Wednesday, November 01, 2006

An Open Letter to My Friends in the Emerging Church

Recently I attended a seminar during which an emergent church leader reassured his audience that the movement supported more traditional types of churches and was not making the claim that the emergent model was the only way to go but simply one of many possible configurations. "We are here to help. We believe in what you are doing. We want to affirm you and also share with you the insights of our particular model." Well that sounded pretty good to me. Later that week I went to the website of the ministry he represented and the first image I saw was of a traditional suburban church with a large "Detour" sign pointing away from it! What's going on here guys? Excuse the politically incorrect language but does the emergent church speak with forked tongue? Are you guys in solidarity with the whole of the church or not?

Off I went to another emergent church website, one belonging to the same denomination as my own, and found the image you see here, captioned "The Missional Church, turning the established church on its steeple..." Can I just say as the pastor of a more or less traditional church that I am a little offended by such images and by the anti-traditional-church rhetoric that seems to be a part of the emergent church's mandatory discourse. I think some of the emergent churches are doing great things, especially those who are identifying with the poor and the marginalised, in ways that would make some evangelical churches bow their heads in shame. I applaud the recovery of sacramental life that is evident in some quarters. Who could object to an emphasis on a missional presence in communities hitherto unreached by the church? Certainly not me. My general impression of the traditional evangelical church's response to the emergent church movement has been "Go for it; If you can reach people we can't, more power to ya. In fact. we'll give you money and personnel and prayer support and other resources to help make it happen." (At least this has been the case in my own denomination.) But what do the more traditional churches get in reply - we are mocked, ridiculed, and made the butt of jokes. We are told that we are hopelessly behind the times, that our methods are ineffective, that we aren't missional, that we don't care about reaching unreached people, that the wave of the future is with the emergent church and unless we get on board, we'll miss what God is doing.

This is particularly galling when you reflect on the fact that the leadership of the emergent church is made up of people birthed in, nurtured in, trained by, and supported by the traditional church you seem called to bag out. Please brothers and sisters I urge you not to bite the hand that feeds. We are your own family. We prayed for you, loved you, wept with you, rejoiced with you, and encouraged you to give your all in service to Christ and the Gospel. Now that you are doing that (albeit in a little different way than some might have expected) it hurts to be told we are redundant.

It is also hurtful (and myopic) to assume that the traditional church is not missional because it meets in a chapel and not in a pub or in a cafe and it sings hymns and preaches sermons and passes the plate in the good ol' fashioned way. My congregation averages about 25 people from all walks of life. Typically between Sundays, members do such things as volunteer in a cafe that ministers to street people, counsel marginalised youth, provide marriage counselling, volunteer construction help in a primary school in an impoverished area, talk to their neighbours about Jesus and the list goes on. Do people in the emergent church think they are the only ones who undertand this principle of incarnational presence in the world? Or that any of this is in any way new? What is "emergent" about this kind of living? (Does any body remember the Jesus movement. Maybe not; it was after all 30 years ago). Extending and completing the church's gathered worship by going out and serving the wider world is as old as the church itself and church history provides any number of examples of people who modelled this in magnificent ways, whether Francis of Assisi, William Booth, or St. Columba of Scotland! Little suburban churches all over the country live like this, but they are not interested in dispensing with their regular gathering on the first day of the week. They gather around Word and Sacrament each Sunday. They sit in pews. They drink coffee and chat over morning tea. It isn't hip, it isn't sexy. There's nothing emergent about it. But it's church and it's been going on for two millennia and it will continue to go on until Jesus comes again. The discipleship of these people is just as real and just as genuine, and in some cases more so, than some more hip emergents for whom these grey headed little old ladies and gents are the target of ridicule.

I have no problem with the church "scattering" into its community for mission. But I do have a problem when this scattering is set over against the church's "gathering." The church is, or should be both "scattered" and "gathered." I do not believe that sitting with a mate down at Starbucks and talking about Jesus can be called "having church." It's a great thing to do, and I wish I could do it more often, but it isn't church and it isn't the church's liturgy. The church's gathering is something concrete and identifiable. We are welcomed into a specific community through our baptism. We, the baptised, gather to narrate the story of God's saving work in Jesus Christ. We gather to be guided and taught by Holy Scripture, to hear the stories from our family album (I almost said "family history" but "history" might sound too traditional.) We gather to make Eucharist (give thanks), to break bread together in remembrance of Christ. These things have a concrete, local, specific and particular manifestation in real space and time. There is a circumference to our circle. We are those called by and named by Christ. Mission means the circle is always enlarging (or should be) but the church is not some amorphous (shapeless) thing with no boundary or identifiable limit. It is incarnate (embodied) not gnostic (reified). Our weekly liturgy, held to commemmorate the day upon which God raised Christ from the dead, is a celebration of God's saving work in Christ participated in by those who by the Spirit have been made his people. Admittedly it's not always done well or faithfully and perhaps this is why many of you in the emergent church have left more traditional churches. But it has been going on since the first Pentecost and I don't see it being replaced any time soon.

Look, pardon my passion in all this but I guess what I want to say here is that we are brothers and sisters together in the one church. We may differ from each other in certain ways and in this post I have been critical of certain blind spots I believe the emergent church has. But I believe in your right to exist. I applaud your efforts to emulate Jesus and reach people with the good news of God's love. I celebrate the grace of God at work in your faith communities. All I ask is that you return the sentiment.

21 comments:

Missional Jerry said...

I believe missional is a function and not a form.

There is room for all forms of church (traditional, emerging, ancient etc)

They all need to be becoming missional.

Tony Rose said...

Nice picture. I wrote a personal letter in an email dialog to an Emergent friend a little more than a year ago. I thought that was where you were going with this. Thanks for your comments. If you want to read the letter I later posted as a blog, here is the link:

http://galatiansc4v16.wordpress.com/2005/06/23/a-letter-to-my-emergent-church-friend/

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks Tony. I read your post and found it interesting though I think some of those who commented overstated their case a little. I certainly don't consider missional churches heretical, at least not the one with which I am familiar. Of course isolating oneself from the rest of the church is a good way to become a heretic!

Glen O'Brien said...

Sophie (of Here In This Diary and my beautiful offspring) posted the following on the wrong blog entry so I'm just relocating it here in the correct spot:

word.
i think sometimes people forget about the people who are already IN the church who need attention, rather than people 'out there.' (but of course mission is still important.)
arent u proud i read a WHOLE post?? haha.

Christop said...

Hi Glen. I sympathise with you on this stuff. The emerging church is just like every other movement, in that it contains at least a few people who think that their way is the only way.

Ben said...

Dr. O'Brien,

Thank you for your post. I find that I am in great agreement with you.

I use to be a strong supporter of the emergent movement but after having a conversation with a high profile emergent leader from the US and doing some reading I am fearful that the emergent movement here is nothing more than a ecclesial trend that, as you have aptly stated, isolates itself from the larger body of the church and may be on the path to heresy.

Having been involved in an emergent church and dialoging with some leaders I find that, at best, the movement places orthodoxy at arms length. In fact it was told to me that the orthodox doctrine of the trinity holds no bearing for the church because it was invention out of the platonic mindsets of the early church. I find this greatly disturbing.

I agree with you that God's grace is at work in the emergent communities, but I am fearful that in their efforts to reach the lost they minimize orthodoxy too much and are dangerously close to proclaiming an inferior gospel.

Things may be much differt in the emergent church in Australia and if so then I aplogize for useless comments but this is what I observe in the US. So I hope these comments prove to be of some use.

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks Ben. Your comments are helpful. The situation in the US seems worse than here at least on the doctrinal side. One of the ownsides of being "anti-traditional" is that we aren't doing our theology together with the whole church - a crucial error.

Ludicrousity said...

Wow. Lots of interesting thoughts. Great post and food for thought Glen! I tend to agree with you on the whole. I am all for emerging church models. I find them exciting (mostly) and challenging. I really want to be invovled in new ways of 'doing church' and making the gospel practicall relevant in our day and age to the new generations. I think we have such incredible potential with the new post modern era to rethink the way we present our lives to the world.

However, I do not think we should discard the traditional church. I think there is great value in meeting together as Christians to encourage one another. That style of church really suits a lot of people and I am all for it. I want emerging churches to run alongside existing church models, not to replace them. Everyone is different, that's the beauty of creation, we are all made differently. I applaud the traditional church, and hope they will support models of emerging churches as they seek to reach different people groups.

dobbo said...

Glen, a lot to ingest here. I actually agree with most of what you say. I'm sorry that a couple of pictures or people from 'emergent' churches have caused such angst. I'm part of a new church that is seeking to carry out the biblical and historic functions of the church in a way that resonates with our faith and and allows us to live as authentic Christ followers in our society. I dislike the term 'emergent' because the church is always emerging. I prefer to say that we are seeking to be missional - which, I agree can also be done through churches that meet in a building - even with a steeple.
I agree wholeheartedly with missional jerry that it is about function rather than form. I will say that in my experience the normal (traditional) form of church in Australia consumes time, energy, finances and focus because of the dependence on owned buildings, over adundance of generational splitting programs (predominately for those already in the church), paid professional clergy who do the work for others and where the collection for the poor is consumed almost totally by the church itself. On top of this most are shrinking and many a close to death.
Your church sounds missional to me - its more about a mindset than a form.
Lots more to say and the post was too long for me to remember everything you said but I may comment again.

Annette said...

Dear Glen,

I've never 'blogged' b4 so you can be proud that you have been the first to inspire me to do so.

As part of a missional church I appreciate your reminder as to what the body of Christ should be doing as we gather as we do exactly that!! We learn of God thru His Holy Word, we celebrate the Lord's Supper together, we hear each others stories - we are very much united in these things.

I have just finished catching up with a friend and telling her something of what we are doing and reinforcing to her that by no means do I want to give the impression that we have all the answers and that everything that has gone b4 has all been wrong. I'm sorry that has been the impression you have received from others but by no means does it represent all those who label themselves as "missional church". At the same time it resonates with me (and this was also true of my friend - both of us having been brought up in "traditional church" - I don't like using these labels, Glen, but for the sake of making a distinction I do so...) that we have, in the past, been guilty of putting such an emphasis on putting together a professional service that we have occupied all time and resources doing so that we have then neglected to have any time or energy left to minister to our neighbor in need. That must require our attention and action in whatever form we gather as Christ's Body

You, I'm sure, would be pleased to see in our gatherings the absence of frothy, bubbly praise and worship songs (that could more easily be sung to a boyfriend than to our Almighty God) and instead more reflection and meditation on God's Word.

Just one more point - I'm slighty amused by your reference to the support your own denomination has been to it's own expression of missional church and would love to discuss that further with you - but maybe we'll do that via e-mail!!

With love and respect

Chris said...

If I may, a few points for discussion, thought, whatever. Please don't take this in the wrong light. I want to discuss, not argue.

For starters, you seem to assume that missional and emergent mean the same thing. You categorize not by the attitude, motivation, or theology of the church, but by the place it meets and activities it pursues. I know many churches that are very missional (maybe not postmodern) that meet in chapels, who are not "emerging". The lines are blurred, for sure.

The missional church is a category used to signify any church that's rediscovering its missional roots. That's it. The two categories are not interchangeable: while "emerging" has become a broad catch-all phrase used for lots of new expressions of church, "missional" refers to something completely different. "Emerging" is about the style of church. "Missional" is about its motivation.

Second: you need to loosen up a bit. The picture (yes, I posted it) was mostly for amusement than anything else. Did you READ the entire post next to it? Did you read all of the other posts on the website? Did you check the context of the picture before you judged it? One thing I've noticed about our church plant (we say that we are emerging and missional, yes) is that we try not to take ourselves so seriously that we can't laugh about absurd things, that we can't have fun with what we do, that we can't look at obviously strange (and I might add, ambiguous) works of art such as that picture and laugh! I might as well point out (again, as this is in the post next to that picture) that, while the picture was labeled as a church, it came off a website that didn't have a thing to do with church; it could just as well have been a school house or a town center.

Third: you have to be careful who you generalize. I'm sorry that you've had bad experiences with those that claim to represent the "emerging church", that they were ungrateful for the help you feel you gave them. They were wrong not to appreciate the obvious effort you made! However, in my personal experience, the leadership of many traditional churches are very seriously against anything remotely bordering on "emerging" or "postmodern," deeming it heretical or, at the very least, "dangerous and divisive" (yes, I heard those exact words used once to describe the missional church, as if by suggesting that the person question the traditions and leadership of his church, I was trying to cause some sort of rift or church split; leaders MUST be available to be doubted, they're not infallable just because they're clergy).

I don't believe that many who claim to be missional are resentful of those in the traditional church. In fact, the primary emerging/missional training organization here in Australia is very much interested in the dialogue between "traditional" and "emerging" churches, hoping to help the two partner to be "missional" to the entire country. Nearly every person I've met in this organization has been very much FOR inter-denominational discussion on postmodern issues.

Let me acknowledge the sad fact that there ARE those in the emerging movement who really do just screw it up for the rest of us, who pursue deeply troubled teaching or who are hypocritical. However, the same is true for the traditional and evangelical churches (I can list lots of names of the ones from the traditional and evangelical churches if you like, they're easy). We all sin, not one is righteous. There are those who say they wish to foster discussion and work with traditional churches, but who honestly believe that traditional church has nothing to offer. They're wrong, but those individuals (in my experience, the minority) are not a reason to dismiss the movement.

Fourth: just because a person says something, doesn't mean that they ARE something. If a person says they are a vegan but often indulge in steaks, are they truly vegan? Likewise, if a person claims to be missional but does not serve God as a missionary, are they truly missional? You have to mentally edit what you read based on observed behavior, to see if what the person says and what he does line up.

There are always outlayers to congregations, the oddballs who just don't quite get it, but choose to claim that church as their home anyway. Can't do much about it; that's just the way it goes.

For example: Brian McLaren says he's emerging, and that's fine. But he doesn't necessarily speak for me; I speak for rme. I agree with some things that he says, but not all of them. If you were to judge the emerging church based solely on McLaren's books, you'd get a very skewed picture. You should read Rob Bell and Alan Hirsch and Michael Frost and Neil Cole and Dan Kimball and a lot of other people if you want to get a bigger slice of the pie; and it still won't be the whole picture. I think that perhaps a big difference between the traditional and emerging movements is that in a traditional movement, you usually accept the entire theology of the church outright; in an emerging church, that's not there - there are no doctrine statements, only a common understanding to work together to understand and practice the ministry of Jesus in the postmodern world.

Fifth: nope, we don't think that being missional or incarnational is new. In fact, Al Hirsch's new book is called "the Forgotten Ways," where he spends a lot of time talking about the way it all started two thousand years ago. I think that, for the most part, we in the missional movement know this isn't new. I also think that the point is not whose idea it was, but whether or not the mission of Jesus is actually being pursued. Lots of evangelical churches claim to be missional, but yet most of them use 97-99% of their budgets solely upon themselves, leaving 1-3% for mission outside their congregations. Instead of seeking to serve the community outside their walls, they try to attract the community INSIDE their walls. The missional church movement is not trying to start a new denomination, but to reawaken the missional nature of the church, to revive these "forgotten ways" in the church as a whole. Your church - quite missional, from the sound of it - is the exception to the rule for evangelical churches these days; a sorry fact, but true.

Sixth: you say "I do have a problem when the scattering is set over against the church's gathering." I couldn't agree more. A balance is needed between the two. But so often, the traditional church has emphasized the gathering and not the scattering. I agree, many emerging communities have swung the pendulum too far the other way, to their detriment. At my church, we do half and half; we meet together for worship, devotions, and fellowship half the month, and the other half we spend doing mission in some form or another outside our usual gathering place. It seems to be a good balance, keeping us focused on our respective communities, but still allowing us to find solace in each other's company and worship as a large community.

In the end, I guess we need to be careful not to ignore the lessons of the past, but nor should we dwell in it. The traditional church has much to say, but so does the emerging church. The two together, if they were to put aside their style differences to bring the gospel of Jesus to the world, would make a formidable team, wouldn't you agree?

Anonymous said...

I think I'd love to see churches try to find a middle road. It's kind of like the "worship wars" that have been going on the last twenty years; several churches have found a way to blend traditional with contemporary. I think that's what we'll have to strive for nowadays, especially as pastors - integrate certain theologically-sound emergent elements (especially focus on relationships) while showing the theological and ecclesial value of many traditional elements. It's all about discernment.

Glen O'Brien said...

Sure Charles, but I would reiterate that there isn't anything uniquely "emergent" about a focus on relationships. To me the most valubale thing about the emergents (and this is perhaps ironic)is that some of them have pointed evangelicals back to certain forgotten elements from the pre-Reformation church - silence, icons, sacraments, etc. So they serve a purpose "in-house" as it were but this emphasis offfers nothing to the wider church who never lost these things or (in the case of mainstream Protestants) rediscovered them in the mid-twentieth century already. The same goes for a radical identification with the poor (which again is something some emergents do and other don't). Evangelicals (to our shame) may have forgotten it but the rest of the church never did, so it's nothing new. It's interesting to note that the emergent movement is almost exclusively an evangelical movement. There are no Catholic or Orthodox emergents to my knowledge, and probably relatively few Anglicans. All of this gives me the impression that it is more a fad than the wave of the future that it sometimes postures itself to be.

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks Chris for your extended and very thoughtful response. I agree with just about everything you said, but let me reiterate that I don't dismiss the emergent or missional churches at all. I am just asking for more respect and sensitivity toward other kinds of churches than some in the emergent or misional churches give. Clearly you are not one such person. On the question of doctrine you state that "in a traditional movement, you usually accept the entire theology of the church outright; in an emerging church, that's not there - there are no doctrine statements, only a common understanding to work together to understand and practice the ministry of Jesus in the postmodern world." Certainly there is room to hold lightly (if at all) to certain doctrines a particular denomination might have (many of which are non essential anyway). But there does need to be an embracing of what the WHOLE church historically confesses. For example that God is Triune, that Christ is fully human and fully divine, and that his death on the cross reconciles a broken world to God. One thing the emergents and missionals can benefit from in remaining harmoniously connected to their sisters and brothers in the mainstream churches is the checks and balances that a respectful listening to this theological tradition provides.

Glen O'Brien said...

Thanks for posting a comment Annette. Welcome to the world of blogging. Warning - it can be addictive. I would hate to think that my words would discourage you in your new role at Mimos, though I can see how they might. Please be assured that I have a greal deal of love and respect for you and believe that you will make a great pastor. Okay I know you're not quite sure about that word being applied to you yet but, I can't buy Chris' reference to you on his blog as a "go-between" between Mimos and the denomination. I'm sure this is not how you see your role. Mimos is a Wesleyan congregation and therefore part of our community; it can't have a go-between between itself and itself!

You're right, I am glad that Mimos is not just another Hillsong franchise and when it comes to worship give me emergent/missional over boomer/seeker sensitive anyday!

Yes many local churches are over- programmed; there's no question about that, but many missional churches overstate this point. Some of us are flat out just managing to serve God through the week and then gather together to worship let alone managing any other programmes (even if we wanted to). I guess Boronia was a pretty programme-oriented church but then I think your Dad was also a fine example of someone who visited and offered help to people in the community who had no involvement at all with the programmes.

On denominational support for Mimos, you can email or phone me if you want to talk about it off blog but my understanding was that the District was providing some support through Network Partners and that we were contributing to that through our gold coin offerings. Maybe I'm wrong about this. In any case, be assured that you certainly do have our prayer support at Spring Street. We specifically pray for Mimos at our monthly half night of prayer and in Sunday services and will continue to do so.

Chris said...

Glen - glad you liked the post, it took me ages to get it just the way I wanted, and after I went to bed, it took me ages to fall asleep because my mind kept wandering back to other things I had wanted to say. But I can't remember them because I ended up falling asleep without writing them down (go figure).

In response to YOUR response, I think one reason many emerging churches are moving away from the traditional churches in which they began is this: they've been stifled. They are not "permitted" to think freely, to question church tradition, to attempt to understand scripture without the traditionalists constantly badgering them, saying "but that might be dangerous!"

Scripture IS dangerous!

A lot of the church traditions have been inferred from scripture, not actually taken from scripture. An example: you mentioned the trinity. The trinity is never specifically mentioned in the scriptures, not like it is in the doctrine set down by the church council at Nicea. There are plenty of references to God, to Jesus, to the Holy Spirit, but the words "trinity" and "three-in-one" and "triune" are never actually mentioned. Our understanding of the trinity is elementary, at best, and you can't possibly claim that a sound understanding of the trinity is necessary for evangelism; if it was, nobody could do it - we simply don't get it! Yet the church seems to get bogged down in the theology, instead of the mission; why do we focus on details that we cannot possibly know the answers to and call them essential?

Or another example, we've always assumed that Acts 2 described the perfect church, that the church was at its best just after Jesus went up to heaven and the holy spirit cam down to the Apostles. I've seen a new picture of this painted recently, that in fact, the church of Acts 2 was a failed experiment, that instead of fulfilling the great commission as Jesus instructed (go OUT into the world and make disciples of ALL nations), the eleven Apostles stayed put in Jerusalem. It took God three dreams to convince Peter to go out of the city and evangelize to the gentiles.

I do not claim to understand all of this any better than you do (in fact, I too agree that the trinity is, at the moment, the best description of God's person that we have), but I do think that we cannot ever claim that these doctrines are without fault or are absolute truth - as much as we may want to believe them, they are still educated guesses. Just because they're old and written by smarter people than we are do not make them accurate.

Theology is important, I cannot deny that. I want to someday be a professor OF theology (among other things), so keep that in mind. What I've come to realize is that it can't take priority, as it does in so many cases. Your theology is important, but not as important as being a disciple, and of helping OTHERS to become disciples.

We have to be careful not to mandate certain beliefs. The only belief we can be sure of is that Jesus came and rose; He is the son of God. He died so we may live. All the rest is somewhat opaque, and to say otherwise is naiive; the church fathers were no better off than we are in their understanding of God; He is somebody we rediscover with each passing generation. He is shrouded in mystery, and as much as we try to understand Him, we never will. But we can get to know His character, His heart, and THAT is what is truly important.

Glen O'Brien said...

Sorry to contribute to your loss of sleep. I can't say I agree with you that every generation has to find God for itself. Sure the word "Trinity" doesn't appear in the Bible but what the Bible does say leads to the necessary conclusion that God is triune. There is no God but the Triune God. Brian Edgar's recent book on the Trinity (The Message of the Trinity) states that the doctrine is “fundamentally simple, thoroughly practical, theologically central and totally biblical. It is not, as sometimes suggested, an abstract or philosophical construction with
an unusual perspective on mathematics which makes three equal to one! It is not a doctrine which is incomprehensible in presentation, irrelevant in practice, unnecessary theologically or unbiblical in form. It is in fact the distinctive Christian doctrine and essential for Christian life and discipleship." Some, such as Michael Jinkins, in "Invitation to Theology" have seen the whole project of theology, as well as the entire foundation of the Christian life, as grounded in the Trinity. “The meaning and the shaping of our life together as a community of persons is grounded in the inner life of God, the Trinity, and has been revealed to us in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.”

I understand the Nicene formulation to be constitutive of orthodox Christianity. Once the church has defined God as a Trinity of persons there can be no unsaying what has been said. Robert Jenson in his Systematic Theology sees theology as always an act of proclamation in each frssh generation but nonetheless one which cannot unsay what has been said on some core confessions such as the Triune natire of God. We have heard the Gospel spoken to us; we must now ask what we should say and do so that the Gospel may be spoken again. To spoaek Christianly we have to say "say x rather than y.” Paul says “To be saying the Gospel say “Jesus is Lord” rather than “Jesus is cursed.” The church exerts her teaching authority when she says, “If you claim to speak for this community say ‘the eternal Son of God was made flesh in Jesus Christ,’ rather than ‘Jesus was only a Galilean peasant rabbi.’” It is the church’s theological task to determine which statements about God speak the Gospel and which do not. The church is that community “which speaks Christianese” and a sentence like “Jesus is Lord” is a properly made sentence according to the grammar of orthodoxy. (I'm summarising Jenson here.)

You state "We have to be careful not to mandate certain beliefs. The only belief we can be sure of is that Jesus came and rose; He is the son of God. He died so we may live." But how do you know even these things? You have come to know these things in a traditioned way. The Gospel is a tradition faithfully passed on from generation to generation. It's not enough to say "I know these basics because they're in the Bible." The Bible is read in so many ways, and cults like the Mormons use the same Bible as ours and come up with wildly divergent meanings to all the terms you stated as core. The reason you and I read the Bible the way we do is because the church has read and live dout of the Scriptures together as a community. You are one who believes postmodernism is important, and one of the central tenets of postmodernism is that all truth claims are traditioned in some way. Nobody thinks in a vacuum or in a purely objective way. Everyone comes to believe what they believe because somebody has passed it on to them. When we read the Scriptures with the whole churhc in this way we come to understand that Christ is both fully human and divine and we come to know that God is Triune.

God leads the community of God’s people, the Church, into all truth. As the Christian community has struggled to arrive at consensus in the face of false teaching and heretical truth claims, it has been led by the Spirit to affirm a set of core beliefs which have sustained it for two millennia. This is not a private matter; we are all “group product,” sustained and nurtured within the bosom of the Church. “Private opinions” are often the stuff of heresy. This does not mean that the truth is not sometimes held by the minority, but to think outside of a respectful listening to the whole of the Christian tradition is to live irresponsibly. It is an adolescent, not an adult, disposition. (I'm not saying YOU exhibit this disposition, I'm just making the point that there is not much to be gained and a great dela to be lost by minimising the importanc eof somethign like the Nicene orthodoxy and from feeling that each generation must discover the truth for itself.

Having said all of this I do take your point that when leaders of established churches stifle experimentation in thought and practice they are acting unhelpfully and somtimes cruelly. When people leave the established churches as a result of this there is a mutual loss accrued.

Chris said...

Right Glen, the trinity is a very useful concept to understand what God's trying to tell us, but the problem is that it's only a construct, language that you use to attempt to wrap your mind around something that you cannot fully comprehend. If you think you get it, if you think your mind can wrap itself around God, think again - you don't, you can't, your human brain is not built to fully comprehend the mysteries of the universe, only to pursue understanding.

That's ok! Nobody gets it fully, not me, not you, not my wife (who understands tons way more than me), not even C.S. Lewis could wrap his mind around the bigness, the awesomeness, the hugeness of God. We use words like "trinity" or "infinite" to represent the pieces of what we're trying to understand about Him, but it will never be enough to completely understand Him. I think He likes it that way; I read John 1 and my mind warps into tiny knots, the sort that can't be undone by me.

Theology, then, is something that attempts, but never quite manages to understand God. And to put that in such a high place that it is suddenly above reproach itself, that it cannot be questioned ... is wrong.

The trinity certainly does seem to make sense in light of scripture. I do not argue against that. I merely point out that it is not the Truth, it is a representation of the Truth. While it fits the evidence, it is not the whole Truth. If it was, we would effectively understand God, and if we could do that, we wouldn't need Him anymore.

Turning to your church: if you think that it's "traditional", I think you might be mistaken. Your services are simply a cultural expression, not your whole church. You say you are a very missional church, and based on what you've told me, I'm inclined to agree. Are you sure you're not defending something (the established church) that you're not a part of? I'm starting to wonder if your church, which seems to me to be quite an exception to the rule, is a missional church, not a traditional church.

As I mentioned before, just because you say you're missional doesn't mean you are, and just because you don't say you're missional doesn't mean you're not. Your church displays many traits of missional church, and while the category is a blurry one, I think you fit well enough inside the boundary.

So what does this mean? It means that you're a part of this thing. I think your church is beyond the mold of traditional evangelicalism; you multiply disciples outside your walls, rather than inside them, mission is a priority, and despite your fixation on doctrine and theology, you practice mission ... by your actions I see that you see a missional Jesus.

Moving on to your comments about the trinity: so? Studying church history is important for what we can learn from it, but we can't get stuck there. It seems to me that your fascination with it is more academic than practical. Does knowing the trinity exists make you do your mission work better? I'm not saying we should unsay anything, far from it. But I AM saying that we need to continue to work out the truth, allowing that perhaps former generations may not have gotten it right. We read them, we listen to them, we learn what we can, but then we move on. Postmodern philosophy is useful because it brings to light the fact that our perceptions shape our understanding of truth, and using that understanding, we can begin to see our own prejudices and (hopefully) remove those from the equation.

It's a foregone conclusion: different denominations often posit conflicting theology; they can't ALL be right. My own beliefs have been forming since the day I was born, and I actually spent some time as an atheist. My belief in God came when He intervened in my life, not because I'd been taught that growing up - I hated church, yet God chose to show me His face anyway. So no, I don't believe that there IS a "traditional way" for finding God ... He found me. I don't know the "basics" because they're in the Bible, I know them because I'm learning to know God firsthand.

Many cults like to twist the Bible around. So do many Christians - ever heard of Prosperity Doctrine? Despite its popularity in many evangelical churches, we don't call those churches "cults". Why is that? What, to you, qualifies as a cult?

And then you say that private opinions are the stuff of heresy. Aquinas was one man, my friend - theology all begins as the perceptions of one person before it becomes widely accepted. That's just the way it works. To say that we can't question the teachings of the church simply because lots of people think it might be right is a fallacy. Yes, the Holy Spirit intervenes and teaches us, but who decided who was the "church"? Scripture wasn't written until after the "church" started. I ask about the Mormons - lots of people agree that their theology is the correct stuff, and yet you don't think so. Who is right? Obviously they can't both be right. But I submit that both are wrong, at least, in part.

The beauty of thinking like this is that it allows us to pick and choose the pieces of many theologies that are closer to the truth and ignore the parts that are not. This also allows us to point out the places where God has blessed secular communities with bits and pieces of truth; the mormons have fantastic families (I have a few mormon friends), the Buddhists know much about silence and listening ... in Acts, Paul points out to some Greeks that the statue they had made to an unknown god was, in fact, a statue made to the One True God, and that He deserved their respect and worship. There is much we can learn by questioning our assumptions, by listening to the beliefs of others. It does not contaminate our religion by incorporating biblical values (such as silence or family values) into our faith - it strengthens it, and it allows us to put a value on the people we meet who do not believe the same things we do.

Closer to home, the same can be said between denominations and between the missional, emerging, and traditional churches. You are right in saying that there is much the emerging church can learn from the traditional church and frmo history. But the same is true in reverse - there is much the traditional and evangelical churches can learn from the missional church, and they would be wise to listen.

I ask these questions simply to question our assumptions, to pull us away from all the stuff we think we know, to make sure that we don't become complacent, thinking that we know everything. It inspires humility and awe in the face of God's greatness.

Chris said...

Right Glen, the trinity is a very useful concept to understand what God's trying to tell us, but the problem is that it's only a construct, language that you use to attempt to wrap your mind around something that you cannot fully comprehend. If you think you get it, if you think your mind can wrap itself around God, think again. It can't, the human mind was not designed to completely understand the mysteries of an infinite God.

And that's ok! Nobody gets it, not me, not you, not my wife (who understands tons way more than me), not even C.S. Lewis could wrap his mind around the bigness, the awesomeness, the hugeness of God. We're all on the same level playing field where that's concerned. We use words like "trinity" or "infinite" to represent what we CAN understand about Him, but it will never be enough TO understand Him. I think He likes it that way; I read John 1 and my mind warps into tiny knots, the sort that can't be undone by me.

Theology, then, is something that attempts, but never quite manages to understand God. And to put that in such a high place that it is suddenly above reproach itself, that it cannot be questioned ... is wrong.

The trinity certainly does seem to make sense in light of scripture. I do not argue against that. I merely point out that it is not the Truth, it is a representation of the Truth. While it fits the evidence, it is not the whole Truth. If it was, we would effectively understand God, and if we could do that, we wouldn't need Him anymore.

Turning to your church: if you think you're "traditional," I think you might be mistaken. Your services are simply a cultural expression, not your whole church. You say you are a very missional church, and based on what you've told me, I'm inclined to agree. Are you sure you're not defending a tradition that you're not actually a part of? I'm starting to wonder if your church, which seems to me to be quite an exception to the usual "traditional" rule, is a missional church, not a traditional church.

As I mentioned before, just because you say you're missional doesn't mean you are, and just because you don't say you're missional doesn't mean you're not. Your church displays many traits of missional church, and while the category is a blurry one, I think you fit well enough inside the boundary.

So what does this mean? It means that you're a part of this thing. I think your church is beyond the mold of traditional evangelicalism; you multiply disciples outside your walls, rather than inside them, mission is a priority, and despite your fixation on doctrine and theology, you practice mission ... by your actions I see that you see a missional Jesus.

Moving on to your comments about the trinity: so? Studying church history is important for what we can learn from it, but we can't get stuck there. It seems to me that your fascination with it is more academic than practical. Does knowing the trinity exists make you do your mission work better? I'm not saying we should "unsay" anything - far from it. But I AM saying that we need to continue to work out the truth, allowing that perhaps former generations may not have gotten it right, at least, not completely. We read them, we listen to them, we learn what we can, but then we move on. Postmodern philosophy is useful because it brings to light the fact that our perceptions shape our understanding of truth, and using that understanding, we can begin to see our own prejudices and (hopefully) remove those biased assumptions from the equation.

Not to mention that different denominations often posit conflicting theology; they can't ALL be right. My own beliefs have been forming since the day I was born, based on my cultural heritage, my family upbringing, my genetics ... believe it or not, I actually spent about two years as an atheist. My belief in God returned when He intervened in my life, not because I'd been taught that growing up - I hated church, yet God chose to show me His face anyway. So no, I don't believe that there IS a "traditional way" for finding God ... He found me. I don't know the "basics" because they're in the Bible, I know them because I'm learning to know God firsthand.

You say that many cults like to twist the Bible around. So do many Christians - ever heard of Prosperity Doctrine? Despite its popularity in many evangelical churches, we don't call those churches "cults." Why is that? What, to you, qualifies as a cult?

And then you say that private opinions are the stuff of heresy. Aquinas was one man, my friend - theology all begins as the perceptions of one person before it becomes widely accepted. That's just the way it works. To say that we can't question the teachings of the church simply because lots of people think it might be right is a fallacy. Yes, the Holy Spirit intervenes and teaches us, but I ask you - what about the Mormons? Lots of people agree that their theology is the correct stuff, and yet you don't think so. Who is right? Obviously they can't both be right. But I submit that both are wrong, at least, in part.

The beauty of thinking like this is that it allows us to pick and choose the pieces of many theologies that are closer to the truth and ignore the parts that are not. This also allows us to point out the places where God has blessed secular communities with bits and pieces of truth; the mormons have fantastic families (I have a few mormon friends), the Buddhists know much about silence and listening ... in Acts, Paul points out to some Greeks that the statue they had made to an unknown god was, in fact, a statue made to the One True God, and that He deserved their respect and worship. There is much we can learn by questioning our assumptions, by listening to the beliefs of others. It does not contaminate our religion by incorporating biblical values (such as silence or family values) into our faith - it strengthens it, and it allows us to put a value on the people we meet who do not believe the same things we do.

Closer to home, the same can be said between denominations and between the missional, emerging, and traditional churches. You are right in saying that there is much the emerging church can learn from the traditional church and frmo history. But the same is true in reverse - there is much the traditional and evangelical churches can learn from the missional church, and they would be wise to listen.

I'm asking these questions not to be a nuisance or to accuse, but to honestly ask myself and you what our assumptions have been that may have blinded us from understanding thus far, where our personal histories and cultures have instilled in us un-Jesus-like thoughts, feelings, and emotions. I ask so that we may move beyond our preconceived, biased, incorrect notions and move forward, towards what I hope is a clearer understanding of the truth.

Hopefully as that happens, we'll be getting better at living like Jesus did.

Glen O'Brien said...

The length of this comments section is getting way out of hand, though the discussion is a good one, so I will continure it on a fresh blog entry soon.

alan hirsch said...

But on your open letter, it is a common complaint made of the emerging church (not emergent mind you. Emergent is an organization associated with McLaren). And some of it does stick. And because I am part of that broader tribe (though not happy with some of its aspects) let me at least say this...That as far as I can tell all new movements have an at least implied (if not overt) critique on the prevailing structures and modes. We should not be too surprised to hear complaint voiced. It is par for the course (see Snyder et.al on this) The same was of course true of Wesley and Booth. One of the even sadder things I have seen is when the established (not just traditional but also the contemporary) church actually persecutes the fledgling emerging churches. In more than one or two cases I have got a sickening impression of a mother eating her own young offspring. I know that sounds harsh, but sometimes it is not very pretty when people opt to break from a strong herding instinct--especially here in Australia where the tall poppy syndrome reigns supreme. No-one likes to hear that perhaps they have been wrong on a few important things. Almost every movement in history arises in the context of conflict over the status quo. Its part of the prophetic role of movements. The sad thing is that they do this when they are most insecure and brash...hence shouting their mouths off a tad too much.

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