on signs, signals, churches and the current state of Starbucks
Explorefaith sat down recently with Professor Leonard Sweet. Len is the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, and a Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University. In 2006 and 2007 he was selected by his peers as “One of the 50 Most Influential Christians in America.” He contributes weekly to the popular preaching resource, www.sermons.com, and offers a weekly podcast on iTunes called “Napkin Scribbles.”
He’s probably best known as the author of dozens of popular books, including Soul Tsunami and The Gospel According to Starbucks. We got together to talk about a lot of things, but also, about the new book he has just edited and contributed to, which is about nothing less than the future of Christianity: The Church of the Perfect Storm (Abingdon Press, 2008).
Explorefaith: Len, you are often described as a futurist. Can you tell me what that means, exactly? Do you foretell the future?
Leonard Sweet: Don’t we all wish we had that crystal ball? What I do is called “semiotics,” which makes me a “semiotician,” a word derived from one of Jesus’ favorite sayings: “Red sky in morning/sailors take warning/Red sky at night/sailors delight. You know how to read the signs of the sky; Learn to read the signs of the times.” [See Matthew 16:2-3] The Greek word for “signs” is semeion, and semiotics is the study of signs and the art of making connections, seeing the relationships between apparently random signs and reading the meaning of those relationships.
Our brains are designed to detect patterns. So I only do what everyone else can do if we do what we’re designed to do.
The world is ruled by signs and signals. For example, cars are driven to be seen and to be read, not just to get you somewhere. Cars are signs of who we are or want to be. Signals are heavy laden with social and moral connotations. They even alter the behavior of those receiving the signals. In nature, you don’t get to mate or even sometimes move without being able to read signs, many of them blazing signals in code: the crow of a rooster, the tail of a peacock, the antlers of a buck, the scent of an otter, the song of a kakapo. In economics, the whole system of money is based on signs, and you can’t balance a checkbook without the ability to read a sign language called “mathematics.” You are tested in your sign-reading ability before you are given a license to drive a car.
Explorefaith: What does reading signs have to do with faith?
Leonard Sweet: Disciples of Jesus must learn to read the sign-language of the Spirit. Sometimes God gives us a hint; sometimes God drops a hammer on us. But the handwriting is on the wall. God’s finger is still writing. Can we read the signs of what God is doing? The ultimate in spiritual illiteracy is the inability to read the handwriting on the wall, especially when the essence of evangelism is announcing the good sign, the Jesus Sighting. For me, semiotics is another way of talking about the signs of the Spirit’s activity in the world. For we are sent into the world to join Jesus in his continuing mission.
Also—there are some people in the church preoccupied with reading signs, but they’re looking only for one thing: not signs of our times, but end times signs, signs of the coming of Christ, signs of the “latter days” and the “end of days.” I’m trying, instead, to read the signs which give us Jesus sightings.
Explorefaith: In The Church of the Perfect Storm, you and your fellow contributors have a lot to say about the future of the church—about the future of what it means to be church. How do you see the future shaping up?
Leonard Sweet: These are very challenging days for the church, perhaps as challenging as the church has ever faced in its two millennium existence. There are the best of times and the worst of times. What excites me is that there is one reason to go out into the Perfect Storm: for that’s when you make the ultimate catch, and I am convinced that the ultimate catch for Christ will be made as the church navigates this Perfect Storm.
Explorefaith: Is the Internet the primary tool for change, today? And do you think that we are fast approaching a time when we will no longer have churches as we know them, now?
Sweet: We will always have churches “as we know them, now,” as you put it. But the future will birth, and has already birthed, a vast array of ways to “do church,” and people will participate in a lot of these at the same time. For example, I went to traditional church the same day I also attended “Life Church” on the Internet with pastor Tony Steward. I do think generally that churches in the future will be getting larger, and getting smaller, and that people will be a part of both. The best days of the small church are in the future if it can indigenize itself in a Google world where the Facebook crowd hungers for face-to-face, even in-your-face relationships.
Explorefaith: A lot of people are tired of churches because they are tired of all the theological debates, the power plays, scandals, and all of that. So I guess I want to ask you: What difference will changing church structures make in the nitty-gritty spiritual lives of Christians?
Sweet: I have very little interest in “re-structuring.” For me Spirit comes before structure, and the most important thing is to get the right Spirit. I’ve never done “job descriptions,” but “spirit descriptions.” That’s why I keep asking “Where is Jesus?” In too many churches, and too many conferences, I’m not finding Jesus anywhere. And I don’t mean the Jesus of the past, that we try to be “like” by the living of his “principles.” We do need to reconnect ourselves to the Jesus of history. But I mean the living Christ, the present presence of the risen Lord who is at work in our world today. I grew up singing “I serve a RISEN Savior, he’s in the world TODAY.” It’s this alive Jesus who wants to live his resurrected life in and through us and through our communities that I’m not finding in the church, not even in the emerging church that is so fixated on “kingdom principles.” This is not a new problem, of course. In the Book of Revelation, Jesus is outside his church, knocking patiently in hopes someone will let him in. He’s still knocking. I taught this summer at Oxford University where one of the two Holman Hunt originals of this famous picture are hung. I sat in the side chapel, glued to this painting, and wept.
Explorefaith: Now, what about you, personally? You write and lecture and mentor and counsel—but how do you nourish your own self, spiritually? Do you mind telling us: What do you do daily, weekly, annually, to maintain a relationship with God?
Sweet: I don’t segment my life into “gym time” or “God time” or “spiritual spa” time. I’m trying to make my entire life a “Lord’s Prayer,”so anything I can do to marinate my mind and saturate my soul in the texts and traditions of the faith, I do. This means something as crazy as having the door to my study lowered requiring me to bow humbly to enter it (there is a Jewish saying that an hour of study is in the eyes of God as an hour of prayer), or merging my “coffee break” with a “wonder break” where I intentionally savor something about the Savior’s love while I savor the aroma and taste of coffee. I integrate what I call “rout the routine” rituals into my daily life that get me out of my ruts and boxes—it’s hard to think “out of the box” while you’re living in boxes of “likes” and “dislikes” that get bigger the older you get. Every decade I dedicate my devotional Bible to one of my kids, and spend those ten years writing personal prayers for them and notes to them as I study the Word. I am a firm believer in multi-tasking, which I believe we were made by God to do, as in “love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul, strength.” … I begin each day with the reminder that the most important people in my life I haven’t met yet … but you get the picture by now.
Explorefaith: Do you take from other faith traditions to enhance your own spiritual practices? Do you think that doing so takes away at all from your faithfulness as a follower of Jesus?
Sweet: The founder of my tribe, John Wesley, believed that everyone we meet had something to teach us, and that since all truth is God’s truth, we need to be able to receive truth from anyone. I want to be open to being taught by everyone, whether atheist or Buddhist or consumerist or whatever. That’s why the primary spiritual organ for me is the ear–for listening.
Explorefaith: As the author of The Gospel According to Starbucks, what do you think of all of these Starbucks locations closing their doors? Are there some parallels between a struggling Starbucks and a struggling church?
Sweet: The plight of Starbucks parallels the plight of all movements that become institutions: It began because of a passion for quality coffee experiences, and somewhere along the line it turned into an institution whose passion is not for pleasing coffee lovers but Wall Street. How hard it is to change an institution is reflected in the famous Howard Schultz “shot” heard round the world, the leaked memo where the founder of Starbucks bemoaned the sterile, corporate state of the stores. He promised as CEO to get rid of that awful smelling/tasting breakfast sandwich. It’s been over a year, and the breakfast sandwich is still there.
Explorefaith: What should a changing church learn from a changing Starbucks?
Sweet: Never lose your first love … and our first love is Jesus. When our passion is for anything other than Christ, we are sliding a downward slope.
Explorefaith: If you could make one wish come true for Christians in the United States, what would it be?
Sweet: Learn to make fire again: the fire of faith that comes from the flints and splints of the cross.