What is the Point of Church?


I am part of the St John’s Lutheran Church community in Sacramento. The leaders are always pushing our community to do better. This Sunday I had to laugh when I shut the stall door in the ladies’ restroom. These two questions (pictured above) were posted there. They also provided paper in the courtyard for us to share our thoughts.

I’m sure this was planned long before Hurricane Harvey hovered over Houston. However, in the light of the social media outrage over prosperity preacher Joel Osteen’s seeming indifference to the plight of neighbors flooded out of their homes, it is very timely.

Even people who don’t share our faith expect churches, synagogues and mosques to do good together. When a disaster or crisis hits a community, the public expectation is that these communities of faith will organize a response. I admit, I expect this too. I emailed my pastor to ask if St John’s was going to take a collection for the Evangelical Lutheran Church response. (yes) While the media was focused playing off Osteen’s lack of response against the muslim communities collective rescue efforts, I knew that all of the mainline denominations, World Vision and others were also on the ground with supplies and money. As I walked around the church campus on Sunday I wondered if as much water fell on Sacramento and the areas ringed by levees filled up like a bathtub, would St John’s be above flood stage? What refuge could we offer?

Everyday in Sacramento we have an on-going  emergency of homelessness and our church community does a lot with other communities of faith to respond. I participate in that effort. This is not the place to boast, but I did choose this congregation to join, in part, because of their service to the whole community: LGBT, homeless, youth, and the elderly and people like me.

Could I do all of these things without the church? Of course, there are many organizations that I could give to and participate in a variety of ways to address homelessness. And in Houston we see neighbors helping neighbors without being asked. Doctors and nurses reported to hospitals to volunteer. Social workers reported to emergency shelters, and so on.

I could meditate every morning instead of reading scripture and having a quiet time. I could go on a walk along the river each Sunday morning and enjoy God’s creation. But I crave the unique experience of singing, praying, reading scripture with my community. There are many styles of worship but all for the same purpose: to praise God, confess our sins, and experience God together. Do we actually experience God? Yes, but only faintly. Yet every Sunday I participate and marvel at way the combination of ritual, music and sermon ground me again in my values and beliefs for the coming week.

I also look to the my church family to help me through life, and me them. Celebrate the marriage, food and gifts for baby, comfort and aid when sick, comfort and condolence when death comes to someone we love. Again, this can also be experienced with family and friends; however, not necessarily with the hope our faith provides.

It is true that organized religion can also hurt. I’ve experienced the incredible agape love that transports and I’ve been judged very harshly and my family shunned. Some people have been victimized by the authority given to priests and pastors. It is a community meaning it is made up of humans and sometimes the phrase “only human” applies.

The church community can also coddle its members and become another self-help vending machine. There is often very little recognition of the spiritual disciplines and the importance of an interior life in the USA church life.  I want my church community to challenge me to spiritual growth.

Listening to the replay of Krista Tippett’s interview with poet and philosopher John O’Donohue, they discussed whether we are more impoverished than previous generations as to our ability to love and be a friend. He said no, we are just out of practice. This is where the church could be more active: in naming the love and friendship that Christ called us to and modeled for us. In the past the church has been a prophet in the community. The church community should wonder what they are not doing if everyone is comfortable.

Best if we show, not tell.









Donald Trump and Spiral Dynamics

What does Joel Osteen have in common with Donald Trump?
What does Joel Osteen have in common with Donald Trump?
What does Donald Trump have in common with Joel Osteen?
What does Donald Trump have in common with Joel Osteen?

One of the inspirations for starting this blog was the teaching I received from Rob Bell and Richard Rohr on spiral dynamics. I was so intrigued by this concept I dug out other books I had read, such as Real Power by Janet O. Hagberg. I ordered Transformations of Consciousness by Wilber, Engler and Brown and intended to read it. My first posts were going to be my synthesis of these ideas and its usefulness as a tool for leaders.

Then life intervened and a few people who are important to me did not react very positively when I shared the new ideas I was mulling over. It could just as easily have been my poor presentation, but it shook my enthusiasm.

I set this project aside and got busy with other projects. And then Donald Trump announced his candidacy for President of the United States and his popularity completely mystified me. WTF?

I hoped he would flame out with each new absurd pronouncement. He got away with his ridiculous statements about Mexicans with a few canceled contracts. Then surely his criticisms of John McCain would self-destruct his campaign. Instead his popularity went up. WTF?

Then I witnessed the Trump phenomenon up close while I was bicycling across Iowa with RAGBRAI. In spite of his criticisms of John Kerry’s bicycle riding proclivities, his campaign sent a Trump bus and volunteers to dog the route each of the 7 days. This inspired two extreme reactions. Either his campaign bus got cheers and a thumbs up or jeers and the finger. No one was indifferent. It was impossible to tell the numerical balance without spending a lot of time near the bus. (I had a visceral negative reaction.) I realized then that I had to spend some time figuring out how anyone could be enthusiastic about his candidacy. My teammate Barb had the same idea and she pedaled hard to catch up with a woman who cheered only to learn that this woman also loved Sarah Palin. Barb drifted away wondering WTF?

This led me back to the theory of spiral dynamics and a possible explanation.

It is dangerous to explain spiral dynamics in a nutshell; however, this is a blog and not a 323 page book, so I will attempt to do it justice. First, it assumes that there are levels or stages of consciousness and that people grow in their consciousness through life experience and especially through suffering. Similar levels of emotional maturity have been developed by various psychologists. It is not a perfect lens but it offers insight. (If the word consciousness makes you buggy then think spiritual and emotional maturity.)

Rob Bell and Richard Rohr presented spiral dynamics in two tiers and with several levels on each tier. They assigned them names, numbers and colors. The first level begins the kind of chaos–emotional and social–frequently associated with toddlers, addicts and sociopaths. The focus is on the individual in level one. Hopefully you quickly mature or recover to the second level with a community focus. People in level two are strongly identified with their tribe and relate to God with mystical or magical thinking. They do not see themselves as able to set goals and go out and accomplish them and the setbacks they experience feel random and like the gods must be angry.

Level three is sometimes called “power” and this is because level three people again regain their individualistic outlook. They learn they can harness their personal power and accomplish goals they set and sometimes lead others. If you stay in this level you can become very egotistical. You also can call forth level two people who aspire to be more like the level three leader. When Rob Bell presented level three he used Joel Osteen as an example of a level three religious leader calling forth level two people (in a benign way).

My best explanation for Donald Trump’s popularity in the presidential race is that he is a level three leader and there are a lot of level two people who find him inspiring. (Either that or it is the natural human fascination with car crashes and train wrecks.)

Which leads me to question, how many level two people are there? Well 43,500 people attend Joel Osteen’s church each week in Houston.  A lot apparently.

There are more levels and the point of Rob and Richard’s seminar was to help people understand it and inspire them to lead from the Second Tier.

Level four is a community-outlook again. The movement from individual to community to individual to community is what gives the upward progression of consciousness its spiral twist. Level four has traditional, hierarchical values. The evangelical church in America today is very level four with its male-dominated leadership.

Level five is individual-focused and values technology and modern analytical ways of thinking about the world. It is also where most atheists reside. As a political scientist I could see a parallel with the traditional level four (greatest generation) winning World War II only to be overtaken by the technocratic McNamara’s of the world running the Vietnam War using statistics.

Level six is once again community oriented and post-modern. Many millennials living on the coasts have matured into a society with this as the predominant consciousness. Everyone has a story and everyone’s story matter–yours as much as mine.

The next level is in a second tier and requires a jump in consciousness. While it changes back to an individual focus again it is with the ability to see all of the levels with compassion. In the first tier, lower level people looked ahead with fear at the others and higher level people looked back with disdain. The second tier people know that we have the ability as humans to be tribal and can be called forth to honor others’ stories or to acts of compassion.

There are additional levels in Tier Two but it becomes vague since so few people achieve it. Think Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King, Jr., Ghandi.  Rob and Richard hope that more people will aspire to raise their consciousness, especially leaders, so we can cope with the unique challenges that lie ahead.

There is a lot more to unpack in spiral dynamics and I will return to the topic. Meanwhile, for me, it is the best explanation of the Donald Trump phenomenon. And my puzzlement and sometimes disdain is a signal that I have not evolved to Tier Two yet.

The journey continues.

PS. I do not recommend Transformations of Consciousness as it is much too technical tomb of psychology. I will keep looking for a better explanation of spiral dynamics.