Ministering in a culture that embraces Jesus—but not his church
A number of years ago I was asked to speak at a gathering of young European leaders in the Netherlands on the topic of leadership. At the end of the weekend the senior leader had an evaluation session with me regarding my presentations.
“Your presentations were very postmodern and connected well with the group,” he said. Not sure what he meant, I asked him to explain the term postmodern. He said, “You used images well, had participatory exercises, connected with the group and gave us a meaningful experience. Plus, your understanding of leadership fit well with what is important to these postmodern leaders.”
Somewhat taken back by his explanation, I responded, “I do not know much about postmodernism. I am just trying to figure out how to communicate to the current generation what it means to be a follower of Jesus and to be the people of God.”
With a chuckle he shot back. “Jules, you are postmodern and you don’t know it.” This was my introduction to postmodernism and what has been called the emerging church.
Learning from the forest
Forestry people tell me that an “emergent” is a small sapling that breaks through the soil and begins to grow, taking up space between existing trees. The spacing of the mature trees allows for light to penetrate the forest floor making it possible for the young sapling to grow into a mature tree. As the mature trees die, the saplings grow, emerging into adulthood.
And so the saplings continue to grow in an emerging fashion, each year adding a ring to the already existing rings. The new growth does not replace the previous year’s growth but rather enhances it, bringing the needed nutrients to the foliage of the tree. In this way the forest continues to thrive, growing and reproducing itself in a healthy ecosystem.
The church today can learn from the forest. According to 2007 statistics, 70 percent of Protestants ages 18-30—both evangelical and mainline—who went to church in high school quit attending church by age 23. By age 30, 34 percent had not returned, even sporadically.
Therefore, 25 percent of Protestant youth have left the church. What is most interesting is when these people are interviewed, they will tell you that they like Jesus but have no respect or love for the church or Christians in general.
Depending on the source, roughly 40 percent of Americans say they go to church. However, on any given Sunday, only about 20 percent are actually in church on a Sunday morning. When you factor in that most of those in church are age 55 or older, the handwriting is on the wall. We in the West are one generation away from empty church buildings.
In 2008, the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life interviewed 35,000 adults regarding their faith practices. They discovered that 28 percent have left the faith in which they were raised in favor of another religion or no religion at all. Forty-four percent have switched religious affiliation and the group that grew the most was “none.” Yet these same people think that Jesus is pretty cool.
Add to this the discovery that David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons, authors of unChristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity…and Why It Matters, made when interviewing people ages 16-29, asking them what they thought of Christians. They discovered that the perceptions of Christians by non-Christians is that Christians are: antihomosexual (91 percent), judgmental (87 percent), hypocritical (85 percent), teach the same basic ideas as other religions (82 percent), old-fashioned (78 percent), people with good values and principles (76 percent), too involved in politics (75 percent), out of touch with reality (72 percent), friendly (71 percent), insensitive to others (70 percent) caring (68 percent), and boring (68 percent). This is not a pretty picture of Christians. Something needs to change.
Speaking to the issues
The emerging church is attempting to speak to the issues facing the church today. At their best, they are working to make the church relevant, faithful and effective. Leonard Sweet calls it the MRI church—missional, relational, incarnational.
During the past two years, the emerging church has been featured on the front page of the New York Times, the Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and the Los Angeles Times. ABC has produced an hour-long religious special on the emerging church, and publishers are creating lines of products for these churches to purchase.
To my knowledge there is no one event that launched the emerging church movement. In the early 1990s, Brad Smith, president of Leadership Network, called together a group of young leaders that were frustrated with what they saw happening in the church in the west. The Terranova Project, as it was called, was to be a conversation that would explore what needed to be done to increase the effectiveness of the church in reaching the current generation.
What the group discovered was that this was more than simply a generational issue. There were some fundamental fatal flaws that needed to be addressed for the church to be effective in serving this present age. From this project grew what is known today as the Emergent Village.
At the same time, church leaders across America began to question the church growth movement and the fruit of the seeker movement. People under the age of 30 were not connecting with the church. Sociologists were calling this the “emerging generation.” The shift that was taking place in culture from modernity to post-modernity was labeled the emerging culture. Those in the church that were attempting to serve the emerging generation were called the emerging church.
What is frustrating to many is that those who consider themselves emergent are hesitant to even accept the label of being a movement. They prefer to call what they are doing a “conversation.” Theologian Scot McKnight defines it best: “It is a conversation about the future direction of the evangelical church in a postmodern world; it’s a reaction and a protest against traditional evangelical churches; and it’s a conversation focused less on theological niceties and more on performing the gospel in a local setting.”
Characteristics of the emerging church
To define the emerging church with a list is considered an anathema by those in the movement. But being considerably older than these folks and with no need to impress them, I think I can get away with it. So let me present what I see as characteristics of those who are in the conversation. This list comes from my conversations with many of the leaders in the movement, observations of their activities, participation in some of their events and gleanings from the many Web sites that are popular in the movement.
Strive to be positive. People in the emergent conversation are extremely positive and optimistic about the future. They believe that we are living in the greatest time of opportunity in the history of the church. Where my generation’s tendency is to critique the church, emergent people talk about what could be and work to bring about constructive change.
Focus on who Jesus is. Emergent people love Jesus and think that he is at work in the world today. Their focus is more on who Jesus is than on what Jesus taught. It is not a stretch to call them Christo-centric. Jesus is central. When questioned about truth, they say that Jesus is truth and quickly quote John 14:6. Truth is embodied in the person of Jesus.
Concerned for the kingdom of God. Emergent people understand themselves as kingdom people making the world more the way God intends it to be. There is a focus on what N.T. Wright calls “putting the world to rights.” The gospel is about the kingdom of God and people joining and participating in the kingdom. The church is the catalyst for the kingdom and is to be a blessing to the entire world. Reconciliation, mercy, peace and caring for the poor and disenfranchised are embodied in the gospel.
Value theology. I have learned to never ask an emerging leader what they believe but rather to ask what they think. Emergent people love talking, reading and discussing theology. Sunday school has been replaced with schools of theology. They understand their communities as theological groups that attempt to articulate an understanding of God, faith and life.
Commited to faith as a way of life. Orthopraxy is of high importance; right living trumps right believing. Emergent people will be quick to say they need both, but that praxis is most important. In Brian McLaren’s recent book, Finding Our Way Again, he asks the readers to describe their understanding of faith along two continuums: faith as a belief system and faith as a way of life. Living the gospel carries the day.
Relationships carry weight. Community, hospitality and friendships are the glue of the movement. Authority comes from relationship. Structures and organization are built around relationships. Change happens through relationships. Emergent events that I have attended are relational marathons. Relationships are everything, and all are welcome. Conversations matter, and influence is generated through relationships. The church is one big happy family, dysfunctional at times but still a family.
Embrace multiple forms of church. There is no one form of church that is preferred over another. Ancient forms, contemporary forms, medieval forms—all are valuable and acceptable ways of doing church. The only form that is rejected is anything that smells of consumerism. Denominational structures are not important. What is important is the local church incarnating kingdom values.
Engaging culture. Emerging people are concerned with making the gospel relevant to the postmodern generation. Current ideas and methods from pop culture are quickly embraced. Involvement in political causes is normative. Being incarnational to the postmodern generation is important to emerging people.
So what do we make of all that is emerging? I do not know if this is a movement or a major shift in our understanding of God, faith and the church. Martin Luther was not aware that what would follow when he nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenberg door would go down in history as the Reformation.
Could it be that the church is in need of another major course direction similar to what was needed in the 16th century? Is it possible that what we are seeing in the emerging church is the beginnings of such a shift or is this simply the current generation seeking to make the church effective and relevant to today’s culture? I do not know which it is.
I do know that emergent people are seeking to be followers of Jesus just like the rest of us who claim the name of Christ. And when I look at what is important to them and the attitudes they have, I see striking resemblance to Anabaptists. As I consider all that we call emergent, the words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 1:18 ring in my ears: “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice.” Let’s rejoice in what God is doing in the world.
Jules Glanzer, a 1978 graduate of MB Biblical Seminary, served as a pastor and church planter for the Mennonite Brethren and Evangelical Covenant denominations before moving into higher education, first at George Fox Evangelical Seminary and now as president of Tabor College.
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