Monthly Archives: March 2009

Unity in Diversity: The Church Emerging

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There is something wonderfully exciting happening across the globe.  This past weekend I attended the Emerging Church Conference hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  While the conference did not answer all my questions about the Emerging Church, I realized why I still have so many questions.  As one speaker suggested, it would be better to describe what is happening as “the church emerging” since this conversation is simply trying to articulate what is happening around the globe.  It is something that is happening as we speak, not something that can be well defined and described.

Let me set the stage.  The conference as organized by a Catholic group that stresses the contemplative life and a life devoted to social justice.  The speakers included Evangelicals, Episcopalians and Catholics.  The conference sold out with nearly 1,000 in attendance and was webcast around the world.  There was every age, every denomination, and every state along with friends from around the world.  This is the picture of the church Emerging.  It is a church beyond denominational affiliation.  I personally attended the conference with a seventy year old Roman Catholic friend who has contributed significantly to my spirituality over the years.    As Shane Claiborne (one of my favorite authors) said, “The goal is to harmonize not homogenize.”  There was such beauty in our diversity and the entire conference celebrated the beauty that each tradition has contributed to Christianity.  The tree in the photo was the backdrop on the stage throughout the conference and it beautifully illustrates our kinship. 

 I think this image is particularly powerful for me because of the journey that has shaped me.  I grew up un-churched, came to faith in Christ in an ELCA Lutheran Church at the age of 26, served on the staff of a non-denominational Evangelical church for many years, went to a Baptist Seminary, am a member of a Methodist church and have received much of my spiritual direction and formation from Catholic Saints both living and deceased.  I am the product of this new way of experiencing the faith and I see the beauty in every tradition. 

What I learned from the conference is that the Christian churches can be divided into roughly four quadrants; Evangelical, liturgical, social action, and Charismatic/Pentecostal.  All of these ways of doing church have value and each contributes to our faith formation, but God is far bigger than our human constructs.  No faith or combination of faith traditions can fully grasp the mystery of God.  God is far bigger than our dogmas and doctrines.  This conversation is not seeking to build a new “denomination” but is simply recognizing that our old denominational boxes have been expanded because we have come to see that all Christian traditions have value.  We heard from an Evangelical who has rediscovered the richness of the monastic tradition and has started an intentional community built on this understanding.  I met an Episcopal priest who does bible studies in bars in her city because she recognizes the hunger people have for a deeper understanding of God.  I met a Roman Catholic woman who sounded more like an evangelical in her call to connect young people to the gospel through on-line communities.  What I saw in all these participants is the same spirit that gave birth to Embrace; a willingness to carry the message beyond the walls of the church into the lives of people outside the walls. 

Before this conference I was not sure how Embrace could be a part of this conversation.  However, I found that one of the four foundational practices being championed through this conversation is social justice and in particular “care of the poor”.  I have no desire to “start” an emerging church.  However, I do feel called to help the church in Richmond “emerge” from behind the walls and simply live the gospel by living as Christ did; among the poor and oppressed in our world and to do so by uniting the entire body around that mission.

The one thing that was echoed in every one of our sessions was the need to return to Jesus as the center of our faith; to stop worshipping dotrinal formulas, the church, or even the bible.  The goal is not to grow “the church” but advance the Kingdom and the Kingdom is now, on this earth, as we seek to bring heaven to our deeply broken humanity.  We do this as we seek to follow God’s will through prayer and contemplation, as we share the teachings of Christ,  as we build true authentic communities where all are welcome and loved, and as we fight for justice in the world.  Those four foundational practices with the person of Jesus Christ found in the four gospels as our guide is the foundation of the Emerging Church conversation as it was explained to me.

There are many voices making contributions to this conversation and as would be expected, others are adding to and taking away from this understanding but from what I saw this week, the vast majority of people engaged in this conversation are simply seeking to live in a way that is consistent with their understanding of the Christ we find in the gospels.   For many, this looks much like the Acts 2 church with a return to small gatherings of followers as a means of living out the faith in community.   My prayer is that I too will be free to live in this simple way and will find fellow Christians who truly seek to live the incarnation in radical and simple ways.  I am not sure where this desire will lead me personally but professionally I was encouraged and affirmed by the sisters and brothers I met on this journey.  I felt at home for the first time in a long time.  It was a beautiful experience to realize that all over this world the church is emerging!

“My prayer is not for them alone. I pray also for those who will believe in me through their message, that all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe that you have sent me. I have given them the glory that you gave me, that they may be one as we are one”  John 17:20-22

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What is the Emerging Church?

Next week I am headed to New Mexico to an Emerging Church Conference hosted by the Center for Action and Contemplation.  I posted this fact on my facebook page and one of my friends asked “What is the emerging church?”  I have been following the emerging church conversation off and on for about seven years and I honestly still do not know how to answer that question.  It has come to mean a lot of things to a lot of people but I think the one consistent theme I have seen is a type of deconstruction of the Christian faith that is causing many to ask new questions.  It is a conversation that is asking, “What is the fundamental core of who we are as Christians?  When you strip all the non-essentials away, what is left?” At least that is what the conversation has been like for me.  As I said, it means a lot of things to a lot of people.  The cool thing is that no one owns this conversation and there is no “right” answer to this question.

In this search for the essence of what it means to be Christian in today’s postmodern culture, I have found my personal understanding of the Christian faith being echoed in the Missional Church Movement.  This movement has been shaped by the emerging church conversation but I believe it adds a very distinctive voice to the conversation.  Within the Missional Church movement you tend to find small gatherings of Christians seeking to live in an authentic way, not mega clusters of luke warm believers content to warm the pews.  Those dedicated to missional movement tend to be Christians who are committed to Christian growth and maturity, not simply for the sake of growing in understanding but because they believe that to truly follow Christ demands that they be in service to the poor and oppressed in our community.  Missional Churches take seriously Jesus words in Luke 4:18

  “The Spirit of the Lord is on me,
      because he has anointed me
      to preach good news to the poor.
   He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners
      and recovery of sight for the blind,
   to release the oppressed,
    to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”

In the past several years, I have met a number of individuals who believe that to truly be a Christ follower, you must be willing to leave the comfort of your own community and follow Jesus into the margins of society.  Granted they are few and far between, but they are among the most fascinating, real, alive people I know.  The amazing thing is that when you are willing to follow Christ into places of darkness, you find that the Holy Spirit is there to meet you in mysterious ways.  You find that Christ truly does dwell more powerfully with the poor than with the rich and you discovery the mystery of Matthew 25:40; the very real tangible presence of Christ in the least.  I do not believe we are called to care for the poor solely for their sake but that we are called to care for the poor because in so doing we are transformed and we come to know Christ in a way that only the poor can reveal to us. 

 I believe until we are willing to do this, we will continue to fill our churches with bench warmers who see the church as just another consumer driven activity, jumping from church to church, seeking the best program, the best preaching, or the best youth ministry.  The role of the church is not “to meet our needs” but to prepare us, strengthen us, and equip us to be bearers of hope in a broken world.  It is in the very act of hope bearing that we find the hope that we seek. 

Shane Claiborne in his incredible book “Irresistible Revolution” writes “It looked like some time back we had stopped living Christianity and just started studying it.”  For some Christians the faith is all about biblical knowledge, for others it is about inner peace and healing, but for those who take seriously the call to be a blessing to the world, the core message of the faith is that God became flesh and lived among us and through the giving of the Holy Spirit we become Christ incarnate in this world.  We are to live our faith, not study it, worship it, or stand on it. The missional movement is a wake up call to all Christians who believe that the Christian faith is more than an hour on Sunday, it is more than giving of our tithes and offerings, it is more than bible studies, Sunday School classes and small groups; it is about making a very real tangible difference in the lives of people and in our community. 

It is about transforming the world that exists today in all its brokenness into the likeness of the kingdom to come.  For this reason Jesus taught us to pray “They kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven.”    Christ is alive redeeming the world, healing the brokenness, and comforting the afflicted through believers who by the power of the Holy Spirit follow after him and believe in Jesus words in John 14:12 “I tell you the truth, anyone who has faith in me will do what I have been doing. He will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.”  I pray some day, I will be counted among the faithful who had the courage to follow Jesus with my whole heart.

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Just READ the book!

Recently a staff member of mine got very frustrated with a conversation I was having with another staff member about Christian denominations.  He said “Why does it matter what denomination people are!”  My response was “If I know a churches denomination; I can figure out what lenses they use to interpret scripture.”  My friend was not satisfied with my answer and forcefully said “Why don’t Christians just read the book, it is that simple.”  Oh if only….

My frustrated friend is a very strong believer in Alcoholics Anonymous and will tell you that it is in AA that his life was saved, quite literally.  It is in AA groups where individuals read from the AA “big book” that he found the support he needed to connect to a loving God and to reorder and reorient his life toward God.  It is in AA, not the church, where he found the healing he needed.  When I asked my friend what would happen if someone read out of the big book and interpreted something differently than another member of the group.  He said “Well of course people all read things differently, so what.  The problem with churches is that they have concentrated so much power and authority at the top.  You should just read the book!” 

I remember thinking my friend was overly idealistic.  The Church could never be that simple.  But then I read this post by Richard Rohr in his daily reflections this week.

“The spirituality behind the Twelve Steps is a “low Church” approach to evangelization and healing that is probably our only hope in a suffering world of six-and-a-half billion people. Do we really need to verify belief in atonement doctrines and the Immaculate Conception when most of God’s physical, animal and human world is on the verge of mass suicide and extinction?Our suffering is psychological, relational and addictive: the suffering of people who are comfortable on the outside but oppressed and empty within. It is a crisis of meaninglessness and the false self, which had tried to find meaning in possessions, prestige and power. It doesn’t work. So we turn to ingesting and buying to fill our empty souls.

The Twelve Steps walk us back out of our addictive society. Like all steps toward truth, they lead downward.

Bill Wilson and his A.A. movement have shown us that the real power is when we no longer seek, need or abuse power. Real power is not at the top but at the bottom. Those who admit they are powerless have the only power that matters in the world or in the Church. Saint Bill W., pray for us.”

from Radical Grace: Daily Meditations, p. 315, day 327

(Source: Radical Grace, “The Twelve Steps:
An Amazing Gift of the Spirit”)

 

 

Perhaps my friend is onto something.  What if as the church we just got together, read the book, tried to live what it says, and focused on our own recovery instead of pointing fingers and worrying about our neighbors “salvation” and wasting time looking for the “right” answers.  My friend’s vision of the church reminds me of the early church described in Acts 2:42 “They devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching and to the fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to prayer.”  Maybe it really was supposed to be that simple!

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