Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Emergent/Organic & Puritan Concerns

I've been doing a lot of reading lately from various sources (including Mark Noll's America's God for history, especially on Puritanism; and Barbara Brown Taylor's book on Leaving Church), and thinking and praying, and one theme keeps bouncing back up as a kind of caveat to share on the post.

There seems to be a tendency to think we can "revolutionize" (see post below) the church into being the Kingdom. In other words, if we change church to meet changing culture we will change lives to such a degree that we will have created if not perfect, then problem and hassle-free communities of faithful people. I think the urge to do so drives much transformational and emergent/organic church passion. We are hoping to fix the problems of the past. We may be able to create encounters and gatherings and church that don't fall into the traps of modernity and the established church, but of course we will have our own to deal with, because we are finite humans seeking to respond to the Infinite.

I bring this up just because I know I can get carried away in my own passion and love of Emergent as an Idea, and to see it being incarnated even with good results. But there is the problem of trying to create communities of brother and sister emergents who will all have the same ideals and vision and mission we have, and so we keep refining and purifying our communities until we are looking at ourselves in the Mirror. The demonic or shadow side, if you will, of this latest Great Awakening.

I had a seminary professor in church history who used to start his semester by talking about how we were all, coming from so many different Protestant denominations, all Puritans. And I love my Puritan religious heritage (and I think from time to time I will blog some about the connections between colonial New England Puritan history and theology and emergent church of the 21st century, issues like the removal of understanding of a spiritual and secular space, the role and strength of covenant and its weaknesses, etc.) But that Puritan impulse to be among the elect and the saints in true church is one I wrestle with. On one hand, progressives especially have opened themselves up so much to being so inclusive and sensitive to all that might come knocking on our doors we tend to shy away from letting people right away experience tradition, and so we are always saying to visitors that they will experience something different another time, that we don't all use the same language, we have a space for where they are in their spiritual journey, translate, accomodate, apologetic. We never get around to disciple-making because we don't know what we are discipling them in. And in the evangelical "Win, Disciple, Send" approach, we never know when we have "won' them and to what so we are stuck in that phase; hence, the sending phase of church planting and other community forming around our vision is never realized. So, one of the focuses of emergent church as having a priority for focusing on personal relationships that go deeper into spiritual accountability makes sense. That Puritan side of me resonates, especially if that accountability includes how we are living Jesus's way of going beyond ourselves and our comfort zones. But on the other hand, the Puritan/emergent expression that seeks to keep the church pure (and conflict-free) by keeping it small and uniform is one that seems to be a recipe for disaster in the long run if it doesn't have some built-in way of critiquing itself and keeping from becoming a closed system, which is the opposite of the drive and passion of the emergents in the first place (which means it is where its weakness lies). In our conflicted world, I can see why emergent is resonating, and why so often it is the very small and the very large churches that grow because they are able to handle conflict constructively compared to the standard size American protestant church that seems constructed for perpetual destructive conflict.

No grand sweeping conclusions, just sharing concerns. Nothing novel here either I expect.

But Maybe we are just in the wormhole and on the other side instead of there being fundamentally 'three spaces" in people's lives like there used to be sociologically, as there used to just be three major television channels--family, work, church and/or civic association--there will be multiple spaces--family/fictive familyspace, workspace, spiritual group localspace, spiritual group national/globalspace, mission/service/political groupspace. When there were only three major spaces, more people had to be accomodated in that space, and so you structured your relationships to handle that growing degree of difference, and hence the old standing order based on a political approach, roberts rules of order, etc. But when you have more choices for your spaces, you can have a higher degree of commonality within those spaces. With more spaces and with changes in technology and worldview you can have more picking and choosing. This would be in keeping with the "Flat World' (see previous post based on Thomas Friedman's book) where every social grouping will be decentralized. People won't come together in churches and carryout the congregational polity practices of having healthy conflict by arriving at decisions by compromise and debate and the best of what we term political life (not even submitting to the usual way of arriving at consensus), losing a vote or position but still being a part of a people. Instead, the concept of church will be splintered and mean participating in a variety of groupspaces; spiritual and service and study will become a part of family and work space in ways not seen in the 19th and 20th centuries in America anyway, as well as the spiritual life still being nurtured in specific though varied groups.

Maybe we are in for a New and Improved Puritanism. Maybe we need to study colonial American history of the 1620-1750 era the same as we do the first three centuries in the Middle East and the rise of the early church. For you theological types who know the work of George Lindbeck and David Tracy or Kathryn Tanner, for example, how can we build more "post-liberal" communities (Lindbeck) that stress a common language and grammer (or how are these already emerging upon us inside and outside the church) and yet also build more "revisionist" encounters or communities where we open ourselves up in mutual transformation with the 'other" and the cultural edges (Tracy and Tanner)? I think we need both in the emergent/organic church. And maybe that's what progressives have to offer. Our natural home is in the revisionist theological world; so, paradoxically, if we create more internally post-liberal communities of our own through church planting we will be able to be a part of adding our revisionist influence to the wider external world.

Rambling over. A few links of related interest. Please add your own: mark noll an interview with david tracy blog on kathryn tanner theology by Lindbeck

response to Lindbeck at