games on Sundays, but for grandparents and other family members to be gone to attend. I've heard the arguments about scholarships and paying for college and I hope you'll forgive my skeptical eyebrow on that, but the fact is that more churches are trying to figure out how to add worship services more than trying to herd parents and children into their single Sunday am offering.


So while some churches have had Wednesday night services for some time, and certainly many Catholic parishes have held "vigil masses" on Saturday evening for almost as long, the experience of "church" continues to spread out across the week, into different time slots. And smaller congregations who have trouble sustaining a single service are seeing major impacts to attendance (and giving) due to these increased absences.


And then there's charitable giving. Faith based organizations from the local church to mission agencies were, for decades and even centuries, the overwhelming center of what it meant to "give generously." Now every retail outlet asks "would you like to donate to…" or cash register solicitations at restaurants or GoFundMes on social media. Churches and even a central community United Way find that their donor base is now spreading their giving out across a very broad landscape, where personal appeals and direct donations are swamping the old model of a pledge or collection plate way of giving. Church was where you gave, and learned about giving; now, it's online and suggested almost every time you post . . . and am I cynical about the 2 or 3 or 5% they're taking off the top?


You can guess… or you can read more next week on "dechurchification" and where I think it's going.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's been gathering notes for a series on dechurchification for some time. Throw him more examples at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Monday, March 11, 2019

Faith Works 3-16-19

Faith Works 3-16-19

Jeff Gill


Defining terms in prison



It's probably no surprise to many of you that some of the first drafts of my columns can be found on social media, which on a good day is a sandbox for open inquiry and random feedback.


On a bad day it's a fever swamp of political partisanship and anonymous bots generating trend influencing memes which often make no sense, but that's a different column.


What I did do recently was get my foot caught in the bear trap of making a comment after reading an article posted by "The Atlantic" magazine about the Paul Manafort sentencing. "The system isn't broken because Manafort got four years rather than the 19-year recommendation that the sentencing guidelines spat out. The system is broken because other people get the long sentence—because other poorer and often darker people don't get the same chances."


I agree, and not because I have any reason to defend Mr. Manafort, but because his sentence rang a bell I've been pulling on for some time. Four years for a non-violent crime seems like the most we should be giving anyone. Our prisons are crowded, our incarceration rates in the United States are the most punitive in the entire developed world, and our outcomes are not exactly making that look like a good call.


Here's a different angle on the same question: are there really any non-violent crimes that warrant more than four years in prison? At all, for anyone? On a purely pragmatic, practical basis, four years clearly disrupts your life (that's a feature, not a bug), gives time to break ties to unhealthy relationships, and a period more than long enough to deal with anything from simply rethinking your life to dealing with recovery . . . or earn a degree. I honestly am asking: why would anyone who hadn't committed a violent crime ever get more than four years of lock-up? Are we perhaps not thinking reasonably about what we want from criminal justice, incarceration, and rehabilitation? Or is it just about shifting sands of vengeance and retribution?


There are, of course, arguments against my view here. One is "what about repeat offenders?" Okay, there's room for escalation if folks keep coming back around having not learned any lesson, I suppose.


Others asked me about non-violent crimes which cruelly tear apart people's lives. Usually Bernie Madoff was invoked. I was thinking of Madoff when I wrote this, and my only response is "but where does that end?" In general, I lose zero sleep over Bernie spending decades in prison; in practice, we end up with large numbers of people in prison for many years on small matters, and I think we're spending millions to no good end. If sentencing was indexed to amount stolen and non-recoverable, I'd probably vote for that. However, I think many people underestimate the social impact of prison, and just how much a term in lock-up disrupts lives. Beyond a certain point, you're just setting an inmate up to develop a "new normal" of prison life, from which they have to transition to come back into life on the outside.


Meanwhile, 95+% of those who go to jail or prison return to our communities: I think our goal should be that, having invested the time and environment in convict housing, we see better outcomes than we currently get.


As a Christian, I struggle to determine where my faith and religious tradition guides me in a question like this. My reading of the New Testament says that civic authority should be respected, and that good government is part of a godly social order; it also tell me that we can rebel against injustice, and should. I don't think the general idea of locking up criminals is against Christianity, but I think a corrections system overly reliant on retribution and vengeance might be. Even if you push aside the Gospels and go back to "an eye for an eye," much about our current sentencing feels like we sometimes take an eye, a hand, and a toe against an eye-level offense, and that leads me to speak up.


My faith does lead me into the practice and promotion of restorative justice, which isn't about offenders getting off scot-free, but asking if we are truly giving victims what they need for wholeness, especially in crimes where society is the victim as much as any individual.


Feel free to argue with me!


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he's very interested in counter-arguments, honest! Just not political partisanship. Tell him what you think at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.

Friday, March 08, 2019

Notes from my Knapsack 3-14-19

Notes from my Knapsack 3-14-19

Jeff Gill


Roads and ravines and streams



It's with a wincing and morbid fascination that I watch the continued mangling of the course of Salt Run from Spring Valley, underneath and along Ohio 16 to its historic destiny in Raccoon Creek.


This once salty watercourse gave the Licking River and our county its name, truly a central stream in our local story, but now appearing to most passers-by as a simple ditch. Middleton's development across Weaver Drive herdes and silts it even more into a narrow channel, directed past the west edge of their benevolent development and north to the equally tamed Raccoon Creek bottomlands.


Tamed, but not tame entirely; floods can still surprise us. The interplay of rains and soil and springs which shaped our landscape in large ways still can creep up on us in small.


The central intersection of the 1805 establishment of Granville was selected both for a now lost mound once the center point of Broadway's meeting with Main, but also because of springs nearby, a few of which still trigger sump pumps in church basements nearby. Perhaps the erection of that mound had something to do with the springs being so handy.


All along the southern face of what are now the Welsh Hills, their geology directs water to the surface in a variety of spots once found to be life-giving for the thirsty, and traditionally thought of as access points to the underworld. A practical and spiritual source all at the same time. Now many of those once vital outpourings are almost immediately redirected into storm sewers; if you have a sense of their former locations, you can find a grating and lean down and listen, and still hear them roar.


One is just in front of my house. I can hear the echo of rushing water in dry seasons and wet; the deer can't quite hear it, but somehow they remember, and follow a lost watercourse from the hills to the north down into bottomlands to my south, even though the lawns are leveled off today. There are easier places for them to stroll their four-legged way, but they don't depart from the path of their predecessors.


Behind my house is Newark-Granville Road. A long, straight stretch from the foot of Ashley Hill east of us, past the Cherry Valley Road intersection itself fraught with history, but undeviating pretty much all the way to Clear Run and Mount Parnassus on the other side. It may mark deeper history than first sessions of common pleas courts and pioneer encampments, a path turned road that might, before the so-called "Indian trail" as the early settlers called it, have been a buffalo trace. Buffalo or bison could have worn that way which in turn, deeper back into unrecorded but no less real history, might have been a mastodon track. Thousands of years earlier, their trunks asway, tusks sweeping the grasses on either side, those mighty megafauna would have trodden deep a route from river crossing to watering hole, walking one after another in single file.


Sometimes I look out of an evening and imagine a line of mastodons or mammoths walking towards the village. The road's alignment tells a story, just as much as the realigned streams and rivulets do today.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and pastor in Licking County; he imagines all sorts of strange things. Tell him where you see streets and trails taking us at, or follow @Knapsack on Twitter.