On June 14th, Andrew Jones had an interesting post on his weblog. He asked the question “what happens when those of us in the emerging church stop emerging”. Interesting question as about the same time I interviewed Rudy Carrasco and he said this
We are pretty close to enshrining our own orthodoxies, and we are unaware of it. I’ll leave that vague. But I’m seeing some resistance to modification that is beginning to disturb me. Our reaction is becoming codified. Still vague, I know. But I’m gonna leave it there.
Then tonight I read this quote at emergingchurch.info
Will the emerging, missional, re-imagined, post-modern, alternative church of the future be a place that grows character? Or in seeking to incarnate the gospel in a consumer society will we have the excuses, in the name of being relevant, to avoid hard choices?
I was reflecting on all three thoughts and I started to wonder if we have even started to emerge from anything or are we just the natural evolution of the seeker church movement with a new lingo. Has candles, icons and acoustic guitars and blogging replaced color coordinated shirts, keyboards, and sermons on dealing with stress and marriage. A couple months ago I sat in on a conference call with some church leaders and the idea was floated that since the reformation, all that has really changed in churches is about 10%. The organ rolls out and the praise band rolls in. The cross comes down and some screen go up.
I recently read Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball. It is about how the Oakland A’s remain competitive year in and year out despite having the lowest or one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and talks a lot about how Billy Beane radically overhauled the A’s organization and how they thought about scouting. Beane tossed out century old conventional wisdom in how baseball people evaluate talent which generated a success rate of maybe 5% per draft with the A’s could not afford. Beane went against conventional wisdom There are rumors that Paul DePosta in L.A. will do the same thing. Despite the revolution, Billy Beane and the Oakland Athletics still are playing baseball and that really hasn’t changed. While the methods their pick their players with have, the fact is that 162 games a season, the Oakland A’s take to the diamond and try to move more players across home plate then their opponents. As radical as Billy Beane is, he is still playing baseball.
When I look around at so much of the discussion of the church, I think we may be doing the same thing. As much as we talk of revolutionary change, we are still taking to the field 52 times a year and putting on a programmed weekly event and programs during the week. As Alan Roxburgh has said
We need a movement of God’s people into neighborhoods, to live out and be the new future of Christ. It must be a movement that demonstrates how the people of God have a vision and the power to transform our world. This is not the same as current attempts to grow bigger and bigger churches that act like vacuum cleaners, sucking people out of their neighborhoods into a sort of Christian supermarket. Our culture does not need any more churches run like corporations; it needs local communities empowered by the gospel vision of a transforming Christ who addresses the needs of the context and changes the polis into a place of hope and wholeness. The corporation churches we are cloning across the land cannot birth this transformational vision, because they have no investment in context or place; they are centers of expressive individualism with a truncated gospel of personal salvation and little else.
Our penchant for bigness and numerical success as the sign of God’s blessing only discourages and deflects attempts to root communities of God’s people deeply into neighborhoods. And until we build transformed communities there is no hope for a broken earth.”
That calls for a conversation much bigger than church or church planting or Hillsong vs. Vineyard worship tunes. Maybe that’s why I resonate with Thomas Homer-Dixon‘s The Ingenuity Gap which reminds us that the problems around us need more than simple solutions.
As for why the conversation about church seems so limiting at time, I think it is pretty understandable. No church is in a vacuum and many people have expectations for what kind of church they want. To meet those expectations, compromises are made. Instead of being a community where people seek out Jesus Christ, the church becomes a provider of a church experience for people. There are almost no churches that are planted in vaccums and most people, even the unchurched have expectations of what they want to see. So much of church growth literature of the last quarter century has dealt with how to deal with those expectations and that has had a huge influence on how we think about it. Even much of the literature and thought on postmodernity has to do with meeting the needs of the postmodern seeker. While we may scoff at that approach, we need to realize how ingrained it is within us. The other reason I think so much of this discussion revolves around church forms is that is something that we can tweak with and change. While I agree that church forms need to change, I wonder if that distracts us from the larger task in front of us.
While deconstruction has happened, most often it is done in the context of putting together a baseball team. What I mean is that what we have done is deconstructed and reinvented to a certain level. That level depends on your paradigm and tradition but for many it has been staffing structures or other areas which may cause conflict or tension and cost. I heard one church leader talk about how important it was for him survive as pastor. Everything else could change but he needed to lead. In that case, his leadership was the sacred cow.
One of the theological truths that has resonated with me over the years is from the forward of Karl Barth’s Evangelical Theology
Theological work is distinguished from other kinds of work by the fact that anyone who desires to do this work cannot proceed by building with complete confidence on the foundation of questions that are already settled, results that are already achieved, or conclusions that are already arrived at. He cannot continue to build today in any way on foundations that were laid yesterday by himself and he cannot live today in any way on the interest from a capital amassed yesterday. His only possible procedure, every day, in fact every hour, is to begin anew at the beginning… Yesterday’s memories can be comforting and encouraging for such work only if they are identical with the recollected that this work, even yesterday, had to begin at the beginning and, it has to be hoped, actually began there. In theological science, continuation always means “beginning once again at the beginning”.
That description of theological work broadens the picture we need to be looking at, not limiting it. I think we need to enlarge the conversation about culture, the gospel, postmodernity much wider than we traditionally have. If we don’t, I worry that we risk just playing with the same 10% that we always have and then justifying it because it is different than what came before. 10% doesn’t seem to be that much of a revolution to me.