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?