Bo Sanders: Public Theology

updating & innovating for today

Is Church a Supplement or Complement?

Week 3 of being back in the pulpit and this past Sunday we introduced an element of conversation to our gatherings. There are several things I love about this addition:

  1. While I appreciate so many things about evangelical and liturgical worship, I worry that it has become a one-directional stage performance – a spectacle that encourages people to be spectators.
  2. When everything is pre-planned (and even scripted) it may lose its element of sincerity and deep engagement.

Now, admittedly, the above two concerns may not always be the case – but I am under the conviction that the situation is far worse and that I have actually understated the seriousness of the issue!

In a society of spectacle, the form of the church service has not changed but its power has. In an agrarian society of a previous century the form of liturgical worship would have provided a certain function. The 20th century brought most places in N. America through an transition of industrial and then into a technological society. In post-agrarian (and even post-industrial) communities, the liturgy (or the order of service)- even though it has not changed –  has changed the role that it functions in people’s life.

Here is how I think about this change:

When life in an agrarian era is relatively consistent and even predictable, the church service is an exciting highlight with big music, ideas, and relational connection.

Then something happened in the 20th century and the church started playing a different role in people’s lives. 

Life got busy and society got unpredictable. Some might even say chaotic. Life in the 21st century can be exhausting, confusing, overwhelming and even discouraging. The result is that people wanted their mainline churches to be stable, predictable, and comforting. In a word – safe.

What this has led to is an interesting dilemma for the 21st century:

“Is the church a supplement or a complement to people’s week and life?”

I have posed the question to lots of people who both go to church and those who no longer do so. The overwhelming answer seems to be that church is a supplement to people’s lives.

Life is hectic and unpredictable – so church is a nice break from that.

What I am hoping for is an engagement when we gather as the church that is not a vacation from the chaos of life but one that prepares us for it. I don’t want church to be a supplement to life, I want church to complement your life.

When it comes down to it, I am hoping that what we do when gather as the church is to practice faith together so that we are ready for the week ahead and the life of faith. We want to create space to engage new ideas and wrestle with challenging issues.

In a digital age, people want a place to ask hard questions, wrestle with new concepts, try out new things, and most of all to contribute something of value.


3 Questions about ‘Change’

Can you help me as I get ready for Sunday?

This will be my 3rd service at Vermont Hills UMC – but it is the first gathering that will be built around conversation. The first week was a holiday weekend so I just introduced myself casually. Last week was a big communion week. This week we are moving the communion table and replacing it with a coffee table.

Would be willing answer 3 questions for me as I prepare to facilitate that conversation:

  1. What is the biggest change that you have seen in society during your lifetime?
  2. What has changed the most for you in the past 20 years?
  3. What is one change that you would undo if you could?


My three answers would be something like:
1. The role of religion in public life.
2. Discovering Second Naïveté mid-preaching career.
3. TV in the living room and iPhones at the breakfast table.

I would love to hear your 3 answers.

Tomorrow Morning I Return To Pastoral Ministry


The year of being a visiting theology professor is 3 weeks from coming to a close.

It has been wonderful and I have learned so much. My students have impressed me at every turn … except for a growing concern about the local churches that they come from .

This have given me a desire to get back into local church ministry. The Lord has heard my prayer and She had attended to my cry. 

SO here we go …

Tomorrow morning I return to the ‘pulpit’ for the first time in a year.

AND I return to being a Sr. Pastor for the first time in 10 years.

I am so excited. 

1) I want to thank you for your prayers, notes, and support as I prepare to transition back into pastoral ministry. It has meant a lot (and it apparently worked)

3) I begin tomorrow with a shortened service  (due to the holiday weekend) and then we go big next Sunday July 9th with a full communion service.

I will be transitioning the church toward a 2.0 model (video link) and need conversation partners.  Check out our new website for details

Reimagining-VHUMCSo if I could ask a favor:

If you know any progressive or post-evangelical friends who are looking for a church in Portland, please send them along! This is going to be a fun adventure creating a different kind of church that integrates:

  • Liturgical Worship
  • Embodied Practices
  • Critical Conversations

Let the adventure begin.

Life Is About To Change

11 months ago I left my church, left LA, and left social media to come to Portland for a year-long appointment as the visiting professor of theology at the same seminary I had studied at 7 short years before.

It has been an eye-opening year. The seminary has changed a lot in 7 years. Education (higher ed in general and theological ed specifically) has changed a lot in 7 years. I have changed a lot in 7 years.

I had an epiphany of sorts this spring and I reached out to my denominational friends in the Portland area. I let them know that I was interested in getting back in to pastoral ministry and that I would be transferring my ordination to their Methodist denomination. The reception was so warm and so welcoming that I took it as confirmation. The Spirit of God is up to something. I can feel it. 

Fast forward 3 months and I am just weeks away from being appointed to a church in SW Portland. I am beyond excited. The church is small and in need of revitalization, but the thing that it has going for it is that the congregation cares about things that matter and they serve their community. That is an exciting point to build on.

The two issues that occupy my imagination right now (before I start) are:

  1. Transitioning the Sunday gathering to a more conversational engagement and transforming the sanctuary to a more versatile space. I have this vision to hybrid the two excellent models from the church in LA into one dynamic experience that incorporates liturgical elements, embodied practices, and critical conversations.
  2. Reaching out to new people with an invitation to a truly different kind of church environment. I have been ‘workshopping’ some ideas with the post-evangelical folks that I know to see what they think of the plan. Early feedback is good.

So I am inheriting this wonderful older congregation, a cool but outdated building, the wisdom from my experience in LA, and a mandate for change & growth from my denominational leadership. That is an electric combination.

Add that to a year of reflection and rest and I am just about busting at the seems to get started.

Thank you for your support this past year and for your prayers in the months to come. I get appointed June 20th and then officially begin in July. I can’t wait to partner with this congregation to reach out to our neighborhood and see what God might do with us.Bo sketch sm

Is Your View Of God Demanding?

This is my 3rd and final semester in my year of being a seminary professor. I have loved it and have learned so much about faith formation and the local church (more on that this fall).

It is rewarding to introduce students to concepts such as the Surplus of Meaning and the god revealed in Christ (GRIC). I get lots of feedback on my 5 min. video about the 5 Gods That People Believe In as I rank them from highest to lowest in ‘level of commitment’.

The schema goes from ‘highest’ to ‘lowest’:
5 – SuperNatural Agent
4 – Divine Being
3 – Ground of Being (GoB)
2 – the Go(o)d
1 – Event

A student reached out to me for clarification on the ‘level of commitment’ schema. Here is part of my response: 

A little background:  I was raised Billy Graham-style evangelical. I eventually got caught up in Charismatic renewal. I came through the Emergent conversation of the early 2000’s and landed in a Mainline-Progressive set up, not because I agree with it but because there is theological freedom-autonomy.
So one of the things that I have noticed in my theological wanderings/migration is that certain concepts of god are more demanding or invasive on the believer’s daily existence. It has nothing to do with being intellectually rigorous but on the level of how specific the claim on the daily affairs of your life it is.
Here is an example that I have in mind. If you believe in a Divine Being (level 4 in my schema) then you certainly want to make decisions and live in such a way as to please that divine being. If you hold to a SuperNatural Agent who intervenes in human affairs (level 5) then you really have to be careful about each decision, the state of your heart, and even your intentions and motives (right actions are not enough). Because if that god doesn’t like something you do, ‘he’ might interfere and do something about it.
Hold this in contrast to someone like John Caputo. Caputo says that ‘God doesn’t exist, God insists’ because the name of God is an event. I have placed this at Level 1. That is not to say that it is not rigorous – it is very rigorous and takes much effort to work out. Caputo spends hours a day on this concept and has made an entire career out of it.
What I mean is that one who believes in ‘the event of the name of god’ doesn’t have to worry about having an extra glass of wine or upgrading to an expensive cable package or even discerning which school to go to because god’s will is that you meet your future spouse (the one god picked out for you) there.
Let’s take someone who holds to the ‘Ground of Being’ idea from Tillich. If this idea has gripped you, it can encompass and inspire your entire day and life. It can add sacredness to existence that is mystical and fantastic. It can consumer your thought life and change everything from your library or your friendships to your church loyalties. So it is both rigorous and impactful.
What I am mean by ‘level of commitment’ is that it doesn’t necessarily make demands of you or your neighbor the same way. Wine consumption, cable packages, and school selections aside – your neighbor can hold a different view and you can absorb that into your view. Diversity is accounted for within GoB (Level 3) and unlike the SuperNatural Agent view – you don’t need it to be this way which affords you to be a little looser.
It is similar to views about the Bible: if you believe that the Bible is ‘God’s Word’ (even though it says that Jesus is the Word of God) and that it is how God speaks to us – then you will read it every day to see what God speaks to you. Then, when people get a little scholarship about the Bible – unfortunately this new awareness doesn’t lead them to read the Bible differently, it leads to them reading the Bible less and getting less out of it.
This new view just doesn’t require the same level of commitment.
Is there a way that I can say ‘level of commitment’ more clearly?  I would love some feedback. 

Mapping the Theological Landscape

There are some helpful ‘spectrums’ about theology. I use Grenz & Olson’s formulation of:

  • Folk
  • Lay
  • Ministerial
  • Professional
  • Academic

as a starting point to initiate those who are entering the conversation. This summer I am teaching an Essentials of Christian Theology class online. It is the same class that I just finished teaching in Portland this past semester.

There are some crucial elements that help frame the reading for the class [link to our text – also in kindle] that I will be making a series of videos for.

I am suspicious of ‘spectrums’ generally and find ‘maps’ to be more accurate and more helpful. Here is my 23 minute attempt to map the theological landscape (as a protestant) for the 21st century.

We begin with Creedal, Confessional, Constructive, and Critical approaches.

Let me know if you have thoughts or questions 

The Web of Authority

I have been following a fascinating debate about authority and accountability for popular female bloggers. Much of it is response to the evangelical Christianity Today (CT) Women article “Who’s In Charge of the Christian Blogosphere?“.

The articles states:

“Hits on a viral post lead to book deals, which lead to taking the conference stage. Winsome, relatable writing, good storytelling, and compelling life experiences are often as crucial to audience size—and therefore to authority—as theological teaching, presuppositions, or argument… garnering huge followings based on a cult of personality and holding extensive power and influence, yet often lacking any accountability to formal structures of church governance.”

It goes on to say that “In the vacuum created by a lack of women’s voices in the church, Christian female bloggers became national leaders who largely operate outside of any denominational or institutional structure.” Instead of authority deriving from institutional (academic or ecclesial) powers, theirs come from the marketplace.

This is vibrant and highly contested discussion (a visible on Twitter) which I am following with great interest. There are 4 levels of investment for me – and none of them seem to connect with one another.

I am an academic, a minister, a blogger and I am from an evangelical background. These four have almost no overlap …

I have had the pleasure of learning at a school with amazing professors like Kathleen J. Greider, Monica A. Coleman, Grace Yia-Hei Kao , Najeeba Syeed and my PhD Advisor Sheryl Kujawa-Holbrook (who’s book on inter-religious learning is a must read).

As a professor I require my students to read Elizabeth Johnson, Bonnie J. Miller-McLemore,  Elaine Graham, Sheila Greeve Davaney, Letty Russell, Ada Maria Isasi-Diaz, bell hooks, Crystal Downing, and MaryKate Morse.

In my church life – both in Los Angeles and now in Portland – with all of my Dist. Superintendents as well as both Bishop Minerva Carcaño and Bishop Elaine Stanovsky, the United Methodist has women at every level of leadership.

I am also a blogger – which is quite independent of either my academic or ecclesiastic responsibilities. So I get the concern over accountability with that enterprise.

In contrast to all of the above:  I was raised, ordained, and continue to teach adjunct in a evangelical denomination where CT carries a lot of weight and often initiates conversations.

So while I 100% understand and support those who are upset at the CT article, tone, conclusion, and narrowness of scope … I have to admit that it is a very real problem and concern in those evangelical circles in which CT exists. I know 50 pastors and people in church leadership off the top of my heard who say the sort of things that the article says. 

My experience in the evangelical church stands in stark contrast to my experience in the academy and in the mainline church. They actually could not be more different in this aspect. It is nearly impossible to overstate. When you have male-only leadership, you are bound to have secondary and auxiliary voices become authoritative and this will be viewed either as a challenge or undermining to the establishment.

It reminded me of a conversation that I had with Phyllis Tickle at an event 3 years ago about authority and the age of the spirit. As someone who formerly pastored in an charismatic/evangelical church and now is in a Methodist setting, I had this take on the decentered and radically democratized notion of ‘authority’ heading forward:

Element 1: in the past we talked about seats at the table. Where does authority reside? Past answers have included leaders, scripture, the collective, bylaws, reason, etc. Traditionally we have talked about authority in a static sense – there in a danger of ‘misplaced concreteness’ when we talk about authority a deriving from one element.

Element 2: in the Methodist tradition we have the Wesleyan quadrilateral of scripture, tradition, experience and reason. This constellation of sources is vital because if both provides different anchor points for our ‘web of meaning’ and it is sequenced with scripture leading – but as prima scriptura and not sola scripture

Elements 3: I read a fascinating article about developments in neuroscience. Researches have long looked for which part of the brain memories reside in. It turns out that memories are not located in any one place but in the connection made between different parts of the brain.

Having said all of that:

Proposal: Authority, like memory, is not located in any one place. It is uniquely comprised of the connection between component parts. Depending on the collected aspects, the authority that emerges will be unique to that organization, congregation, and movement. It will not look the same for a UMC pastor in Portland and a blogger in Austin, TX or an independent Baptist church planter in Carolina.

Part of our frustration may be that we are looking for one answer instead of (to paraphrase Bonnie Miller-McLemore) a web of meaning/authority.

Authority  doesn’t exist (per se) in that same sense that we have traditionally conceptualized it … OR perhaps I should say it doesn’t reside somewhere (a given place)  – but in the connection and configuration of collected elements and sources.


My First Meme

Doing research on memes the other night and I discovered that there are websites that help you generate your own meme. Here is my first attempt:


Pretty sarcastic, I know, but that idea shows up in the darnedest place. I sent it to my friends & family to good feedback so I thought I would share it here.

Big News Coming Soon

When the contract with Portland Seminary runs out in a few months, I will be heading back into pastoral ministry.

It is not entirely public yet, but I have entered into an agreement with an older congregation in SW Portland to help revitalize their small church and to transition it to be a “conversational community” where critical conversation and historic practices can be integrated with justice concerns.  :~)

  • Relational engament
  • Embodied spirituality
  • Caring for the community

SO if you know any progressive, post-evangelical, or innovative types who want to be a part of transitioning a multi-generational church to a more contemporary engagement built on conversation, practice, and service to the community … please send them along!  We will need partners who want to do (and be) the church in a different way.

Here are my videos on Preaching 2.0 and Church as Google if you are interested. 

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