Dialogue #2: Doug Pagitt

This dialogue is the second in a series entitled “Dialogues on Christian Faith Formation and Education” and is offered with the intent of promoting conversation around the past, present, and future of faith formation in the United Church of Christ.

Doug Pagitt is the founder of Solomon’s Porch, a holistic missional Christian community in Minneapolis, Minnesota, and is also one of the founders of Emergent Village, a social network of Christians around the world. Pagitt is an author, professional speaker, and consultant for churches, denominations, and businesses on issues of postmodern culture, social systems, and Christianity. Pagitt’s works include Church in the Inventive Age (SparkHouse), A Christianity Worth Believing (Jossey-Bass 2008), Church Re-Imagined (Zondervan 2004), Preaching Re-Imagined (Zondervan 2005), and BodyPrayer (Waterbrook 2005). He is the co-editor of An Emergent Manifesto of Hope (Baker Books 2007) and has contributed to numerous books, including Practioners (Regal 2006) and Listening to the Beliefs of the Emerging Church (Zondervan 2007). Pagitt seeks to find creative, entrepreneurial, generative ways to join in the hopes, dreams, and desires God has for the world and also hosts a weekly Radio Show on AM950 in the Twin Cities and online at DougPagittRadio.com.

What, do you believe, are the emerging church’s overall approaches to/philosophy of education/faith formation? How are these different than mainline denominational or strictly evangelical approaches?
Spiritual formation is an act of community life together. Community life is spiritual formation; and the role of the community is to help people grow and develop as full human beings. There is no distinction between being spiritual and being healthy as a human being; we are just doing it in a Christian context and in conversation with church history and the Bible, as opposed to having a professional in the religious services industry who is administering something like a program or service. We’re trying to think in more holistic terms—what people do in their lives, how do they do it in meaningful ways, and how that impacts our community—because we don’t have a denominational connection or a typical Protestant way that swaps the Bible for tradition.

How are these approaches lived out/actualized in these settings (i.e. programs, studies, group activities, etc.)? Who creates/facilitates these experiences?
We engage in learner-centered experiences as opposed to teacher-centered experiences. Experiences are initiated depending on who the people are and what appeals to them. Solomon’s Porch is the smartest, most theologically engaged church that I’ve ever been around; but other people would say it’s a gritty, organic, hippy-like place. All of those descriptors are true—we don’t have an opinion about which experiences are better for someone. We are agnostic on the question of how your experience “should” be played out because it is so community centered. There is no agenda on behalf of organizations to push people or get them to go down a certain path.

We are also in the process of opening a Faith and Wellness Center through remodeling a wing of our existing building. It used to be a Christian Education wing that was added on in the 1950s, but we are not doing education through curriculum. We have mental health practitioners and yoga practitioners, and we are stepping that up to a new kind of involvement through the creation of this Center.
Additionally, I can describe to you the activities that take place at Solomon’s Porch in a week to get a sense of who we are. Monday nights there is a knitting group, and there is also an artist collaborative group that meets. On Tuesdays, there is a meal for the homeless and working poor called Loaves and Fishes. We also do a sermon discussion group to craft the sermon for Sunday. On Wednesdays, there is a play group for people who have kids. We also have community dinners hosted at someone’s house—sometimes there are 80 people! On Thursdays, there is a Torah teaching class in connection with a Rabbi in our community. Sunday night gathering is the most religious, “churchy” thing we do. We sing songs that we create, read poems, and may read through whole chapters of the Bible at one time. This is also communal space created when we engage in the blessing of a child when someone is born. In these blessings, we ask people to make commitments to follow the leadership of the little ones in our community, as they have much wisdom for us. Some people live in intentional community together. We also have book clubs, documentary clubs, and other clubs organized as people initiate them.

Overall, our events tend to have a single focus—if it’s a breakfast, it’s a breakfast. We don’t really do small groups or organize by group size. So, we don’t ask what the needs of the group are; but we center around the activities themselves.

One of the things I felt pressure about was to respond to the question, Could you do community engagement in medium and large group commitments, not just small group commitments where you know every person in the group? Is community only relegated to relational, connectional dynamics? Small groups follow the rule of “I know you and you know me and we will exchange a relational engagement.” We are trying to be in community with a larger group where people feel accountable to someone that they don’t really know on a relational level. This is similar to monastic communities—what does it look like if you share a life together that doesn’t require the kinds of interpersonal, relational dynamics that make life in traditional churches much more problematic?

For example, we have many people in our community who have serious mental illnesses; but because of our commitment to have the kind of community where we hold each other accountable—as people who have a larger shared commitment to living faithfully—we are able to address conflicts and challenges in healthy ways. In many Protestant churches, people spend a lot of time managing the emotions and issues of others, and conflict causes people to accommodate those individuals’ issues because of their relational commitment. We are doing something completely different here. (For more about this, read Pagitt’s book Community in the Inventive Age.)

What language do you use to talk about “education” or “faith formation”? Why?
The language I use in my professional life as a church consultant in the Protestant world is “spiritual formation.” At Solomon’s Porch, however, we don’t use that language. What can we do in our collective life is live together as people of faith. For us, that kind of language creates a false set of distinction between faith and life and confuses people much of the time.

What challenges do you face (or have you faced in the past) with regard to education/faith formation in your church, and how might/did you deal with those challenges?
There is a constant need to renegotiate leadership in a community like this, and it takes a lot of work. People bring the “old storyline” back in from other churches that they have left, so it takes work to continue to forge a new imagination in co-leading our community together. It’s my job to help do this as a kind of church pastor, which is a different role than being an authorized figure that leads the community and performs certain functions. Helping others to lead in a structurally flat organization and communicating and figuring out how to do this is not easy. It’s easier to have one person decide all of that; it’s harder to have many people involved. For example with regard to money, we have nine leadership groups who all manage the funds. It automatically increases the level of participation and engagement of people, even if it’s not as efficient or easier. All of our issues have been handled in really healthy ways and are not dominated by a narrative of strife. They have been handled by a narrative of hope and possibility with one another.

There is less to fight over because power is distributed over the whole system. There’s not this “golden ring” of power to grab onto, so maybe that’s part of why we have such little strife and conflict. One of our goals is that if we are doing something that is harmful for people’s spiritual formation, we will stop doing it. Pain is an indicator that something is not going right. There’s enough trouble that life brings that we don’t need to hurt ourselves. Too often, there is unnecessary pain inflicted in churches.

What can the UCC and other mainline denominations learn from the ways in which faith formation is carried out in emerging churches?
People aren’t busier than they were in the 1930’s. This is a common myth. There’s just more competition for their time. The reality is that what churches are doing is less interesting than other things. So we need to ask: How can the church become a meaning making system, not just a volunteer-organizing system? People don’t care about the old categories of paying dues and volunteering, or the distinction between clergy and laity. What people want is to live their life in a way that makes meaning in the world. Things within a church are only meaningful to the church itself. The church is functioning as a solution to a past period and answering none of the problems for our current time. In a traditional church system, all of the important stuff is reserved for clergy. All people should be doing it! The entire community should have to do what the pastor is doing. Most pastors stay pastors because they get to do the good stuff.

There is another systemic problem in mainline churches—infatuation with crisis management. There is so much time is spent putting in place rules and responses to crises that people get addicted to crises, and you are constantly managing people. From a family systems perspective, every Sunday many churches are reinforcing a bad system on one another. At Solomon’s Porch, we decided that fighting and being angry is not something we’re going to do anymore and that people were not going to be rewarded in that system.

Ultimately, people aren’t afraid of change. They are afraid of loss. The church must deal with things as a loss issue rather than a change issue.

Kristina Lizardy-Hajbi serves as Minister for Christian Faith Formation Research on the Congregational Vitality and Discipleship Ministry Team, Local Church Ministries. She can be reached at hajbik@ucc.org.