Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The Next Thing

The following comes from my favorite section of my favorite periodical, First Things. The section, While We're At It, consists of short "clippings" from books, other periodicals, etc. I have compressed the following item considerably, so if you'd like the full text, visit the May 2008 issue of First Things, p. 69, or visit firstthings.com.

Part of the vitality, and the vacuity, of evangelical Protestantism is the unending and frenetic search for "the next thing." Whether it produces more vacuity than vitality is a disputed question. It is a question addressed in Telford Work's critique of Reformed and Always Reforming by Roger Olson... The next thing, the newest thing, the coming thing, according to Olson, is "postconservatism." Good riddance to conservatism, which is marked by "slavish adherence" to an "incorrigible" tradition. Let's replace it with theology as "a pilgrimage and a journey rather than a discovery and conquest" ... The sad fact is, says Work, "from political activism to the church-growth movement to the allegedly postmodern 'emerging church,' evangelicals are borrowing more than ever from late modern liberalism." Once again, the excited discovery of "the next thing" turns out to be the result of rummaging through a pile of discards in the used theology shop.


Brian Emmet said...

The genius behind "First Things" is Father R. J. Neuhaus, formerly a Lutheran pastor, now a R.C. priest, so "F.T." has a distinctively Catholic flavor. Still, it is one of the best resources out there for thinking through issues of faith and culture, even if only because it gives you a strong position with which you can strongly disagree!

smokin joe said...

oooooh.... you are picking up my habits of being "in-your-face" provocative.... good topic! I bet it will generate some conversation.

By-the-way, I LOVE First Things ... some of my favorite reading, even when I do not always agree.

chris hyatt said...

What a great topic Brian. I'm glad we finally got past the books everyone reads - was beginning to make me feel a little stupid. :)

I enjoyed reading the post, though the May issue of FIRST THINGS wasn't available online at the time of my posting. I would agree in the strongest sense to the sentiment espoused. It's a perpetual problem we all see as we try to put the gospel in a context that can be heard in a fresh way.

I used to pride myself on the notion that as a younger leader, I could challenge the establishment with a rationale for reaching the emerging generation and addressing a society that wasn't listening. The priority to do such is still with us, but I find so fewer answers in myself to meeting it. Whether we're talking about jumping aboard the latest move, or changing our approach to reach the biggest crowd, or even trying to evangelize our own offspring ... I must confess I don't know a whole lot about any of it. It makes me thankful that God didn't call us primarily to such - He called us to Himself first and foremost - and out of this relationship the divine catalyst is released to inspire, deliver, and teach a lost generation.

Two thoughts occur to me as I consider "the next thing." First, I'm glad God is patient with us when we expose ourselves to an inordinate amount of technique training, wave catching, and model chasing. He certainly knows my propensity to throw out too many babies with bath water, serve as a self proclaimed cutting edge example, and jump in the face of those slow to change. Thank you Father for your mercy.

The second thing - for all the wisdom that can be found in trying new things, it often pales in comparison to rock solid proof of a man who knows who he is, and where he stands. I sometimes go bass fishing with my father and I've watched over the years as the sport has become influenced by big money, corporate sponsors, tons of equipment and who has the latest full proof system. My dad told me about this tournament he was in where all of these bass fishermen, in their $75,000 bass boats, with hired guides, thousands of dollars worth of tackle, and as many fish tales as you could imagine, where all beaten by the most unlikely character. He didn't have a boat, but rather a one man inner tube, in which he floated not more than a hundred yards from the dock all weekend long. His simple orientation won him the prize of most fish caught. I guess it doesn't matter if we have the newest gadgets, procedures, or support - it matters if we go where the fish will bite.

I’m thinking that a lot of the people that we’re trying to reach with such new fangled approaches have such short attention spans, that if we continue down this road, we’re only going to be frustrated with shallow demonstrations of faith and non-productive followers. The ones that may bite more willingly are the ones that nobody is fishing for.

Lastly - excuse my repeating some of this post on my own blog for those I'm trying to stay accountable with - I have so few occasions of inspiration, I have to recycle when necessary. :) Blessings to you brothers.

Brian Emmet said...

And yet God is the one who makes all things new, who does new things. How do we avoid falling into the trap of "the next thing" while not missing out on "the new thing"?

Thanks, Christ, for the bass story (along with the rest of your comment). While it doesn't always work out that way--oftentimes the high-tech, high-money guys will fish the pants off the guy in the tube, and in that sense "win"--it is nice to hear stories like the one your dad shared. Maybe part of the point for this discussion is what is missed or lost when we go the $75,000-boat-hired-guide-latest-gadget approach?

smokin joe said...

wait... I'm confused! who told the story about bass fishing? Was that Christ? or Chris? I think I finally caught the Harvard English major in a minor typo...

Good thoughts Chris. And Brian, I am grateful you made the distinction between the "next" thing and the "new thing" ... that is helpful for me. I have no interest in the next "hot" thing ... the next trend, although I enjoy tracking and observing trends.

I am interested in the new thing ... I don't want to get stuck, or die in the dessert. I want to follow the cloud and the pillar of fire. How does the reforming church continue to reform itself without falling into cultural trendiness? How does the bride get her spots removed and wrinkles ironed? It probably has something to do with faith working through love.

chris hyatt said...

New vs. next! A wonderful perspective. Thank you.

Secondly, Van Watkins always used to say that I was "one letter shy of Christ," to which my response was, "Yes, but that letter was the one that looks like a cross."

Its with healthy dose of fear that add this additional spell check on Joseph's comment. I wouldn't mind being 40 years in the DESSERT, especially if I can get the DESSERT with ice cream on top.

John M. said...

Speaking of "new", it's interesting to know, Brian, that Christ is still telling parables...!

Chris, that Dessert idea does sound good. I wonder if there's a way we can get God to add the extra "s"?

I have some thoughts which I'll save for an hour that is not so close to bedtime.

If anyone is interested, the book Brian's post refers to "Reformed and Always Reforming", is being summarized a chapter at a time on Scot McKnight's blog.


smokin joe said...

so far, I don't think this conversation is going on the direction that Brian intended. Sorry Brian...I'll try to give Telford Work's critique of Olson some serious thought.

Randy R. said...

Sorry to not add to the mix, may plate has been very full of late, but I agree . . . EXCELLENT question, Brian. Next week my load lightens a little, and I hope to check out the website and share any reflections that might help the discussion. I FREQUENTLY reflect on this whole matter.

By the way, I always had trouble with desert and dessert, then someone told me that dessert is two "s" in it, because you always want seconds of dessert. Of course I am sure all of this super intelligent group already knew that! It was probably just typo from an astute PhD candidate, and certainly the Harvard graduate's error could only be an oversight; although, I did like Chris' response about the "t." Cool!

Brian Emmet said...

For me, the engaging part of this piece was Work's observation "from political activism to the church-growth movement to the allegedly postmodern 'emerging church,' evangelicals are borrowing more than ever from late modern liberalism." I am not familiar with Telford Work, and have not read Olson's "Reformed ansd Always Reforming," to which Work was responding, but I found intriguing the idea that what we think at the time is so avant garde/cutting edge often turns out to be retreads. I got interested in distinguishing between "the next thing" and "the new thing" (i.e., the new thing that God is doing)--how do we tell them apart? Does it seem to anyone else that much of the "emerging church" conversation sounds like early 20-th century mainline Protestantism (of the social gospel variety)? I do not mean to say that that would therefore rule it out, but do feel that oftentimes we're celebrating the reinvention of the wheel.

John M. said...

Is there anything "new" under the sun?

The Kingdom scribe brings out of his storehouse things both old and new.

I think the key is to discern what the Spirit is saying to the Church and to the larger cultural context.

I'm in my annual practice of reading the missions book "Bruchko" out loud to my 7th graders. In today's reading Bruce Olson was recounting the incredible and rapid development that took place among the primitive Motilone Indian tribe in Columbia even before they became followers of Jesus.

He gave two reasons for this phenomenon. The first was cultural sensitivity, and the second was the work of the Holy Spirit. After four years Bruce was still struggling with how to verbally communicate the Gospel to the Motilones. But in hindsight he sees that the Holy Spirit was at work bringing newness and transformation before there was a single professed follower of Jesus.

As the book progresses, he discovers that the Spirit of God had been active in the tribe for generations creating legends and stories that prepared them for Bruce's coming and for the reception of the scriptural good news that he carried in his "banana stalk" (You'll have to read the book!)

My point is that the Holy Spirit is at work "out there", and also in our hearts. The important thing is not being on the latest bandwagon, be it "emerging", "neo-evangelical", "post-foundationalist", "missional" or whatever.

The important thing is that if we listen to, are filled with, and are responding to the "slow burn" of the Spirit within our hearts, we will be experiencing the fresh, new, "cutting edge" that He is creating and initiating.

Our hearts will resonate and cry, "Yes!" and they will converge and coalesce into his present purpose for His people and those who are His that don't know it yet.

Whatever the source of the present emphasis, whether retreaded or recreated, it is touching and invigorating those who have not touched it before, so it is "new" to and for them.

So, God, where are you moving? What are you breathing on? What are you doing within our line of sight and vision? Please, let us get in on that "new" thing.

We should not be so concerned about whether something has been used and discarded in the past, or whether it's being recycled within a new generation. The important thing is that we discern whether this is of man or of God.

If the Master is pulling things out of the storehouse, be they old or new, we should fully embrace them and move with His activity. The key is the ability to discern the times and what the Spirit is saying.

God deliver us from the bandwagon and the next big thing. Help us to spread our wings and catch the wind.

chris hyatt said...

John, Thank you for your post. I was so blessed to read it. I was also reminded to pick up my copy of "Bruchko" again.

smokin joe said...

excellent JOhn...

Brian, I have not really given a serious response to your post yet. Just had my last class, last night ...and we are up and out the door this am to drive to a history conference in Tampa, and another in Gainesville on Sat. I will take my copy of FIRST THINGS with me and I promise to get back with some thoughts on this. Blessings,

Brian Emmet said...

I came across something I hadn't noticed before. In Acts 15, as the church debates the inclusion of the Gentiles, after Paul and Peter's reports, James stands up and quotes from Amos 9 (cf. Acts 15:16-18 and Amos 9:11-12). In standard NT fashion, James provides an interpretive gloss on Amos. James' point is that Amos' point is that "the remnant of men may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who bear my name"--in other words, there are Gentiles who "bear God's name," but are probably unaware that they do until the Gospel is proclaimed and they respond in/by faith to it. I think we've forgotten what a momentous occasion Acts 10 and 15 represent--why is there no holiday/holy day marking this occasion?

Brian Emmet said...

I'm thinking of well of the contrast between evangelical vitality and evangelical vacuity. Chasing the next thing is inevitably vacuous, but being in God's new thing is vital, and vitalizing.

But God's truly vitalizing work does not always feel vitalizing, especially at first! I think that may be one way to help discern between the vital and the vacuous: I may say that when I have certain experiences (of church, of community, etc.) "I really feel more alive, more energized, more truly myself" -- but need to understand that that response may be telling me more about me than about my faithfulness.

John M. said...

Brian, I just read an article that parallels your idea about the "new" and "emerging" ideas being retreads of modern, liberal protestantism.

It is by Michael Cline and can be found on a website called the "Jesus Manifesto". http://www.jesusmanifesto.com/

Here is a quote: "When I see Christianity (fundamentalist, progressive, liberal, or any other type) get behind a movement or person, I can usually rest assured that we are at least two years late and five feet short. Rather than express Christian revelation in a way that is specific and adequate to the social realities in which we live, as Jacques Ellul writes, the Church too often “looks for ways to adapt Christianity to the dominant intellectual and sociological trend.” As a result, we guarantee ourselves a “small place in the new social order.”

The title of the article is, "The New Christians' Kool-Aide", and is under the category "Doxis" with a thumbnail pic of Obama beside it.

Brian Emmet said...

Thanks, John--I'll read it. This is school vacation week for us, so I'm feelin' footloose and fancy-free!

I'd love to see some of those auditors (i.e., those who are "listening") to put fingers to keyboards and move this conversation along.

smokin joe said...

yes, Brian, it seems that many others have gotten busy and dropped by the wayside.

I'm still thinking about your question. Probably a sign that it is a good question.

I would point out that most of the things some of us are critical of where the "next thing" not long ago. Other practices that we are not happy with may have been the "next thing" 500 years ago, or even a thousand or more.

The "new" thing must be the thing that is initiated or generated by the Spirit... the "next" thing must be a humanly generated "good" idea, rather than a "God" idea.

Makes me not want to to anything...until the H.S. grabs my attention and says "Hey Stupid...I have a mission for you IF you choose to accept it..."

We just got back from Gaineville. I was participating in a history conference at U.F. This morning, our hostess broke down in tears and shared her precious grief with us over the death of her husband ... it was a healing time for her. Perhaps a "new" thing?

Brian Emmet said...

God's "new thing" is always, at least in some ways, "the same thing" that God has always been doing--creating, sustaining, judging, redeeming, restoring. Your encounter with the woman sounds "new" in the sense that it took place "outside" of "normal channels", but "old" in the sense that God cares for widows in their distress. The leadership and initiative of the Spirit are key... but at the same time, we don't need a "word from God" to extend care to widows in their distress. Glad the time in G'ville was good, and esp. that you had that encounter with the woman in grief. The most significant things we'll ever do probably will not be accompanied by applause, notice, or even "great results"! As Mother Theresa said, "God does not require us to be successful, only faithful."

smokin joe said...

she also told Malcolom Muggeridge, when asked about the millions of people that she could not help, that "God only counts by ones."

I find that we have been trained, perhaps by the church growth movement, or the American success mentality to think in terms of the masses... however, loving and ministering to one person at a time seems to be more in line with the Jesus-style approach.

Since we went to Brazil last summer, I have been thinking a lot about the reasons why Jesus normally asked the recipients of his healing love to keep quiet. His response to mircales of power and healing with directly the opposite of most contemporary believers, especially those that specialize in healing on TV.

This puts me in a bit of a quandary in terms of newsletters and updates ... how do I offer some level of accountability to those who support our ministry, while at the same time guarding confidentiality with those to whom we minister, and even more importantly, guarding myself from ulterior narcissistic motives to make myself look like the "hero" of the story?

John M. said...

Thanks Joseph. Good questions and observations. Your comment that one-on-one ministry without the flashey, "newsletter" material is closer to Jesus ministry helps me this morning. Interesting how one's mind so easily deviates from a scriptural perspective to one formed by the culture around us.

Brian Emmet said...

There's clearly no problem with reporting back to friends and supporters--Philippians is likely the first "missionary thank-you letter" and Paul and Barnabas regularly ended one of their trips with a report to the folks who sent them out.

But we're up against something different: fund raising. Joseph comes at it from one perspective; John and I come at it from the school perspective. (I'm probably going off topic here, but maybe not...)

I wonder about the whole way we go about raising (needed!) funds for good ministries. I'm far from expert, but this seems to be (yet another) area where Christian practice is indistinguishable from that of nonreligious nonprofits. "Donors want to back winners," we are told, "they want to fund effective organizations that can demonstrate that they're getting results." It's basically the same speech that the Ford Foundation or the United Way would give to potential donors.

I have a friend who just got a job teaching at an Episcopal school--the annual elementary tuition is $19,000/student! And I'm pretty sure that they can prove they're getting results--how could you not at $19K/kid? Money certainly flows towards what is perceived as successful and effective.

But is this an expression of the vitality of evangelical approaches to funding, or the vacuity of it?

Or is this just grumpy old men, who have trouble getting funded, just being grouchy and cynical?

smokin joe said...

grumpy old men probably ... or wait! maybe it is a paradigmatic change in how finances should be handled... hmmm.... do we know of any young man or woman in our circles who is getting a theological or divinity degree and hoping to be "in full-time minmistry"?

smokin joe said...

now I am talking to myself ... so this is what it has come to? instead of "us 4 and no more" ...is it now done to "just me, I gotta go pee?"

since my last comment was short ... I think the next thing will probably be tentmaking ... it is not a "new" thing since St. Paul already modeled it, and some Moravian missionaries updated it by selling themselves into slavery to pay for their mission to the Caribbean. Almost all the young people i know who are called into ministry are preparing themselves with secular university degrees or are starting businesses.

essentially, that it also what I am trying to do, although I feel a day late and a dollar short.

We have some good models out there in our midst: Jeff Rohr, Mike Tomko. Also John Meadows.

John M. said...

Grumpy old men... I'm not touching that one!

The problem with tent making is that it takes all my time and energy to make the tent!

smokin joe said...

hence the need to 'keep it simple', work in teams of at least two, focus on long-term fruit rather than quick numbers and to avoid pastoral entanglements (dependency) at all cost (Nee) by empowering believers to practice mutual 'one-another' care. Also, probably not a bad idea to be young and energetic -- or independently wealthy!

I know, easier said than done. But now we are discussing 'the work' rather than 'the church.'

Brian Emmet said...

Hmmm... it may not be true in our immediate circle, but it seems to me that there are still lots of folks preparing for "full-time ministry", typically in a "church" context. I think there's also LOTS going on outside that paradigm, but I don't have the sense that seminaries are becoming extinct. They are changing, rapidly (distance/online learning, second-career students, etc.) but the basic seminary paradigm seems intact...unless I'm missing something? Of course, much/most of any "new paradigm" stuff may well be occurring under the radar.

steve H said...

I missed you guys in Gatlinburg. I had to leave early because my wife's sister-in-law died (the wife of her brother who died last month). The DVD presentation on "My Glorious Brothers" and Coach Booty was worth the price of the conference. Although we would not take the same approach the Mark Hoffman's (Foothills Christian Church in El Cajon, CA; author of "The Joshua Principal")challenge to make every effort to reach youth at age 12-14 (or even a couple years earlier) was enlightening, convicting, and convincing. I saw the need for that a few years ago and failed to follow through. I must!

A number of the younger bloggers were there.

Joseph, I smoked a couple cigars in your honor while there. They were not nearly as good, however, without your presence.

smokin joe said...

I dunno Brian ... I think the evidence tends to the contrary, but I might be wrong. I think we are looking at a scenario similar to Europe in 25 or 30 years ... I think Gary and Dow would agree with me, based on conversations I have had with them.

Hi Steve, I'm sorry I was not able to be there. I hope to make it next year. Glad you were able to think of me while smoking a cigar.

John M. said...

Hey Steve, welcome back. I've missed you. Sorry about another death in your family. Joseph, Brian and I have been lamenting that we seem to be the last three bloggers standing on Convenant Thinklings. I guess there are still a few out there -- at least you. Keep the comments coming.

Regarding the 12-14 year olds. That's the good thing about my "tent-making" -- actually I consider it my current vocation, not tent making. Anyway, the "tent" I labor "on" or "in", however you want to see it is that very age group.

And I definitely do it for "ministerial" pay, so maybe I'm still in "full-time" ministry. (Please don't come back with the, "All vocations are ministry." comments. I already believe that!)

Regarding the seminary issue. Many (most) seminaries don't seem to be lacking for students, but my question, Brian, is how many of them are preparing for the traditional pastorate? Someone needs to do a survey to find out. Has Barna already done it?

But my impression is that they are not. Of those I currently know in a seminary or divinity school (admittedly not a large number) none of them have aspirations of pastoring.

chris hyatt said...

One of my recent goals has been to talk less and listen more. I have been following suit in my "online activities" but be assured, I'm "listening" on Covenant Thinklings, even when I'm not "saying a word." Steve I heard the time in TN was a big blessing from several friends.

Increased Rest and rejuvenation to you Joe as you wrap up your semester. I'm still enjoying John's earlier comments from the blog - alot of chew on for me. And Brian, as usual, is a stellar example of focus and wit. Thank you for all your inspiring thought.

smokin joe said...

cool beans Chris ... glad to know that you are tracking along ...

John, I agree with you about the seminary issue ...another question is how many people graduating with some kind of M.Div, or M.Th can actually find paying jobs in pastoral ministry on which they can adequately support their family? I would need both hands to count the guys i know who have M.Div's and could not get a pastoral job with an adequate salary ... one is bagging groceries...another is terrified that he is about to get fired from a mega church because he is not producing the numbers, another is a chaplain for a hospital .... another is in the armed services ...and so on. These are mostly guys outside our circle....

and here in Miami ... I helped start a pastors prayer fellowship and participated in it for ten years. Out of about 20 pastors I know (most of whom started their own churches) all but one are struggling financially and skirting on the edge of burn-out .... the one that is not struggling financially is the pastor of a mega-church that is growing by drawing people away from my other friends churches (no big surprise that he does not go to the prayer meeting) and he is struggling emotionally and spiritually and .... you guessed it! skirting on the edge of burn-out ....

Brian... I know we have had this conversation before and we will probably not ever come to an agreement. Perhaps the church in Boston is WAY different than the church in Miami ... but every single anecdotal impression I have had over the last 15 years tells me that the church in the U.S. is in HUGE trouble.... especially with younger people born after 1980 or so ... and statistics from Barna, George Gallup, Focus on the Family and the research on religion in American institute that Jamie referred us to a month or two ago (not totally sure of the name) ALL strongly confirm my concern .... not to mention my own personal experience.

so... I would argue that the "next thing" is the continuing decline of institutional religion in America ... and as far as the frantic groping for alternative models such as "simple church", "house church", etc, I would say rather more pessimistically than John, I am dubious of the long-term effectiveness of these "out of the box" models....especially when they are treated as a "quick fix."

Robert might have a more encouraging report from the vibrant Anglican communion led by the third world bishops... but my take is "get ready for tent making in Babylon" and learn to engage people in a secular, pluralist, post-christian environment without being adversarial...the Daniel model. Maybe not in Kentucky right away...but certainly in Miami, and I would think in Boston.


Brian Emmet said...

Always good to hear from everyone, with special greetings to Steve and Chris. Hey, for a bit there it was looking like we'd need to say, "Always good to hear from ANYONE!"

Gents, my point was not that everything is peachy with the church in the US because the seminaries appear to still be full, but rather that there still seem to be lots of folks preparing for a future that may no longer exist (i.e., traditional/typical "pastor" roles). And if many/most seminarians are consciously heading in 'non-traditional' directions, that's OK with me!

(See, Jospeh, I have been paying attention to you! Light can shine even in the darkest of spots!)

GK Chesterton said (and pardon if I've already cited this): "At least six times in her history the Church (here he would mean the RC Church) has been judged to be going to the dogs... but each time, it was the dogs that died." Not an exact quote, but captures the heart of GKC's comment.

I've devoted the last 23 years of my life to daily work with kids between 5 and 13... let's see what kind of fruit is borne over the next 23 years from that. I'm not saying this is order to elicit a "Way to go!" from you, but more along the lines of feeling that I often end up backing up into something that God seems to be interested in. If and when I have been in the right place at the right time doing the right thing in the right way (if that has EVER happened!), it has never been because I was smart, spiritual, prayerful, committed, holy... there is a certain wonderful humor to the grace of God, eh? I'm not down on prayer, holiness, pursuing God, commitment, etc., but more along the lines of the Psalm, "Not to us, O LORD, not to us but to your name be the glory, because of your love and faithfulness (115:1).

smokin joe said...

yes, Brian, essentially I agree with your main point. I think we are each focusing on a slightly different aspect of the problem. I am focusing on what’s wrong with the current church in the USA and Europe (and I believe there is something seriously wrong with it) and you are focusing on the goodness and faithfulness of the one who is the head of the church who will not abandon us ... which I whole heartedly agree with!

I would love to have specific dates for the six times the Chesterton is referring to in order to look at those points historically. Obviously, each time God moved and did something ... but whatever that something was, must have involved human agency.

I believe that when things are starting to go wrong ... there is a necessary place for constructive criticism ... call it "prophetic" if one prefers biblical terminology.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of the Reformation, without Luther throwing his fit (here I stand...I can do no other) it is unlikely that there would have been a R.C. counter-reformation, or that there would have eventually been Vatican II.

At all of these critical points in history, there have been a handful of men and women who have spoken the truth in love, and take some kind of redemptive steps (by God's leading).

What steps need to be taken now? I cannot accept that we are just to play out our hand, tread water and "be faithful" while leaving the status quo undisturbed. At the same time, I realize there is very little anyone of us can do other than our own individual obedience.... perhaps small stones starting an avalanche?

I just think it is a real shame for us to have to watch the deterioration of American Christianity and do nothing about it, although I realize there is little we can do. It seems to me that is just leaving the problem for those who are coming along behind us.

What to do? My own response is to engage in what I think is constructive and critical analysis and to experiment alternative approaches to making disciples and missional engagement of secular people. That’s not much, but it is the best I can do for now.

Brian Emmet said...

You're correct, Joseph, that what I've written could be understood as advocating quietism (or "quitism," which I typed first--it isn't a word yet, but maybe should become one!) or passivity. Human agency is important--God definitely calls us into faithful, and faith-filled, action--but it's only important subsidiarily to God's initiative, which I know is not saying anything you don't already agree with.

God's response to the wreck and the ruin of the Fall was to call one man, Abraham, which doesn't seem like an appropriate response to the size of the crisis. And the way the story of Israel unfolds has its moments of glory and its centuries of failure--it hardly looks like a straight-line solution... and we know that God does some of his absolute best work between Good Friday and Easter.

I love and support you and what you're doing... John in what he's doing... Jamie, Robert, Jeff, Sean, Cindy, Dr. Sam, Chris, etc. and etc. I don't mean by this an every-man-for-himself approach... maybe it's affirming the importance of each of us and all of us being faithful, faithful, faithful to what we believe God has given us to do, and to hold the results with and in humility. If the modern world (including "Christendom") can be pictured as having paved over the human enterprise with 10-foot-thick concrete, there are nevertheless tiny green shoots working their way up through the cracks in the concrete... and in many cases, actually making the cracks they then work their way through. I'm not sure that any one kind of seedling will prove to be THE right one, so let's try to keep watering and nurturing whatever we can.

Too long, I know, but it's a quiet Sunday afternoon!

smokin joe said...

well said, Brian.

I might add that I think that the Covenant guys have doen a better than average job of 'keeping the faith' and not falling into the competitive religious free market trap ... hence our lack of church growth. In that sense, lack of growth is a sign of spiritual health and commitment to care.

I suppose there are some young Martin Luthers, Wesleys, Zinzindorfs, John the Baptists Abrahams, and Daniels out there, probably in the young generation, wrestling with the call of God to reform, revive, revitalize, ressurect, restructrure, renew and revolutionize the church ... One or two of them might even read this blog! i just hope they hurry up! My retirement and is approaching.

smokin joe said...

I forgot to mention my hero, Pope John XXIII (Angelo Roncalli).

Robert said...

The problem with re-engaging this blog is the volume you have to read to catch the string.

BTW...those enjoying First Things will also find Touchstone Magazine as compelling. It is similar to FT in that is represents a blend of Catholic, Orthodox and Evangelical. They identify themselves as "A Journal of Mere Christianity"...obvious reference to C.S. Lewis.

I am enjoying the next thing in the form of old things that predate modern liberalism (and conservatism)and are packed with rich theology, emphasis on the sacred and a recovery of sacramental think. Some wonder about ordered worship...codified prayers...creeds. The difference between a river and a swamp is that one has banks.

Brian Emmet said...

Thanks, Robert, and thanks for the recommendation on Touchstone--I'm aware of it, mean to get to it, but... It turns out someone at Kathy's gym leaves copies of it in the communal magazine pile, so Kathy brings them home on occasion, which probably subverts the purpose of the folk who left it in the first place!

Hmm, the emergent, missional church as a swamp, eh? (MY words, NOT Robert's!) I've taken my seat, with lemonade glass in hand, to enjoy the ensuing fireworks! John, would you like to light the first fuse?

smokin joe said...

I think Robert is probably right ... there are some really wierd things coming down the pike! I'm thinking about joining the Society of Friends myself, but Robert, almost persuadest thou me to become an Anglican...John and Steve, don't start on me with the E.O.! where is Martin Luther when your really need him... hehehe

don woolley said...

Wow, I agree its hard to catch up when you have sat out a while.

I'm really hopeful about the future of the church. The last couple weeks have been very encouraging. The week before last I was part of a panel discussion (all United Methodist folks) on the emerging / missional church. They are beginning to wrestle with the core questions that have to be wrestled with. We've a long ways to go, but the door is beginning to open.

Then I went to the Exponential Conference in Orlando. The main speakers were from widely different streams of the Church, but Alan Hirsch (the Forgotten Ways) was one of them. He pulled no punches in his plenary speech but afterwards tons of people bailed out of their "tracks" to come and here more from Alan in the "Missional Track." There room was packed with pastors sitting all over the floor. Alan really did a phenomenal job, as did Neil Cole, and I think in time their efforts there will bear great fruit.

Then I spoke at a larger United Methodist Church yesterday that is in a very wealthy area. I said things I thought would be difficult for them to hear about the attractional / consumeristic church but they received it very positively.

I agree with others that the self-centered institutional church of Christendom is doomed, as are many of the window dressing responses to that reality (emerging, mega, multi-site, etc.). BUT, I'm more hopeful than ever that many congregations will be able to embrace God's call to be the incarnational, missional, organic kind of church we see in the New Testament.

I just read my post, and I should get extra points for getting every buzz word in. :-)

John M. said...

Hey Robert, glad your back.

Rivers are good. Swamps are also good. Both are needed to sustain the ecosystem.

Joseph should now the value of a swamp. He lives by the Everglades.

I can appreciate and enjoy the river and the swamp, and experience the benefits of both.

OK Someone please take this forward and apply the analogy of a river and a swamp to a spiritual or ecclesial application.

In the meantime, can some song writer please pen a new worship song titled "The Swamp is Here!" or maybe, "The Mighty Swamp of God".

John the musician, are you out there?

John M. said...

Way to go Don! I'll be the first to congratulate you, since your post jumped in while I was composing mine.

Welcome back! Good to hear from you. I like your post. It's encouraging.

We tend to forget how what's happening on the margins (another buzz word these days) seeps in and causes change in the mainstream core... witness, small groups, "lay" pastoral care,the contemporary worship movement... all of which were on the margins 25 - 30 years ago.

It will be interesting to see what the end results/outcomes will be.

One encouraging thing, as Brian pointed out a few posts ago. The "dogs" always die and the Church always lives -- not the scaffolding or the decrepit structures, necessarily, but the CHURCH won't die. She's the King's Bride!

Sorry Joseph, unless the Father has the Second Coming scheduled within the next 25 years or so, we won't see all the outcomes take place. Not in time and space anyway.

But, hey, watching with the great cloud of witnesses from the grandstand of Heaven ain't a bad option!

Robert said...


EO has lots of good things to offer, not the least of which are the writings of Alexander Schmemann. "For the Life of the World" and his journals are edifying reads. My personal issue with EO is exclusivity and cultural interpretation. When any expression of the Church says they are the only real deal, I choke. When you draw lines defining who is in and who is out, it is problematic. This applies to emergent church as much as EO. If you are not doing things a certain way, you are not in.

I am for those who are busting their chops to be faithful to the Gospel. Most that I know are in the trenches seeking to be faithful followers of Jesus. We take what has been handed to us...the ancient sciptures...how those have been understood in times past with a view to being faithful in our present cultural context.

The current landscape is loaded with "think" about what constitutes Church. Much of that "think" is void of any serious theological reflection or reference to Church fathers and councils. For many, it is how they "felt" about what happened last Sunday.

smokin joe said...

hi Robert, John and Don, good comments.

Robert, could you clarify your last paragraph—not sure I was tracking with you.

I'm by no means an expert on the so-called emerging church, and I have not been very influenced by it. But, I do not have the impression that they are drawing lines to define people as "in" or "out" ... everything I have read indicates that the EC movement is extremely diverse, especially theologically. There are lots of people like Scot McKnight who are clearly Trinitarian and orthodox and affirms the historic creeds (but more politically liberal), and others who make some theological statements we would question. The main characteristic that I see among the emerging church is first a move to the left politically over environmental and social justice issues, and second a willingness to ask theological and ecclesiological questions that would not have been asked in the last generation or two, and third, a greater comfort level with pluralistic post-modern culture. Within those broad banks, there is room for both orthodoxy and heresy, and I anticipate both.

The EC is not exactly the same is the “missional” movement, although there can be overlap. I find that my thinking has migrated to a point of view that is very congruent with both the missional and the emerging church perspectives, although mostly independently of any influence from the emerging crowd.

John, great point about the value of swamps. I am planning a men’s camp-out next winter in the everglades that Brian has dubbed “Joe’s Swamp Thang” … perhaps he was being prophetic. Even the Everglades has boundaries, just 50 miles wide. Think you might be able to fly down and join us?

The problem with historic Christianity is, how do you go back in time? Once the genie is out of the bottle, how do you put it back in? We are now living in a pluralistic religious environment, 500 years after the Protestant Reformation, we can honor the creeds and some individuals can join the E.O., the R.C. or the Anglican church, but as a whole, there is no taking global Christianity back to 480 AD. Somehow, there has to be a way forward with the help of the Spirit.

Don, next time you are in Orlando for a conference like that, let me know, I might be able to buzz up there and join you.

don woolley said...

Hey guys, has any one read Pagan Christianity? I'm working on it. Its tone is not entirely helpful, but the content is worth wrestling with. Basically the authors track down where all that we call "church" comes from, and of course very little is from the New Testament.

A lot of those traditions (many of them ancient) would seem harmless but he makes a strong case that they have contributed to the corruption of our ideas of what it means to be the Church, both in forms and theologically. It's a good reference so I wanted to pass it on. Viola (sp?) is the main author but Barna is the co-author.

This would get at Robert's comments about church fathers and councils. Naturally, I'm for learning from what God has done in the past (and I recite the Apostles Creed each Sunday). But I think our ideas of church have to be held up against what we see in the New Testament. The church very quickly began getting off track after that time and I don't think we've wrestled with how much we've been shaped by all that.

steve H said...

In my "humble" opinion, there are some pretty big presuppositonal flaws in the approach to reading and interpreting church history that Viola and others like him take. As we all know, there is more than one reading of church history -- probably none is absolutely correct. That one, however, is particularly problematic -- even though I would have agreed with many of those assumptions 30 years ago. I am not saying that the book has no value at any point; however, I think Viola and others have "rewritten" much of the early history in terms of faulty presuppositions and also reactionary agendas.

smokin joe said...

can you be a bit more specific Steve?

Brian Emmet said...

Don, I'm not familiar with "Pagan Christianity," but let's not let that stop me from commenting--if I'm entitled to my opinion, aren't all of you entitled to it as well?

The Gospel always incarnates, or clothes, itself, within a given culture, so part of what history gives us is a record of those various "incarnations." Our challenge is to winnow out what is "merely cultural" from that which is eternal--for example, we're not necessarily bound by the church structure of 4th century, but I think we are bound by the ecumenical Creeds that emerged from that period--if everything is reduced to culture and context, the Gospel no longer speaks authoritatively.

I wonder if Viola and Barna don't make the mistake of viewing the "NT church" as pristine and pure, and everything since then as a devolution from that original paradisical state? I think it's better to say that every church is "a NT church"--rent by division, heresy, apathy, screwed-up values, etc. The supposedly "pristine" church of Acts quickly became the church at Corinth (a defintiely mixed bag), Galatia (ditto), Ephesus (pretty good for a while, but see Rev 2)--I think it's been a very mixed bag from the start of the operation!

The reason we have all these fights is that the NT does not clearly give one and only one model for "church." Seems like elders are important, deacons play a role, and Acts 2:42 is a pretty good summary for church life, but in terms of how we work that out in our day and culture... Since the church in Acts appears to have met in homes (although the house church folks seem to miss the point that these first Christians viewed themselves as Jews and typically participated in synagogue life), does that require that we meet in homes in order to be faithful? And would that further require us to adopt the family structures of first-century Palestine (hello, all you egalitarians!)?

John M and Robert, appreciated your back-and-forth on swamps vs. rivers. Looks like that ball is now in Robert's court to argue that rivers are a "better ecosystem model" than swamps, and I look forward to watching him paddle his way through!

Joseph, I admire your restraint over these last few comments, but look forward to your Swamp Monster self coming back out to play!

smokin joe said...

Hehehe, you are funny Brian … but I really appreciated your perspective, and I think I agree with you.

Wouldn’t it be rather enjoyable for us all to read through the same book together, even one that we don’t agree with? Maybe Viola, or even better, Hirsch.

By-the-way, Viola and Barna seem like a strange combination. I have always viewed Viola as sort of a marginal character, and a bit strident and ideological in his anti-institutional bias … I have actually never been able to persevere all the way through one of his books … perhaps Barna is moving in that direction? Maybe Barna has gotten discouraged through his research and is getting disparate.

Steve, I don’t particularly like Viola’s “tone” but I was wondering if you would elaborate more specifically on his presuppositional errors? I might have some of those presuppositions myself!

To Brian et al, I am in a weary and warm and fuzzy mood, so do not fear any verbal hand grenades. No energy this week for conflict.

I’m off to my Tuesday night “F” word WoW group …send me your prayers!

John M. said...

Good comments everyone. I'm too tired to say much tonight. Just wanted to check-in and let you all know I'm reading.

I too thought Viola and Barna made strange bed fellows (oops co-authors). I'm with you Joseph. I didn't make it through the Viola book I tried to read several years ago. I couldn't take the strident rhetoric that seemed to infer that if you didn't agree with him you were "pert near a hairy-tick".

Robert said...

"Rivers and Swamps"

Any metaphor has limits...except as used by Jesus...Shepherds, Vines, Way, Bread, etc. We will spend the rest of this earthly journey pondering the significance of those word pictures as they apply to our walk.

I introduced the concept of rivers and swamps, so I will own it. I agree, even swamps have broad boundaries determined by geography that allows them to seep no further. I lived close to one growing up and would venture into the marsh for adventures. The water was shallow, wide but not deep, smelled badly and lots of critters hung out. I remember attempting to cross the swamp in my newly acquired combat boots and became mired knee deep in muck that seemed to suck me down...quicksand of sorts.

In Colorado, I have enjoyed living close to rivers with banks that usher pristine waters from high places. The energy and power is amazing...the outcome is an incredible source that provides water for crops east and west of the Rockies.

My point is that well defined banks give direction to life giving water. Swamps are stagnant, collecting resources but providing only for local dwellers that are happy to make that their home.

That suggest a judgement...who is in the swamp and who is swimming in the river. That is clearly above my pay grade.

I expect the question will follow regarding what or who defines "banks"...we all have them in some form...informed by something. My reflections were not directed toward the thoughtful contributors to this string who are obviously doing theology.

Recent years have convinced me that many who identify themselves as Christians have little knowledge of scripture or theological formation. I did not coin the phrase "a mile wide and an inch deep"...but it gets to the point of my swamp metaphor. We have work to do in the business of spiritual formation...

I will leave it hanging open for tonight...it is late.

chris hyatt said...

I vote for the river. Of course, I find myself in a spiritual desert so just about any h2o will do - then again, sewer water doesn't sound all that appealing.

smokin joe said...

and then we could introduce the concept of swiming in the fishbowl or in the ocean but perhaps we should leave it for another conversation.

Good descriptive imagery Robert. I like the connection with 'spiritual formation' which takes it beyond ecclesial structures to the heart of the matter...which is the heart. It reminds of some of Dallas Willard's work. I know Gary has read "The Divine Conspiracy" repeatedly ... has anyone read his recent book "The Great Omission"?

He argues that deep spiritual formation (the river?) is largely missing from modern American Christianity ... something I would agree with. Also something I think our movement attempted to correct ...we were at least partially successful.

by-the-way, we had a really good time at our WoW "Jesus" discussion last night ... two new people showed up. There is lots of hunger, humor, witty sarcasm and spiritual insight happening with these kids in the midst of their cigarrettes, booze and vulgarity... just where I have always wanted to be!

steve H said...

Don -- I wrote in a hurry yesterday. I hope I didn't come across so strong that you felt I was shooting you down.

I wish I had more time to engage this discussion; however, I do want to say thanks to Brian for the insightful comments. Most of you know that I have had a growing respect for the historical church and have a concern that we have written off our heritage, believing it to be more off track than it actually has been. I don't mean to imply that we must reduplicate the past, but do believe that we must not write off "out of hand" the main stream of development in the church.

The "tone" of Viola, Edwards and others is a real concern. Also, I have come to believe the presuppostion that what we see in Acts and the epistles is a "mature church" in which all is at it should be is a faulty starting point. Rather, I believe that the New Testament church is the first growth of a plant that is not yet mature -- and still isn't based on the Eph. 4 view of a mature man.

I also have trouble with people who seem to make their interpretation of church history into a "theology" by which everything else is judged In Viola's case, any way in which the churches developed and adapted to changing needs in the years following the first few decades are seemingly rejected out of hand.

I am guessing that Barna found in Viola someone who provides a "theology" that appears to support his sociological view of the present day "reformation" in the way church is done.

I found these articles interesting in regard to the book:

Also interesting that a Mormon thinks Viola and Barna have provided a few steps toward the "true faith," i.e. Mormonism; they just haven't gone quite far enough, he says.

smokin joe said...

Steve, you will probably be amazed (and so will Brian) but I pretty much agree with you. I never did like the self righteous tone of Viola and Edwards (Gary H. knew Edwards personally, as he also did the C.C. guys who joined the E.O. and could add some juicy stuff) although I did find one of Edward's books helpful in terms of studying through the N.T. chronologically. Probably thanks to some conversations with Brian, I have tending to move away from any “purist” view of church history or church structure, although this does not change my view that we are in one of Chesterton’s moments of severe crisis for the church, at least in the West.

Here is a thought: Some guys think the answer is to go indiscriminately into the future, fully embracing social and intellectual trends while throwing out the baby with the bathwater (I’m sure some of you have suspected me of taking this position, although I really don’t think I do). Other guys want to go back into the past to a more pristine moment in church history. I have suspected some of you of that position. Some Reformed guys would love to go back to 1580s Geneva … some of us mystics like medieval Catholicism, some of you ‘patristic’ guys seem to advocate going back to 1054, 451 AD or going back to 312 AD … (east or west?). Other simple church, cross-cultural guys like Paul or myself (or Gary?) would appear to prefer going back all the way to St. Paul … or more radical yet, to the “Jesus” model. What I hear you saying Steve, is that going back to a “pure” N.T. model is an idealistic illusion and dangerous one at that.

How bout this? What if we cautiously but decisively move into a missional future, taking with us ALL of our heritage of ALL of the church in ALL of the ages of church history? That would include not only the E.O., the R.C’s that I have come to appreciate, the Anglicans, but also the Moravians, Society of Friends who were the first to oppose slavery, the Wesleyans who had such a profound impact on William Wilberforce and, along with the Baptists, helped create civil society in the United States that was conducive to democracy … and in this century the Pentecostals and later the Charismatics who have changed the face of the church forever and have exploded the church into the third world, the global south? And lets not forget our Covenant heritage from the 1970s.

It seems to me to be equally futile to try to go back to any previous stage of history and to freeze frame it as a “pure” model for today … including the “Jesus” model. On the other hand, we can study previous models to draw fresh theological insight and inspiration from every phase of church history, and every Christian tradition … especially the “seed” which is the “Jesus” model and the early church in Jerusalem (and Randy, Fred and Sean would remind us of the Hebrew root system).

This framework would seem to me to be more fruitful than arguing with one another over which classic stream of Christianity or which theological tradition is “better” or more “scriptural” and would undoubtedly provide us with the sufficiently broad but clearly defined banks needed for the river of God as Robert alluded to and would help us adapt to and engage post-modern cultural change without becoming “post-modern” … swimming effectively in it, but not “of it.” Am I making any sense here? Sorry, I went about 90 words over my self-imposed 500 word limit.

don woolley said...

It's all good.

I hated Viola's tone, and thought the book would have been better served by at least an ounce of humility. I forced myself to finish it. And like others have said, the holier than thou attitude is troubling.

Understand I am coming from a United Methodist background which peaked in the 1820's when it began the process of becoming respectible and ended up having much in common with the Anglican Church to which Wesley was trying to bring spritual renewal.

Despite the tone and overstatements and I think a few false conclusions, there is much in Viola's book that needs to be heard. Even little things like the wearing of priestly robes and how that subtly undermines "the priesthood of all believers." And the sacrament of communion going from a love feast to a mysterious ritual that must be (in my denomination) conducted by an "elder in full connection." All of these things chip away at our understanding of what it means to be the people of God. Though he doesn't ignore the dysfunction of the NT church, he does idealize the forms. But, we at least need to wrestle with the question of forms, and take seriously how those forms shape and teach us. The medium can speak a message all its own. (again, consider the robed preacher in the crows nest pulpit, teaching on the priesthood of all believers.)

Speaking of Hirsch, I went to the thing in Orlando for the purpose of meeting with him. He is so humble and accessible - a real joy to be around. We are going to parner with his Forge group in Australia to train leaders to lead missional / incarnational ministries. Its a very hands-on, action/reflection model with less of an academic/classroom focus. I'd appreciate your prayers!

thanks for letting me hang out with you guys!

don woolley said...

I didn't mean to sound like I was cricizing the Anglican church in the post above - I'm not. I'm only saying, the Methodists got completely caught up in buildings, heirarchy, control issues, etc.

John M. said...

Wow Don. Some of us talk a lot, and all the while guys like you are moving forward to actually do something! (I'm speaking primarily of myself here. There are a lot of "doers" on this blog.) More power to you in your teaming with Forge. Keep us posted on how it's going. God's blessings on all you are touching.

Robert, I like your response to the "river/swamp" thing. I'm not of a mind to defend "swamp" as a good spiritual analogy. I was feeling playful when I wrote the post. It is true that swamp and marsh land is beneficial ecologically, but I'm not sure that we should try too make much of that spiritually. There are a lot of symbolic rivers in scripture -- no swamps that I know of.

Joseph, I like what you are saying. There is a core -- "What the Church has always believed everywhere and at all times."-- that forms the basis for ecumenical Orthodoxy. That is the foundation that is in the historic and spiritual genes of every individual believer and every corporate stream of the Christian tradition.

It seems that that core would be the banks of the river that could carry us forward into the future, and include all that you were speaking of in your post.

Brian Emmet said...

I'm still back on the river-swamp thing...not wanting to push a metaphor too far, but: does a river carve out its own banks, or does it follow according to the banks that are already there? It's actually some of both;there is an interaction between the water in the river and the rock and soil of its banks, which is perhaps illustrative of some of the interactions between Christ (the river) and culture (the banks). This might also suggest that the river will flow better in some cultures than in others--some cultures may by nature tend towards the swampy.

On the other hand, the modernist approach to "tame" nature and "tame" rivers results in bad thing as well. The massive flooding along the Mississippi about 10-12 years ago was exacerbated greatly by all the dams, levees, etc. we installed to make the river do what we wanted it to. Perhpas the conclusion is humility--we can drink of the river, and canoe/raft/paddle in it, but it is not ours to direct or divert or otherwise control.

smokin joe said...

very good points! How can we bring in the idea of bringing along all of our historical heritage with us while moving forward into the future instead of backwards into the past? cargo on the raft? One can only go up stream with a motorized craft I would think ...

John M. said...

Good observations Brian.

A little more on swamps, marshes, and bayous -- all covered by the gerneral term wetlands.

Marshes are very shallow and contain grasses and herbal plants rather than woody plants and trees. They can be fresh, salt, or brackish.

Swamps are deeper and have more open water area, with trees and woody plants. They are either salt or fresh.

A bayou is a stream (creek) or lake that flows slowly through a swamp.

Sometimes rivers become swamps for part of their distance. (I bet we could come up with some metaphors with that one.)

Regarding modern manipulation of the environment, wetlands used to be seen as worthless, and many times were drained to produce more land for development.

Currently they are seen as important breeding grounds for many species of plants and animals, and as a vital part of the larger eco-system.

So, there's a brief lowdown on the swamp, marsh, wetland issue in nature.

I'll leave it to the prophets and pundits to make spiritual applications.

smokin joe said...

pundits? what pundits?

John M. said...

It sounded good with prophets. "Pundits and Prophets", has a nice ring to it, doesn't it?

smokin joe said...

this has been a good conversation thread ... so Brian, whats next?

by-the-way, here is the wikipedia definition of pundit:

A pundit is someone who offers mass-media opinion, analysis or commentary on a particular subject area (most typically political analysis, the social sciences or sport), on which they are presumed to be knowledgeable. As the term has been increasingly applied to popular media personalities lacking special expertise, however, it can be used in a derogative manner. Pundit is also a slang term for politically biased people attempting to be neutral

John M. said...

Hmmm... I guess I should have looked it up before I used it! I still hold that going simply on sound and "feel", it goes well with "prophets", but an Ephesians 4 ministry it is not!

steve H said...

Maybe it depends on who is calling himself a prophet as to whether the two are connected or not. I suspect some so-called prophets may be pundits after all.

Brian Emmet said...

New post up!

smokin joe said...

Steve H.: how right you are! and some of the prophets are looking for the "profitic" annointing...