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Dr. James Emery White Christian Blog and Commentary

Dr. James Emery White

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, North Carolina; President of Serious Times, a ministry which explores the intersection of faith and culture (www.serioustimes.org); and ranked adjunctive professor of theology and culture on the Charlotte campus of Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary. Dr. White holds the B.S., M.Div. and Ph.D. degrees, along with additional work at Vanderbilt University and Oxford University. He is the author of over a dozen books.

In the current issue of The Atlantic, Judith Shulevitz penned an essay titled “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore.” The subtitle summary read, “Our unpredictable and overburdened schedules are taking a dire toll on American society.” The heart of her concern is how the “hours in which we work, rest and socialize are becoming ever more desynchronized.”

She writes:

“Whereas we once shared the same temporal rhythms—five days on, two days off, federal holidays, thank-God-it’s-Friday—our weeks are now shaped by the unpredictable dictates of our employers. Nearly a fifth of Americans hold jobs with nonstandard or variable hours. They may work seasonally, on rotating shifts, or in the gig economy driving for Uber or delivering for Postmates. Meanwhile, more people on the upper end of the pay scale are working long hours. Combine the people who have unpredictable workweeks with those who have prolonged ones, and you get a good third of the American labor force.”

Her concern is the loss of a “blueprint for a shared life.” Families, she maintains, pay the steepest price:

“Erratic hours can push parents—usually mothers—out of the labor force. A body of research suggests that children whose parents work odd or long hours are more likely to evince behavioral or cognitive problems, or be obese. Even parents who can afford nannies or extended day care are hard-pressed to provide thoughtful attention to their kids when work keeps them at their desks well past the dinner hour.”

She even acknowledges its assault on what used to be the one, empty, “sacred” day of the week:

“I know this dates me, but I’m nostalgic for that atmosphere of repose—the extended family dinners, the spontaneous outings, the neighborly visits. We haven’t completely lost these shared hours, of course. Time-use studies show that weekends continue to allow more socializing, civic activity and religious worship than weekdays do. But Sundays are no longer a day of forced noncommerce—everything’s open—or nonproductivity. Even if you aren’t asked to pull a weekend shift, work intrudes upon those once-sacred hours. The previous week’s unfinished business beckons when you open your laptop; urgent emails from a colleague await you in your inbox. A low-level sense of guilt attaches to those stretches of time not spent working.”

But is it simply our culture’s shifting schedule that is at hand? Hardly. Derek Thompson writes that our new busyness and schedule mania have become our new religious identity. Of the many new atheisms filling the void in the rise of the “nones”, nothing is looming as large as workism:

“What is workism? It is the belief that work is not only necessary to economic production, but also the centerpiece of one’s identity and life’s purpose; and the belief that any policy to promote human welfare must always encourage more work.”

Thompson notes that while it promises transcendence and community, it is failing to deliver. As, I might add, any type of atheism would. 

But this new religion not only fails spiritually, but also relationally, undermining the very nature of social and family life. So as we reflect on answers, let’s be clear about the order of events: our schedules did not create workism, workism did.

Perhaps it’s time to bow down before another altar.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Judith Shulevitz, “Why You Never See Your Friends Anymore,” The Atlantic, November 2019 issue, read online.

Derek Thompson, “Workism Is Making Americans Miserable,” The Atlantic, February 24, 2019, read online.


About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His forthcoming book, Christianity for People Who Aren’t Christians: Uncommon Answers to Common Questions, is available for preorder on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.    

Several years ago, I wrote a book titled Opening the Front Door: Worship and Church Growth. It was a simple book, but rather controversial at the time. I made the case that weekend worship services had eclipsed Sunday School in attendance since 1971, and therefore, Sunday School was not the “front door” of the church in terms of outreach; rather, the large group weekend service was.

Further, I argued that this meant rethinking how to “open” that front door as effectively as possible to reach people, which could potentially involve rethinking dress codes, musical style and much more.

Today?

Tame.

Then?

Oh my.

Today, I am arguing that there is still a front door to the church, only that instead of it being physical it is digital. And it can be handled in a way that is just as alienating as when churches used to sing nothing but hymns, play organs, sit in pews and pray in King James English.

Fifteen seconds on your Facebook page, Instagram account, Twitter feed, or webpage – 15 seconds into listening to your message or watching your service online – and they may have already clicked off because of what they’ve seen, heard or experienced.

Actually, 15 seconds is generous.

According to the research of the National Center for Biotechnology Information, the average attention span has dropped from 12 seconds in the year 2000 to just 8.25 seconds in 2015. That’s approximately a 25% drop in a little more than decade. To put that into perspective, the average attention span of a goldfish is 9 seconds. No, I did not make that up. We’re .75 seconds less attentive than “Mr. Bubbles.” 

But what are really operating are highly evolved “eight-second filters.” People today have learned to sort through information quickly because there’s so much of it to sort through.

Now, once you do get their attention, they’ll stay with you.

They can become intensely committed and focused. 

But you only have eight seconds to break through. 

That’s why one New York marketing consultant tells his advertising partners that “if they don’t communicate in five words and a big picture, they will not reach this generation.” All to say, today is the day of crafting a digital message to a post-Christian world that captures their attention – or at least doesn’t lose it – as instantaneously as possible.

That’s the barrier we need to break through.

The bottom line is that today, the typical first-time guest to your church is coming at the end of a long process. It may be their first time through the physical front door, but the actual front door of the church – the first one they entered – was digital.

So ask yourself some basic questions, and they are more significant than you might think:

Who is your website designed to serve? For most churches, it is designed for the members and active attenders of the church.

What about your Facebook page? Is it for the community of your church or for those who might be exploring your church?

What about your Instagram account? Twitter feed? It’s not that there can’t be posts for your church – of course there can be member-specific posts and should be – and it’s not that your website can’t serve up information needed and necessary for your church community. The real issue has to do with thinking about it as the front door.

Is your main splash page for the first-time guest? 

Are the easiest, primary links designed to serve someone exploring you digitally?

Is your Facebook page winsome, compelling and inviting?

Is what you have on Instagram going to make someone want to go higher up and deeper in?

How well does it pass the eight-second filter?

Think everything through digitally the way we have been thinking through everything physically for the unchurched. We’ve always been about opening the front door. It’s just that now,

… that door is digital.

James Emery White

 

Sources

On attention span lengths, see National Center for Biotechnology Information, as well as the U.S. National Library of Medicine, as reported by Statistic Brain Research Institute (found HERE).

For internet-browsing statistics, see Harald Weinreich, Hartmut Obendorf, Eelco Herder and Matthias Mayer: “Not Quite the Average: An Empirical Study of Web Use,” in the ACM Transactions on the Web, vol. 2, no. 1 (February 2008), article 5.

On “eight-second filters,” see Jeremy Finch, “What Is Generation Z, and What Does It Want?” Fast Company, May 4, 2015, read online.

Alex Williams, “Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z,” The New York Times, September 20, 2015, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.    

An effort long feared, but widely predicted, has finally surfaced.

Last Thursday former Texas representative and 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke said that churches, charities and other religious institutions that oppose same-sex marriage should lose their tax-exempt status. This came with the promise that, if elected president, he will immediately enforce the policy through executive action.

His reasoning?

“There can be no reward, no benefit, no tax break for anyone or any institution, any organization in America that denies the full human rights and the full civil rights of every single one of us. And so as president, we’re going to make that a priority and we are going to stop those who are infringing upon the human rights of our fellow Americans.”

Please read that last paragraph carefully. It holds two wildly provocative ideas: first, that taking a religious, moral stand is now equated with denying someone else their human/civil rights; second, that the government must stop any and all expression of those moral stands.

There has never been such a direct assault on the First Amendment in the history of the United States. Further, it is an assault on the very principles O’Rourke is claiming to support—namely, equality for all.

But do not expect his argument, much less sentiment, to go away. If anything, expect it to take root and spread. As a result, it is worth addressing it on both of its fronts—that this is a civil rights issue akin to race, and that the tax-exempt status of churches and other charitable organizations are some type of “reward” that should not be given to those who so clearly do harm to others.

Let’s first disentangle sexuality and race. Rebecca McLaughlin – herself same-sex attracted – aptly notes how gay rights is simply not the new civil rights movement, as if failing to embrace gay marriage now is like opposing mixed-marriage then. For example: 1) unlike racial heritage, sexual activity is a choice; 2) unlike with racial differences, there are significant biological differences between men and women; and 3) more white Westerners than people of color support gay marriage (As leading black intellectual Stephen Carter has observed, “When you mock Christians, you’re not mocking who you think you are.”).

But then there is the tax-exempt status issue.

As Professor John Inazu at Washington University has noted, “the candidate [O’Rourke] seems not to realize that eliminating tax exemptions for certain religious institutions would be catastrophic.”

For example, such a policy would not simply affect the conservative Christian base of the Republican party O’Rourke clearly had in mind, but also “conservative black churches, mosques and other Islamic organizations, and orthodox Jewish communities, among others.” As Inazu contends, “It is difficult to understand how Democratic candidates can be ‘for’ these communities – advocating tolerance along the way – if they are actively lobbying to put them out of business.”

Perhaps the most culturally potent argument against taking away the tax-exempt status of religious and charitable organizations is how it would “decimate the charitable sector.”

Here Inazu is worth reading at length:

“It is certainly the case that massive amounts of government funding flow through religious charitable organizations in the form of grants and tax exemptions. But anyone who thinks this is simply a pass-through that can be redirected to government providers or newly established charitable networks that better conform to Democratic orthodoxies is naive to the realities of the charitable sector.

“In fact, religious individuals and organizations spend billions of their own dollars in the charitable sector and donate hundreds of millions of hours of service in global and domestic regions where the social fabric is the most distressed. They have spent generations building institutions, infrastructure and networks that enable large-scale responses to natural disasters and other calamities. When hurricanes and tornadoes devastate entire communities, churches and religious organizations mobilize thousands of volunteers and many tons of relief supplies. Ending the tax-exempt status of these organizations would substantially weaken the charitable sector, which would result in more people suffering.”

But sane reasoning isn’t winning the day, so harden yourself to what is sure to come. Harvard law professor Mark Tushnet has already suggested that those on the left take a “hard line” with religious conservatives because, after all, “trying to be nice to the losers didn’t work well after the Civil War,” and “taking a hard line seemed to work reasonably well in Germany and Japan after 1945.”

Yes, he said that.

As I’ve written before, it is no longer about acceptance or tolerance or equal rights—it is about the refusal for anyone to disagree. And if you do disagree, you should be penalized in whatever way possible: refused participation in the economy, silenced in the public sphere and, if needed, criminally prosecuted.

Or as an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal maintained, “It’s no longer enough that they won the marriage debate… [they] now want to punish anybody who disagrees.”

This festering boil was revealed in the backlash toward openly gay Ellen DeGeneres for simply sitting next to former president George W. Bush at a baseball game. She responded that the world needed more kindness and tolerance. “Here’s the thing,” she added. “I’m friends with George Bush. In fact, I’m friends with a lot of people who don’t share the same beliefs that I have. We’re all different and I think that we’ve forgotten that that’s OK.”

Yes, Ellen, sadly we have.

James Emery White

 

Sources

Leonardo Blair, “Beto O’Rourke Says Churches Should Lose Tax-Exempt Status for Opposing Same-Sex Marriage,” The Christian Post, October 11, 2019, read online.

Rebecca McLaughlin, Confronting Christianity: 12 Hard Questions for the World’s Largest Religion.

John Inazu, “Democrats Are Going to Regret Beto’s Stance on Conservative Churches,” The Atlantic, October 12, 2019, read online.

Cydney Henderson, “George W. Bush ‘Appreciated’ Ellen DeGeneres Going to Bat for Friendship After Backlash,” USA Today, October 8, 2019, read online.

“Beto O’Rourke’s Progressive Tolerance,” The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 2019, read online.

About the Author

James Emery White is the founding and senior pastor of Mecklenburg Community Church in Charlotte, NC, and the ranked adjunct professor of theology and culture at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, where he also served as their fourth president. His latest book, Meet Generation Z: Understanding and Reaching the New Post-Christian World, is available on Amazon. To enjoy a free subscription to the Church & Culture blog, visit ChurchAndCulture.org, where you can view past blogs in our archive and read the latest church and culture news from around the world. Follow Dr. White on TwitterFacebook and Instagram.    

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