Spirituality

My hesitation with writing in general is to want to say something perfectly. That was the glorious thing about being a student, that wonderful deadline. My temptation when writing about something I care a lot about is wanting to say something perfectly that doesn’t offend anyone, and wins everyone over to my side. I say all that to say, I don’t assume I’ll achieve this, and that’s the hurdle I’m crossing to say anything at all, for good or ill, but I’m really hoping for all good.

If you feel my title for this series of posts is strong, I agree. I don’t see that as hoping to say something strongly, but speak plainly about hard realities. Part of the strong punch of this title is the assumptions that can be made about “an age of failing Christian leaders.” Allow me to soften that just a bit. My dad is a senior pastor of a Christian church, and has been my entire life. He is not a failure. I have attended, and am attending now, churches with Christian leaders who have not failed, not in the way I will be speaking of now. I’m a chaplain and Bible teacher at a Christian school in Korea. I want to be clear, I’m not throwing the baby out with the bath water. Simply put, my title isn’t meant to state any sort of despair over some insurmountable dearth of true, solid, or quality Christian leadership, for I don’t see that as the total reality.

However, you may rightly assume from my title that I see trends  in Christian leadership that deeply concern me, that I very much view as failures on several levels. Trying to talk specifically about something as broad as this topic is no small task, so let me now narrow the scope a bit. Christianity is the world’s largest religion, but I’m referring most specifically to mainstream American Christianity, primarily Evangelicalism. I am also thinking of what I have experienced in other parts of the West as well, and of my growing experience in Korea, which I will refer to later. But the bulk of what I’m talking about could most easily be classified as the leadership culture of mainstream American Evangelical Christianity, though there will be clear connections beyond that scope, some that I will highlight, many that I will not.

I’m going to start with a personal tone. Growing up the “church” as I experienced it was largely a haven of goodness in an otherwise evil world. This stayed true even as “grown up issues” swirled all around my family all the time. I don’t know how my parents shielded my three sisters and me as well as they did. But it wasn’t until I was in high school that I woke up to the full reality that all life was just a massive war, with evil from within and without, and that religious communities were no different. Not only were they no different in regards to the war, they often stir up and expose the realities of these battles of life in extreme and dirty ways. By the time I graduated high school, I had been a student under 5 youth pastors, and every single one of them had been affected deeply by some kind of sexual misconduct that they either did or that was done to them. Four would go on to eventually be permanently or temporarily relived of working as ministers because of something they did. The most this affected me was while I was in Bible college. One of these situations had reached fever pitch at my home church and then one of my ministry professors was arrested for raping girls in his youth group. I was so angry I couldn’t see straight. I went a little crazy, and began to consider living as a monk, possibly making it official by becoming one. Some encounter such traumas by rejecting everything. I responded by wanting to dive further in, to find the real amidst all the deception. Both responses have their trials. Then as now, I fully accept the Bible as God’s word, I believe Christ is alive, that he is Lord, God, King, Savior and yet still Friend, Servant, and Healer. That never changed. But as I considered the church as I knew it, I didn’t trust it anymore. Soon after I realized I did trust what I read about the “church” in scripture, it’s a beautiful thing actually. What I didn’t trust was what was passing for “church” in the religious communities I was apart of, and the leadership cultures that propped them up and sustained them. I’m skipping a lot of details in my personal narrative and theological development, but it was at this point I was on the hunt for alternative approaches. I believe God was with me as I experienced very sweet times with people of all faiths and the faithless, but especially other Christians seeking to follow Jesus Christ and see his love permeate all their lives and the whole world. Yet, there was more darkness ahead.

While I spent years on the fringes of mainstream American Christianity after college, I slowly found myself near the very forefront of it. I found a church I trusted a lot. I found my wife there. I went to their in-house school. I was mentored by some of their most senior staff, and helped them grow in any way I could for years. They were huge, with plans for more. The leader was larger than life, with plans that were truly galactic. He had a way of talking about the difference between his work on the church, and his work in the church, and a way of talking about his work for our local church and his larger ministry to the universal church beyond us, that was all really compelling and easy to believe. While attending his in-house school he talked about how he was a “content machine,” and even quantified how much he was worth in the business world in actual dollar amounts on more than one occasion. It was all mixed in with a very well thought-out approach to church and leadership, and I listened in awe and wonder. Here was a church with real spiritual results, that dealt with issues handily yet with a lot of care, and with a leader who would never put up with the kind of abuse I watched my dad endure at small country churches time and again. I was at this church when I discovered Gary Vaynerchuk, and I couldn’t help but notice that my pastor was a little like Gary…plus Jesus.

I began to see more churches around the United States fight for relevance in the digital age in similar ways. I was at a trendsetting church in this regard. It has become harder and harder to distinguish differences between talk of hustle in entrepreneurship and faithfulness in church planting, the leadership cultures of corporations and mega churches, the structure of franchising a business and a church creating multi-site congregations, self branding to make sales and content based ministries to make donors, organic marketing to build brand loyalty and orchestrating social media virality into baptism Sundays. My church ended in scandal. I wish I could say it was just my experience, even just the experience of the other 15,000 people who once called that church home, but many other churches are still following the example. I wish I could say it was just a Western reality, but I’m in Korea now where the largest church in the world had it’s leader imprisoned for embezzlement, and a similar situation recently occurred in Singapore as well. My senior students just did their final projects on the doctrine of the church, and I heard horror stories of how business oriented many of their churches are. In this hierarchical Confucian society pastors get away with telling their people they will go to Hell if they don’t give enough money, or at least insinuating it very strongly. Many of my students maintain a Christian worldview, but most plan to abandon their churches as soon as possible. For years American church leaders have highlighted similar phenomena, and denominations and seminaries alike are highlighting declining year after declining year.

Everywhere I look there are calls to return to the basics. The essentials of community, ethics, being good, normal humans beings, doing life together on the same mission because life is too short to mess around. All in all, it really sounds a lot like what Gary Vee says…plus Jesus.

It’s all leading me to consider the way spiritual needs are being expressed and met in the our digital day, and what the real differences are between a highly ethical, aggressive and generous entrepreneur and much of what passes for Christian leadership. I can’t help but notice my generation, the world over, getting very excited about the spirituality of business, and very suspicious of the business of spirituality.

To be continued…

I really don’t know where to begin with this one. I don’t really know where to take it. But it’s on my list of ideas, and I’ve actually been thinking about it a lot. I know this is going to be long, perhaps a tad meandering, and even if it sounds weird, or starts out getting all the relevant information into my reader’s minds, please just know that ultimately this will be an immensely personal series of posts that also happen to be slightly wacky and heady as well. I wanted to do a video essay with this one. It was going to be my breakout video essay on an otherwise defunked YouTube channel I have. I love video essays, especially TheNerdWriter, and I wanted to start doing one every other month, but I have a massive learning curve and I’m still getting used to being an American teacher in Asia. So I placed this idea on the back burner. I’m hoping that blogging about it will give it a bit more life.

First, Gary. If you don’t know who he is perhaps just Google him. (PS, I have a weird aversion to hyperlinks right now. I don’t know why, I’m sure it would be helpful to you, but at the moment I just want to write and publish.) I discovered him after moving across the country from Indiana to Oregon, after being accepted to a school I never attended because I started a full-time job and a full-time internship at the same time. Over time I was getting on-the-job training in web design, online marketing and more broadly in the world of entrepreneurship and tech. A new friend suggested Gary’s then newest book, The Thank You Economy, and sent me to his website to learn from “the master.” Gary is a Soviet immigrant with a natural talent for sales and self branding. He took over his father’s liquor store and built a very early eCommerce website selling wine that led to massive success. One of the ways he did it was through starting a wine tasting channel on YouTube where he took the posh culture of wine down to a laymen’s level and became a trusted authority in his field, landing spots on popular talk shows including one of my favorites, Conan O’Brien. From there he turned his marketing genius into a business and formed an agency, consulting and marketing for major clients. At present, he is also running a venture capital firm, investing in startups, and he is going really deep on a personal branding campaign with a new YouTube channel that somehow feels Truman show-ish creepy, while at the same time somehow always Truman show-ish inspiring also (my opinion anyway, I always watch DailyVee with a sense of feeling it’s strangely voyeuristic yet also helpful, more on this soon. Also, just a warning if you Google him, he cusses a lot.)

I have been devouring Gary’s content from 2011 onward. I don’t watch or read everything anymore, but I stay up to date on his major work. He did an interview a day in 2013 to anyone who contacted him and I got a very early spot. I blogged about it here, you can search my site for Gary and read it if you want (I can’t even bring myself to hyperlink my own site, it’s an illness, I’m sorry.) It was weird that he just called me like that. The dude is internet famous, business famous, tech famous and growing in mainstream fame day by day, and he just called me to answer some questions. So, I asked my top few questions before he was off the next thing, telling me to text him the link and he’d tweet my blog to his million followers. That’s exactly what happened. The next year I got married and was working at a web design agency in Portland, ORE and Gary came to do a book signing for his new work, Jab, Jab, Jab, Right Hook. It was immensely practical, all about content marketing, being generous with what you give away to your audience before you ever make your asks or hit them with sales pitches. It builds on his previous book, The Thank You Economy, with the notion that the internet has taken down the high class marketing tactics of a few channels with mass appeal, to be more like mom and pop operations with many channels and narrow appeal. Basically, the internet shortens the distance between producers and consumers, so act like you would in a small town where everybody knows everybody and reputation matters. Anyway, I met Gary there, at the wonderful Powell’s City of Books, got a photo, and got a book signed that I gave to my best friend because I’m a Kindle junkie who packs light. Beyond that Gary has tweeted back to me a few other times if I mention him. The first time was just a smiley face after I mentioned I read his book. Then right before his Portland book signing he asked if I would be there by tagging me on Twitter. Now he Snapchats like a boss, and asks for questions all the time, if you’re interested.

I promise I am not a Gary fanboy. To be honest I’m not sure I could be a still be the person I want to. I learned a lot from him at a key moment and have been impressed with his drive, openness, ethics and street smarts. I particularly enjoy his cultural insights. He says he’s not romantic about how money is made and he pays attention to what people are giving their attention to and predicting human behavior for the sake of sales and marketing. My favorite kinds of content from Gary are when shares insights on human behavior that have business implications. As a culturally curious Christian clergyman I’m always trying to take Gary’s insights and see them in a spiritual way. I don’t remember when this particular insight was made, but more than a year ago I believe I remember watching him discuss the youthification of culture, that consumer behavior was being influenced from the youth up for the first time. He loosely referenced data that revealed 40 year old mothers purchasing behavior having a direct correlation to their daughter’s influence. Naturally I began to consider my training and experience in religious institutions, the reality of similar phenomena there, and what it meant a little closer to my world. In fact, a year later when working at Logos Bible Software, I was talking to a very old Bible scholar who was recording an online course with us. He said that when he was a kid he was just an extra mouth to feed, of no real economic value to the family until he grew up. Now, when he is in a situation he doesn’t understand, especially related to technology, he looks for the youngest person in the room for help.

With all that in mind I found some recent developments in the way Gary began to share about his business very interesting. Not too long ago when discussing his work ethic and his company culture, he began to use a word to describe the essence of these things….”it’s religion baby.” This talk about making your entrepreneurial  lifestyle changes and choices based on religious level commitments and fervor have permeated Gary’s shtick for as long as I have been paying attention to him. But it wasn’t until recently that he was so clear about it. Coupled with this in one of his early Daily Vee’s (his Truman show) he cancelled an entire evening of meetings and events to sit Shiva for a deceased friend of the family, a rare showing of his practice of traditional religion as the son of Belarusian Jewish immigrants. Also, in another piece of content he talks about his intuition, and how he feels his way through many of his business interactions through an indescribable and innate sense of the reality of a situation. At first he talks about his instincts in business, when to buy, when to sell, when to invest, when to predict and so on. Then he mentions a story about being on vacation and thinking of his mother suddenly, for no clear reason, and then beginning to cry as if something was wrong. It wasn’t until months later he discovered at that moment his mother, who he is very close to, had encountered a medical emergency that she never intended to share with anyone at the very moment Gary was crying for her. He used it to make a point that part of his business skills are somewhat otherworldly, just like his intuition about his mother’s troubled state at that time. I read into all these particular stories, and more generally into much of what Gary does and how he approaches life, a very deep sense of the spirituality of everything.

With that said, I considered it against the backdrop of my experience of my religion and it’s leaders, and I found it quite perplexing. Gary, as an unapologetic businessman is spiritual about his business. Many religious leaders, unapologetic Christians, are business-like about their spirituality.

I’m going to go ahead an call it a night folks. Part 2 later.

To be continued…