blue parrot thinking: the shared plight of churches and car dealers

Reflections on websites, damned websites and how analog and digital approaches are now one and the same.

Over the years here, I’ve shared at length (and perhaps lengths too far) of the brief life I once spent working in ministry. I haven’t spoken much about the life I spend now.

For the last two and a half years, I’ve worked in digital media: writing, editing and overseeing content for sports websites and support for and development of websites for the auto industry. I began the former with a background in journalism and WordPress; this very web presence, along with the work I did with a collegiate fishwrap, got me in the door there.

I began the latter with what could only be charitably described as rudimentary coding ability. I never studied anything more than QBasic in junior high and had a crude understanding of HTML. I would never consider myself a savant or expert developer, but I did find that I had a knack for this stuff, so I learned HTML, Bootstrap and CSS, can read and mostly interpret JavaScript but can’t seem to make the jump to writing it. I intuitively understood that if I didn’t swim, I’d sink and my family would starve. My understanding of ‘innovate or die’ is in many ways quite literal.

Over the last two-plus seasons in web support, development and a stint in account management for good measure, I’ve worked on a lot of projects and websites, which has allowed me to interact with a lot of people in the auto industry, from dealership proprietors from the used lot down the street to executives overseeing some of the largest auto groups regionally and nationally. By and large, my opinion of auto dealers remains healthily skeptical; I’ve been privileged to talk with really smart, savvy and collegial folks from every time zone.

I’ve talked to others, as well. (Haven’t we all?)

The interesting thing is how similarly those professionally part of American Evangelicalism and in your garden variety North American car dealership think.

Whilst perusing LinkedIn, I happened upon this meme:

As a rule, I don’t do much on LinkedIn. This, and the presuppositions behind it, moved me to violate my own principles. I couldn’t not act, and that was the moment that I realized that I was and am, indeed, a fully-fledged digital evangelist. Much like encountering someone upholding the principles of five-point Calvinism, the fire was trapped in my bones and I could not contain it.

Let’s talk about blue parrot thinking.

The world now exists as a singular duality: the material world (the booth I’m sitting in, the coffee I drink, the keyboard upon which I am relentlessly hammering right now) and the digital version (the website you’re reading [hi!], the memes you share, the snaps that were and are no longer save for the gutter of one’s mind.) There is no longer a difference between the two: your website, digital brand, social media footprint, all of them are viewed as equivalent to your actual self. A car dealership’s website is not a billboard or TV spot, it is the car dealership itself. People are window shopping (and, in a growing number of instances, getting financing and even desking deals in the virtual space.) A church’s website is not a tract, bulletin or radio spot, it is the vestibule (and in a growing number of instances, the sanctuary.)

My response to the meme: “Your dealership website IS your showroom. A poorly-functioning, design-blind website is the same as a dirty, dingy converted gas station used car lot. Not an extension of your brand, but your brand itself.”

You might own a converted gas station used car lot. There’s nothing wrong with a converted gas station used car lot, provided quality vehicles are marketed by quality people there and provided at mutually-beneficial value between buyer and seller. The point is that a poorly-developed website will undermine sales efforts and hamstring efforts to grow your business. A bad website is a loud fart during the exchange of wedding vows: the deed might get done, but the process in getting there is seriously disrupted.

The idea that businesses or organizations of any variety can and should be unapologetic in their digital crumminess isn’t just bad marketing, it’s bad business. There’s a reason this website exists and now in a semblance of ironic glory.

Be glad there isn’t an easily-accessible similar site for car dealers.

Examples of both of these are examples of selling blue parrots. They’re dead on arrival. Worse yet, no one’s even buying.

One can try to talk one’s way out of it; a bad website isn’t bad as long as people are coming in the door and we sell a car is philosophically identical thinking to the Machiavellian ‘even if one person comes to know Jesus, it will have all been worth it!’ gambit tossed out without a shred of self-awareness by Christian zealots who are content with alienating thousands so that they can hoist one on their shoulders in their deluded, bizarre tendencies toward self-congratulation.

In missiology, it is referred to as the ‘mission station’: an outpost people are expected to be drawn toward, as though it were a force of nature bringing them into the center (never mind that centrifugal force doesn’t actually exist.) The mission station, despite its obvious limitations and demonstrable, historic flaws as a strategy for proselytization, remains the preeminent method of ecclesiastical brand building in the world today.

The car dealership without a digital footprint and identity suffers from an identical problem and, without a way to interact with and get in front of others, others will remain staid or, worse, resort to their stereotypes. No one denies that the church and car dealership both suffer from historically poor optics. The fact that every church is stumbling over themselves to declare themselves real and authentic and relevant and that many car dealers talk up their hassle-free, stress-free, not-your-typical-dealership experience only underscores the point.

Churches and car dealerships have been offering the public blue parrots for so long that they only show up when they have to: when the car breaks down, or Christmas and Easter.

What it comes down to is integrity. If an entity wants to put its best foot forward, it’s going to do the best possible job in every possible way. That includes digital marketing, because digital presence is now actual presence, thus the same efforts put into a difference-making organization–be it of the religious or RPM variety–must be put into how that organization exists in the digital space. The same is also true in reverse: a great website or digital presence shouldn’t be papering over blatant flaws in the brick-and-mortar space. To wit, Wendy’s has a killer social media presence, but I’m not buying a Baconator.

We have to come to grips with the fact that it may be more expedient or more affordable to cut corners, but it isn’t right. We may not be turning back the odometer or putting floor mats over cigarette burns, or masking insecurities of conscience by using scare tactics to manipulate someone into a conversion.

It’s all selling dead blue parrots, and when confronted with the fact that the parrot has ceased to be, readying any number of excuses as to why the parrot is alive (or, more to the point, why we aren’t willing to provide a refund.) If either church or car dealer is interested in changing perception, they’re going to make sure their various forms of presence are aligned and consistent with one another, if for no other reason than there are no various forms of presence: either there is presence or there isn’t.

This is how the world is. In reality, this is how the world has always been. We’re just recognizing it anew via emerging technology…and a nearly 50-year-old comedy sketch.

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briefly, returning to milwaukee, a place that does not exist

Last month, I took my birthday off and made the short trek down to Milwaukee by myself, where I visited the hospital where I was born (hey, I hadn’t been back since!), went down to the lakefront and explored the Saarinen-designed War Memorial and, of course, went to Miller Park for the last Brewers home game of the season.

Milwaukee is where I was born, where my extended family was for many years and where I find myself existentially renewed. I love that area deeply, but it is not my own. I wasn’t raised there; my experience of Milwaukee is almost entirely as that of a tourist. It is no different than having affection for Disneyland by virtue of having been there many times, but having never worked there or even lived in Orange County. (And there’s nothing wrong with that. I love Disneyland.)

Though Milwaukee is imprinted on me, it is not mine. More to the point, my Milwaukee does not exist. It was never mine.

A return to Milwaukee is, for me, a return to innocence, to go back to a point in my life where I could hope and dream for anything. It is ultimately a negation of my self, or perhaps an exercise in self-pity. The siren song of escapism.

I was raised in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, a mid-sized city almost directly in the middle of the state. My feelings toward it are mixed at best. Had I grown up in Milwaukee, my guess is that I would feel similarly toward it as I do my actual hometown. It’s easy to long for things as they exist in our minds as opposed to things as they are. We prefer the delusion of fantasy to the soul-crushing inevitabilities of the real. We prefer ideology to mutual understanding, selfish lust to selfless love. We prefer to escape the present for a romanticized nothing.

No one is innocent. Everyone has a Milwaukee, a Shell Beach, a Zion. And everyone has never actually been to those places, because the jurisdiction of those places end where the mind ends.

And within our own minds, lost and detached from real relationship with real people–fraught with love and loss and risk of both–is no place to be.

I love you, Milwaukee, but you are not mine.

briefly, the 25th hour of parenthood

The 25th Hour is a novel by David Benioff–later adapted by Spike Lee into a film starring Edward Norton–a vignette of a man’s final moments of freedom before reporting to prison for a seven-year sentence. In those ultimate hours, he spends the evening with two friends, contemplates the choices that brought him to this point.

Tomorrow, wife and I send the girls off for their first day of 4K. Granted, it’s only three-ish hours a day, but it’s their first first day of school and, after this, they won’t have a last first day of school for at least 14 years. I will be approaching 50 years old then.

We spent years trying and failing to have children, then we ended up with the beans, and things were good. They weren’t going to school for years. Then Don August showed up, which was cool. Not easy, not by a long shot, but cool. Well, time being what it is, slipped away and here we are, toddlers who don’t toddle, armed with backpacks and heading off to school tomorrow.

We knew it was coming. We tried to prepare for it. And then, I realized that their last first day of school will be at least 14 years from now, and I will be approaching 50 years old.

And that’s when I realized my life is over.

I’ve been having a hard time reconciling myself to that fact. From here, it’s parent-teacher conferences, something resembling organized sports, extracurricular activities: for the first time in my life, I told the girls, sans irony, to get ready for bed because it’s a school night.

IT’S A SCHOOL NIGHT.

How did I get here?

Our adventures seem like they were eons ago. Weren’t we just in Kansas City? Wasn’t I just in grad school? Didn’t I write that incendiary column at the Northern Light last semester?

The only semesters that matter anymore are at a grade school attended by my children. If it wasn’t about me before, it’s definitely not about me now.

This is where I’m at. I’m done, and I have to make my peace with it. Maybe I’ll do a Coffee With Dead People on myself! Or perhaps it’s epilogomena!

Maybe I’m just being melodramatic–particularly to those who aren’t here (or aren’t here yet)–or some wiseacre who has been here before just reads this smiling and nodding, but there is an eerie sense of finality here that I was not anticipating, and I didn’t even necessarily feel when I was first introduced to my offspring or even when I got married. This is weird!

So, I will go to bed (I’m really, really tired, can’t you tell?) and wake up tomorrow (I took the day off for the occasion) and we’ll take pictures of the girls with their sign and we’ll take them to their classroom.

After that, we’ll probably go grab some breakfast: two dead people–with a cute, mulleted mini-me in tow–wondering how it all came to this.

And life will keep marching on.

briefly, on being replaceable

As society further commodifies people, moving us from who toward what, it can readily be noticed that, while we lament how people have turned to cattle in so many ways in terms of the workforce, we have no apparent issue with turning people into hamburger in our personal lives.

Moo.

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Recklessly Reckless: Sam Eaton accidentally discovers navel, gazes

Talk about a clickbait-y headline!

I missed this viral post when it went berserk in September, again in February and see so much of a self I don’t particularly enjoy remembering that I couldn’t not write a response that ended up being a 2000-word monster, too big for the facebook rejoinder I promised a friend (Sorry, Kerry) and so, in the spirit of teh interwebz, I offer this, a behemoth talking about what someone else is talking about, which is one of my very favorite things to do.

(It’s not really one of my favorite things to do.)

And, while I do think Sam Eaton is doing some navel-gazing, I also think that he’s got honest points for all sorts of inaccurate reasons, which I discuss somewhere in the 3950834986th paragraph. That said, lots of noble enterprises have been undertaken for bad reasons.

In sum, there is nothing new under the sun.

Because sociology is amongst the softest of sciences, those my age (born 1981, too busy loading my diapers to appreciate the ’82 Brewers) have been labeled as everything from Gen-X to millennial and now x-ennial [barf.]

The reality, because I’m in this precarious gray area, is that generational differences really don’t exist. That said, nearly every lament the writer has about the church not caring, not listening, not adapting is the same lament the generation before him had, the same lament I had (and have) and generations before me had.

I remember thinking when I was 18 that I was going to write a new theology and it was going to be revolutionary. Then, I studied for about three seconds and realized that I had nothing new to contribute to the conversation, that the problems I identified were nothing unique or special or exclusive to my experience or perspective, and that I literally had no idea what theology was.

Millennials aren’t unique, they’re not exclusive and they’re not hard to figure out. They’re no different from any other group of people pushed out into this world. What has changed is the context, what they’ve been bequeathed–technology, ideas, ethos, etc. Those things, incidentally, have NOTHING to do with them. Just as rock and roll didn’t just pop up ex nihilo, just as drug culture wasn’t created in a vacuum. For those things: we just need to look in the mirror, just as our parents needed to. Former Assemblies of God superintendent Ralph Riggs put it this way: “If the youth fail, we are to blame.” He was absolutely right.

To wit, if the number is now a staggering 59% loss, then it is staggering because it is a substantial improvement over the 80-90% attrition rate documented and cited amongst those who knew better 15-20 years ago.

[You can stop reading here if you’d like; it is the summation of my thought on the matter. The rest of this is a point-by-point rejoinder of the original piece.]

***

Now, let’s dig into this point by point. The snark lever is in the on position, fair warning.

1) Ummm, Sam? You’ve gone viral. Do you really think nobody is listening to you, on a platform that allows billions of people to watch you gripe, or monkeys throw poo at each other, or people do unusual to abhorrent things to each other?

2) Sam, if you’re sick of values and mission statements, you should break out in hives over ‘Love God, love others.’ That phrase has been beaten to death, resurrected and beaten further, killed and beaten into a pile of mush on the ground, devoid of any recognizable influence or impact.

Mission statements can be valuable when employed judiciously. Often, to your credit, they are overused. What matters here is perspective: what is it that one community sees that another does not? This is the value of Paul’s letters, not in a singular voice, but a singular person involved in myriad cultures and communities. Paul’s words are not unilateral (shove it, Reformed types: ‘Let the women stay silent’ is NOT prescriptive) but are demonstrative of the recognition that 1) the church existed and grew without him, and 2) those vantage points helped him shape the way he led and influenced them.

Similarly, what each community sees as value-able or worthy of effort and enterprise can help one another shape their own, or engage culture at large in a different way. If we all just said ‘love God, love people’ we’d likely be even less effective than we are right now.

3) Yes, the institution is self-centered and Americanized. Yes, the busy-ness of church life has stagnated purpose and growth. Yes, service is often overlooked.

No, reducing Bible studies and airing grievances will not help. We tried this long ago, with a different set of millennials: the 19th century variety. The social gospel bombed terribly, though it did leave us with the Pledge of Allegiance (written by a Baptist socialist) and the immortal Walter Rauschenbusch (the OG conflator of socialist political doctrine and something faintly resembling authentic gospel.)

It destroyed and polluted most of what has come to be known as mainline Protestantism, which is largely feeble and impotent, but all too happy to have little free libraries out front and soup kitchens in the basement. Those things are good and needed, but any notion of the importance of the Christ-event is typically lost as soon as there is something Republican to protest.

4) Hey, I’m with you! Eschatological garbage has got to go. It is theologically-bankrupt (how many years have to pass before we have to reconsider an ‘imminent’ rapture or apocalypse?)

Seriously, Sam? Groeschel? Using The Gospel Coalition to defend your points is like the Green Bay Packers trading for Teddy Bridgewater. Actually, this contradiction and paradox is an ideal fit for a world in which P is not P is not only accepted, but encouraged. It’s the world you inhabit, and the world created and fostered by those who have gone before you.

5) Kindness and compassion are great. I’m learning how valuable they are and cultivating them in my own life.

Several generations before you have clamored for authenticity. Said generations have desired outlier seekers. And those people who seek out those people typically ARE those people [/looks in mirror]. Those skills do come naturally.

The problem, Sam, is not that the church hasn’t been trying; the problem is that the church has tried and is actively trying too hard. This is why we have a horrible, knock-off subculture in the first place. Training outlier hounds while demanding authentic community? Are you actually thinking these things through? Have you examined your own thought processes, or do you recognize any of what you’ve griped about as being interdependent issues?

It doesn’t take Aquinas to see your blindspots. Then again, I remember I used to be the same way. See also: the very first sentence of this already-lengthy post.

6) Millennials don’t trust institutions. They said the same thing about Gen-X. Whatever comes after you will likely say the same thing about you.

Guess what? If you want transparency, it’s there for you. All registered nonprofit organizations with 501c3 status have to report annually to the government and to membership. (These are why they have those irritating annual meetings.) Without institutionalization of some kind, there would be even less transparency than there is now. Further, any official business is legally-available on demand with written notice. But hey, you run a nonprofit, right?

…right?

/checks Recklessly Alive website
//self-incorporated
///no need to be transparent

So you’re complaining about a lack of transparency when you’re running an organization that is not recognized as a charitable organization and doesn’t need to comply with what most churches and other charitable organizations do? Especially when your own financials aren’t readily accessible?

Have fun with your audit, Sam!

(Actually, I love the idea of zero-based budgeting, and would love for the federal government to adopt it.)

7) Why does this have to be an either or? You note that there are millions of videos and podcasts, and yet you don’t realize that the cacophony of voices a few clicks away are devaluing and diminishing quality preaching and pulpit rhetoric. Millennials crave relationship, you’re right. So did my generation, the generation before that. EVERYONE CRAVES RELATIONSHIP.

Now, creating a database for older and younger people to connect? How does that create authentic community or not further entrench the institutionality you detest? Intentionality often smacks of patronization. Further, old people tend to feel the same way you do about not being heard or valued. You’re not alone, Sam. Your problems are not unique and your insight is decidedly unoriginal. That’s fine, until you go viral. Then you open yourself up to feedback and criticism. And then you have another unoriginal problem entirely.

8) Speaking of value!

I find the opposite of your viewpoint true–most people who are most invested in church ministry or activity are older. I’ve never heard of a millennial prayer warrior, but I’ve heard of hundreds of grandmas whose prayers moved. Frankly, if your assertion is true, and four in ten are sticking around church, there aren’t enough of you to do anything.

Yes, we should be gracious with those who serve and volunteer, but you don’t serve or volunteer for the laurels–you do what needs to be done as its own reward. That’s something you don’t realize when you’re young. Fatherhood has taught me just how much like Sisyphus those who serve are.  The lesson has made me better for it. Simply put, Sam, I think your perspective here is selfish and as such misguided. The right conclusion with the wrong reasoning is still the wrong conclusion.

9) SEX!

SEX SEX SEX SEXY SEX SEX!

Again, you’re saying the same thing that has been said for decades. But, the moment a preacher, for better or worse, talks about sex, politics, social issues, whatever, he/she will get blasted for it (if it’s the wrong viewpoint, which is entirely dependent on whoever is listening and their own idolized social perspective.)

You don’t create real, relevant spaces. Contrived relevance isn’t relevance at all (see also: Magazine, Relevant.) And, again, you don’t see that your solutions lend themselves toward institutionalization.

10) Fine. Cool. Good. Let’s do this! I agree with you, Sam!

But a church in Springfield, Missouri can do this when the area is largely red state and Evangelical. You get the local Assembly of God church in Madison, Wisconsin to try asking what to do for the local government and school and they’ll go broke from the lawsuits and be annoyed by the protests.

It’s not that simple.

Instead, go pick up trash at a park. Help a neighbor with their yard work. Be subtle and don’t come off as self-serving (and many churches that tout their activities and service do exactly this.)

11) Again, Sam, everyone is sick of being ignored and tired of broken promises. I’m a BlackBerry guy. I get it!

And, if you want people to stop lamenting and bitching about millennials, shut up and do. And you’re trying to do that very thing, and you should be applauded for it. But the higher your profile, whether you like it or not, the bigger the target is on your forehead.

After all, as a millennial purporting to speak on behalf of millennials, that’s exactly who you are and what you’re doing: a whiny millennial. You can’t complain about blowback when anything you’re writing is fair game for billions.

The same whininess is found in every generation. I am from another era, but I, too, whined as you do now. That’s why I’ve spent hundreds and hundreds of words pushing back.

12) The problem isn’t that the church isn’t reaching millennials, the problem is that it’s not reaching ANYONE. Generational obsession exists primarily in two places: sociology and Evangelicalism. Beyond that, it is a fiction to be marketed to and or exploited.

Here’s the raw truth, Sam: generations mean NOTHING. Trends mean nothing. They mean nothing because there is no real difference between your generation and mine, or mine and my father’s. The same problems exist, just with differing perspectives and differing stuff that has been left to us.

And this is the odd part about your post going viral: it’s nothing new or particularly insightful. You’ve touched on things countless others and myself have. The problem isn’t that you’re wrong, it’s that, in many ways, you’re right. It’s the way you have retroactively built cases for your conclusions that is the issue, often in ways that nullify or contradict outright several of your core criticisms or presuppositions.

So, if you want to be a part of a reform movement, by all means, do and be. Stop writing clickbait. Stop with the self-martyrdom. Stop thinking your perspective is exclusive to you.

And, when you do get blowback, as you have, don’t not listen to those who do, and don’t write a post about how you are confused as to why people range from loving to hating your work. When you write for the Internet, you’re writing for anyone. The thinness of your skin will show when you double-down as you have in a follow-up post that borders on being self-congratulatory in a masochistic sense and tone-deaf to those who you claim are tone-deaf to your generation.

Again, nothing new under the sun.

Regards,

–b.

pascal was wrong

“What else does this craving, and this helplessness, proclaim but that there was once in man a true happiness, of which all that now remains is the empty print and trace? This he tries in vain to fill with everything around him, seeking in things that are not there the help he cannot find in those that are, though none can help, since this infinite abyss can be filled only with an infinite and immutable object; in other words by God himself.”
– Blaise Pascal, Pensées VII (425)

More commonly, this phrase is seen as something along the lines of ‘Every person has a God-shaped hole that only God can fill.’ And this is a nice notion, lending itself well to an apologetic that insists on the existential inadequacy of life without Christ’s salvific work.

In recent months, I’ve been wrestling fiercely with inner demons, confronting my own dark places and winning some of the battles, while waging others still. In unearthing a lot of the baggage and processing through everything from past and present hurts to memories I literally had to recalibrate, I realized something that deeply bothered me.

I am half-man, half-chasm. There is an enormous hole in my soul, and I’ve spent years trying to fill it, trying to let God fill it, but mostly trying in vain to do it myself. Inversely speaking, it’s like trying to bail the ocean.

Then Pascal and the bastardized version of his quote came to mind. And I thought it over. And while I understand what he’s saying, he’s wrong.

An abyss, even one in the shape of a deity, cannot be filled.

Further, not only can that hole not be filled, I’m not sure God is particularly interested in fulfilling anyone. If it is so that we are incomplete without God, that completion does not complete God, but us; that is to say, that God in this state of affairs is not God at all. We are. It is completing us, and not completing God or God’s work.

No, it is not us who need to be fulfilled, but God. God may well be incomplete without us in all our broken, incomplete–ahem, holy–lack of glory. It is for our frailty that grace is offered freely to those who would embrace the grace giver; that we need not be made whole, but satisfied solely in the Christ-event.

It is this realization that has brought me significant relief and peace in these trying days and months. It may well be what has stemmed the tide. The hole needn’t be filled: it is for this very reason Christ came! Nothing will fill that gap and nothing should, lest we be somehow dissatisfied with the resurrection or somehow find resurrection inadequate. (And many, many religious types do, and with the best of intentions!)

Family, education, career, art, benevolent involvement, passion, religion: these are all great and worthwhile things and worthy of our time, effort and devotion. They will not heal existential wounds or provide fulfillment. While these things are not substance abuse, violence or other self-abusive behavior (often with lasting effects on others), they can very easily have the same pernicious effect, because they, too, can become false idols. Only anchoring into something transcendent of life as we know it will provide any relief at all.

Something like the man who left the tomb empty.

Rather than Pascal, I think Augustine is more fitting: Our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you. 

It is not completion we ought to seek, but rest.

briefly, a bedtime story

So the girls have been getting stories about ‘the sleepy princesses,’ and since I’m a crappy storyteller, I just barely dramatize the events of their day. The names of the sleepy princesses are Princess E and Princess I. There’s also Prince Brother, Queen Mama and me, Brave Sir Daddy. They’ve already figured out that I’m just recycling the day’s events and it bothered them at first, but now they just go with it.

Tonight, they wanted to hear about the sleepy princesses; I wanted to hear about a dragon (who was introduced a few nights ago and is actually imaginary), but E wanted nothing to do with a dragon, even one who was friendly and played with them before.

So, I started in on how the sleepy princesses went outside on a beautiful day with a nice, cool breeze and were playing with their friend, the dragon. E began throwing a fit over the apparent indignity of invoking the presence of said friendly dragon.

“…and their friend the dragon went home because one of the sleepy princesses was mean. Princess E.”

The end.