In conversation with Stephen Shields…

Today I am interviewing the Stephen Shields, creator the Faith Maps online community and one of my favorite bloggers.  Stephen is also one of the best online hosts I have ever seen.  He managed to deal with the high volume of mail that Faith Maps generates as well as the very diverse theological world views.  My time there taught me a lot about both theology and also community.  We did this interview via e-mail back in January and I have been too busy to post it until now.  Enjoy.

What’s your age and occupation.

I’m 45 and I’m USA TODAY‘s National Home Delivery Circulation Manager. 

How long have you lived in the Washington area and how did you end up there?

I went to college and seminary to become a professor of theology and/or NT Greek.  I wanted to help prepare Christian leaders for Christ’s church.  Half-way through my Masters degree, I came to the conclusion that seminaries (at least my seminary) were not training leaders but were creating scholars.  (A big clue was when one of my professors said, “We don’t train you how to be pastors but how to answer Bible question.”)  I had nothing against scholarship but came to the conclusion that scholarship was insufficient to create spiritual leaders.  And so I no longer had a planned vocation!  I almost dropped out of school but decided to finish my degree and did so in 1986. 

After I graduated, I felt that I was too young to pastor, loved the church community of which I was a part, and so just decided to hang around there and teach in the church.  But I needed to support myself so I took a job as a spot welder in a local metal fabrication factory!  I did that for about 18 months when suddenly one day I asked myself, “Why are you spot welding in the rural Mid-West??”

At that point, I began a search for a growing church that needed teachers (that’s how I self-identified then) in a metropolitan area.  I had spent some time with Bruce McNicol (Ascent of a Leader) and asked him to tell me of the best churches he knew of that fit those criteria.  He recommended churches in Detroit, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Washington, DC.  One of the churches he mentioned was called Community Church and was pastored by a young former English professor named Brian McLaren.  I wrote letters to all the churches – letting them know that I wasn’t looking for a job but just wanted to volunteer – and visited some of those that wrote back.  In the summer of 1988 I visited what was just being named Cedar Ridge Community Church and liked what I saw.  I sold my home, and moved to rent a room with Brian’s parents in the Washington, DC area in August of 1988 with no job and no friends!

Faith Maps was one of the first online communities dealing with the emerging church.  What was your inspiration for creating Faith Maps? 

Sometime in 1999, I think, I came on staff at Cedar Ridge after many years of lay leadership and involvement.  I worked with CRCC’s small groups, adult education, and sat on the church’s Executive Team.  I had for many years taught a course on basic theology and after I came on staff I relaunched that course calling it “faithmaps.”  I purchased the domain to develop it for that course. 

But I took on too much:

I was working part-time for Cedar Ridge having the time of my life (really) but putting in 20-40 hours a week;

I was still working full-time for USA TODAY at that time as a Database Administrator/Analyst;
I had been diagnosed with Type II Diabetes in 1996.
Beth and I were parents of three little girls.
And as a result of this too much, I ended up losing control of my blood sugar and getting pretty sick.  So I had to quit CRCC staff. 

It took me a while to recover.  During that time, I purchased from Cedar Ridge and began to develop it (it’s also, by the way, about to be relaunched with a new design).  At the same time, I also started the online faithmaps discussion group.  Doing both of these things helped me to think through my own thoughts and feelings about what’s now called the emerging church conversations.  It was very therapeutic and rich.

Were you surprised at how fast it grew?

As far as its growth went, I think that thing that was most surprising to me was the degree of intimacy that developed between some of the core members of that group, most of whom to this day I still haven’t met.  We ended up drawing all kinds of folks.  We talked to atheists; we talked to polygamists; we talked to very conservative folks; we talked to folks who weren’t conservative; we talked to people who were intensely hurting and had no one else to talk to; and – perhaps mostly – we talked to folks who were very interested in the nexus of the church and postmodernity (it wasn’t called the emerging church at that time)

You have been involved in a lot of online community innovations at Faith Maps (I think of your excellent Faith Stories small groups).  What has been some of your favorite experiences as a part of the Faith Maps community? 

Well we did have one fascinating experience with a dear woman in Europe who had (I’m not kidding) fallen and broken her hip, who could not reach the telephone, but could reach her keyboard.  She posted a note to the group and we desperately located a hospital near her and arranged for her to get rescued!  She did have to go to hospital but eventually recovered. 

But what I mostly think of are the wonderful people that I’ve met in the faithmaps community.  One of my very best friends in the world came into the group very mad at God and the church.  Early in the group we were joined by a professional philosopher named Jon Gold and he helped us think through this intersection of postmodernism and Christianity.  He also had a passionate love for God and for the Bible.  (We were rocked a couple of years ago when he tragically died of a heart attack).  And there have been so many other really precious people who have joined our community through the years. 

Right now our group is at a crossroads and will probably be taking a new direction when the new site is launched.  We’ve been through a lot of changes in the last 4 years. 

How many e-mail do you read a day?

A lot less than I used to.  🙂    A couple of years ago, I realized I was spending too much time online and dramatically cut my time in front of my box.  So I would say that today I probably only read 20-30 emails a day (excluding work emails of course).  It used to be tons more!

What has been best three books you have read in the last year and what has made them worthwhile?

Jordon, I read a lot less books than you do!   🙂  Here’s the first three that come to mind – I’m sure I’m missing some more important tome!

  1. Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman.  I loved this book and found it to be very helpful.  I posted a summary of Dr. Seligman’s thoughts on optimism and found a lot of resonance for my faith.
  2. Da Vinci Code – by Dan Brown.  I went into the book girding up my scholarly loins .  But Brown’s historical revisionism really did seem to be pretty far-fetched and it ended up being a very enjoyable novel!
  3. DisneyWar by James Stewart.  Similar to my approach to Da Vinci, I went into journalist Stewart’s book on Michael Eisner and the inner workings of Disney with the intention of learning about organizations.  Though very well written, I ended up mostly enjoying the soap opera!

A couple of decades from now, when we look back at this time of new thoughts and emerging forms of church, what do you think our regrets will be? What do you think we are still getting wrong?

We will regret missing the magnificence of God Himself and his Son Jesus.  We will regret not having prayed more, not having cultivated our personal and communal relationships with God.  We will be sad that we talked and read and learned more than we could possibly ever do.  We will regret getting lost in the issues rather than getting lost in Him.  We will believe that we spent too much time in the propositional and not enough time in the transpropositional.

You are a known learner.  If you could spend a year learning from any theologian in church history, who would you choose to learn from.


What are your five favorite weblogs?

  1. Andrew Jones
  2. Ted Olsen
  3. jordon cooper (no, i’m not just saying that!)
  4. scot mcknight (though I can’t possibly keep up with his frenetic mind!)
  5. jason clark

This is for my Canadian readers.  You live in the Washington area.  Without looking this up, do you know of the top of your head who Alexander Ovechkin is?

I’m afraid I don’t

Somewhere in New York, NHL Gary Bettman is stifling a cry right now…

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3 thoughts on “In conversation with Stephen Shields…”

  1. I love this:

    “We will regret missing the magnificence of God Himself and his Son Jesus … We will be sad that we talked and read and learned more than we could possibly ever do.”

    I think of St. Silouan of Mt. Athos, and a man who would visit him was asked, “Why do you waste time with this peasant? He doesn’t read many books.” He replied, “Some people read much and practise little; he reads very little but practises it perfectly.”

    Or even better, the humility of the desert fathers:
    ‘One day Abba Arsenius consulted an old Egyptian monk about his own thoughts. Someone noticed this and said to him, “Abba Arsenius, how is it that you with such a good Latin and Greek education, ask this peasant about your thoughts?” He replied, “I have indeed been taught Latin and Greek, but I do not know even the alphabet of this peasant.’

  2. erf..Faithmaps is NOT high volume. the Emergent conversation consists of bashing moderns with “transpopositionality” and other words that presuppose we CARE about what they have to say.

    George Barna was right when he said in 2002 that the church had 5 years to turn around or get screwed to the carpet.

  3. the downfall of faithmaps is merely a more dramatic example of the implosion the EC is experiencing. most of the online discussion groups have dropped precipitously in volume with the rise of bloggers. however, the blogosphere is reshuffling the same ole same ole and the EC, at least in its online form, is losing (if it has not already lost) its momentum.

    the EC’s efforts to reinvent church left disgruntled evangelicals with little more than a reconstituted evangelicalism with the window dressing altered. instead of providing a substantian reimagining of what could be, the EC has failed to live up to its enthusiastic inception.

    better to read McLaren’s latest, The Secret Message of Jesus, and learn to live quietly, secretly, and effectively as subjects in God’s Kingdom.

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