The Year (2015) In Review

This is the time to recap the year that was.

There are a number of ways to do it, all of which are interesting. You can look at a year in terms of notable deaths, viral events, political rises and falls….

But how do you really get a twelve-month snapshot of a culture's zeitgeist?

I would argue for two words: "Google searches."

I'm not saying that this will be what historians will mark in 10, much less 100 years… even less what is most significant. But I will say that it may be the clearest window into our current soul.

So here we go with a few peeks into our inner world, courtesy of Google itself.

Top Trending Searches:

1. Lamar Odom
2. Jurassic World
3. American Sniper
4. Caitlyn Jenner
5. Ronda Rousey
6. Paris
7. Agar.io
8. Chris Kyle
9. Fallout 4
10. Straight Outta Compton

Top "How To" Searches:

1. How to use the new Snapchat update?
2. How to solve a rubix cube?
3. How to get legendary marks?
4. How to play Charlie Charlie?
5. How to upgrade to Windows 10?
6. How to get the new emojis?
7. How to authorize a computer on iTunes?
8. How to hit the quan?
9. How to lose 10 pounds in a week?
10. How to use Apple Pay?

Top 10 "What is" questions:

1. What is 0 divided by 0?
2. What is Ashley Madison?
3. What is a Buckeye?
4. What is the Charlie Charlie Challenge?
5. What is a Lunar Eclipse?
6. What is Ebola?
7. What is ISIS?
8. What is Red Nose Day?
9. What is a Blue Moon?
10 . What is Listeria?

And finally, the top 10 people of 2015 we were interested in:

1. Lamar Odom
2. Caitlyn Jenner
3. Ronda Rousey
4. Donald Trump
5. Ruby Rose
6. Charlie Sheen
7. Brian Williams
8. Rachel Dolezal
9. Adele
10. Josh Duggar

Welcome to our world.

James Emery White


Sources

"See the Year in Search in 2015", Google, read online.

The New Babel

"The Internet is the single biggest thing we're going to build as a species."

So says Gary Cook, a senior IT analyst at Greenpeace.

I think he's right.

In fact, I'll go further. The Internet is arguably the new Tower of Babel.

Only this time we are not building with bricks and mortar, but silicon chips and genetic engineering. We live in a technological age, and have embraced technological advance with abandon; creating what Neil Postman termed a "technopoly" where technology of every kind is cheerfully granted sovereignty. Or, as Jacques Ellul has written, at least the process of technique designed to serve our ends.

Ironically, within the word "technology" itself lies the new philosophical mooring that marks our intent.

The word is built from such Greek words as "technites" (craftsman) and "techne" (art, skill, trade), which speak to the idea of either the person who shapes or molds something, or to the task of shaping and molding itself.

But it is the Greek word "logos," to which "technites" is joined, that makes our term "technology" so provocative.

"Logos" is a reference within Greek thought to divine reason, or the organizing principle of the world. In John's gospel "logos" was used to communicate to those familiar with the Greek worldview the idea of the divinity of Jesus.

Moderns have put together two words that the ancients would not have dared to combine, for the joining of the words intimates that mere humans can shape the very order of the world. Though technology itself may be neutral in its enterprise, there can be no doubt that within the word itself are the seeds for the presumption that would seek to cast God from His throne and assert humanity in His place as the conduit of divine power.

Or is it just the platform for the final anti-Christ who will control the world?

I know, outlandishly strong and provocative suggestions.

But then again, it is the biggest thing we will build as a species.

James Emery White


Sources

Ingrid Burrington, "The Environmental Toll of a Netflix Binge," The Atlantic, December 16, 2015, read online.

Neil Postman, Technopoly: The Surrender of Culture to Technology.

Jacques Ellul, The Technological Society, translated from the French by John Wilkinson.

On the meaning of the words "techne" and "technites", see the article on "Carpenter, Builder, Workman, Craftsman, Trade" by J.I. Packer in The New International Dictionary of New Testament Theology, Vol. 1, Colin Brown, editor.

James Emery White, Serious Times (InterVarsity Press).

10 Ways We Built a Staff Dream Team

I love the team I have the privilege of leading at Meck. They are dedicated, loyal, unified, joyful and deeply missional. Sadly, staff discord and dysfunction is all too common. So I shouldn't be surprised that one of the most common questions I get asked by fellow pastors and church leaders is, "How did you get a staff like this?"

It wasn't always this way, to be sure. I have made more than my fair share of staffing mistakes. In fact, they've been my biggest as a leader. I think I've chronicled almost every one of them in my book, What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary (Baker), still one of my favorite books that I've written. Painful, as it involved sharing a lot of "learning through mistaking," but a favorite.

So how did our staff get to the place that it is? Here are the top ten things I've learned to do, or to look for, from over thirty years of pastoral leadership. I believe most are transferable to almost any organizational setting - whether at a church, business or school:

1. We hired from within. I'm continually surprised by how few organizations do this. The biggest reason to look from within your own ranks first is simple: they already have your DNA. There is also a sense where you know what you are getting. But DNA is the biggest issue. They inculcate who and what you are in a way no one else can. Some might find this insular – I find it protective. It's easy to stretch yourself as a learner – it's not so easy to flesh out a culture.

2. They came to Christ here. There is no substitute for someone who is a product of your mission. Their loyalty is off-the-charts, and you never have to convince them "why" you do "what" you do the "way" that you do it. They are the poster child. If you're in a business, think of hiring your most rabid fans. Regardless, the product of what you are trying to do is often the best recruit.

3. They passed the "beer" test. Sorry if that's offensive to some of you, but it's part of Meck's internal culture. We have a saying about people: "Do they pass the beer test?" Translation: If at the end of a long, hard day of work, would you want to go out and have a beer with them? If the answer is "yes," they passed. I think most of you know that this is about chemistry.

4. We don't have to be suspicious. Have you ever spotted someone talking to someone else in a hallway, or out in a parking lot, and got a pit in your stomach wondering about the conversation? In other words, you wondered whether it was divisive, undermining, gossipy, slanderous… or mostly, if it was about you? Never, ever hire anyone you are suspicious about. We all know to hire for character, but few throw in the idea of "relational" character. Are they a "safe" person relationally?

5. They have a bias for action. I've long said that I would rather rein someone in than kick them forward. There is no substitute for being catalytic, meaning someone who initiates, takes charge and creates action. Some people have a "ready, ready, ready, ready" mentality instead of a "ready, aim, fire" mentality. Go for the fire.

6. This is what God wants them to do. There is a significant difference between someone who wants a job, and someone who is answering a call. I'm not simply offering employment - I'm offering a life investment. I'm offering a way for them to fulfill God's clear direction and invitation. Meck is a fantastic place to work, and many, many want to work here – but what is most important is whether working at Meck fulfills a clear sense of life-calling.

7. They're good at what they do. In a word, they are competent. Very competent. They have a skill set, an aptitude, an intellect, an ability that matches the job. There's no sin in hiring this way, even for a church. People can be a ministry, but you shouldn't hire them as one. I look for people who are "tens" where we need them. And we need them in every role.

8. They do not need to be, or want to be, micro-managed. This may speak more to my personality, but I have no interest, desire or time to micro-manage anyone or anything. I remember reading of a 33-page government manual outlining how to buy hammers. If I had to oversee that, then shoot me now. Just hire someone you trust to buy them! If they can't be trusted to do it, hire someone who can! This also goes to the way people need to be managed. If someone comes to my door every morning wanting to know the five things they should do that day, again, put me out of my misery. I want people who will figure it out, chase it down, and keep me in the loop.

9. If you didn't pay them, they would still be serving, attending and giving. This is key. They are doing what they love, doing who they are, and doing what they believe in. If it's just for a paycheck, then they don't have real passion or commitment. When you have someone who would do what they are doing even if they weren't being paid, you have a keeper.

10. They get the mission, and as a result, are mission-animals. I know I alluded to this under the idea of "hiring from within," but even people who come from your mission may not be committed to it afterwards (that's another blog, to be sure). You want people who truly embody, understand, live and breathe the mission. At Meck, this means they "get" who we are after (the unchurched), and are unwavering in that pursuit.

So what makes Meck's staff special?

We strive to have everyone on staff reflect all ten.

And if I can brag on my team, they pretty much do.

James Emery White


Sources

Be sure to check out the book Dr. White referenced, What They Didn't Teach You In Seminary (Baker). Click here to order from Amazon.

Saint West

Kim Kardashian and Kanye West have another child, and they have given it a not-unexpected unique name.

"Saint West."

Without a doubt, people can become "saints."But its significance cannot be bestowed by a parent.

If you are in a relationship with Christ as your Forgiver and Leader – if you have crossed that line – you have been declared positionally, by God, to be a saint. That's how God views you, that's who He has declared you to be, that's who you are.

The word itself means "Those who are set apart," meaning someone who is no longer part of a world of sin. Someone who no longer has sin staining them, stenching them, attaching itself to them. In declaring you a saint God is in essence saying, "You are no longer what you were, or who you were. Whatever you have done, however you have lived, will not be the final word, much less the defining reality of your life."

But there's more to the identity that awaits us in Christ than merely being declared a saint by God positionally through forgiveness. He also wants to develop us into saints functionally. When you become a Christian, God has a very clear agenda for your life. It's to take your life, and have you become the person He has declared you to be.

So I congratulate Kanye and Kim on the birth of their baby boy.

My prayer is that he becomes his name.

James Emery White

"Just another day in the United States of America"

355.

That's the number of mass shootings that have taken place on American soil this year.

Which means the slaughter in San Bernardino by a husband and wife terrorist team was the 355th time multiple lives have been taken in an act of gun violence.

"Just another day in the United States of America," said the BBC's James Cook. "Another day of gunfire, panic and fear."

Beyond the all too familiar shock and sadness, there were two very understandable and immediate reactions: prayer and calls for gun control.

And that seemed to form two camps: those who wanted to meet the tragedy with prayer, and those who wanted to meet the tragedy with legislation. And those who wanted legislation weren't very happy with those who only offered prayer.

As one newspaper provocatively posted on its front page, in titling the story of the San Bernardino shootings, "God Isn't Fixing This." The story was taking to task the tweets from those in political office, or running for one, who have not acted as some would like regarding increased levels of gun control.

"As the latest batch of innocent Americans are left lying in pools of blood," the cover reads, "cowards who could truly end gun scourge continue to hide behind meaningless platitudes."

My intent is not to weigh in on the political back-and-forth on whether our current gun control laws are sufficient.

My intent is not to weigh in on whether the "thoughts" and "prayers" were truly "meaningless platitudes" from those who offered them, devoid of any desire to address root causes.

My intent is to weigh in that neither a tweeted condolence, or any type of gun control, is the problem, much less the answer.

Because it isn't.

The problem is evil and the human heart. Except for cases of mental illness, these acts of violence are perpetrated by evildoers. The acts themselves are evil, and the people doing them are pursuing evil.

The truth about American culture is less that there is a proliferation of guns and more about a proliferation of violence unchecked by spirit or character.

You see, it's not just the 355 acts of gun violence.

It's the hundreds of thousands of acts of road rage, bullying, trolls on the internet, rape, sexual harassment, child abuse, spousal abuse and schoolyard beatings.

And while a culture of violence may be most evident in the United States, it is far from unique in our world. One need only look at the rampant violence related to drugs in Mexico or the brutal conflict in Syria. So many more countries – from Afghanistan to Somalia – could be named.

So yes, we should offer our prayers.

And perhaps there are some needed and important steps to be taken to address dangerous loopholes or weaknesses regarding the purchase of guns while still upholding our Second Amendment.

But the heart of the matter is precisely what the BBC reporter said. It's that this was "just another day in the United States." A United States that increasingly looks to violence to solve almost all of its relational and emotional frustration and despair.

So let's not declare "God Isn't Fixing This."

God is fixing "this" wherever He is invited.

But let's define the "this" that is broken:

It's us.

James Emery White

 

Sources

"California Shooting: 'Another day of gunfire, panic and fear,'" BBC News, December 3, 2015, read online.

Jessica Durando, "'Daily News' provokes with cover on Calif. shooting: 'God isn't fixing this,'" USA Today, December 3, 2015, read online.

The Redefinition of "Welcoming"

I recently read an article which, once again, talked about a church being "welcoming" to the LGBT community.

Let's define "welcoming," shall we?

Historically, it has meant you, um, welcomed them. Said "hello," that kind of thing. You were friendly and you seemed glad they had arrived. There weren't cliques, there wasn't racial or socio-economic bias or prejudice. You were an equal opportunity "welcomer."

Yet today it means something different. It means "affirming." As in, "whatever you do, say, practice or believe is fine by me and we embrace not only you, but 'it'." It means you condone, approve, and even facilitate their lifestyle. As a result, churches that are not "welcoming" in this sense are seen as, well, not "welcoming."

Can someone say, out loud, that this is officially insane?

If acceptance becomes the same as affirmation, and welcoming the same as condoning, then Houston, we have a problem.

Here's why:

It would mean that any relational embrace would necessitate moral endorsement.

Let's play that out, shall we?

I am a father of four. Any parent knows the two words "tough love." You can love your child – fiercely – but not affirm their lifestyle. In fact, sometimes, a parent's greatest act of love is "tough." I can love you but not facilitate your drug habit. I can love you and not condone your life of crime. I can love you and visit you in prison, but not embrace what led you there. And this "tough love" is also going to add in a ridiculous dose of grace in the process that understands we could just as easily be standing in your shoes as you are.

Is this such a hard idea?

The church I lead is incredibly welcoming of… well, everyone. No matter their lifestyle, no matter their history. But we are not condoning of everything. The reason is simple: we so love people that when a lifestyle is damaging to them physically, spiritually, emotionally or relationally, we want them to know. We want them to turn from it. Even if they don't agree, we're going to stay in their corner and keep hammering away at what is best for them.

It's what love does.

So come to our church. We welcome you.

Really.

James Emery White

Our Dystopian Hope

Like many, many others, I spent time over the Thanksgiving holidays watching the final installment to The Hunger Games. I had read the books, always enjoyed Jennifer Lawrence as an actress, seen the other installments, so….

But a not-so-original thought came to me as I watched the previews. Namely, how dystopian visions of the future dominate our culture – and particularly the young adult culture.

There is, of course, the "Hunger Games" industry. But as I settled in to watch that film, a preview was shown for the next installment in the Divergent series, along with the first installment of The Fifth Wave series. (And did I neglect to mention The Maze Runner?)

And the number one show on almost any small-screen platform?

The Walking Dead.

All dystopian views of the future, almost all featuring young adults at the center of the story.

Why such a bleak view of the future?

It would seem to be the result of being worried about the present.

The Public Religion Research Institute's annual American Values Survey, released this month, "documents discontent among all major religious groups, races and political views."

"I am struck by the high level of anxiety and worry on all fronts," said PRRI CEO Robert Jones.

For the first time in six years of the survey, Americans are split — 49 percent to 49 percent — on whether "America's best days are ahead of us or behind us."

And this was before the attacks in Paris.

Of course, the headlines before the terrorist strikes in France didn't help things:

"Americans of all faiths and viewpoints are gloomy about the economy, anxious about Islam, bothered by immigrants and mistrustful across racial lines…[the] January attack on Charlie Hebdo magazine; months of videotaped beheadings of Christians in Libya; waves of Syrian immigrants, chiefly Muslim, fleeing escalating violence at home; the 2016 presidential election campaign; and the #blacklivesmatter movement that has emerged after police shootings of black Americans."

Adding to the joy: more than 7 in 10 (72 percent) believe that the country is still in a recession.

So maybe we need a Mockingjay figure to remind us that one person – or more importantly, one life lived with conviction and passion – can make a difference for us all in the midst of dark times.

And that we can be that person.

If that happens, maybe a few dystopian films are just what we need.

James Emery White


Sources

Cathy Lynn Grossman, "Americans fret about Islam, immigrants, the future – and each other," Religion News Service, November 17, 2015, read online.

Agressive

There are a lot of traits one might wish upon pastors and church leaders. Holiness, selflessness, humility… but I find that most of them embody such traits. They are good and Godly people.

So if there is one trait that I would wish upon pastors and church leaders around the world, it would be a trait that many do not already have or aspire to; a trait that I find strikingly absent.

I would wish them to become more aggressive.

If your mind instantly leaps to someone who starts fights or quarrels, that's not where I'm going.

I mean aggressive in the best sense of the word. As Webster's definition puts it, aggressive as in "ready or willing to take issue and engage in direct action; full of enterprise and initiative; bold and active; pushing."

When I think of aggressive leaders, I think of,

…"make it happen" leaders,

…people who don't immediately take "no" for "no,"

…catalysts for change,

…those who take charge in the heat of battle,

…upsetters of the status quo,

…backbone,

…rabid animals for growth,

…righteous anger,

…creators of action,

…courage,

…someone who is "hungry,"

…top-of-the-line, competitive athletes for the Kingdom of God.

Speaking of athletes, it was said of Michael Jordan – arguably the greatest basketball player ever – that whenever he walked on the court, he was dangerous. There was an aggressive intensity to his game that was threatening to any opponent.

I have a framed, limited edition, signed print of Michael Jordan in my office. The picture of MJ is epic, and the signature is nice, but it has always been the words that have captured my attention:

"It is a rare person who comes along and raises the standards of excellence, who captures the hearts of many, and who inspires a group of individuals on to achieve the impossible."

May that kind of aggression mark us all.

James Emery White

"Word" of the Year

Here, in a single image and a single designation, is one of the greatest reflections of the massive change in culture – and the separation of generations – of our day:

Yes, it is a pictograph; or as it is more commonly called, an emoji. But not just any emoji. It is called the "Face with Tears of Joy" emoji.

But there's more.

Oxford Dictionary has named it the 2015 "Word of the Year." And for the first time, that "word" is a pictograph. While emojis have been around since the late 1990s, "2015 saw their use, and use of the word emoji, increase hugely." This particular emoji was selected because it was identified as the most used emoji globally in 2015.

In case you are a closet Luddite, an emoji is "a small digital image or icon used to express an idea or emotion in electronic communication." The term itself is Japanese in origin "and comes from e 'picture' + moji 'letter, character.' The similarity to the English word emoticon has helped its memorability and rise in use." An emoticon, by the way, is a "facial expression composed of keyboard characters, such as :), rather than a stylized image."

So why is this such a reflection of our day?

First, because it reflects the cultural revolution that has come with technology in general, and the smartphone world in particular.

Much of the 90's was pre-internet (except for very, very early adopters). And the smart phone? Non-existent. The ubiquitous nature of those two things alone would decisively divide any generation. "Growing up with a supercomputer in your pocket connected to most of the world's population and knowledge," writes David Pakman, "has created an irreversible pattern of behavior unlikely to revert to the ways of previous generations." Or as an article in the New York Times noted, "a 14-year-old in 2015 really does inhabit a substantially different world than one of 2005."

A second reason it's a key reflection of our day is because it transcends linguistic borders. It is a form of communication that matches the inter-connected world of the internet that knows no geo-political or language boundaries.

But a final reason that it's such a key reflection of our day is because it reflects the changing nature of communication itself. I have long argued that there is a need to recapture a sense of the visual if we are going to connect with this world (read "The Importance of the Visual").

But when it comes to reaching the latest and largest Generation – Generation Z – emojis are part of their language. The research of Sparks and Honey has found that Generation Z "speak in emoticons and emojis. Symbols and glyphs provide context and create subtext so they can have private conversations. Emoji alphabets and icon 'stickers' replace text with pictures."

You may want to re-read that last paragraph. It's a stunning evolution in the very nature of language.

A language we best learn to speak – if, that is, we want to reach the next generation.

James Emery White

 

Sources

"Oxford Dictionaries Word of the Year 2015 is…," Oxford Dictionaries Blog, November 16, 2015, read online.

Hannah Furness, "Oxford Dictionary swaps Word of the Year for public's favourite emoji," The Telegraph, November 17, 2015, read online.

David Pakman, "May I Have Your Attention, Please?," August 10, 2015, Medium.com, read online.

Alex Williams, "Move Over Millennials: Here Comes Generation Z," The New York Times, September 20, 2015, read online.

"Meet Generation Z: Forget Everything You Learned About Millennials," Sparks and Honey, June 17, 2014, read online.

Soundbites

There has been much news related to church and culture of late; obviously the usual fodder for many of my blogs. Three things have kept me from commenting on – what some of you have pointed out – I should have: first, I had already planned a three-part series on the cheapening of grace during the last two weeks; second, I am in the last-month stretch of finishing my new book; and third, my second granddaughter was born which meant dropping everything and going to be with my daughter and my Miss Maddie.

So how about a few soundbites to catch up?

On the Paris Attacks

I'm still reeling from this, as I know many of you are as well. It was said after 9/11, "We are all Americans, now." Well, we are all Parisians, now. Pray for Paris. Pray for the hurting and mourning survivors. Pray for wisdom and discernment for leaders. And please, let's wake up and realize that we are truly in a global struggle against radical Islamists that will take everyone – including moderate Muslims – to combat it. More from my friend Ed Stetzer here.

On the Election and Marijuana

I am less exercised about the legalization of marijuana than most. Not that I am an advocate of its use, just unsure about our posture toward the degree of its criminalization. Regardless, it is not the criminal problem many make it out to be, as evidenced by police themselves, who have labeled it the least of the nation's drug worries. Read more here.

On the Pew Study

The American Religious Landscape Study from Pew is simply one of the most important studies to surface this year. Surveying over 35,000 people over the course of several months in 2014, it offers a snapshot no other study does. It is a repeat of a similar massive undertaking in 2007, so not only is it a current glimpse into the religious world of 2014 in America, but offers a view of how things have changed in just seven years. The first batch of results came out in May of this year, and just a week or so ago the second batch was released. There is more to come, but consider this required reading. Read a précis here.

On Starbucks Red Cups

Absolutely silly. Or as an Atlantic article said with more finesse, "inane." Read that article here.

On the Carolina Panthers Going 9-0

Simply as God intended.

James Emery White