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...

Saturday, April 25, 2009

Monkeying around with the church

In his hot new book "The Monkey and the Fish" Dave Gibbons, "offers a 'third-culture' way to being the church." This is supposed to enable church leaders to live out their mission in "bold and revolutionary ways." It's supposed to be encouraging, inspiring, and challenging. So why, after reading it, was I none of these? I'll offer three thoughts, and would welcome your insights as well. Before proceeding though, I'll note that my critique of Gibbons work is not directed solely Gibbons. His book encompasses an entire genre, (also seen here, and here) that bothers me. When I ask myself what, precisely, it is that irritates, here are some of the things that come to mind:

1. These books are built on a straw man. We're told that young people are fleeing from established churches, told that churches built on 'old models' (attractional models, for the missionally minded) are dying, unsustainable dinosaurs. And then, because of the obviously inevitable demise of anything which had it's origin before 1990, we're offered solutions. We can make a difference, can be relevent, can reach the unreachable. We just need to do things differently.

The solution is vital if the assumptions about the death of the church are true. Further, there are statistics to indicate that more people ARE fleeing the church, so it appears that the assumption might be legitimate. Always though, when I read this, I want to stand up and aks, "What about us? What about University Prespbytarian Church (also in Seattle)? What about ... and then I could easily name dozens of churches around the country that were founded n the first half of the 20th century and yet are thriving.

These thriving churches should, if we take their presence seriously, lead to an entirely different line of questioning. Rather than shaking the dust off our metaphorical converse sneekers as we distance ourselves from our cold hearted elders, perhaps we should be asking questions about what can be done to renew, sustain, and enliven existing faith communities. The reality is that there are hundreds, if not thousands of churches that have buildings, pastors, staffs, busses, and even (if I can be allowed the use of what would be a swear word in emergent circles) "programs", that are being used by God to change lives, heal sick neighborhoods, raise up a new generation of leaders, and change the world.

2. Esoteric Language is annoying. Look at this subtitle: "Liquid Leadership for a Third-Culture Church". Is this supposed to invite me to read the book? I realize that I sound as if I'm nit-picking, but I sometimes feel as if new words are needed only because we've abandoned much needed old words, and rather than working hard to recover their meaning we invent new ones. For example, I presume that when Jesus says, "abide in me and you will bear much fruit", he means that a byproduct of people living their lives in initmacy with Jesus is that other lives will be changed. Of course, if other lives are changed, they'll want to be part of this great new movement, and so we'll need to have structures in place enabling us to serve those who are new to the faith, and new to the faith community. But fruit will come from abiding. Abiding. Now there's an old word. What does it mean? Unpacking that seems far more important for the health of the church than creating a new term like "liquid leadership" because no matter how "liquid" I am, or how "third place" I am, if I'm not abiding, I'm stuffed.

3. All options aren't equal. In several places, Dave makes it clear that he's not trying to denegrate the old models, but proceeds to offer numerous stories of new works, such as a church meeting in a dance club in Bangkok, as indicative of where the future is headed. Again and again, the implication of the book is that established churches need to change dramatically, or die. This might, as a stand alone statement, be true enough. But when Dave goes on and offers endless examples, not of renewal, but of brand new works, the implication is that old works won't change, and so join the liquid third wave of newness.

Please don't misread me. I'm thrilled with the countless new works unfolding across the globe, believing that God is in many of them. I also have a sneaking suspicion that, if you were to take a telscopic view of the whole church across the globe, and if the one's who were in touch with God's voice and filled with God's spirit could shine as bright lights, there'd be bright lights among the new AND the old, along with dead bulbs in both camps. Newness is overatted. The real issue is whether or not God's glory resides in a work.

Dave offers some marvelous insight in the book, addressing issues of the different ways Eastern and Western cultures look at the world. He also offers some marvelous challenges regarding our collective calling to be intentional about crossing cultural chasms in Jesus name, perhaps providing some of the best language to define the meaning of yet another new term: "missional".

But for all that, I found that in the end, I won't do much differently as a pastor for having read this book. This scares me on the one hand, because I read so much material that either implies, or states directly, that we leaders need new words, new structures, new priorities, if we're to stay alive. On the other hand, it frustrates me, because I think to myself: "another 'new key' to church", and that means people will read the book and try to start church meetings in dance clubs when (and I think even Dave would say this), that isn't the point at all.

We need to continually assess the forms our ministries take, I'll grant that. And it's important to read not only the scriptures, but the culture, as we're called to build bridges between the two. But our calling is no different today than it was when Paul wrote Corinthians. We, the church, are the visible expression of Christ's life on earth. In order to clearly be that, we who lead need to point people to Christ, teach people how to draw upon the resource of His life and follow Him, and then expect fruit to come, because that's what happens when Jesus is seen today, or yesterday, or 1900 years ago. It's actually pretty simple.


At 25/4/09 23:03, Blogger Kevin said...

I think that if the Evangelical church in America wants to learn how to weather the turbulence of cultural change, we need look no further than our long estranged brothers and sisters in the Roman Catholic Church, an institution that has stood longer than any other in human history and which currently has a worldwide membership of over 1 billion believers in Christ. This is an institution that makes our feeble imagery of "fluidity" look like drops of water, compared to the tidal ebb and flow with which they move. They are able to take the long view, thinking not in decades but in centuries and millenia, and there is much which we can learn from them. We need to learn to be patient, abiding in the knowledge that the Kingdom of God is imminent and unstoppable, and while we may have the immense privilege of participating in its manifestation we are not ultimately necessary to its inevitable fulfillment.

At 27/4/09 15:01, Anonymous Graham C. said...

Richard, I appreciate the book reviews lately! The discussion of "missional" vs. "attractional" is an interesting one. By your description of the book it sounds like "missional" is equated with more alternative meeting places, more cultural savvy, and reaching out to the culture/community, while "attractional" means more traditional church, programming, etc. I think there is inherant danger in being a church being solely missional or attractional.

Strictly missional churches run the danger of minimizing/secularizing the gospel so that it immediately accessible (what I call "pop christianity.") I've seen this at a couple of self-labeled "seeker" churches I've visited with the result perhaps a large number of attendees but a lack of discipleship and depth.

On the flip side attractional/traditional churches run the risk of cloistering themselves off. I see this at my parent's church and many others in the Seattle area where there is decent biblical teaching but the congregation is both shrinking AND the average age is rising.

I think the right answer lies somewhere in the middle. But what does that mean for our church? The American Church?


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