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Hypergene MediaBlog » Participatory Religion: An interview with Pastor Tim Bednar
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Participatory Religion: An interview with Pastor Tim Bednar

There are few things more gratifying than someone finding inspiration in what you have done. Recently, we discovered We Know More Than Our Pastors: The New Amateur Preachers, a post by Tim Bednar, a pastor in Minneapolis (and blogger), who has taken our We Media paper to heart – and soul.

Echoing Dan Gillmor’s sentiment about audience, Tim believes his congregation knows more about how to follow God than he. The idea has made him rethink the accepted roles of preacher and congregation. Also up for grabs is the possibility that a church service experience could be more than proselytizing and singing — stained-glass may give way to multimedia.

Curious, we asked Tim to elaborate…

Q: How large a congregation do you have? Where is the church located?

Tim: I am part of a team that is planting a new church in Minneapolis, MN for the Assemblies of God denomination. We just started regular services last Sunday. I expect that by Christmas we will have 50 people at our main gathering and about 150 people who we would consider in our directory.

Q: Do members of your congregation see a difference between becoming more involved in the church versus a more fundamental change of the roles they fill?

A: We are a part what is being called an ‘emerging church movement’. Our congregation will probably not see there roles changing, because we are starting the church with these roles all turned around to start with. We have intentionally designed our gatherings to be very interactive and participatory. We have embraced the idea that our congregation knows more than the pastors. The result is a pretty involved and invested congregation. To be honest, we are still navigating this territory and I cannot really say anything definite yet. Maybe in a year.

Q: Do other pastors you speak with sense a need to change their roles, as well?

A: My ‘senior’ pastor has fully embraced the change in roles. I was a full-time minister for 10 years, now I work in marketing and as a freelance web designer — along with being a minister in my church (although I am not referred to by any clergy-like title). I am licensed.

However, on the whole, not many other pastors would have a clue about these changed roles — neither would many embrace these changes as they really upset tradition and institutional structures. Frankly, I left full-time ministry because I was tired of trying to explain or work around many of the profound changes that We Media explores. I do not think that many pastors believe that their congregation knows more than them — although they may give the idea lip service.

Bible colleges, seminaries and denominations do not see these changed roles while the ‘emerging church movement’ does. It is still uncertain as to what the emerging church movement stands for and what it will accomplish — but it is slowly changing things, I think.

Q: Have you thought about what a new, collaborative church experience would feel like?

A: Here is an example from our first service: Doors open at 5:30 with our espresso bar open, tables and chairs are scattered around a low platform, live music is being played — it kind a feels like a cabaret. We start the service at around 6:10 with a quick welcome, then we worship with sacred music (this week it was acoustic guitar, but it will change often) and the words are projected on a screen with images (and a visualizer like on iTunes). The music still plays while we offer communion, but before we partake — we ask the folks at each table to take some time to pray and confess to one another. Then we receive communion. After this, we have a message supported by illustrations and biblical texts — reinforced with projected images (not PowerPoint). We are attempting to use projected images like morphable stained glass windows. The message concludes with a invitation to discuss at the tables. After a while, the speaker asks for feedback there and reinforces the message with a ‘take away’. This is usually a spiritual discipline — this week we are seeking to learn how to listen properly to others and to God. Then we reopen the espresso bar and people leave whenever. During this whole time, congregants can write messages on the table cloths, fill out prayer request cards — eventually we want a PDA on every table and Wi-Fi connectivity. So during the discussion time, we can Google for more info, etc.

Once we get going, we will blog about the weeks message and distribute discussion questions to those who attended the gathering with us. So our web site will extend the experience.

We are unsure how many people we can accommodate with this model. So we are open to multiple services and multiple locations, while still acting as one church body.

Like I said, we are just starting so much of this is just theory. But we are trying.

Q: What tools/training do you think congregation member would need?

A: We will be using blogging as a spiritual formation tool. We also will hold training sessions on how to use the church intranet and our ecard tool where member can send Flash animations to friends/families.

We also see the need for formal ‘bible training’ and ‘pastoral training’ for people. We will probably do this using a cohort or coaching model rather than classes and lecture.

The biggest threat to the integrity of the church working on this model and in these roles is how to protect the fundamentals of our faith. We are not relativists and do believe in a dogma - however questioned it may be.

I, too, look forward to this article (which Tim plans to write on this subject) — it is slow in coming, I have too many ideas and they are as of yet unformed. I will continue to mine We Media for inspiration. May God bless you for your work — it has influenced me very much.

If folks like Tim — who celebrate the traditions rooted in thousands of years of history — can be inspired to collaborate with their audience, can’t news editors? For Heaven’s sake.

Also see: Religion and the Media: Parallel Evolution, post by Steve Outing

Posted on Oct 15, 2003 | 12:35 am EST

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Just wanted to thank you for extending your work and embracing the idea that participation is a force that is changing more than journalism.

Posted by: Tim Bednar on Oct 15, 03 | 8:45 am EST

This sounds like a great option for worship, but I think there’s an element of it that would bother me a lot, and Tim hit on it when he spoke of formal Bible training. There are a lot of individual Christians out there who have a lot of bad ideas about Christianity—ideas that churches worked out and dealt with long ago. Now, there’s problems with going too far on church tradition as well, but to ignore it and go with the flow of the Holy Spirit alone can lead you into all sorts of problems. I’m inclined against such a free-flow form of worship—and have often found it annoying—because it leaves many pastor and parishoners without the foundation that a thoroughly educated seminarian gets from studying 2,000 years of theological scholarship and experience. If it feeds your spirit, go for it, but, as with the mainstream media, there are dangers on both ends of the democratic/top-down spectrum.

Posted by: Chris Smith on Oct 15, 03 | 10:44 pm EST

Chris--I agree with you. The emerging church hopes to synthesize the Ancient and Future. I sometimes find freeflowing worship times anoying. Maybe you would like to read (a very long) entry I just posted called Describing A Postmodern Pentecostal Church.

Posted by: Tim Bednar on Oct 16, 03 | 7:51 am EST

chris, in response to: “there are dangers on both ends of the democratic/top-down spectrum.”

likewise, there can be benefits on both ends of that spectrum - in religion, politics and in the media. as we documented in our paper, the relationship between an empowered audience and the mainstream media is symbiotic - each feeds off the other. the same is certainly plausible in religion, no?

Posted by: shayne on Oct 16, 03 | 9:29 am EST

This symbiotic relationship, the participation factor, is the part that I feel is revolutionary and will change religion, media as well as other institutions. I think the dangers will be mitigated by the ‘network’ in the same way that the Internet routes around damage. In other words, I think that through the participation of a large community of people Truth will surface--eventually. However, we still do not know if this is true.

Posted by: Tim Bednar on Oct 16, 03 | 10:37 am EST

Regarding the comment “If folks like Tim — who celebrate the traditions rooted in thousands of years of history — can be inspired to collaborate with their audience, can’t news editors? For Heaven’s sake.” . . . I’m sorry, I beg to differ.  St. John Chrysostom would have found this service totally bizarre and very irreverent.  He would very likely have penned quite a few stern sermons. 

The Divine Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom has stood the test of time for over a thousand of years, and is to be found in daily use in Orthodox churches all over the world, on Mt. Athos, in the small parish in Eureka, CA, at the patriarchial cathedral in Moscow, in the small Ugandian village, nowdays.  Frankly, I would take this form of worship any day over that which is practiced at this congregation.

Posted by: Lola on Oct 16, 03 | 11:12 am EST

Lola, I think that many people find the type of liturgy you describe as “bizarre” and inaccessible. But that does not make it wrong. And in fact most Christians around the world worship God in a manner other than the one you describe. I believe that Christianity is open to more forms: high liturgical pose, free-form Pentecostal song, or Quaker silence.

I would be horrified if the type of service I describe is “irreverent”—for it is an attempt to worship God and connect with the sacred--just in a different form. I believe that (post)modern technology and forms of communication should not be condemned as “irreverent” simply because they are new.

Posted by: Tim Bednar on Oct 16, 03 | 11:47 am EST

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first in the interest of full disclosure, i’m formally a roman catholic and practicing unitarian. (please save your laughter or applause for the end.)

a person’s spirituality is arguably one of the most unique, emotional and personal characteristics of any human being. thinking that one way of worship or one religion could fit everyone equally seems unrealistic.

from what i’ve observed, spirituality is the way people want to worship but religion is the way people actually worship.

we are all looking to resolve our individual views of the divine with the traditional ones we practice every Sunday. what attracts me to Tim’s approach (and unitarianism) is a focus on active congregation participation to develop a deeper spirituality and stronger relationships with others. in short, this participation helps resolve the two.

Posted by: chris on Oct 16, 03 | 1:26 pm EST

I think Chris hit the nail on the head--I am not really interested in ‘participation’, I am interested in relationships and building community (in Christ). Churches have built relationships many different ways in the past, but I think that technology and postmodern thought compels us to try new forms.

Posted by: Tim Bednar on Oct 17, 03 | 7:58 am EST


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