E-care?

Last Saturday night, the PC(USA) General Assembly elected Bruce Reyes-Chow as its moderator. Something that made Bruce unique from other moderators and moderatorial candidates in the past is his use of the internet in his campaign. Bruce used a blog, a facebook group, and I’m assuming a bunch of other online social-networking resources to share more about himself and his positions, and, perhaps more importantly, to listen to the concerns of his fellow Presbyterians. The “Web 2.0” approach to ministry is a natural extension of Bruce’s personality, it seems. In fact, he mentioned during the moderator election that much of his pastoral work at Mission Bay is done online. He also made a point of saying that the medium of the internet in no way lessens his pastoral work.

As someone who’s worked for the past two years in college-age ministry, and someone who’s going to be doing more campus ministry and church planting with young adults, I’ve been intrigued for a while now about the appropriate use of online communication in ministry, particularly in pastoral care.

Working at KUPC, I found that using the internet helped my ministry a lot. Being on Facebook helped me learn people’s names much more quickly. Reading the blogs of students in the church helped me better understand who they are and the contexts I was called to preach into. Being on AIM opened up the possibility for some conversations with students that probably wouldn’t have happened otherwise. These are just a few examples among many of my ministry being enriched because of the internet.

At the same time, though, I saw ways in which the internet created barriers in ministry, especially in pastoral care.  In fact, my first experience in pastoral care at KUPC came to me via email. Without breaking any sort of confidentiality, I’ll just say that it was a pretty significant crisis. At first I found myself grateful that I was contacted by email. I didn’t have to be caught off guard, and it gave me the chance to really pray about and discern the situation. I found myself pacing back and forth in my dorm room and reciting what I had heard in Pastoral Care class… “Ok. Where’s Jesus in the situation? How do I bear witness to Jesus in this context?” Eventually I worked through these and more specific questions and sent a response.

Soon after, though, my gratitude for the internet turned into frustration as I got no immediate reply from the person on the other end. Was my email  helpful? Did I say everything that needed to be said? What if I missed the point of the problem entirely? I was quickly finding the isolation that the internet creates a frustration for ministry.

Now, I later realized that these questions that I was asking myself were really more reflective of my wanting to be affirmed than they were for doing faithful ministry. But, as I continued to handle this and other pastoral care “cases”  by communicating through IMs, emails or both, I also began to realize that other things were missing that were more important, like eye contact and (when appropriate) physical touch.

Perhaps the biggest piece that I’ve seen missing in doing “e-care” is the opportunity to pray with a person. In doing any one-on-one pastoral care, I always make a point of concluding a session by praying with and for the person. Frankly, I think the time spent in prayer with the person has always been the high point of any pastoral care I’ve done.  Most people will rarely hear someone actually pray for them, and that’s a gift we as pastors can give to people.

So, I’ve seen how “web 2.0” culture has opened up doors for ministry. At the same time, though, I’ve seen its limits. The same resource that makes us more connected to one another than ever before also seems, in some ways, to isolate us and keep us from communication on a deeper level.

Rather than draw any definitive conclusion, I simply pose a few questions:How much technology is too much in doing ministry? Is it possible to do pastoral care completely online without ever meeting in person? To what extent is our culture’s (over?)reliance on the internet to communicate an asset we can use for the sake of the gospel, and to what extent is it a fallacy that needs to be critiqued by the gospel?

The Homosexuality Debate: Are We Completely Missing the Point?

In her book, The Writing Life, Annie Dillard compares writing to mining. When we write, she says, our words are a miner’s pick. Our words probe into our thinking, and we follow where they lead. Sometimes our words lead us to a dead end, other times our words lead us to new territory, and we discover the real subject of our thoughts and find ourselves mining something completely different than what we set out for. The latter is what happened in my writing this post. This post was originally inspired by a brief online conversation I had with Bruce Reyes-Chow via comments made on Chris’s post about Bruce. If you don’t know him, Bruce is one of four PC(USA) pastors/elders who are standing for moderator of our General Assembly. I was originally going to write a post about stereotypical categories (like ‘conservative’ and ‘liberal’) and how Bruce doesn’t fit into either of those categories. Then all of a sudden I found myself writing about something completely different, and I found myself coming to conclusions I hadn’t come to before. So all that being said, here are some of my thoughts about the PC(USA)’s decades-long debate about homosexuality.

First, a parable: Imagine, if you will, that you are sitting at a poker table with three others to play a game of five card stud. The cards have been dealt, and being the shrewd, methodical poker player that you are, you look at your cards slowly, one at a time. First you see a ten of diamonds, then a Jack of diamonds… then the Queen of diamonds… your interest is perked. You uncover your next card and see that it’s a King of diamonds. Your heart begins to race. Then you look at your fifth card. Yep. It’s the Ace of diamonds. Somehow, you’ve managed to be dealt a royal flush, the greatest poker hand you can possibly have. You get excited knowing that you’re going to win the hand, and you begin to strategize your betting, so that your opponents don’t catch on. The person across from you is about to begin the betting. He says, “Got any threes?” And the person to your right says, “No. Go fish.” Your heart sinks, and you grow angry. You thought you had the perfect hand, and you did… if you were playing the right game. To your dismay, the game is Go Fish, and your royal flush suddenly has no value to the rest of the table.

Such is the problem, I would argue, with the homosexuality debate in the PC(USA) (and probably in most other mainline protestant denominations). The two sides are playing two completely different games. For example, those who support traditional ordination standards and consider homosexual practice a sin base their argument on about 4000+ years of Judeo-Christian tradition and on the teaching of Scripture. When it comes to Scripture, this side of the debate has a “royal flush.” The problem is those on the other side are playing a completely different game. Consider, for example, the remarks of Walter Wink, one of the leading scholars supporting ordination of homosexuals. In his article, entitled “Homosexuality and the Bible,” Wink says: “Where the Bible mentions homosexual behavior at all, it clearly condemns it. I freely grant that. The issue is precisely whether that Biblical judgment is correct.”

It’s greatly significant that one of the leaders in the debate on the pro-homosex side admits that the Bible consistently identifies homosexual behavior as sin. The issue then is not a matter of “what does the Bible say?,” but rather “should we listen?”. For those supporting ordination of homosexuals, they’re much more likely (from what I’ve seen) to begin their arguments by talking about the experience of homosexuals (or their families and friends) in the church. They’ll tell stories of those who have been hurt and jaded by the policies of the church, and will conclude that their argument is a ‘royal flush.’ Of course, those on the other side think otherwise.

The homosexuality debate, then, is iconic of a larger, even more important issue surrounding theological method and authority of Scripture (and authority of our own experience). As less scandalous (and frankly less interesting) as it is, I don’t think the church is going to solve the homosexuality debate until it first takes time to determine what game it is we’re playing; we need to discuss theological method. We need to discuss the authority of Scripture and the authority of our personal experience (and while we’re at it, the authority of church tradition, reason, and science). Until we do, I think we’ll just keep arguing our points not realizing that the other side is playing a completely different game.