|Christianbook.com: About five years ago you left a successful ministry at a well-known mega-church in order to start a small, innovative Christian community known as Solomon's Porch. What were some of the reasons, dreams and/or convictions that led you to make this transition?|
Doug Pagitt: Good question. That's not exactly how things moved though. I left the church I was at seven years ago and in between I worked with an organization called Leadership Network. My job with Leadership Network was to travel around the country and try to find innovative church leaders and create networks of those people. So there was a bridge period of time in there which was really quite important as things turned out.
I got into Christianity when I was 17. It was an evangelical expression of Christianity where I was well loved, cared for and nurtured. But evangelicalism and Protestant Christianity is its own form, its own version and cultural expression. I had good experiences in that form, people appreciated my preaching and I oversaw a thriving youth ministry, but I had a growing sense that the kind of Christianity that I was living into was not personally sustainable for me. So I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what that was and what it was about it. It wasn't that the people were insufficient or that I had a bad experience, but I had the sense that it was a great place for me to start, yet it wasn't the place to finish.
So when we started talking about the kind of community we wanted to be with Solomon's Porch, which is really an effort to stay Christian in the world, we began to understand the church not as a religious service provider, that provides access to Christianity to a lost world, but rather a community of people who were trying to pursue Christianity and life with God and inviting others to join us that pursuit. We started by asking ourselves 'what are the things that will make our lives good, right and beautiful?' 'What's worked for us in the past and how can we make that a part of the future?' For none of us, did a large and dominating sort of presence in a community seem like the sort of thing that had been beneficial to us in our own experience of Christian faith and life.
So, I stepped away from having to manage a kind of Christianity into a life of people that is really rich with life, texture and beauty. I don't feel like I went from the big and beautiful down to the low and the humble. It kind of felt the other way. Don't misunderstand me, I had a good experience in the church world I lived in before, but I always felt a little out of place and wondered what would come next. As we began to reimagine Christianity and what spiritual formation meant it led us to this configuration we have now, which is much more communal, holistic and integrated.
|Christianbook.com: The overarching design of Reimagining Spiritual Formation is quite intriguing. First, instead of offering leadership principles or disconnected ideas about what your emerging community looks like, you offer the reader an opportunity to spend a virtual week with your community. Second, the body of the book includes not only your thoughts, but also journals from six other participants in your community. This provides the reader with multiple perspectives on the practice of holistic spiritual formation. What does the design of the book teach the reader about the nature and aim of your community?|
Doug Pagitt: That's a great question. We wanted it to be dialogical so we tried to make it seem like there were multiple voices adding to one another, contributing and even competing with one another. After having these individuals journal for six months we had to go through and edit sections of what they said. You can only imagine how hard that was. We had Laura, another participant of our church, edit the journals so that the other voices could truly contribute. The journals are meant to be more than illustrative, they are meant to be consequential in and of themselves. That's what we're trying to communicate about our community. It's more than just a context for the pastor to say things…the lives people lead are in and of themselves proclamations of the gospel as we live it together.
I always wonder about the order in which people read the book. Often they say that the hardest part about the read was trying to figure out which order to read the text and the journals in. I think that practice itself, that people have to deal with the fact that there are more things being said than they have the ability to deal with, is valuable as an exercise for church leaders. It forces them to pay attention to who they are listening to and how they are listening to them.
|Christianbook.com: To some degree, Reimagining Spiritual Formation is a critique of, and a challenge for the church to move beyond, the 'education model' of doing church. Can you provide us with a brief definition of the education model as well as a description of some of its primary limitations?|
Doug Pagitt: I don't say much about the educational model in the book. I sort of assume that people are ready to move beyond it without saying much about it. But my take on what the education model is that it is primarily informational and that it is a set curriculum that provides people with the content that they need in order to effectively serve the church. There is someone who determines the content that people need to know and then they create a delivery system to communicate the content to the people.
What I'm trying to critique and what the book tries to say is what we need as a people comes from God and from us throughout the process of us being spiritually formed. So you can't just start with a curriculum. Of course information is important and there are certainly things we want them to know, but we don't consider people formed once they grasp the basics of what we want them to know. That's just the beginning of the process. My critique of the education system is not only methodological, it is the role of the curriculum and that someone somewhere decides what total strangers need to know, interact with and experience so that they can be spiritually formed. That's where the idea of communal spiritual formation comes into play. The community actually teaches one another. So every time someone new comes into the community our agenda is expanded. Someone never gets to the point when they say that they went through confirmation, catechism or even ordination for that matter and as a result believe that they are fully formed. Every Christian is constantly in the process of being spiritually formed.
My take is that the Kingdom of God is alive and active in people's lives and we not only contribute to them, but we hear from them what's going on in the life of God in the world. It's a very dynamic process about what it is that we know that we need to be saying to one another. My biggest problem with the education model is that it's prescriptive rather than conversational or progressional. In community we find that we can take one another to places that we never could or would have gone alone.
|Christianbook.com: Early in the book, you clearly assert that "commodification of Christianity may be among the greatest threats to living a viable Christian faith that we face in the world." I assume that by commodification you are referring to the way that we try to reduce the gospel story to one, simple concept that we can effectively market to religious consumers or seekers. If that is indeed the case, what is an appropriate antonym to the phrase 'commodified gospel?' Would you mind briefly exploring what the non-commodified gospel looks, sounds and feels like?|
Doug Pagitt: I think part of it is reducing the gospel down to a commodity that is easier for people to understand and to buy. But the other part is that we've turned the church into a religious service provider of a complicated or extensive message and as a result the people who participate in the life of the church are treated as consumers, not participants. This same conversation is happening in politics, where people tend to be consumers instead of citizens. So there's a significant citizenship movement that is telling people that 'this isn't your world to get something from, it's your world to participate in.' So some of it is a reductionistic form of Christianity that tries to boil the gospel down into bite size pieces that people can consume without much energy or work, but the other is that someone's responsibility within the church community is as a recipient and not as someone who is generative. I think that the contrast or antonym to a consumer model of church is a community wherein people have a responsibility to be engaged. Once again, to make a comparison to what is going on in citizenship, there are people who are really bothered by all the talk about it being your 'right' to vote. They would say that it is not just your right to vote, but you have a responsibility to participate in our society. You have to do your part. I think that contemporary people are interested in being engaged in places where they matter, not where they are just a consumer. I would contrast consumerism with participation, responsibility and obligation. Ultimately, I think the contrast to a consumer church is a community wherein people are expected to be engaged and to contribute.
|Christianbook.com: Solomon's Porch practices a very physical spirituality that incorporates practices such as yoga and massage therapy into the life of the church. How does physicality serve as a means of spiritual formation?|
Doug Pagitt: Our notion is that Christianity has always been about the body. Dualism, which separates the body and the spirit or trism, which separates the body, mind and spirit are cultural conditions that have been applied to Christianity. So in its essence Christianity is a faith lived of, for and in the body. We have found that there is no way to live the Christian life, other than living it in your body (laughter). All parts of living truly matter, because we are not trying to separate Christianity from our life, but to embed our lives in Christianity lived with one another. It is an essential component of spiritual formation that we do it in our body and we utilize the practices that will allow us to engage our body in the spiritual life. I think that Jesus calls us to live a life that is as unified in our body as it seems to be in our spirit. He's calling for a holism that doesn't seem to exist and that's what we're calling for as well. So we're trying to become more holistic people in our Christianity. It's not just yoga that teaches us about holism, we're being shaped and formed by how we sit with one another, how we look at each another when we're interacting, the holding of hands, the caring for people who are hungry and our hurting. These are ways that we say that we are with you in the very physical sense of your life together, not just in the aspirations of our lives together.
|Christianbook.com: From the beginning to the end of the book, you make it clear that your desire is not to provide a didactic manual on how to do church, but to share the story of Solomon's Porch in hopes that other communities will be encouraged to seek God's dreams for them. Now that the book has been out for several months, have you heard any stories of how it has encouraged other communities and challenged them to follow their dreams?|
Doug Pagitt: What I hear most often is people saying that they read the book as a leadership team or within a community of friends and, while they wouldn't proceed in exactly the same way our community has, they have been comforted to know that they are neither crazy nor confused. I get emails where people say that 'We are on a path and we thought we were all alone trying to blaze new territory. It's so good to hear that some people actually made it.' The tone of the emails is similar to a junior in high school who goes to commencement and is encouraged that they can make it out of high school. They've still got a ways to go, but the end is in sight.
Very few people have called, written or asked for specifics about how we're structured, our constitution or our sermon tapes. I think it's because the kind of people who appreciate the book wouldn't want that. They're the kind of people who read the book and are encouraged to take even another step beyond what they thought they were going to do because it seems safer out there than they thought it was. And there are a lot of people who have heard about the emerging conversation but they've been really leery to get into it because they thought, 'it seems like from what these people talk about that there would be nothing recognizable in the church if we were to do what they say.' Then they read the book and realize that 'this isn't so crazy. We could do that.'
|Christianbook.com: Reimagining Spiritual Formation is an insightful, challenging book that has connected with a number of readers and provoked more than a few discussions about the practice of spiritual formation. Are there another writing projects on the horizon that we can look forward to?|
Doug Pagitt: I'm working on a preaching book called Reimagining Preaching: Preaching Beyond Speechmaking and Other Ideas for Communities of Faith. The book calls for a progressional understanding of preaching as opposed to speechmaking. In most people's minds preaching has been reduced to speechmaking where one person speaks, other people hear it and have to deal with it. This is quite different from a dialogical, progressional understanding of preaching. I think there will still be times when someone will talk for a period of time, but the attitude, posture and response to that will not be that this is an edict from on high that you have to deal with, but that the sermon is simply one part of an ongoing conversation. I think that there is no stronger socializing force in the churches than the role of a sermon because of the regularity, intensity and frequency with which it happens. If we're going to take the next step forward, then preaching needs to be considered as more than a speechmaking act. Reimagining Preaching will be published in the fall of 2005.
We also did on a body prayer book, which is a prayer journal that takes 38 prayer postures for individuals and groups and teaches them about these postures over 38 days. For each posture of prayer there is a line art picture, a piece of poetry and a description of the prayer. Hopefully the prayer book will be out in 2005.
|Christianbook.com: Thank you for taking time out of your day to talk to us. As we close, is there anything else you would like to add?|
Doug Pagitt: For more information feel free to visit www.reimaginingspiritualformation.com or www.solomonsporch.com. We would also love for you to visit.