Many of us who read this weblog and others like it get asked this question a lot from colleagues, “Can you give me two or three books that explain the emerging church and all of this postmodern stuff to me?” If you are like me, you sit down and try to give me in 600 pages, the essence of what the discussion about the Gospel and culture is. You try to take into consideration their background and education (no too pragmatic but not too theological either) and hope for the best as their request isn’t that unreasonable is it?
On a lot of topics it isn’t. If they are wanted to learn HTML or how to use Adobe Photoshop better, finding a book list would be quite easy. Many topics in the church can be addressed this way. I am not sure that the emerging church can be tackled in that way. The reason why I am starting to think that is reading some of the criticism that has been laid out lately by opponents of what many of us are trying to do. Lately I have been told a bunch of people that have an axe to grind with the emerging church all about our shortcomings. When I mention specific books that address that very topic (evangelism, church in culture, historical orthodoxy) they look at me a little taken back and say that they will have to look into them (which they won’t).
The emerging church is a little different than other areas of the church. While Wesleyan theology is a subject that has been written about a lot by theologians and historians and a degree of consensus has taken hold, it is only that way because of the time that has passed for study and reflection. Could you imagine trying to pin down what Reformed theology was before John Calvin had written the Institutes? Like a lot of things, it is in flux. One of the reasons it is in flux is that it is only a couple of years old and secondly because it is a conversation from a lot of different perspectives on a pretty wide topic.
Within that conversation there are new ideas in theology, missiology and evangelism, discipleship, the contemplative life and monastic communities, hermeneutics, and ideas about church structure. Not only are they new ideas but the participants come a wide variety of perspectives both inside and outside the church. This entire conversation is taking place during a time of change in the world from modernity to postmodernity. In other words it is a big, complicated, vast, moving target and I suspect will continue that way for a long time.
This has happened before in church history but the invention of the web made it both a worldwide and public conversation. While in the past the spread of these kind of ideas took place in theological books, the lack of a worldwide distribution system (Amazon.com , weblogs, podcasts, and e-mail) and the fact that the church hadn’t yet become big business (well it was but it was more localized) made the progression and sharing of thoughts slower.
More recently innovations in church life have happened in the age of television and media have been centralized (much of the seeker sensitive materials come from Willow Creek and Saddleback or in the Vineyard ‘s case centered around a controlled system of publishing outlets) or were more regional (the strength of fundamentalism tends to be limited to the southern United States) while this theological emergence is the first to happen on the backs of the web and is global. When looking at the emerging church, there has always been a tendency to look for those defining spots, people, or books that make it all make sense or is a good target to attack and ignores the incredible diversity of the conversation.
We look for those defining locations and people for a lot of different reasons. The main reason is that most church leaders are not church leaders. As George Barna said a couple of years ago, most pastors are wonderful people but are not leaders and so we naturally want to appoint leaders to go where we are afraid to go ourselves. Charlie Wear said something to me years ago in a Denny’s in Fullerton and it was something like, “If you have God’s calling, why are you waiting on the permission of someone else?” but that is strongly built in to how we see ourselves in the big scheme of things. Despite everyone calling themselves a visionary leader, very few people are that. Most are followers, even among “leaders”. Even on Resonate there has been two discussion threads that start with, “Where is Canada’s Brian McLaren ?” or in other words, why won’t someone tell me what to do within my church?
My other reason for why we do this comes from our own intellectual laziness or fear of making a mistake. A couple of years ago I read the amazing book by Canadian political scientist Thomas Homer-Dixon who introduced me to the idea of a global ingenuity gap . If you haven’t read the book, you not only really need to but you will really enjoy it. In it he points out that all over the world, the experts don’t know nearly as much as we think they do and make decisions based on two narrow of knowledge. This leads to the wrong answers, partly because they haven’t looked at all of the questions yet. After a while it is easier to follow someone else that has had success and assume that they have it all figured out. Coming out of a post-theology modernity, the temptation is to follow the lead in the area of programming. The results are a bunch of clone churches based on Axis or whoever else is edgy and cool.
Maybe part of the solution is to allow ourselves to say that this isn’t easy. It isn’t that simple either. It is going to take more than just a couple of tweaks to our programming team, more media in our sermons, and a big fat tea light candle budget. Maybe it is realizing that we have an ingenuity gap of our own and that we may have to start looking else where for ideas and those ideas are going to have to be tested and that is going to take time. Accepting that the creative class in Saskatoon is a lot different than the creative class in Seattle which is a lot different than the creative class in Montreal. It takes time to listen to stories from our past, our present, and discern the dreams for the future.
It is also going to take some time to build a foundation from areas that we didn’t learn much about in Bible college or seminary. Time to read, time to discuss, time to pray, time to experiment, and a time to fail. If we do find success, we need some time to figure out if it was a fluke or if we hit a chord that resonated with our community. When we find that time, we move past executive summaries, candles and coffee, U2 PowerPoint presentations, and all of the other stuff that we are going to look back at cringe.
Just some incoherent Saturday thoughts…