Thursday, January 27, 2011

Faith Works 2-5

Faith Works 2-5-11

Jeff Gill


A Cult You Might Be a Member Of



It's been a while since I wrote about cults.


I feel about cults and their influence much as C.S. Lewis did about Satan and all his works: you can actually spend too much time talking about them and help their cause more than your own.


How much is too much? Almost any amount can be, mused Lewis, after which he wrote a whole book showing how our world looks from the point of view of a senior demon, who was advising (or let's say "preparing") a junior nephew in the dark arts of temptation.


Consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds, said Emerson, so in the shadows of those two older and wiser eminences, I will venture into the murky waters of cult influence.


There is a cult that can't be said to be growing in pervasiveness, since it's been around for a very long time – some might say as long as time itself. Most of us know that this is a sad, shabby, false belief system, and look down on those we perceive as having gotten tangled up in it . . . and there are precious few of us who aren't actually members of the cult whether we know it or not.


(And most of those who are emphatically not "in" let themselves be defined almost entirely by their not being in it, which means the cult oddly controls even their lives.)


What is this malevolent, destructive, subversive cabal? Oh, you ask like you don't know.


It is: the Cult of the Next Thing.


There. I said it out loud.


The Cult of the Next Thing has infiltrated every church, mosque, synagogue, cathedral, praise barn, or rental hall where a congregation gathers. The Cult of the Next Thing is weaving its ever clutching tendrils through every denominational structure there is, whatever the faith.


The Cult of the Next Thing whispers sibilantly into your ear "things will be better as soon as the Next Thing comes along." When you start to suspect you need to be moving along yourself, because everything where you currently worship, where you practice your faith, is getting kind of old and stale and over-familiar, the voice of the Cult of the Next Thing says seductively to you "when you find the Next Thing, everything will be different."


The object of worship in this world-dominating cult, the Next Thing, is always almost here, nearly ready, just about perfect. It just requires that you let go of what you've known, and usually those people you've gotten close to (or been irritated by), and move on to get just a little closer to the promise of . . . the Next Thing, which will fix everything.


The Next Thing is easier, cooler, smarter but also simpler, more effective (or will be once the kinks get worked out), shinier, has fewer calories, and whitens your teeth while slimming your figure. The Next Thing gets you more in tune with God without actually having to listen closely or strain or wait for a deeper understanding, because the Next Thing IS a deeper understanding just by being what it is.


And by moving to the Next Thing, you show your taste and discernment by so doing, as opposed to all those still stuck on the last thing, whatever that was. I forget.


On the other hand, there's this fellow who said that the Kingdom of God was not the next thing, but is within you. If you move on to the next thing, you really aren't any further away from the Kingdom, but just by making that shift you didn't automatically get any closer to it.


When you start getting habituated, not to say addicted, to the experience of the shift, the move, the transition to the next thing, that can – itself – actually block your approach to what's been within you all along.


Perhaps the true worship you need to find is best located not by going back, nor by moving on yet again (in tools or techniques, which church or discipline, whatever), but by stopping where you are, with all the flaws and problems there so painfully apparent all around you. Stop, and reflect, and look at your own role in creating an atmosphere of thankful praise in your heart.


You might be surprised by what happens next.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's fallen into a few cultic traps himself. Tell him about your experience of the Next Thing at, or follow Knapsack @Twitter.

Wednesday, January 26, 2011

Faith Works 1-29

Faith Works 1-29-11

Jeff Gill


Ministerial Education Is Changing (Again)



For most Christian denominations, a seminary degree is the baseline credential for ordained ministry.


A seminary is effectively a graduate program, a master's degree beyond a bachelor's, or college degree. In living memory (but just barely), a seminary or "divinity" degree was a B.D., a "bachelor of divinity" such as Oxford and Cambridge in England still grant, but both across the pond and here it was a graduate degree in the sense that you had to have earned your Bachelor of Arts (B.A.) or Bachelor of Science (B.S.) to enroll.


So to reduce confusion the degree has become known in the last fifty years as an M.Div., for the Latinate "magister divinitatis" or Master of Divinity.  Divinity is, when it's not a very nice egg white based dessert, an archaic term for pastoral theology – the practical study of applied theology in preaching, pastoral care, sacramental theology, and ethics. If that sounds like more than your average master's program, you're right.


A master of divinity has long been 90-100 credit hours to earn, plus an oral defense and/or a thesis paper. Most academic master's programs are 32 to 50 credit hours, in part because they're a high-level overview of a particular field, usually leading to the more intensive doctorate, or Ph.D. program. But the standard "ordination track" degree of M.Div. is a kind of unique creature all its own, not quite a doctorate, but well beyond a basic college diploma.


Like any graduate education, though, it ain't cheap. Or isn't.


I could go over all the woes and complications of having significant student loan debt built up, and then going into a professional field that have average pay rates lower than any other (less than teachers & social workers, let alone administrators & lawyers & doctors, even worse when you compare by amount of education & experience), but the truth is you know all that.


The question getting asked with varying degrees of insight and compassion across the country is: but why?


Why, that is, do we need each gathered congregation to have a graduate-level trained person with a professional certification & institutional oversight, when you just need someone to get up and say a few words on Sunday and go visit a few sick people occasionally, plus read a funeral service out of a book once in a while?


[I'll pause so all the ordained clergy reading this can pause to catch their breath from either weeping uncontrollably or laughing maniacally.]


The problem is, it's not that simple, and never has been. True, the historic roots of "a well ordered and educated clergy" are in the days when you were a day's ride on horseback from the next pastor of your tradition, you had (maybe) a Greek New Testament along with your KJV Bible, and a commentary or two, and a book of printed sermons from an honored preacher of your denomination. Along with the doctor (if there was one) you were the best educated person in town, almost without fail, and when there was no schoolteacher you usually filled in until the next one could be found.


Stipulated: those days are gone. But what cars and interstates and the internet haven't changed is that if someone asks you a pointed theological question in an ER at 3 am, or while standing by a graveside at high noon, you can't often say "What a good question that is; let me go home and look some answers up and I'll e-mail you later."


And you may be able to pass off pre-digested messages out of the gunny sacks of LaHaye and Lucado and Warren and Schuller, maybe even re-purposed as your own, but after a while the least literate of your flock is going to notice that the teaching and tendencies of your preaching is swinging around the compass, like an unanchored ship at high tide in shifting winds.


There's a place & a purpose for seminary trained clergy, even if practically speaking that may not be every pulpit in every church building every Sunday. Meanwhile, church bodies have to accountable to the congregations, who may observe that if credentialed clergy are no better bets for good behavior and solid teaching than a guy off the street, why pay the premium?


Seminary training & ministerial certification are being radically reworked literally as we speak (so to speak). If you hear a conversation going on near you, jump in. We need everyone thinking and working on this challenge.


Jeff Gill is a writer, storyteller, and supply preacher around central Ohio; he's a "magister divinitatis" himself but always thought he should have gotten a B.S. degree. Tell him about your training in ministry at or follow Knapsack @Twitter.