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Grand Rapids, MI

Conversation on the Church 1

Yesterday, I had lunch with some friends, and we had a healthy conversation that was both helpful and frustrating.  I want to share a few things with you. It started out with someone mentioning the book Why We're Not Emergent: from two guys who should be.  I suggested my own critique of the book, summarizing that I thought - like most critiques of the emergent church - it was unbalanced and unfair.  I suggested that one of my great frustrations was that the book often used older books, quotes, and periphery issues to take pot-shots at this movement.  Now, of course, late 1990's and early 2000's isn't old, but in terms of the Emergent Movement it is.  In fact, take a look at this googletrends graph that shows searches starting only in 2004.


Emergent Church

There has been a lot of change and development in recent years and quick dismissals over old or careless statements doesn't represent the movement as a whole.  Now, hear me carefully... I wouldn't consider myself a member of emergent, even if I am very sympathetic to many of their thoughts and ideas.  I do love the conversation and I think some helpful things have come out of it.  Anyway...

One of the things we really began talking about was what reform was needed in the church and what real reform was happening.  It's my contention that Emergent is a renewal movement within the church, some of the renewal is good and biblical, some of it is headed, in my view, in the wrong direction.  

In any case, one thing that a friend at the table said was, "I just don't want to lose or let go of things that are important."  To which I retorted, "I don't want to hold onto things that aren't essential."  

In this sense, I can be accused of being a liberal.  Why?  Because to be conservative in many ways means to preserve the past or the status quo, being liberal means to be more open to modification and change.  If we're just talking about form here, I'm certainly a liberal.  With regards to theology, I'm more conservative.  This brings me to an important question about the appropriate stance for Christians, or are there different stances or postures for different times and issues?  Many of you know my passion for cultural engagement and transforming culture.  It's hard to do that from a conservative stance or posture.  Not impossible, just harder, and I suppose we have to ask ourselves for what end?  For what end are we preserving the past or the status quo?  For what end might we consider change, innovation, or creativity?  How do these ends or how does the telos of our faith and the identity and mission of the church define whether we are to be (culturally, liturgically) conservative or liberal?  And is it possible to be a theologically conservative cultural liberal or a theologically liberal cultural conservative?  Sure it is.  I can give you a number of examples.  Many of my friends, though, fall into one of three camps:  

  1. Theologically and culturally conservative
  2. Theologically liberal and culturally conservative
  3. Theologically and culturally liberal
Not as many people are what I would consider theological conservative cultural liberals.  Mark Driscoll (who I often disagree with) has a great analogy of one hand open (culturally) and one hand closed (theologically).  The difficulty comes, I suppose, when we begin to ask questions about the closed hand, what belongs in the closed hand, how much or how little, etc.  I think my friend was afraid that I was willing to mess with too many things in the closed hand.  Maybe, maybe not.
Again, it goes back to that wonderful phrase attributed to many, but I think it was Wesley who said it:  In essentials, unity.  In non-essentials, liberty.  In all things, charity.  The question, though, is what are the essentials and non-essentials?  That may be where we disagree.  However, the problem is usually not whether we agree with what the essentials are (at least among my friends) but rather how open we are to change or let go of things we really like that are non-essentials.  That's the hard part - in the church our tendency is to hold on to things that aren't essential with not only incredible tenacity, but with violent response to loss, heart-wrenching division, and words of anathema for those who dare ask us to change. 
Well... enough in this post.  I'll continue this conversation in the next couple of posts.