Thursday, July 31, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 5

When I try to explain missional church to people, I often begin with the distinction between church as a place where things happen and church as a people sent on a mission. Often, this description evokes the response, "Oh, then we're already missional." Indeed.

Here mission is typically being understood as "outreach," or any activity or program the church does outside its own walls. And many churches do impressive things in their neighborhoods and communities. This, however, in and of itself does not indicate that they are missional.

First, a missional church understands all of its life as mission, not just those things that typically count as "outreach." That is, a church's primary horizon of interpretation is the world, not the congregation or the interior life of the individual. This horizon applies even to those things the church does "within." For example, when worship maintains this public horizon, it participates in God's mission for the sake of the world. When congregations practice simplicity in the name of Jesus, they resist the spiritual power of consumerism that dominates our culture. This is mission as well. These are aspects of its sent life that typically get privatized or individualized.

The missional impulse is a synergistic impulse. It moves toward a holism, seeing all the aspects of a congregation's life as being intimately interrelated around mission. A congregation that has banners in its auditorium that distinguish mission, worship, and fellowship as separate categories in the congregation's life, do not yet possess a missional imagination.

Second, most churches see outreach in fairly paternal terms. It is something we do to or for others. Often, we view outreach service primarily as a door to possible evangelism or church recruitment. This turns others into prospects, people who exist only at the end of our agenda for them. Even when, however, we see outreach as an end in itself, it can still be paternalistic. We represent God and they represent those in need of God. We have the goods, they have the need. We are still seeing mission as something we do for or to others. This is different than seeing mission as something we do with others.

To see mission as a partnership with others, we have to believe that God is active outside of the church. We have to believe that the Kingdom is bigger than our institutional advancement. We have to believe that there are others who serve the interests of the Kingdom without having pledged their lives to that Kingdom. We have to believe that the Spirit of God proceeds us into the world, so that it is possible that we might truly discover something about God with others. We have to believe that we need the other to know God, even others who do not honor or worship God. In this sense, mission is not taking God to others, but finding God with and among others.

Third, and related to number two, churches invest a lot of imagination in figuring out exactly how to get new people to belong to them. I am currently working with a church who think of themselves as possessing a wonderfully thick community life. And they do. No doubt about it. They can tell story after story about how amazing their congregation is. Who wouldn't want to be a part of them? They can't figure out, in light of this, why they are declining. They're scared to death that in a few years they might not exist. This is not an unreasonable fear.

Truth is, we live in a culture where "becoming one of us" is an increasingly difficult thing to do. First, the "if we build it they will come days" are long gone. With a few exceptions, using an attractional strategy for church growth simply will not work. But even more fundamentally, in a culture that is no longer steeped in the grammar of Christianity, becoming a Christian is truly a cross-cultural enterprise. In most cases, we simply aren't equipped to help people do what is necessary to cross the ever-widening cultural gulf.

But even if we could come up with better assimilation processes (and we must), we still expect the persons least likely to do so to do all the boundary crossing. The question, "how can we get them to belong to us?" needs to be traded for the mission question, "how is it in the name of Jesus that we belong to them?"

Most churches haven't a clue about their neighbors. They haven't even begun to ask the question, "how in Jesus' name do we belong to these people?" They may have all kinds of outreach programs aimed at people like so many targets. But they have little idea how God might be calling them to give up their sense of privilege, cross cultural boundaries, and find themselves in mission with new partners.

This is the beginning of missional wisdom.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

The Spirit and Three Dimensions

I was with a group of ten congregations this weekend from the Pacific Northwest who are working together toward missional innovation using a three year process, Partnership for Missional Church. This work is particularly satisfying to me for several reasons. It gets the word missional out of the textbook and into the real lives of congregations. It allows me to engage the concrete challenges faced by these congregations. And it takes me back to the Pacific Northwest, the epicenter of my life's geography--spiritual and otherwise.

(I just feel better when I can smell a fir tree).

These congregations have been working together for a year now, and this parituclar gathering allowed time for each congregation to tell stories from the past year. I was listening to one congregational storyteller tell how the various groups of new leadership required to complete the process was causing the congregation to rethink its understanding of the role of women in leadership. Their new experience of women in a leadership role was the occasion for a reassesment of how they were reading particular texts to support particular habits. I'm interested here, not at what they eventually conclude about the role of women in leadership within their congregation, but how change actually occurs.

This past semester I did some reading in the literature on sensemaking, a fairly recent school of thought in the area of organizational theory. For the sensemaking folk, all human organizations are ultimately in the business of making meaning. To work or live together, we require shared accounts of what makes our association meaningful. This requires a shared narrative, or a shared set of authoritative texts, that allow us to make sense of our life together. Succesful organizations are those that continue to make sense of their life in light of new experiences, unsolved problems, or anamolies that simply refuse to go away.

Sensemakers refer to these anamolies as cues. A cue is something that calls into question our primary frame of reference, like the experience of women leading in ways not typical of a church's understanding of the public role of women in the church.

Often, the frame of reference in a church, or organization, is stronger than the cue and simply absorbs it or figures out a way to ignore it. When this happens, the organization has quite possibly fused its own understanding of the world with the world itself. There is no critical distance between perception and reality, and when this distance is closed an organization loses its capacity to learn.

The distance created by a cue allows for the possibility of newness. There is more than just the organization and its frame of reference. With a cue, there is a third dimension that creates the space necessary for transformation.

I've come to the conclusion that this kind of space is necessary for the movement of the Holy Spirit among God's people. Apart from cues, we are left only with the option of idolatry where we confuse reality with our own frame of reference. This is idolatrous even if that frame of reference comes from Scripture, Christian history, Fox news, or some other unimpeachable authority.

This does not mean that every cue, or every new experience, should be allowed to have its way with our previous frame of reference. But it does mean that apart from a third dimension, there is no opportunity to test the spirits to see if they are from God. There is simply no room for anything transcendent when the group and the frame are totally fused. There is no room for the Holy Spirit.

This means that categories of "otherness" are important for the church's spiritual vitality. The other may be a prophetic voice within the congregation, an experience of a member that doesn't coincide with the party line, a stranger who has no connection to the congregation at all, or the condition of our neighborhood or planet. This list could be multiplied. Churches led by the Spirit learn to attend to these cues, hoping to make greater sense of the Holy One in our midst. They learn the power possible with a three dimensional perspective.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Book # 3, Scripture and Discernment, Luke Timothy Johnson

I read this book under its original title, Decision Making in the Church (the current title is more descriptive of the focus of the book), at a time when I was searching for vocational clarity. Who was I in relation to the call of God in my life, and what did that calling require of me in relation to the people of God?

Three pages in that book gave me great clarity and still serve to orient my understanding of ministry. Johnson locates faith in the narrative structure of experience. We are always interpreting our life in relation to God and others. All of us, in this sense, are theologians. The church’s capacity to respond to God depends to a great extent on the recognition of every member of his or her role as a theologian.

While all have the responsibility of interpreting their life before God, some in the community of faith have the capacity to articulate more formally the theological implications being made by all in the community. These persons, Johnson describes, as practicing theologians. The practicing theologian is not simply someone doing theology in the privacy of an office and then working that theology out on the congregation. Rather, the practicing theologian is bringing to formal articulation what God is doing in the midst of the congregation.

This understanding of a practicing theologian has framed my understanding of ministry ever since. It removed from me the temptation of seeing the church as my own little theological chemistry kit, a place where I work out all my ideas, and with them all my neurotic little fantasies. It puts God’s leading back into play, and honors the experience of God among the people of God. It says, also, that theology is done within and for the sake of the congregation.
As is often the case, one good book leads to another by the same author. Scripture and Discernment led me to Faith’s Freedom. While I return to 3-5 pages over and over again in Scripture, there are whole chapters I read periodically in Faith’s Freedom. Johnson’s definitions of faith, grace, sin, and idolatry are so rich an practical.

I had heard that Johnson wrote Faith’s Freedom in a weekend in a hotel room. These people make me sick. A few years ago, I hosted Johnson at a conference and had the chance to ask him if this was true. He confirmed that it was, so I shot him in the leg. No, not really. The great thing, however, about meeting Johnson was how gracious and full of life he was. So, I decided not to hate him and continue to live out of the great pages he has given his readers.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics

Of all the things I never dreamed of accomplishing in my life, passing a doctoral exam on statistics ranks very high. Yet, here I am reporting that I have indeed accomplished this feat. It doesn't rank as high, however, on the list of accomplishments that I will boast about at a party. It ranks somewhere between being named Safety Patrol captain in fifth grade and making a perfect score on Minnesota driver's written test. I'm just saying...

Stats satisfies a foreign language requirement in my degree plan. Seriously. No, really.

Some of you aren't surprised by this, because you've taken stats or lived with a person who loved stats (I report this in the past tense because these people tend to have an enmeshed relationship with inanimate objects that makes them less than ideal roommates). It truly is a world of its own, with a language of its own, and a citizenship of its own.

I'm no master in the language of stats. I've learned the equivalent of knowing how to ask where the restroom is in Italian or German, the difference being that I could tell you the odds of my being able to find the restroom in comparison to the population at large. I could also factor in a variable like prostate health, or, perhaps political party affiliation (one of these being far more important than the other to me at this stage in my life). Safe to say that stats doesn't qualify as one of the romance languages.

My sense of accomplishment, meager as it is, was enhanced, however, by the latest issue of Newsweek which contained an essay proclaiming this as the age of the statistician. While our essayist acknowledged the well deserved, maligned reputation of statistics in the world at large, she trumpeted the ways that stats has cleared up much of the fog created by overstatements related to dna and illness. We will owe a great deal to statisticians in the very near future. I'm sure that she's right, and I can see how some of the powerful analytic models used by statisticians are ideal for judging these types of things.

Still, I am struck by the fact that this counts as a foreign language for me. Some of my scientist friends, who "prove things everyday," enjoy some of the lingering luxuries of modernity. As my stats teacher muttered from time to time to help us cut through some of the complexity, "this is just math." As if math were this value free zone, the last safe harbor for those hoping to see the world as it actually is.

Still, at other times our teacher responded to our vacant gazes by telling us that some of these numbers didn't correspond to anything real. The formulas were kind of an invented language that allowed communication to take place across studies that varied in units of measurement. Even the number determining statistical significance was kind of made up. It could have been just as easily been drawn at another point on our vaunted bell curve.

Like all linguistic nets, it seems that stats has a certain inner coherence that makes it work. There is no place to justify the scheme outside of the scheme itself. Stats, it seems, is hermeneutical. It makes sense if you give up your need to have it make sense anywhere else.

Until I started treating it like a foreign language, I was scandalized by some of what you're asked to do in stats. Take for instance, how you are taught to treat an outlier. There is nothing like a big, fat, juicy, outlier to mess up your model, keeping you from attaining the holy grail of statistical significance. Now in theology we might call this outlier a prophet, maybe even a messiah (a highly significant finding in and of itself), but in stats you have to somehow eliminate the outlier. And there are several strategies available and acceptable for making an outlier insignificant. Sheesh. I felt like a character on The Sopranos, rubbing out all of these outliers.

Once I remembered, however, how rule based a language has to be to function as a language, I was able to relax a bit. I put my protest t-shirt, "Save the Outliers," back into the dresser drawer. After all, there are limits to every language, and none of them attain the power of precision to describe the world exactly as it is.

All that to say, "What language shall I borrow, to thank Thee, dearest Friend."

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Book #4, The Word Before the Powers

I was sitting in a meeting a few years ago at the university where I teach, discussing the use policies of a new facility the university had just aquired. One of the university administrators in the meeting kept saying, "the institution requires... ." The institution requires? Are we not the institution? What is this entity that requires things from us?

Thing is, the institution is a power. It collects certain narratives and values within a particular self-interest that expresses itself in policies and procedures so that somewhere along the line it becomes a character, an entity. It becomes a power that shapes us, rather than just the other way around.

Charles Campbell's book, The Word Before the Powers, is a book on preaching. But its not a book on preaching technique. We won't find much here in terms of deductive or inductive strategies. What we have here is a view of preaching connected to understandings of the kingdom of God.

Jesus came proclaiming. He came proclaiming the kingdom, or reign of God. He came with a word, not a sword. His word announced and demonstrated a new ordering, a new constellation of powers, a new way of being in and with power. Jesus came proclaiming, a powerful but non-violent way of being with others.

This book brought a lot of things together for me. Tumblers fell into place and some new territory was opened up. The big thing for me was Campbell's suggestion that a word before the powers allows preaching to be prophetic and pastoral simultaneously. We have a word over/against. But it is a word over and against powers for the sake of people, not over against people in a display of power. This one shift had massive implications for my preaching. We are all pressed against, and potentially dehumanized, by the same powers. From that perspective, it is hard for there to be an us and a them in proclamation. There is only an us with a liberating word about the possibility of life under new management, the kingdom of God.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 4

In the last post, I noted that many of the early voices in the missional church movement came from seminary professors related to mainline denominations. The critique came at some remove from congregations. This is not because the missional church is not interested in congregations. To the contrary, congregations are precisely the focus of mission in a new ecclesial era. The problem has less to do with interest and more to do with distance and experience. The missional critique has come from the seminary in the language of the academy and has only slowly made its way into the practicalities of congregational life.

I am often asked, "what would it look like to be a missional church?" This is a hard question to answer for two primary reasons. First, there is such an emphasis on contextuality in the missional church literature that generalizations are almost immediately a way of missing the point. Each congregation will understand its life in mission differently given both the unique gifts of the congregation and the unique challenges of its context. Having said this, however, we are already making a pretty big point about what it means to be missional. The world is not just the target of the church's activities. The world is potentially a partner in discovering what God is up to in the first place.

The second difficulty has to do with the nature of adaptive change. As I mentioned in an earlier post, much of the missional literature on change and leadership has seized upon Ron Heifetz's distinction between technical and adaptive challenges. A technical challenge is one in which there is some degree of predictability. The world is stable enough to engage in basic problem solving strategies. In an adaptive challenge, however, our world is in flux and change is discontinuous. We can no longer predict what the results of our actions might be.

What we once knew as a predictable range of solutions simply no longer produce what they once did. A common story among churches these days is that they are doing what they've always known to do, and in most cases better than they've done them in the past, with diminishing results. I am working with several churches who have great preaching, excellent worship, great facilities, wonderful programs for children, and they are still in decline. They've tried everything they know, every technical solution they can muster, and nothing has helped.

In a situation like this, we simply do not know what the next thing is. It requires a new imagination. And the one thing that shuts down imagination is a predetermined list of factors that make something missional. "What will our congregation look like if we become missional?" A reasonable question. But if we could answer that, we'd have a technical challenge not an adaptive one.

But in saying this we've made a point about what it means to be missional as well. Being missional means learning to trust our future to God.

I've been fortunate to discover some pioneers in helping congregations lean into discovering a new missional imagination. My friend and professor/mentor Pat Keifert (and his organization, Church Innovations) is bringing considerable resource to bear on helping congregations reinterpret their life in light of a missional imagination. I'm learning a lot and am impressed both by how stubborn 1,600 year old habits can be and by how brave congregations get when they feel they are discerning together God's future for their life together.

Others are also making strides on this frontier (and it is a frontier). Alan Roxburgh and Craig Van Gelder are also notable in giving considerable attention to how these changes actually come about in congregations. They are immersed in experiments with several clusters of churches and leaders.

It seems to me that the next layer of publishing and reporting in the missional church movement needs to come from pastors and other leaders who are experimenting along these lines. Leaders like those in the ermerging church movement. This is the burden of the missional church movement, and must be its growing edge if it is to achieve the promise of its theology.

Monday, July 21, 2008

Book #5--The Diversity of Scripture

I'm always interested in knowing what books changed things for people. Most books we like confirm what we already think or believe. Few have the power to lead us into new territories, altar our imaginative landscape. These may not be our favorite books, or the best written books. Some we may now have move past, but at the time they framed things in ways that changed things. So, I'm going to give you five that did that for me. I'm hoping you'll add to our list of books.

5. Paul Hanson, The Diversity of Scripture. I picked this up used in a bookstore in Portland, where I lived at the time. I read it on the two flights it takes to get you from Portland to Abilene, Texas, where I was working on a Doctor of Ministry degree. There are probably better books on the subject than Hanson's. It's all about the timing with this book. I had a budding diversity view, but this book was catalytic and constructive. It gave me structure for my intuitions, an argument not just about Scripture, but God and faith.

And it produced a little bit of a crisis within me as a minister of a local congregation. My hunch was that if people knew that this is what I believed about Scripture, they would be very concerned. I felt like a dangerous person. But I also knew that I couldn't represent myself as if this stuff didn't matter.

I taught a midweek Bible study while I was with this congregation that I called Bible Lab. I used this class as a way to let participants make sense of what they were discovering in the text itself. It was a wonderful experience and I gained trust in both patience and the theological capacity of the church.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Good News About God

God could use a better publicist these days. There's a lot of bad news about God going around. There are the usual suspects: religious militants, childhood diseases, Jesus being named as W's favorite philosopher, America's Got Talent. But perhaps one unexpected place he doesn't get enough credit is with regard to the gospel itself.

Early in the Gospel of Mark we are told that Jesus comes out of Galilee proclaiming the good news of God. Now, this could mean God's news for us. Or it could mean good news concerning God. I'm leaning more and more into the latter, to test it, to see if it changes my perceptions of things having to do with the gospel and God and salvation and all the rest.

This leaning is also informed by a shift in how I've been reading Romans for awhile now. Like many, I once read Romans from the perspective that justification by faith was the center of the message. That makes chapter 5, or perhaps chapter 8, the high point of the theology in the letter. Problem is, chapter 11 seems to be the climax of Paul's argument before the big "therefore" in 12:1. If one reads Romans this way, then the central theme is not justification by faith but the righteousness of God. Put another way, the good news is not so much about how it is that we get saved, but the good news is about the trustworthiness and wisdom of God.

We typically think of the gospel self-referentially. The gospel for many is that the death of Jesus is the sacrifice for our sins that allows us to inherit eternal life. If we're not careful, this turns the gospel into our private possession, a new status we receive. This is good news, to be sure, but I'm more and more convinced that this is a scrawny bit of good news over against the enormity of bad news we experience in this world.

Hang with me a minute here. I want to make two other, related I think, observations before I talk about how the good news might be more about God than it is us. (I probably won't get to that until my next post). These observations are not unrelated to the missional and emergent stuff we've been talking about in other posts.

One of my theological pet peeves (is that nerdy, or what) is that people can and do justify almost any practice by appealing to the incarnation. God connected with us by becoming human. We should connect with others too, ergo Christian pilates.

It is not simply good news that God became human, or not good news enough. The incarnation is about more than just the fact of God becoming flesh. The incarnation is also about where God became flesh. The social locations of manger, unwed mother's womb, Galilee, Calvary, and between thieves are all indispensable to the meaning of God's coming near in Jesus.

There is no such thing as a culture-less Christianity, or even a transcultural Christianity. The incarnation does make that clear. Cultural strategies with regard to Christianity, however, must be more nuanced than simply the attempt to connect with the spirit of the age. Incarnation is about more than just learning to speak in contemporary terms. The saving significance of Jesus, the good news about God, is precisely related to the neighborhood in which God pitched his tent. I agree with Douglas John Hall who insists that our reflection on incarnation always begin at the foot of the cross.

Second observation: I also hear a lot these days about the Trinity as a social model for the church. In its simplest terms it sounds something like this. God exists in community, so should we (ergo, small groups, Christian pilates, etc). But there is a significant sense in which the kind of community that God experiences as Father, Son and Spirit is very different from what we experience with each other and even with God.

As with incarnation, I want to begin trinitarian reflection at the cross. I want to begin with the silence of the Father in the death of the Son. Much of Christian theology through the centuries, influenced by Greek philosophy, has been concerned to protect the Father from the suffering of the Son. I think this results in skinny good news. I want a Father who draws into his very life the suffering of the world.

I think the death of the Son is an event in the life of the Trinity. It effects all three. It introduces true otherness into the communion of God. The resurrection of Jesus is good news about the Father (and the Spirit). The communion of God is open to those truly other than God--corrupt human flesh. To use Paul's language, God draws enemies into his love through the resurrection. The resurrection is good news for us. But it is first good news about God--Father, Son and Spirit.

Christian community is not primarily about intimacy--the kind of interiority experienced by Father, Son and Spirit--not primarily. It is first about the act of loving the other, loving the enemy. It is about the stranger. This is our pathway into communion with the Trinity and each other--the death and resurrection of Jesus.

I think this gives us a lot of good news about God.

Friday, July 18, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 3

The missional and emerging church movements represent two different ways of doing theology. This is due in part to the location of the leading voices in the movement. The missional church guys are mostly seminary profs, and particularly well represented are missiologists (Guder, Hunsberger, Van Gelder).

Following the work of Lesslie Newbigin in Great Britain, these leaders seated their analysis in theological critique. They were doing ecclesiology and missiology, and these emphases have led also to careful reflection from Trinitarian and eschatological perspectives. They did not begin their reflection primarily as problem solvers within local congregations. They have moved from theological topics to application and are only now beginning to address some of the close issues of congregational life.

The emerging church leaders in the early days were mainly pastors reacting to the close problems of congregational life. They begin their theological reflection with the immediacies presented by a context they define as postmodern. They have moved from situation to more deliberate reflection on theological topics over time.

It is interesting that the herd is already thinning among the emergents as the theology becomes more fully articulated. The missional church leaders have arisen primarily from the mainline ranks, while the emerging church leaders tend to come more from the evangelical side of things. I point this out because many of the emerging church leaders are casting outside the normal waters of traditional evangelical thought, especially when it comes to issues like truth, Scripture, politics, and salvation. Early and prominent leaders have disavowed their association with all things emerging, notably Mars Hill Church (Seattle) pastor Mark Driscol. I made a presentation on missional church recently to a group of pastors that included evangelicals. I made one comment, fairly favorable, about the emerging church movement, and was roundly attacked by a few young evangelical pastors.

Still, having said that, a book like Emerging Manifesto of Hope (I should have included the words "of Hope" when I reported the title in my earlier post, my apologies) is all over the place on some fairly important theological concepts--God, world, church, culture, salvation. And the book is still fairly silent on some big theological themes, e.g. Trinity. A reader still gets the sense that what binds the material together is a commitment to the issues related to postmodernity rather than a set of defining theological commitments.

(I like Doug Pagitt's observation that emergents approach postmodernity in different ways. Some minister to postmoderns. Others with postmoderns. Still others as postmoderns. All of them, though are about whatever is postmodern. And I think the latter two groups are wresting the brand away from the first).

This last observation is not a criticism. I think this is something that the emergent types might even herald as a mark of their movement. And this is a legitimate way to do theology. In fact, one could argue that this is the way most theology has developed historically. The irony might very well be that the emergents are making the case for missional in a more compelling way than their more academically attuned counterparts (and to self-identify, I'm one of those more academically attuned dudes. Although, I'm pretty sure Hunsberger, Guder, et al are not so much dudes. Don't get me wrong, they are dudes as opposed to the other gender. Though Lois Barrett and Inagrace Ditterich are not dudes. Sorry, not the point I was trying to make).

What I mean by this is that the missional church folks are big on emphasizing that mission is the occasion and source for theology. One implication of this claim is that context drives much of the theological agenda. We are always doing theology in light of the need to make sense of the faith in new circumstances. The emergents are hip deep in the new circumstances. They reek of it. (And I mean this in the best possible sense of the word reek).

Having affirmed this approach to doing theology, however, I do think that the sustainability of the emerging church movement will require more deliberate articulation about what they are learning about God's mission in a new context. Otherwise, this will be little more than a thousand dissipated experiments. And this type of articulation will push the need for clarity.

This is already happening from my perspective. A recent essay by Eddie Gibbs (one emergent leader who teaches in a seminary, namely Fuller) begins with the sweet theological strains of Lesslie Newbigin. Brian McLaren's essay in Emerging Manifesto of Hope moves deliberately away from postmodernism as a frame for his critique, and toward what he terms post-colonialism. This produces, in turn, a different set of theological considerations. He is closer here to a missional line of critique.

It is not surprising that these two groups are forming somewhat of a middle ground. The missional leaders value the experience within congregations of the emergents, while the emergents are finding very helpful cover for their experiments within the tracks of the more formally articulated missional theology.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

DJ at the End of the World

Death is pretty final
I'm collecting vinyl
I'm gonna dj at the end of the world

These are lyrics from my favorite song on the new REM cd, Accelerate. This cd puts REM in that large category of artists and groups who catch fresh magic early in their career, get lost somehow in their own sense of importance in the middle, and recover something of their original genius later in their career. A regular and satisfying mix for me these days is to put Accelerate alongside And I Feel Fine, a remastering of some of the best of their early songs. They are of a piece, and to me the best piece.

The musical appeal of REM necessarily includes Michael Stipe, their lead singer, who sets the interpretative table for the listener. Stipe is no fan of Christianity. But he's also unwilling to simply give up on questions of meaning. While that's him "in the corner, losing his religion," that doesn't keep Stipe from singing about sin, salvation, and the end of the world. I'm the kind of Christian who feels most comfortable when paradox and irony are at the leading edge of the rhetoric. Stipe keeps me closer to good, in that vein, than most contemporary Christian recording artists.

I've spent some time thinking about the playlist for the end of the world. There would have to be some Dylan, and not the obvious choices like "Serve Somebody" or "Knockin on Heaven's Door," but some grinding apocalypse like "Cold Irons Bound" or a "sunny" jermiad like "Summer Days." There would definitely need to be some U2, like maybe the way they move from lament to praise in the Elevation tour dvd in the songs "Bad" and "Where the Streets Have No Name." We would need some Aretha and Marvin Gaye. I am hoping for a heaven after all. And I would not be disappointed at all to hear somewhere in there...

Death is pretty final
I'm collecting vinyl...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

Missional and Emergent, Part 2

Both the missional and emergent church movements refuse to be classified as a program or a brand (though emergent seems closer to functioning as a brand). They would distinguish themselves, for instance, from approaches like Rick Warren (purpose driven church) or Kennon Callahan (keys to an effective church) that offer change through programmatic steps or keys. In fact, many in the missional church conversation suggest that in a time of discontinuous change, these types of "fixes" often set the problem deeper. If, then, missional and emergent are not programs, then what are they? Both are an attempt to bring a new kind of imagination to how we think about church in the first place. This is more than just tinkering with some programs. This is a deep culture change within congregations. Sometimes this sounds like the title of Brian McLaren's new book, Everything Must Change.

I admit that I bristle a bit at this kind of all or nothing language. It's no more attractive on a book about faith and church than it is on an adolescent whose vocabulary consists mainly of absolutes: "you never, you always, etc." And in this regard, the emergent literature is more strident. In addition to McLaren's recent book, the all-or-nothing sense is apparent in the opening of Tony Jones' new book, The New Christians, and in many of the essays found in the collection edited by Jones and Doug Pagit, An Emergent Manifesto. The diagnosis is bleak and the cure radical.

The missional church folk are also prone to sounding the alarm bells, though perhaps not so close to your ears. They talk about the differences between technical and adaptive change, and suggest that we've been applying to technical fixes to an adaptive challenge. Basically, a technical challenge is one where the diagnosis is fairly clear and the range of options to address the challenge are known and outcomes predictable. In many respects, however, we no longer live in a world of congregational technical fixes. We will have to learn adaptive skills as we engage in experiments related to our emerging situation.

Both movements are right that we can't simply do what we already know to do, albeit better, and expect the same outcomes we experienced in our not so distant past. We will have to cultivate a new imagination with regard to the things we do under the banner of church.

This does not mean, however, that literally everything must change (not the meaning of McLaren's book, I might point out), an impression that both movements sometimes leave with observers. In fact, one of the things that first attracted me to the emerging church literature was the emphasis on the historic practices of Christianity as a source of renewal. Not only will everything not have to change, but we will need to recover some old things we've lost along the way. I would like to see more of this sense of continuity or recovery upfront. I know a book entitled, Some Things Might Have to Change, Possibly, isn't as sexy or marketable, but continuity and discontinuity are both in line with emergent theory, a point that could be underscored to some positive effect.

It is interesting to note, along these lines, that many of the emergent leaders are in new church starts, while missional church leaders, to the extent that they are leading in congregations at all, are primarily working toward change within existing congregations and denominations. Much of this, from my perspective, has to do with different understandings of culture and change. But I'm going home now to make dinner. We'll have to get back to this later.

Tuesday, July 15, 2008

Lars and the Real Girl

Just a quick note on a great movie, Lars and the Real Girl. For those who prefer to get their theology through the movies, this isn't a bad place to go. As with all good stories, the "points" are made artfully and indirectly, and saying that the movie is theological is only so if a theologian is watching it. Still, it is a moving and quirky story.

I won't ruin the movie by reviewing it for you. I will tell you that it involves a young man (played brilliantly by Ryan Gosling) forming an imaginary relationship with a life-sized doll he buys on the internet. The movie features an entire community willing to build a relationship with this doll for the sake of Lars' pain, grief related to emotional loss in his family. This community is an exotic setting, as fantastical as any Indian Jones or Star Wars movie, because it depicts a community where people allow others the space necessary to nurse the fictions closest to their pain until they don't need them anymore. Salvation.

I will admit to crying in three movies: Old Yellar' (if you didn't cry, you're a sociopath), A River Runs Through It, and Lars and the Real Girl. I've cried in others, but not ones I'd admit to.

Sunday, July 13, 2008

Missional and Emergent

I've spent the past two weeks teaching a graduate short course on emerging and missional churches at Pepperdine University. (I could get used to teaching at Malibu). My experience in this area is far more on the missional side of the equation. I've had the privilege of hanging out with Keifert, Roxburgh, Van Gelder, Hunsberger and other leaders in this movement. I've learned a lot through my participation, and have chosen a PhD program to go deeper in all things missional. My experience with the emergent church conversation is less involved and I have a lot to learn about these creative church leaders.

I know many of you are probably asking, "what in the world is emergent and missional, anyway?" Well, I want to get at that over the next few weeks. It's not so easy to define in either case. Let's start by simply saying that both are a response to what is perceived as a dramatic shift in the North American cultural landscape. We are not in Kansas anymore, Toto. And we need to gain our bearings, recover our sense of calling in a rapidly changing culture.

I have a fairly good sense of what this about for those who self-designate as "missional." I've had guesses about what that's about for those who identify themselves as emergents. My reading and limited experience with emerging churches is underscoring some of those initial impressions.

Let me make one distinction that I think holds up fairly well as a way to introduce a topic I hope to address in the next few posts. The missional church movement is concerned with what it means to be a church in a post-Christendom context. In other words, the supportive relationship we used to share with the larger culture can no longer be assumed. It is no longer the case that "if you build it they will come," even if what you invite them to is massively entertaining. Churches find themselves less and less at the centers of cultural power and influence (a public role) and relegated more to the cultural margins (a largely private role). This is not the same thing as saying North Americans are less religious or spiritual (though there is evidence to that effect), but that our overall place in the culture has changed. In an increasingly pluralistic culture, we can no longer expect others to play by our rules. We are now in a missionary engagement with our own culture. We can cry and whine about this all we like, but the genie's out of the bottle and we will need to learn to be different kinds of churches as a result.

The emergent folks tend to begin with the issue of postmodernity. What's changed is the spirit of the age. We've moved from a modern world to a postmodern world and we need to adjust accordingly. Issues related to postmodernity have less to do with the church's social location (missional), and more with how people think--what counts for truth and knowledge and how people come to know what they know. As a result, emergents emphasize connecting with postmoderns and much of what they are interested in is aesthetics--beauty, creativity, inspiration, incarnation.

These two shifts, post-Christendom and postmodern, are not unrelated. These two movements have found each other and are finding mutual encouragement. But they are different. And they do produce varying agendas. Both have something vital to say to our current context and both have much to demonstrate with regard to their ability to be constructive.

Saturday, July 12, 2008


I ran yesterday. It was torture. Here's the thing. I'm in fairly good shape, I think. I've been running consistently since January. I know what this feels like since I've been running the better part of my life. And it shouldn't be torture at this point. There should be an endorphin release here and there, maybe an occasional runner's high. And I'm used to fighting either wind or leg strength on a run, but its usually been just one or the other, not both constantly. Torture.

This is actually not an old age rant. I feel fortunate to be running at all given recent knee surgery and ridiculously skinny quadriceps. The point is that what I once experienced as powerfully expressive of self I now experience as alienating. What I once experienced as closeness or proximity, I now experience as distance. And while this is currently related to running, this is something I have always experienced in other ways. 7th grade dances. Serving a large institution. Discovering that I'm not the parent I thought I'd be. I have experienced this type of self-alienation all along. Running right now is bringing it all into sharp relief.

We are in many ways "other" even to our own self. Otherness, or distance, is important to knowing what we know. Apart from the other, there is no occasion for transcendence, for an interruption of self-preoccupation. Apart from other, there is no Spirit, no chance for anything but self-absorption, or to put a fine point on it, Sin. Apart from other there is no self. That is, apart from family, friends, enemies, earth, sky, there is no reference point from which to know my self. And all these things precede me, are given to me in a sense. They are incorrigibly other. My sense doesn't come on-board. There is no essence, only relation. Even internally, I am an other. Due to both my gifts and limitations, I experience my life as contingent, needing others as a way to meaningfully narrate, account for my own inner alienation.

In Sin, most of us take the self as a given, as a fixed center, a stable subject around which all others are objects. Ironically, by embracing my own limits, my own brokenness, my own sense of self-alienation, I have the opportunity to overcome Sin, to experience Spirit and transcendence, to be transformed, to be always living and growing even as I experience decay. I am always interpreting my life in relation to others, even the other within myself. So, I am learning not to mourn my loss of sense of self-possessing power in running. I am learning. That's the thing. And in learning, I am less interested in being a self, than a person. This may be wisdom.

My sources for this series of observations are Michael Stipe and Paul Ricoeur. A very wise friend told me about an interview with Michael Stipe in which he was content to be in the moment he was in, even as a 48 year old rock star. I'm experiencing 48 in a much less well-adjusted way. Ricouer helped me understand the importance of distance for knowing, even the distance within our own sense of self. By way of Ricouer, I hope to be more like Michael Stipe soon (especially given how rocking the new REM cd is).