Pastoral Musings from Rain City

it's about 'what is church?' it's about whether 'emergent' is the latest Christian trend or something more substantial. it's musing on what it means to live the city, in America, in community, intergenerationally, at this time in history...

Thursday, July 17, 2008

ET: Why is the church so alien?

I’m worried about the church in America. A short cruise through the blogosphere reveals that there’s a gigantic tent, under which all kinds of divergent and opposing views are carrying the name of Christ. We’re fundamentalist, evangelical, eco-friendly, anti-environmentalist, emergent, post-modern, modern, rational, anti-emergent, post-emergent, liberal, ecumenical, separatist, and…I could go on, but perhaps you get the picture. Under this big tent there’s a war going on. Like barkers at a carnival, we’re all trying hard to get people to come to our booths, and many are finding the most effective strategy to be pointing out the deficiencies and dangers of the wares hawked by the other barkers. We do this by labeling them.

For a minute, can we all step outside of our booths, and even outside the tent, to ponder how this appears to those passing by? It looks like this: George Barna has recently explained North Americans are overwhelmingly pro-Jesus, but much less keen on the church. Mike Regan wrote a book about a decade ago entitled the death of the church, where he effectively showed the trajectory lines of Christianity in North America are driving us to oblivion. So effective has our barking been that a popular bumper sticker in Seattle, where I live, says “Jesus, deliver me…from your followers.” “Which Jesus?” is a question I’m asked sometimes, because to the uninitiated, these internal wars look absurd, and tacitly confirm the deepest suspicions of post-modernity; that truth is unknowable. After all, if we were arguing about aerodynamics, this conversation would have ended within months. Instead, we’re still arguing about Jesus 2000 years after His life on earth. What does that tell you about certitude?

I’m intending to write a book about this subject, so please don’t steal my ET title. But books take a long a time, and the conversation needs to happen now, so I thought I’d sketch a few important points here, in hopes of getting a conversation started about why the church is so divided, and what we can do differently to move us towards the unity of which Jesus spoke in John 17. Here are some foundational observations:

1. The Gospel is malleable.
I don’t mean that we can discard basic things like the resurrection, the historicity of Jesus, or the essence of salvation being found in Christ alone. Rather, I mean that we can wear plain clothes or robes, dance or sit still, shout or be quiet, meet in huts or cathedrals, use movie clips or, like the Amish, avoid technology. Is God really offended by candles, or lack of candles? This, I think, is what Jesus spoke of when He talked about keeping our wineskins flexible.

2. The crux question is, “How malleable?”
Candles? Different music? Dancing in the sanctuary? For many under the tent, these things aren’t a problem. How about ending slavery? That seems like an easy one too right? Well, if it’s 1750 and you live in Virginia, even though you’re a Bible believing ‘fundamentalist’, you’ll dig your heels in and say that this isn’t on the table for discussion, you’ll use the “plain literal teachings of the Bible” to prove your point. There are, in every generation, things that are not on the table for discussion, depending on where your booth is in the tent. Over there, at the left end of the tent, the exclusivity of Jesus as the only means of salvation is a thought that we won’t even discuss because it reeks of fundamentalism and intolderance. The fundamentalists, on the right end of the tent (geographically, not necessarily epistemologically) are unwilling to entertain even the possibility that when Paul spoke of homosexuality in Romans 1, he was speaking of prevailing homosexual practices of his day, which were non-monogamous trysts purely for gratification. Such an interpretation would leave open the possibility of covenant gay relationships, and their response to this possibility is roughly the same as how liberals respond to the possibility that Jesus is the only way, or slave owners, when presented with possibility that God might not look favorably, in these times, upon you owning people. (*I’ll bet some of you are wondering right now if I’m in favor of gay unions, and you’re deciding whether to continue reading or not. You're missing the point - please keep reading) There are always grenades being tossed at other booths, under the tent, in Jesus name. It sort of sickens me. There are lots of issues to discuss (Is divorce OK? When do we take up arms and when do we not? Is the consumerism of our culture an idol which we’ve indiscrimnantly bought into? Is caring for new life, so that the uninsured working poor can take their children to the doctor, as important as protecting life in the womb? And yes, significantly, is Jesus the only way? What does it mean to be saved?) All of us have convictions on these matters (I hope). But what are we to do with them?

3. We should hold our convictions with humility.
That doesn’t meant that we hold them with less conviction, or that we become rudderless, or paralyzed in some state of epistemological nihilism. Rather it means that we have the humility to acknowledge that God’s truth is something we’re (hopefully) moving towards, and so we’re both holding our ground, and open to further revelation that will bring us closer to the heart of Christ. This is what the church was doing continually in Acts, and they changed their positions on several things (including Gentiles, dropping the circumcision requirement, changing their view on dietary restrictions, dropping the meat sacrificed to idols thing). These conclusions weren’t arrived at quickly or universally. I know this is tricky, know that some things are foundational. That’s why Paul was merciless towards the Galatians and the circumcision thing. But that’s just the point. The Galatians were changing the rules about what was required to know Jesus. They were changing the essence. To put this in perspective: don’t mess with the apostle’s creed please, for therein is the essence of a faith that has stood the test of time. But beyond the creed, there’s a big playing field. Can’t we have some good conversations together on what it means to faithfully follow Christ?

4. E.T.: Recognize the value across the isle.
The Emergent church is giving us some wonderful gifts as it recovers the priority of unconditionally loving and serving our world, and allows people room to breathe and grow in Christ through exploration, rather than insisting on a wooden dogma as a precondition for salvation. They’re more interested in living the faith than defending it. I find this refreshing and a much needed course correction.

At the same time, I’m terribly concerned that the Traditional church’s values of the centrality of Christ, the necessity of preaching and teaching, and the confidence that our truths are solid, are evaporating in the heat of an emergent critique of the older generation. The loss that comes from disengaging from that which has gone before us is immeasurable, and we’re already seeing it, as cynicism and disengagement from commitment become characteristics of numerous emergent communities. Ironically, they’re in danger of becoming another form of the very consumerist communities from which they’ve removed themselves to start something new.

The reality, of course, is that we need each other, for Jesus is revealed not only His word, but in His body, and when the body is fractured, each little piece is cut off from much that is life giving.

5. Let’s recognize our commonalities.
E. and T. (Emergent and Traditional) are both filled with broken people looking for meaning and intimacy. Both are carrying burdens. Both want, not only refreshment, but a better world. And to both, Jesus offers the same call: “come unto me”. Perhaps we can learn to see the value in the very one’s we’ve been throwing grenades at; not because we agree with them, and not because we don’t care enough about our beliefs to be concerned. Rather, we see value because we realize that God is no doubt bigger than any of us know, and that perhaps, just maybe, people with whom I don’t agree can see reveal to me a facet of God’s character that I’ve not yet considered. If this becomes our collective mindset, maybe the bombs going off under the tent will die down, and maybe those passing by will start to see something worth considering.

Of course, how could I not welcome your thoughts! What needs to change in order for us to work together to make Christ visible to the world?


At 17/7/08 11:42, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this topic.

I've thought about it in earnest for the past couple of years. I have to say that my biggest concern is that almost all paradigm shifts end in bloodshed. Those who hold on to the old ways clash with those who have discovered new ways and either the old takes control and tries to hold the new captive (resulting in revolt) or the new takes control and seeks to exterminate the old (resulting in genocide). I hope that there's a way to navigate toward whatever is next without literally or figuratively killing each other.

*Note- even if the "Emergent Church" isn't what's next something will be, so this is a relevant discussion for whatever does come next.

At 17/7/08 11:45, Anonymous Kristin said...

Such a huge, important and difficult conversation. I continue to be grateful to be part of a community- both here in Seattle and also at Bethany- that isn't afraid to ask these questions thoughtfully. Too much to say for this little box, but I offer this book as more food for thought:

I have the privilege of being a student of Professor Wellman's, and of getting to discuss these issues in a fantastic program at the U. He comes to some interesting discoveries in this book, based on data collected in churches right here in the pacific northwest, on this very topic. Worth the read.

At 18/7/08 09:08, Blogger bunabear said...

This post is so timely. This post amazed and challenged me.

I appreciated Richard's reference to the Apostles’ Creed.

I mentioned in a previous post that
we have been visiting (we have been visiting there for a while so I guess now we are attending) an Anglican/Episcopal Church in San Francisco. Right now there is a little “summer school” class on the Creeds and I am learning so much.

For the Anglicans, the Nicene Creed (4th Century - We believe) is used weekly, and the Apostles’ Creed (2nd Century - I believe) is said at Baptism. The history is so rich and now I have come to think of the Creeds as personal declaration affirmed in a corporate setting.

Here is a link to a really great interview about “The Need for Creeds”

Richard’s thoughts on the “war going on inside the tent” and my understanding of the Creeds remind me that they are grounding and indeed have “stood the test of time.

At my end of the tent, “Amen” is all I can say and let’s keep the conversation going.

Thank you Richard.

At 20/7/08 08:28, Blogger Zadok said...

Ecumenism is a favorite subject of mine as well. Why it is we are so attached to divisive behavior when uniting behavior just feels so much more wonderful, I still don't quite understand. I know, we reject what we are afraid of, we label what is different in our attempts to define who we and our communities are. Much of this is healthy differentiation and a part of the mosaic that is the body of Christ, it usually plays out like you said, barking and deriding. Miroslav Volf wrote a much celebrated book on such matters of exclusion and embrace--titled "Exclusion and Embrace", if you're looking for more material to digest Richard.

At 20/7/08 20:07, Anonymous Anonymous said...


Wonderful sermon today, and since I was fortunate enough to read your latest blog prior, I felt more prepared than usual.

As a relatively new follower of Jesus, but not new thinker/questioner, I do not know enough about the Bible to even throw a grenade.

This can leave me uninformed in many conversations regarding the bible, but also allows me not to judge/label simply because I don't know any better.

On the drive home today, the question I raised to my wife, was simply how can you love without judgement of another Christian or person of another religion, when you are in disagreement with fundamentals that may be minimally/moderately/majorly different than your view?

Do we simply agree to disagree, and move our separate ways, or can this divide be bridged by crossing over and respecting their beliefs but owning your own?

I continue to bask in my own ignorance, which allows me to ask questions to all people. Ignorance in this instance certainly can be bliss.

At 21/7/08 09:57, Anonymous Anonymous said...


I love this topic...

Being involved in ministry myself I have to say that this question has challenged me the last year. I dont have any answer... just few things that the Lord has pointed out to me along the way. To be honest Richard, I'm concerned as well. I'm concerned that in the new wave of trying to not defend the faith but living it out that we could be trading the sure foundation, precepts of our faith. Paul in Eph4:25 says:

"let each one of you speak truth with neighbor".
Sometimes in our effort to reach out we can begin to speaks flatteries, or compromise and make converts, have big churches but FEW DISCIPLES whose lives reflect the love of Christ.

There are two principles that the Lord has been showing me personally about this whole thing. It has been challenging to apply it to my own life, ministry that I want to share and it is found in John 1:17:

"for the LAW was given through Moses, but GRACE and TRUTH came through Jesus Christ.

Not just grace! Not just truth but
both. To me, Grace is a life that does not imprison people in their mistakes, in their pre-conceived ideas of what christianity is. As believers, my job is not to clean the fish but to catch the fish. Grace is to extend myself so an unbeliever will be freed to come into the presence of Christ and the Word of God. The word will wash them; the Word will speak to their needs. My life, my words, my actions should bring and extend grace to people around me. But we need also truth.

Truth is not just teaching, or sermons.... A list of do's and dont's is not what i think people need today; they need truth. they need to encounter for themselves Jesus. People need to get in touch with Jesus himself through his word and by his Spirit.
Sermons are not enough....!

truth is MY OWN ENCOUNTER WITH JESUS CHRIST and he empowers me so my life is changed to match the Word of God. When Israel was going to the promised land and when they reached Mount Sinai and God wanted to speak to each of them: they said No! they wanted Moses to go up to the mountain for them.

There is a need to today for biblical teaching but also encouraging believers to have a personal time with God daily in prayer.

Jesus said those who believe and ABIDE IN HIS WORD shall know the truth. truth is when by God's strength my belief and my life align. That will not happen if we dont each have personal time with God daily.

I believe we should each strife for truth & grace:

a) consulting the user manual (the bible) for everything we do. What does the word of God say about church growth? often, i have tried to substitute my own ideas instead of consulting the user manual.
b) intimacy with the owner of the universe.
Word of God + intimacy will transform our churches. I believe 90% of christians spend less than 5-10 minutes each day in intimacy with God and in his word. We are turning to our own ingenuity and not what the book of Acts shows us: they met daily and read the word and prayed.

if a pastor can get people to go in the closet and spend time with God, America will look different. Why? People will have a sure foundation in their life and they will know their God and thus they will do exploits. Get people back to the Word, not my opinion and back to their closet to receive through God the strength to be what they are called to and there will be fire across this nation.

Look in Marc 1:35--38, we see how Jesus resisted the offer of the multitude and to follow the purpose God had for him-- he spent time in prayer with his father to hear what God was saying and wanting for his life. How much time do we each spend in quietness before the creator of the universe for directions? I believe the man that has learned to stand in the presence of God will not bow down and be moved by the desires of men.

I love you all and i love the church of Jesus Christ

At 22/7/08 06:51, Blogger Thimbles aunt said...

But always remember "the gates of hell won't win" I grew up in a time of black & white but learned through my children "shades of gray" but then I'm not afraid of change and know one day to be a winner or at least in the winning place. See Isaiah 46:3&4 esp "have carried since your birth"

At 23/7/08 08:02, Blogger Drew said...

Richard, just wanted to first say I frequently enjoy reading your blog. Your insight often encourages me to engage other people in these worthwhile conversations. So thanks.

On to your post, it's great to hear a voice that sees the value in both ends of the Christian spectrum. I think this upcoming generation of Christians (which I'm part of) will recognize some of the unnecessary trappings of evangelism, and hopefully engage in a balanced analysis of the emerging movement's contributions as well as its pitfalls.

As a "moderate" in a conservative Baptist church, I hear lots of (mostly older) people talking about "the liberals" as if they're a bunch of monsters out to destroy Christianity. I hope this attitude will change with our younger generation's movement into church leadership. Not necessarily a shift to the middle, but civility and appreciation of those other Christ-centered believers whose views on non-essential topics differ from ours. We are, after all, united in Christ first and foremost.

At 27/7/08 11:40, Anonymous Anonymous said...

the church is alien because it's lost its humanity. it's institutionalized & sectioned. it's lost its sense of family. western society at large has lost its way and instead of being salt & light we've found ourselves getting sucked into a losing competition by fighting fire with fire, instead of rising above. humility is a lost concept as well, like most meaty words that now just get thrown around.

we should all move to italy and re-learn what it means to have attachments, to belong to & be a part of something that transcends weekly scheduling, and stop thinking about ourselves and our trendy coffee culture.

i want to see the church having backyard bbqs, communal meals, feasts for the homeless. i want to see members dropping by each others houses for 4 hour teas, & block parties. i want to see western society at large unplugging & remembering how to live, & instead of buying the latest audio/video set-up & hosting the hottest 'christian' band, the church should be at the forefront.

At 27/7/08 11:45, Anonymous Anonymous said...

p.s. how can we begin to tell others (non christians) that we care for them, when we aren't even setting the example by caring for each other?

At 4/8/08 22:11, Anonymous Anonymous said...

amen brother!


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