SpiritFarmer


Quick Take Review: The Next Evangelicalism
June 8, 2009, 8:13 pm
Filed under: books, Christendom, culture, dissertation, emerging church, missiology, Seattle, theology

Last week I got a chance to sit down with a book that’s been getting a bit of buzz in the circles I run in.  It’s called The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church From Western Cultural Captivity, by Soong-Chan Rah.  I believe it’s a very important book, and one that I hope will find its way onto many seminary course readings lists – and not just in specialty classes like “Multi-cultural Worship.”  Rah has some good words to share, but they will be put to best use in a broad marketplace.

The book is an uncomfortable read, especially for a white midle class USAmerican dude.  I have attempted to sensitize myself and the people I have influence with to issues of race, power, and control, but I know I’ve fallen well short of ideal.  There’s still a lot more to be done in my own heart, as well as in the church at large.

I strongly recommend this book.  The way it approaches the issues of racism in the church in USAmerica are helpful and prophetic.  The chapter on race is a good primer, and the chapter on how the emerging church is perpetuating most of evangelicalisms same old problems is a stinging rebuke to a bunch of people who have been a bit smug about having rescued the Western church from all of its ills.

With that said, I do have a few points of critique.  First, I’m not sure the book delivers on the title – I get that Rah is riffing on Philip Jenkins’ genius work in The Next Christendom, but unlike Jenkins, Rah doesn’t spend his primary content on describing the new form that’s coming to replace the old.  I got a very helpful picture of yet another broken aspect of the previous, broken evangelicalism, but less of a vision of what the new way forward looks like.  There are some good examples, including one here in Seattle that I can personally vouch for, but I wanted more.

Second, I don’t know how excited I can really get about the dawning of a new “ism.”  Frankly, I’m not looking for the next evangelicalism – which may have more to do with my continuing flashbacks from the last one, but another ism sounds like another opportunitiy to institutionalize forms of thought that might work right now, but will be rendered obsolete by future generations.

Third, and I admit that this is entirely selfish, but this book came out about 9 months too late.  As I was writing and editing my doctoral dissertation, I knew full well that the day would come that I had just put my biggest, hardest writing project to bed, and I’d wake up one morning to find a new book/article that would have taken my work to the next level and made it really shine.  This is that book.  No hard feelings, though, Dr. Rah.  I’ll get over it.  I’ll take the opportunity to borrow your ideas the next time around.  Congratulations, though – this is a reall solid piece of work, and one that I hope will be influential in the near future.



What if we started over?

Last week, in an effort to fool myself into thinking that I’m a tech geek (even though I know zero coding languages, don’t know most of the fancy acronyms, and don’t use the tools I have access to very elegantly), I watched the 80 minute video from Google’s I/O Conference, in which they rolled out their latest brainchild, Wave.  The video demonstrates some pretty cool stuff that will be game changing – like integrating e-mail, instant messaging, blogging, Twitter, wikis, collaborative projects, and entertainment.  If you’d like, you can watch it here.

The video stimulated a lot of questions and thoughts in me, particularly about the implications of these technologies, and how they will be used (both well and poorly) by Christians.  But the statement from the video I keep going back to actually happens very early on (at about 5:00 or so).  The lead developer, who is doing the demonstration, is introducing the mentality behind Wave, and says something like this (very paraphrased):

E-mail is by far the most popular form of communication on the internet today.  That’s very interesting, because e-mail is more than four decades old.  With some relatively minor changes, it still functions in much the same way it always has.  But we decided to ask the question, “What if we were to invent e-mail from scratch today?”

In other words, they want to reimagine communication with today’s tools, rather than continually tweaking yesterday’s templates all the time.  The answers they came up with are very cool – at multiple points in the demonstration, the developers in the audience get all giddy and cheer wildly.  Congratulations Google.  I’ll leave it to others to determine whether they truly reinvented e-mail or not.  Whatever the case, they did succeed in integrating today’s tools and rules, and they certainly got a buzz going among a very important constituency.

I think the reason their question of inventing e-mail from scratch stuck out to me is that it’s very similar to a phrase I’ve heard more times than I could count from pastors and church planters – “What would we get if we just stripped down all of our Christian traditions, and went back to the way the early church did things?”  Tons of books and articles have been written, and a lot of “new” models have been offered up.  But I’m left wondering whether that question doesn’t miss the point a bit.  The fact is, Google didn’t go back 40 years and try to rebuild stuff as though nothing had changed.  No, they used the current technologies available to them to try to accomplish some breakthroughs in electronic communication.

When “we” go back to reinvent church, we go back to Acts and Paul’s epistles to try to distill the simplest expressions of what the first century sisters and brothers did.  We try to rebuild church in very simple forms again, with as few changes as possible to the original systems.  We don’t take our contexts into account nearly enough – for example, we don’t consider that Rome’s big technology was its system of roads, whereas our superhighways are virtual and global and information driven.

I’d like to suggest that this way of approaching things is broken for at least two reasons: First, as we can see from the cranky tones of some of Paul’s writing, the early church wasn’t exactly getting it right all the time.  So when we try so hard to emulate the early church, we’re pursing a broken system.  This may be one of the consequences of letting the inerrancy mentality control so much of our attention – “If it’s in the Bible, it’s got to be literally true, and therefore, should be replicated as closely as possible.”  But if that’s what we’re doing, the very best we can hope for is to build a form of church that gives people the opportunity to be greedy, gossipy, sexually immoral, and power hungry.  (Hmmmm, if that’s our standard of measure, maybe we’ve gotten closer to the first century church than we had thought!)

Second, we’re not being honest about what we’re trying to do.  We’re not even trying very hard to go all the way back.  We take a vast amount of theological, historical, and cultural baggage with us when we look back.  Even people who read authors like N.T. Wright in order to understand the first century Palestinian context stop too short.  When I hear people saying they want to do church the way the early church did it, they don’t really mean they intend to strip down their evangelical systematic theology, their Western wealth and (white) power, their Protestant Reformation, their Christendom power, their Augustinian conceptions . . . they just want the pragmatics of meeting in peoples’ houses and sharing possessions and giving money away to those in need.  The idealism is commendable in some ways, but it’s mostly just that – idealism, and an artificial idealism at that.*

I would like to suggest that if we really want to get back to basics in the way we embody the bride of Christ, we do so more honestly.  When Pentecost took place, and the church was both born and unleashed in a series of radical events, they were creating something truly new, without a template.  They had a religious memory and heritage, which they honored in many ways, but they also knew the rules had changed.  We, too, have a religious memory and heritage – some of which can rightly be honored.  But if we’re going to do/be church the way they did it back then, we’ve got to be creative enough and courageous enough to know when to break the rules of our day, and take some risks.  In our fear of abandoning “orthodoxy,” I think the vast majority of us lack the courage to break those rules.  We’re so beholden to our denominations, our subculture, our seminaries, and (once again) our power that we chicken out.

So what do you think?  Am I wrong that most of us haven’t tried very hard to go all the way back?  Am I unfair in my assessments?  This post if fairly off the cuff (though it’s taken me quite a long time to write it).  Please tell me if you disagree – I’d like to tease out my own thinking on this some more, so I’m not looking for a fight.

*I’ve not read Frank Viola’s Pagan Christianity, but from what I understand, he deals with a lot of the stuff that’s been layered onto “church” over the years.  I also understand that he’s squarely on the idealistic side.  If I’m wrong on this, please let me know – I just felt the need to note that I’m not trying to either plagiarize him or take cheap shots at him.



Global Missional Leadership

I had the pleasure of enjoying a couple of hours at the SeaTac airport this morning with Jason Clark, who had a layover between his flights from Portland to LAX (I know, the route doesn’t make sense, but since those flights made our little meetup possible, I’m not complaining).  Jason is a pastor from London, and a point-person in the Emergent UK conversation.  He’s also a graduate of the George Fox Seminary program that I’m set to finish up (tomorrow morning!!!).

We met to conspire about a brand new program that Jason is developing with George Fox – a Doctor of Ministry in Global Missional Leadership.  It is geared toward reflective theological practice within a global context.  There are a number of things that excite me about this new program.  First, it isn’t “global” in name only – in addition to the course content and readings, there are three face-to-face learning experiences, which will take place in locations in Africa, Europe, and Asia.  These will be held in partnerships with seminaries in these locations.  That is great, because we need increasing global interaction with theologians and practitioners in order to learn from each other.  Second, it is both theologically and practically oriented – often practitioners get so caught up in the day-to-day behaviors of ministry that they aren’t theologically focused; and often theologians get so caught up in the academics that they fail to express their work in practical ways.  Third, it is integrative and open source – an online learning community is already being developed, which can be utilized by GML students, and non-students alike (go check it out, and jump on board!).  Seminary education is in need of change, and this represents a significant step toward accessibility and cultural contextualization.

It looks like I’m going to have an opportunity to work with this program, which is a big deal to me.  The topic of my dissertation (which I’ll begin blogging very soon)  is a very good fit, and it represents a good “next step” for me, now that I’m done with my own school program.  I’m defnitely looking forward to seeing how things develop.



Post-emerging
March 7, 2009, 9:33 am
Filed under: blogging, emerging church, friends

I’m here in San Diego, enjoying family and friends.  Last night, over at the Hawthorn House, I had good conversations around the fire out back with fellow travelers.  I won’t take the time to name drop in this post, but we laughed a lot.  As the night wound down, and only a few of us still there, we talked briefly about the whole emerging church thing.  We’ve all walked that road for several years now.  The funny thing, though, was that rather than comparing notes on which emerging church bloggers we follow and who we’re connecting with on the web (which is what we used to do early on), and which conferences we’re going to, we compared notes on how long it’s been since we’ve visited certain emerging church websites that we used to congregate around.  Months, years.  Seems like we’re post-emerging now.  I think that’s a very good sign.



An Irishman, a Puerto Rican, a Texan, and a Californian walk into a pub . . .
November 19, 2008, 11:36 am
Filed under: books, conference, emerging church, friends, Seattle, theology

Yesterday was a fun, thought-filled (thought-full?) day with friends.  Church of the Apostles hosted a couple of theology pub dialogues with Peter Rollins from Belfast, Ireland.  I got a shout this past weekend from Ryan Sharp, who was interested in coming up from Portland for it – he jumped on a train, and I picked him up from the station.  We grabbed a quick bite, went to the Fremont Abbey for the talk, then went out afterwards to the Greenlake Zoka with Eliacin for some de-brief chat.  So there you have it – an Irishman (Rollins), a Puerto Rican (Eliacin), a Texan (Ryan – though he’s not a proud Texan in the way most are), a Californian (moi), and a pub (well, sort of – they didn’t have any actual “pub fare” for the afternoon thing we went to).

1118081341 Pete Rollins is the author of How (Not) To Speak of God and The Fidelity of Betrayal.  He’s also one of the founders of the Ikon community in Belfast.  He’s also  PhD Postmodern Philosopher.  He’s also quite funny.  He also has the ability to speak at blazing speeds with that Irish accent of his.  The last three of those things often left my head spinning . . . and yet wanting more.  Oh, he also keeps himself on time by continuously referring to his cool pocket watch.

I’ve not gotten a chance to read The Fidelity of Betrayal yet, so I don’t know exactly how redundant his talk was to that book, but there were so many good sentences – things I’ll be chewing on for a while.  Here are a few gems to start.  I’ll probably come back sporadically and pop a few more on here.

– “It’s not about convincing your mind to believe given truth, it’s about convincing your ‘social self,’ where the real belief resides.”  In other words, the belief resides in the actions of the body, not in the head.

– “The real question is not whether or not God exists, but ‘What is God saying to me?'”

– “Your beloved doesn’t meet your needs.  Your beloved creates your need.  ‘I never needed you until you arrived, and then I realized that I’ve always needed you.'”



Emergent Village Shifts
October 30, 2008, 12:56 pm
Filed under: emerging church

For the record, I’ll probably hate myself later for even blogging about this, but here goes anyway . . . Yeah, so this morning, like many others, found this letter on the Emergent Village blog, which discusses some changes in focus and direction for the organization.  They plan to “decentralize” their organization, phase out the employment of their National Coordinator, and focus on helping facilitate regional cohorts, etc.

I’ve not read any of the comments on the EV blog, or any other commentary on this.  I’m sure lots of smart people are saying lots of smart things about this.  Me?  I must say I greet this news with essentially the same ambivalence that I greet any other news that comes out of EV.  Here are my opinions, in no ranked order of importance:

1. The phasing out of the National Coordinator position is a good thing.  I never actually thought that position was necessary in the first place.  For an organization that has always billed itself as a group of “friends” and a “conversation,” I never could figure out the need for a coordinator.  I have tons of conversations all the time with lots of different people in the so-called emerging church, and never needed a coordinator for that.  No conversation I’ve ever had in my life has needed a press release to announce its presence.

2. I don’t think EV should have ever “centralized” in the first place, so their efforts to decentralize don’t particularly impress me.  Again, in my opinion, the hiring of a National Coordinator, and the centralizing of an organizational identity may have been helpful in a few limited ways.  But it also served to give the critics of this movement all the ammunition that they needed to justify their misunderstanding of what the emerging church really is – a scattered, but like-minded band of Jesus followers who are trying to strip down a lot of Christendom baggage in order to pursue the missio Dei in their local communities.  The identity of EV gave critics the impression that “this is what the emerging/emergent church stands for.”  That was never the case, but it’s not hard to see how the critics arrived at that position.

3.  Emergent Village has been better for the outgoing National Coordinator than he has been for EV.  Book sales, speaking engagements, big fish in small pond status.  Never terribly impressive to me.

4. Emergent Village is STILL not the voice of the emerging church movement.  It’s always been A voice, but never THE voice. 

Maybe now that EV has seen fit to give us all the “permission” we can go back to what we were before the machine was started – a scattered, but like-minded band of Jesus followers, who intuitively know how to connect with each other through blogs, meetups, conferences, phone calls, and old-fashioned friendships.

To wrap things up, I realize that what I’ve written here is awfully crabby sounding and negative.  Those are just my opinions, but I promise, I’m not cranky about any of them.  The truth is, I really believe that everyone that’s served at EV, including the National Coordinator, love Jesus, and are driven to make things in the post-Christendom world better.  I appreciate their efforts, even if I’ve found some of them to be misguided. 

I also reserve the right to be wrong in some of my opinions.  It’s possible that once I take the time to surf the blogosphere for commentary on this stuff, I’ll be enlightened by one of the smart people, and come back here with an apology.  It’s not like that’s never happened before.



Who speaks for the Emerging Church?
October 16, 2008, 7:06 am
Filed under: emerging church

A couple of days ago, I sat with a couple of friends enjoying coffee and conversation.  All of us have been connected with the so-called emerging church at various levels for several years.  I’d drop their names here, but I don’t want to make the mistake trying to speak for them (for reasons that will become obvious in a minute) – let’s just say that they’re both fairly well known in this mini-movement, but not celebrities.  All of us have spent significant time with the celebrities, though.  We talked at length about where things are within this movement, how things got the way they are, and what we think needs to happen.

Later that day, for research and writing purposes, I began plowing through a book on the movement, written by one of the celebrities.  I didn’t read every word on every page, but did go through it thoroughly enough to take a couple pages worth of notes.  For a book that’s friendly to the movement and is written by one of its supposed leaders (self-appointed?), it was stunning in its lack of understanding, arrogance, and mean spirit.  Not to mention that it almost completely ignores the fact that the emerging church thing in the U.S. wasn’t even a twinkle in our eyes by the time things had been going on in the U.K., Australia, New Zealand, and elsewhere for ten years.  I won’t name the book here, so as not to be mean-spirited myself in blasting something I’ve not more thoroughly read, but let’s just say my review is not favorable.  Ironically, it makes some of the exact mistakes that books critical of the movement make.

With a nod to Howard Zinn, it made me want to suggest that the next book to be published should be “A People’s History of the Emerging Church.” 

Fortunately, this morning, I stumbled onto this article by Eddie Gibbs and Ryan Bolger in Fuller Theological Seminary’s journal, “Theology News & Notes” (HT: Jordon Cooper).  So much better.  No brainer – Gibss and Bolger’s book Emerging Churches is one of the best out there.

It is a mistake to think of “the emerging church” as a cohesive movement with authorized spokespersons . . . The church emerging is not a centrally organized, hierarchical organization, but more a spontaneous grass-roots phenomenon.

The great thing about grass-roots phenomena is that they don’t have spokesmen, and don’t need them.  Sure, some of the leaders become well known enough to be recognizable, and they write some books – that’s fine, as long as they don’t forget that it’s still about the self-organized movement and not about them, and that they don’t speak/write on behalf of everyone.  It’d be great if we could keep it that way.