EMS Leadership School Focuses on Media, Race
By Laura Lehman Amstutz
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HARRISONBURG, Va. - When the planners for this year’s School for Leadership Training chose the theme and speakers for this year’s conference they had no idea how appropriate they would be.
Some 220 pastors and lay leaders attending the conference held Jan. 19-22, 2009, at Eastern Mennonite Seminary heard messages and attended classes on cultural change, engaging the media and race relations just as many thousands traveled to Washington, D.C., to witness the inauguration of the country’s first African-American president and millions more watched the event on electronic media.
Regina Shands Stoltzfus, professor at Goshen (Ind.) College and Shane Hipps, pastor at Trinity Mennonite Church in Phoenix, Ariz., were keynote speakers on the conference theme, “Christians Engaging Cultural Change.”
On the eve of the inauguration Jan. 19, Stoltzfus encouraged participants and community members to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr’s call to “dangerous unselfishness.”
"Dangerous unselfishness is the notion that we are called into acts of serving one another that at best, may not serve us, and at worst may indeed cost us," Stoltzfus said.
Stoltzfus’ tribute to Martin Luther King Jr. encouraged participants to remember who we are and where we’ve been.
“Where we have been is part of who we are,” she said, “Let us remember those times but not let the memory stunt our growth or bring us back into that place.”
Hipps began Tuesday’s session by helping participants understand theorist Marshall McLuhan’s thought, “the medium is the message.”
“We tend to assume that the way media is used is what gives it value,” said Hipps, "when, in fact, it is the medium itself that has the power to shape the mind.”
By chronicling the changes in culture and faith that resulted from the production of the printing press Hipps showed how the medium itself, printed words, ushered in an age of linear and rational thinking.
“Before the printing press a linear, sequential understanding of Jesus did not exist,” said Hipps. He pointed out that the advent of the photograph and reproduction of the photograph changed the world again.
“Images reduce the ability of abstract thought,” said Hipps. However, he added, "With images we increase our ability to live in the right side of our brains with emotion and intuition."
“The culture is changing,” Hipps stated. “The goal is not to be imitative of the culture but to have empathy for your audience.”
On Wednesday, Hipps discussed three ways that Jesus engaged culture - sometimes he moved toward culture, sometimes he moved away from culture and sometimes he moved against culture.
“Everyone is good at two of these and everyone seems to fail at one, and that's different for each of us,” he said. “The way to wholeness is to nurture the weakest area.”
“Mennonites,” Hipps continued, “are very good at away and against, and the world needs you to do that, but you also need to move toward.”
Stoltzfus ended the week by talking about racial and class divisions in society.
“Tending to the Spirit helps me to practice the spiritual discipline of staying in the room,” said Stoltzus. “We need to name the places we are different anytime there is a ‘them’ and an ‘us.’
“We need to recognize the ways our churches have been complicit in harm in the past and today, and the way our sacred texts have been violated and used for violence,” she declared.
“We’ve been working at race and class issues for a long time,” Stoltzfus said, “and we keep doing it better.”