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What If Small Is the New Big?

By Derek Penwell

Bookstores and Our Relationship to “Bigness”

As a kid growing up, almost all of the bookstores I knew about were found in malls—B. Dalton and Walden Books. You could expect to find one (sometimes two if the mall were big enough) in almost every mall. These bookstores didn’t carry an extensive inventory—mostly best sellers, coffee table books, children’s books, magazines, and so on. The experience was about buying—browse if you must, but find what you want, buy it, then get back to the rest of your business at the mall. They had no chairs, no coffee. It was a place to stop in and take a break from doing something else. The strategy wasn’t about great selection; it was about ubiquity: “We’re everywhere, and if we don’t have it, we can order it.”

As the 1990s unfolded, however, the ubiquity of mall bookstores began to decline. People’s relationship to books and the stores that sold them began to change with the increasing popularity of a couple of new chains, Borders and Barnes & Noble, and their imitators. These stores carried much more substantial inventory, and they appealed to people’s book buying experience. These new bookstores made an attempt to appear like a cross between a retail library and a coffee shop—come in, browse, relax, read a little, and have a latte. They provided comfortable chairs that they actually seemed to want you to sit down in, new and interesting music softly played, grad students with tattoos and multiple piercings, and a crap ton of books that allowed you to discover new authors and subjects you didn’t know about. The strategy was about great selection and an inviting experience—”We’ve got stuff you didn’t even know you wanted, which you get to explore at your leisure.”

But as the Internet realized popularity, a new kind of book buying experience emerged—online shopping, led principally by Amazon. Amazon and the other online bookstores boasted a nearly exhaustive inventory that could be accessed from the comfort of your own living room. What they gave up in ambience, they made up for in convenience. Not only could you order books and have them shipped straight to your door, you could order just about anything else—from TVs to hernia belts. The strategy centered on almost unlimited selection available with unbelievable convenience—”We’ve got just about everything, and you don’t even have to put down your Mountain Dew to get it.”

Things really started to change, however, with the advent of e-books. Amazon introduced digital books that gave people the convenience of online ordering coupled with instant online delivery. There was almost no waiting at all. You could have a new book in seconds, no matter where you were.

Still, after the big chain bookstores almost crushed them, and after Amazon and e-books almost crushed the big chain bookstores, some local independent bookstores have managed not only to survive, but to thrive. How do they do it?

Here’s where a really good writer might offer the winning strategy, distilled to its essence: The thing that makes some small independent bookstores succeed in the land of the giants is __________.

But if there is a strategy, distilled to its essence, I don’t know what it is. Of course, I have some ideas—an emphasis on niche marketing, an appeal to customer service, a local community atmosphere. I imagine all those things, and probably some others, have contributed to the success of certain small independent bookstores.

What I want to focus on is the broader reality of bigness. For years the roadmap to success appeared to wend its way through Mega-ville. Go big or go home, right? Walmart. Microsoft. McDonalds. Google. The New York Yankees. Hollywood blockbusters. Page views. Empire.

In fact, so closely did success seem to correlate with bigness that—at least informally, if not explicitly—that’s gradually how success came to be defined. Biggest is best.

When Big Became Small

But the narrative of bigness has bumped up against some difficult realities. For one thing, a market that is increasingly fragmented by the vagaries of demographic diversity—race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender expression … not to mention, the perennial issue of the range of individual taste—is difficult to dominate in a general way. When a culture is largely homogenous, generating broad appeal is much easier—you only need to get a couple of things right to saturate the market. When the market is fragmented, however, broad appeals are almost impossible, since whatever you offer will almost certainly exclude wide swaths of the population.

For another thing, with the increasing presence of the Internet, and it’s almost endless platforms for publishing and marketing, the signal to noise ratio is as high as it’s ever been. So, while it’s easier now than ever to get your message out, your message is one among millions. Being heard is both easier and more difficult, in that your message is easier to broadcast to a potential audience, but because there are so many voices, it can be more difficult to have your message actually heard. Time was you could craft a message, publicize it through traditional media, and have a reasonable chance of having it being heard by your intended audience. If you were quick enough, properly resourced, and sufficiently smart, you might run the table. Boom! Big. Nowadays, however, mass appeals untailored to highly specific audiences have difficulty making connections.

No question but that bigness still exists. And where it does, it’s really big … huge, in fact. (Think Apple, Walmart, Google, Comcast, Verizon, American Airlines). But it’s becoming rarer and rarer.

Small and local are also thriving (Think Farmers Markets, CSAs, Record Stores, Community Ministries). What we have less and less of is moderately big (Think Montgomery Ward, Circuit City, Newsweek, Borders, My Space). A large swath in the middle—including much that would traditionally have been called large—finds itself being squeezed on both ends.

So, maybe we need to rethink the endgame. Maybe our understanding of success needs recalibration.

* What if scrambling to be a monopoly is a waste of time?

* What if “mega” scares off more people than it attracts?

* What if, as Seth Godin has suggested, small is the new big?

I want to suggest that these are questions denominations and congregations should be considering just now.

Five Fears That Make Change Difficult and the Ways to Address Them

By Derek Penwell

She placed one more faded greeting card into the brown box she’d bought in a package of boxes from the U-haul place. Afterward, she taped the box and left it sitting for the custodian to collect. It needed to go upstairs to the attic with the other faded greeting cards, old swatches of fabric, and stray skeins of yarn.

As long as she could remember—which, being eighty-five, turned out to be a long time—there’d been a women’s circle. For generations it had existed as the heartbeat of mission and outreach in her congregation, the most active group by far—organizing, fundraising, cooking, sewing, comforting, loving, ministering. But not long ago she’d said goodbye to her last “partner in crime” at a nice, if sparsely attended, funeral bathed in blue and pink lights and smelling of lilies. And now, bitter as it tasted, she was admitting defeat.

Scrawled in Sharpie on the top of the box it said, “cards.” But one word could never do justice to all that she’d packed up for storage.

She’d insisted on doing it herself. After all, she knew not only what the boxes contained, but also what they represented. And she couldn’t quite bear the thought of turning over stewardship of that legacy quite yet.

So, as she mopped her brow, she thought of the old offertory sentence from the Book of Common Prayer, bidding us all “with gladness” to “present the offerings and oblations of our life and labor to the Lord.” Looking up from the Sharpie-marked carton, she decided it was with gladness that she offered up the offerings and oblations of the life and labor of dozens of strong women to the Lord.

But she also had to admit that, beyond the odd ambivalence of claiming this heritage with one arthritic hand and passing it on with the other, there was something else. Deep down beneath the cobwebs and the doilies, beneath the gratitude and the disappointment lived something perhaps even more elemental.


Let’s be honest. She’s afraid … afraid all that work will get lost in the hurly-burly, afraid of irrelevance, afraid, as the song says, of being forgotten and not yet gone.

She lives in the fear that the young people who’re running things now will forget not only the things those women did, but more importantly the reason they did them.

But she doesn’t quite know how to say so much, afraid that there isn’t enough packing tape in the world to hold back what would break forth if she really stopped to talk about it. So, she expresses her fear the best she can.

When asked what’s wrong, she says: “Nobody seems to care about __ anymore.” [Fill in the blank: tradition, outreach, old people, young families, pastoral care, the neighborhood, the throw pillows my mother made, the Christmas Bazaar … me.]

If you listen closely, you can hear the quaver in the voice that reveals a trembling heart. The fear is so broad and unspecific, it’s hard to pin down. But it’s there. The anger, the reticence, the stubbornness often are merely a mask to hide the fear:

  1. I’m afraid that what we’ve done won’t be valued. I don’t want the things we cared so much about to be ridiculed, or worse, forgotten—as though what we valued isn’t worth anything. We worked so hard on these things. We planned and fretted and cried over this stuff. We spent hours polishing, mending, painting, storing, patching, and propping this stuff up. So, fine, maybe things don’t look so good anymore bathed in the harvest gold and avocado green of our memories. But a lot of the stuff we did worked. We just want someone to care that we cared. We know everything changes, and nothing lasts forever, but all we’re looking for is a little gentleness when it comes to the things we tried to pass on.
  2. I’m afraid that the choice to do a new thing is only a sneaky way of criticizing what we did. It feels like if you change it, if you stop doing it, if you throw it away, you’re denigrating what we did. Like it was stupid to think what we thought and care about the stuff we cared about. Change, as much as we don’t want it to, too often feels like censure.
  3. I’m afraid that the good we did will be undone through a lack of attention. If you young people don’t carry this on, we’re afraid that people will suffer. We really helped folks. It took a lot of time and energy to build the programs, organization, and physical structures we’re handing on to you. We’d like to know that you’ve at least tried to figure out how to make sure the people we helped continue to be helped, and that you’re not just walking away from an opportunity to make a difference in the world.
  4. I’m secretly afraid we made some bad decisions that will cripple the congregation/denomination moving forward. We bought it and now it’s an albatross. We sold it and now we need it back. We planted it; it died, and now we can never plant there again. We loved it and now it’s killing us. We didn’t welcome them when we had the chance and now they won’t have anything to do with us anymore. 
  5. I’m just afraid that I’m going to wake up one day, and I won’t recognize this place anymore. We had a hand in shaping this, but now our fingerprints all seem to have been wiped off. We had a dream of the future, but what we have now doesn’t look anything like what we envisioned when we were in charge of mapping out the future.

If you want to make change, you need to address the underlying fear. And telling someone not to be afraid, or that they’re silly for being afraid, or that they should just trust you more isn’t addressing the underlying fear; it’s a lazy way of telling yourself that you’ve done everything you can.

If you think there are tough changes ahead, here are a few tips getting as many people on board as possible:

  • Celebrate the past. Rehearse the history. Raise up the successes. Seek to understand the failures. Let people know that what they did was indispensable to bringing everything to this point where exciting opportunities mark the future. Let them know you value their contributions.
  • Offer reassurances that the people and institutions that have been helped in the past will continue to be helped as you move into the future. Or, if you’re going to go in a different direction leaving certain things behind, identify what needs were being met and values were driving the passion of the old system. Then reframe the new system of changes using those needs and values as touchstones for the new work you want to do. (So, you’re not going to continue knitting Walkman holders for the kids going to college anymore. Fine. But be sure to emphasize the fact that the new pub night with the college students is just a continued attempt to show support for young people heading into uncertain times of transition.)
  • Root change in story. Congregations and denominations are always telling stories about who they are and where they come from as a means of self-understanding. As you seek to tell a new story of where you’re headed, make certain to set it in the established narrative. In other words, make clear that changes aren’t a disruption of the story that’s always been told, but the logical extension of that same story moving into a different world. (So, you’re discussing becoming an Open and Affirming congregation or denomination, offering welcome to all people, regardless of sexual orientation or gender expression. Fine. Name this as an issue of justice. Then tell the story about how you’ve always led on issues of justice—from civil rights, to support for undocumented workers, to equity for women, to your work for Habitat for Humanity or the soup kitchen or advocacy against payday lending. You get the point. Tell the story with change as part of the plot trajectory, and not as an attempt to set the old story aside in favor of a new one.)

Here’s the thing: It’s ok to box up old things and move on. But the kind of boxes you use, and the care with which you store them will make a big difference when you start unpacking the new stuff.

Femto Photography and Seeing Around Corners: Why Following Jesus Is about Risk

By Derek Penwell

In July, 2012 a scientist from MIT, Ramesh Raskar, gave a Ted Talk on an amazing new innovation in photography. Femto photography films at one trillion frames per second. What this allows scientists to do, for example, is make a time lapse video of the movement of light (which is pretty dang cool on its own merits!). You can watch a burst of light projected from a laser as it shoots through a Coke bottle!

[Note: I realize that’s two exclamation points in two consecutive sentences—a grammatical practice upon which I generally frown, except to say things like “Happy birthday!” or “Congratulations on your Bassett Hound’s successful completion of agility training!”—but this stuff is pretty phenomenal! Oops. Sorry.]

The practical applications of this new technology are even more astounding. For one thing, when a burst of light is shot from a laser, it diffuses when the photons strike an object. Various photons are then reflected back to the source. Using heavy computational power, the scientists are able to stitch together the individual photon speeds to produce a 3-D model of the thing that the light hits.

The ability to produce 3-D models of things struck by a burst of light gets really interesting, however, when you realize that the reflection of light doesn’t have to come from an object in a straight line with the laser. Meaning … you can project the light around obstacles, and the computer will take into account the extra angles of reflection, and still construct an accurate 3-D image.

In other words, it allows you literally to see around the corner—to construct a 3-D image of something you can’t even see! [Again, sorry.] It’s almost like seeing into the future—getting an accurate vision of something before you ever get there.

I like the sound of that idea. It’s not flying or retractable adamantium claws, but it’s still kind of like a super power.

I understand the attraction of seeing around the corner; it’s a great metaphor for predicting the future, of telling you whether a thing will be worth doing.

But here’s the thing: In real life the only way you’ll know if a thing is worth doing is after you’ve already done it, when you look back on it—which is to say, after the toothpaste is already out of the tube.

“Should we let our daughter go on that trip to Europe?”

“Should I pay the electric bill so we don’t freeze, or should I fill my blood pressure medication so I don’t have a stroke?”

“Should I take the new job with exciting potential, or stay in the job where I’m most comfortable?”

“Should I tell my parents and friends I’m gay—risking their love and support, or should I keep it to my myself—risking my sanity?”

How do you know until after you do it?

That’s life. We have to make all sorts of calculations about what to do without enough information about what it will look like when it’s finished, or whether having done it will prove advantageous or harmful.

How do you know until after you do it.

That’s also what life following Jesus looks like. Seeing around the corner would certainly make church planning more effective, for instance. It’d be nice to know whether something is going to work before you had to take a chance on it. Face-saving is what it is.

If you don’t know what you’re getting into when you plan something, you risk failing. And failing is unacceptable to many churches.

Congregations in decline almost always understand church planning to be a matter not of achieving success, but of avoiding failure. Consequently, they tend to stand before decisions trying to do the advanced calculations necessary to see what lies around the corner, refusing to act boldly for fear that something might not work.

“Should we do this?”

“I don’t know.”

“Because if we do, it might not work. We’d be out all that money, plus things like this tend to make Janice mad.”

Flourishing congregations, on the other hand, weigh a decision against past experience, then make a decision. They’ve gotten comfortable with the fact that they will never have everything nailed down before taking the leap. They’ve made peace with the knowledge that everything they try has a pretty good chance of washing out. But they’ve learned to accept the prospect of failure as the cost of doing business.

Flourishing congregations realize that there’s no way to ensure something will work on the front end. They understand that they’ll never know if an idea was a good one until they look back on it, assessing it in the rearview mirror. But the inability to look around the corner to see what’s coming doesn’t prevent them from turning corners they think faithfulness calls them to take. They understand that a life spent following Jesus is an adventure, not a tour.

Before we get there, we’d like to know that where we’re going is where we want to be.

Maybe one day there will be an ecclesiastical version of Femto photography that will make discipleship a surer thing. On the other hand, if discipleship is an adventure, whatever such an innovation might produce, it won’t have much to do with following Jesus.

Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) Passes Historic Resolution on Welcome of LGBT People

On Tuesday, July 16, as part of its biennial General Assembly, the Protestant mainline denomination, the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) voted to "to affirm the faith, baptism and spiritual gifts of all Christians regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity," declaring "that neither is grounds for exclusion from fellowship or service within the church." The resolution passed with over 75% of the vote.

Rev. Derek Penwell, pastor of Douglass Blvd. Christian Church in Louisville, was the resolution's primary author and DBCC served as the resolution's original sponsor. While this resolution does not speak directly either to the question of the same gender marriage or to standards for ordination, it attempts to say a positive word of grace and welcome to those people who, because of their sexual orientation or gender identity, have historically felt unrecognized and unwelcome by the churc.h"

Rev. Penwell said, "We know that the church has harmed countless LGBT (Lesbian, Gay, BiSexual, and Transgender) people in the past. Many churches continue to hurt today. This was a chance for Disciples to say publicly 'enough.' It was our chance to say that many Christians wnat to be a part of the solution of welcoming everyone, instead of the part of the problem."

The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), based in Indianapolis, Indiana, and part of an indigenous American religious movement that arose at the beginning of the 1800s, is today considered a Protestant mainline denomination with a historic concern for the pursuit of ecumenical unity, social justice, and freedom of Biblical interpretation.

For more information on the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), visit

Douglass Boulevard Christian Church, founded in 1846, has historically been committed to the pursuit of justice for all people, offering leadership in trying to live out the message of love and hospitality embodied by Jesus. In 2008, Douglass Boulevard Christian Church voted to become an Open and Affirming Community of Faith.

Douglass Boulevard Christian Church is located at 2005 Douglass Boulevard in the Highlands near Douglass Loop. For more information on the church, visit

For more information on Rev. Derek Penwell, visit

Rev. Penwell handing out certificates to over 19 new Open & Affirming congregations.

Rev. Penwell handing out certificates to over 19 new Open & Affirming congregations.

Leading 'Ex-Gay' Organization Closes, Apologizes To LGBT Community | ThinkProgress

So, in case you didn't hear.  This is going to be a huge deal. 

Exodus International, one of the nation’s most prominent coalitions of groups promoting harmful “ex-gay” therapy, announced Wednesday that it was disbanding and apologized to the LGBT community for the massive harm it has caused to many. Alan Chambers, the group’s president, issued a written apology, acknowledging that his organization hurt many.
In his apology, Chambers wrote:
Please know that I am deeply sorry. I am sorry for the pain and hurt many of you have experienced. I am sorry that some of you spent years working through the shame and guilt you felt when your attractions didn’t change. I am sorry we promoted sexual orientation change efforts and reparative theories about sexual orientation that stigmatized parents. I am sorry that there were times I didn’t stand up to people publicly “on my side” who called you names like sodomite—or worse. I am sorry that I, knowing some of you so well, failed to share publicly that the gay and lesbian people I know were every bit as capable of being amazing parents as the straight people that I know. I am sorry that when I celebrated a person coming to Christ and surrendering their sexuality to Him that I callously celebrated the end of relationships that broke your heart. I am sorry that I have communicated that you and your families are less than me and mine.