I’ve seen a lot of dynamics in the Church in the 29 years that I have been doing my best to follow Christ: the tail end of the Charismatic Renewal, the explosion of the Vineyard Movement, seeker sensitivity, laughing revivals, purpose driven, G12, free market small groups, Alpha, etc. etc. etc.
This week, a conversation reminded me of a think thank I put together right around this time 10 years ago. We had made some bold changes in our campus ministry, realizing that we were being thrust out of the modern womb and into the cloudy sludge of postmodernity. So we did what everyone else did…immersed ourselves in McClaren, Sweet, Weber, Kimball, blah blah blah.
Then the dogs of war were released and the manhunt began. I was criticized for the darker room, I went from preaching down the thunder to having a conversation on a stool, and adopted the dreaded 3 C’s: coffee, couches, and candles. We began to question our ambiguous vernacular, question the biblical precedence for our practices, and question our effectiveness: were we really connecting with vacuous spiritual sojourners or were we befuddling them to excess with extraneous rhetoric? People labeled me a renegade, that I had bought into the latest Christian upstart uproar.
I understand why. Because a lot of my piers, folks who had grown up as church brats, were now embracing this new freedom to do all the things that were forbidden when they were younger. It was a ministerial tantrum to reclaim “vices” that were gray topics or absent altogether from the Word, or even needing to be contextualized and analyzed for 21st Century society. They started listening to secular music again, got rid of the praying hands on the fireplace mantle, and mocked the bumper Jesus fish.
All of the sudden, youth pastors began drinking beer, or the devil’s brew. Evangelists began swearing or using racy language to “relate.” Interpretations of the Scriptures began to loosen up; stretched in meaning is more like it. Funny, part of the reactionary nature of these newly enlightened ministers was to push back against legalism. But they did the same in throwing out anything that wasn’t specifically stated in the Bible. It became a dogmatic rejection of messages that didn’t have enhanced media, stiff sermons expanded to 3 points versus storytelling, and there was no way they’d listen to a communicator who wasn’t wearing Chucks and sporting a canvas messenger bag, while sipping on their soy chai latte in a recyclable cup.
During this recent conversation, I was asked for the definition of Emergence. One of our students referred to it as an overemphasis on grace and mercy while neglecting righteousness. I cringed. I understand why he said that. But on the inside, I wished one more time that people would be willing to sit down and talk, not debate, but to have a conversation. What I had seen was once again the polarization of the Christ’s Body between the stalwart old guard who refused to move the ancient boundary and the contemporary, trendy, let’s push it to the edge pioneers.
I’m going to use an ugly word which people mistakenly deem synonymous with compromise: moderation. Maybe, just maybe, we can the blend hearts of both camps and be architects of a 21st Century Church with 1st Century faith. People have bid farewell to Rob Bell, and Love Wins has reignited an inquisition against Emergence. But I want to know, have the reactionary book burners attempted to answer his questions? Like it or not, his book represents the heart of a generation that has had it with steeples and pulpits. We cannot combat supposed heretical teachings with hymnals and well-worn text books on systematic theology. It must be coupled with relationship and mentoring, and not getting defensive when younger people ask questions.
Recently, I heard part of a sermon that was presented to a huge portion of the network to which I belong. The speaker made the bold statement that “we cannot substitute relevance for that which is right” (not verbatim but I think I caught the gist of it). I know what he meant. I know it was a Tweetable aphorism. But it’s apples and oranges. They are not opposed concepts. In fact, I thought that the purpose of being relevant was to present what’s right in a way people can understand. Yes, like Jesus did multitudes of times instead of using the lofty and supercilious coded language of the Pharisees.
To clear the air: I’ve made modifications to our presentation. My delivery may have changed, but my convictions are the same. I wouldn’t say it’s watering down the Gospel, but I’ve tried to remove the fluff and the pretension. If we were to do a comparison of my sermon topics the last 22 years, the titles may have changed, but the topics and substance haven’t: holiness, brokenness, repentance, purity, character, sharing our faith, prayer, spiritual disciplines, living in victory, being spirit-led and spirit-filled, being students of the Word, etc. I haven’t dummied down my messages, just realized I didn’t have to say the same thing ten times.
By the way, I took a “How Emergent Are You Test?” this week. To the shock of many, because I don’t shout from the platform anymore, I emphasize social action, I don’t pledge allegiance to the Republican Party (Democratic either), and I have gay friends…I tested 71% modern. On the contrary, my faith remains intact and has passed the postmodern test.