The Decline of the Emerging Church (?)

Next-Wave Jan 2010 Cover

Charlie Wear of Next-Wave asked me to write the cover story for the January 2010 issue. It is entitled, “The Decline of the Emerging Church (?).” I spent several weeks on this article and am pleased with the final result. Charlie is.

You can find it here as of January 18, 2010.

If Charlie’s happy, I’m happy. I hope you enjoy it. You can blog your questions/comments under this post if you wish. Or — you can read it here — below:

The Decline of the Emerging Church (?)

By Bill Dahl

For the past sixteen months, I have been on sabbatical regarding my written contributions to the emerging church dialog. The decision was intentional. It was personal. In hindsight, it has been a marvelous blessing, in ways I presently struggle to fully appreciate. For me, writing became a primary tool to process my own spiritual growth; including embracing the sacred tensions, contradictions, challenges, reverence and awe-inspiring beauty the privilege of breathing the reality the God of Abraham, Isaac and Joseph presents me with each and every day.

However, I have not been cloistered in a monastery in some remote, faraway place (Although there are those who might characterize central Oregon that way).  I have been an unrepentant, albeit distant, observer of the emerging church during this time. Thus, I have occupied a distinctly different vantage point during the last year and a half. Perhaps that’s what motivated Charlie Wear, Next Wave’s shepherd, to contact me and invite me to write about this subject — to share the observations of one who was formerly a passionate, outspoken, regular, contributor to /immersed within the dialog — to one who made the intentional decision to occupy a very different place from which to observe; to pray, to listen, to be quiet, to read, to wander, to explore, to process, to question, to ponder. It is from this perspective that I share the following with you:

How do we measure what God’s Spirit is up to? Who could be bold enough to posit such an equation that might capture the depth and breadth of this sacred mystery?

During the past year and a half, I have come to appreciate the explosive, timeless truth Jesus spoke in John 16:12-15: “I have more to say to you, more than you can now bear (emphasis is mine). But when he, the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all truth.” God’s Spirit has more to say to us, collectively and individually.[1] More than we can now bear. Imagine for a moment that God has more to say to you, to us — more than you/we can now bear. What’s the obvious question, assuming you authentically desire to hear what God has to say? The question becomes: What must I do to hear you God? It is me, it is you, and it is us who must become willing to change our current posture to reposition ourselves to be able to bear what God has to say. For some of us, that may involve wholesale changes in the way we have been living our lives — like surrendering to the subtle persuasions of God’s Spirit to take an intentional sixteen month sabbatical from the noisy inertia inherent within well-intentioned, time consuming, fulfilling habits we’ve become immersed in like seemingly incessant writing, blogging, texting, reading, ministering, preaching, mentoring, teaching, tweeting or whatever.

God’s Spirit is alive. It is active among us in immeasurable ways I cannot pretend to understand. I find an excerpt from the work of Harvard’s Charles Handy to be helpful to me in considering the question; How might we measure what God’s Spirit is up to? The first step is to measure whatever can be easily counted. This is OK as far as it goes. The second step is to disregard that which can’t be easily measured or to give it an arbitrary quantitative value. This is artificial and misleading. The third step is to presume that which can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. This is blindness. The fourth step is to say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist. This is suicide.[2)

To posit an equation that might capture the depth and breadth of the sacred mystery of what God’s Spirit is up to is to humbly acknowledge that God is here and is not silent.[3] God’s Spirit has more to say to us, more than we can now bear. For many who claim the name of Christ as Christians, we have become smugly comfortable measuring our relationship with Jesus, and the world He beckons us to serve. We have become enslaved to counting only that which can be easily counted (like church attendance, money, gatherings with like-minded friends), arbitrarily disregarding that which can’t be conveniently incorporated into our orthopraxy (e.g. the reality that God’s Spirit has more to say to us). Finally, we are blinded by the self-righteous presumption that whatever we (or others) can’t measure really isn’t important — preserving our posture as those who cannot bear the thought of the effort and sacrifice required to abandon our deafening smugness to hear the cry of our God beseeching us to allow his Spirit to say what he has to say to us. Perhaps the above leads to vastly more personal questions (As they have for me): Do you really believe God is alive, God is here, God is not silent, that the Spirit of truth has more to say to you, more than you can now bear? Or as one author asks, do you “function as though the supernatural were not there?”[4]

The results of my sabbatical have produced refreshing responses to these questions that possess a new depth, breadth and texture; a new form of ‘Yes’ to the first five questions posed above. Without the influence of those who have been characterized as emergent, I sincerely doubt if I would have concluded this sabbatical and be able to honestly and unequivocally share this outcome with you. For this, I am inhabited by a deep, unspeakable, enduring gratitude.

Who gives content to God? Frances Schaffer helps me here when he wrote: “Let us notice that no word is as meaningless as is the word “god.” Of itself, it means nothing. Like any other word, it is only a linguistic symbol — g-o-d—until content is put into it…the mere use of the word “god” proves nothing. You must put content into it.[5]

Well, it should be clear to all concerned that the human race has had no difficulty whatsoever injecting content into “god.” Let’s remember this is exactly what Jesus did? He was crucified for it. Let’s recognize that before, during and after the time Jesus physically walked this planet, human beings have been engaged in putting content into “god.” Is it possible that divinely inspired human beings continue to contribute to the human capability to comprehend the ongoing, emerging essence of “god?” If so, is the message these folks are sharing more than we can now bear? For some, the answer is distinctly “yes.” Is there scriptural evidence for God speaking to folks throughout the history of our respective sacred texts, revealing his character, wisdom, guidance, and bestowing His ongoing transformative influence on us? Absolutely!

Let’s look around ourselves. There are more flavors of Christianity being consumed globally than there are flavors of ice cream and yogurt combined. Without exception, they all claim to be divinely inspired or inhabited in some form, either formatively and/or ongoing. Our sacred treasures – the sheer number and diversity in our precious texts, traditions, rituals, doctrine, places, patriarchs, and saints could cover the surface of a mid-sized nation. Yet, instead of celebrating the vast, awesome expression of God’s revelations among us, the historical record reveals our ongoing unholy penchant to digress into divisive, dismembering displays of conflict. This propensity neither authentically reflects the products of transformation we claim to be, nor honors the God whose glory and might we trumpet as the source of the same. As Frances Schaeffer suggests, “The central problem is always in the midst of the people of God, not in the circumstances surrounding them.[6] Thus, we ‘Christians’ remain mired in an unholy spiral, measuring what can be easily counted; money, sales of books and faith related paraphernalia, time, staff, people, places, cash flow, votes on social issues, practitioners, parishioners, donations, volunteers, programs, support for missions, parishes, pews, seminaries, students, baptisms, attestations to statements of faith and the like. That’s OK – as far as it goes.

Then we take the second step, as illuminated in the quote from Dr. Handy’s work:  We disregard that which can’t be easily measured or give it an arbitrary quantitative value. These are things like our enemies, our competition, perceived threats to preserving the status quo, defending our time-honored truths, how we might worship, discipleship, our fears, our differences, conversions, purported impacts our respective efforts have produced both within and outside the Christian subculture. Like Handy wrote, this is artificial and misleading. Stay with me — to be misled is a process, not an event.

As we approach the third step, we awaken to our blindness; to presume that which can’t be measured easily really isn’t important. Human activity produces byproducts. The practice of the Christian faith is no exception. What we overlook as we are immersed in counting, as identified in the first two steps, is that we fail to account for what we’re not counting. We overlook stuff like; how the act of our counting looks to others, how others might feel about being excluded from our count, the feedback from others regarding whether what we count actually counts.

The final step, to say that which can’t be easily measured really doesn’t exist; well, that’s an avoidable, self-inflicted, fatal wound. It embodies the posture of our self-righteous smugness when we say, “We’ve heard all there is to hear.” (Or in other cases, “I’ve heard enough! Or I can’t take anymore”). It is at this juncture where we halt our responsibility to continue to fathom the seas of faith. It is akin to dropping a weighted rope 40 meters long into the sea and declaring we have accurately measured the depths, when the sea floor is thousands of meters below the weighted end of our rope. For many of us, the invitation of God’s Spirit to “draw near” or “follow Me” is fraught with fear, insecurity and uncertainty. We cannot seem to easily measure matters like our capacity to love, to be peace-makers, forgiveness, care for the resources of this planet, compassion, sacrifice, mercy, honesty, authenticity, justice, benevolence, kindness, tolerance, civility, humility, our ignorance, our willingness to be changed by God’s power — and the voice of God’s relentless pursuit of our lives reverberating in our hearts; “I have more to say to you, more than you can now bear.

Perplexing? It is for me and many millions more like me. The dilemma is characterized succinctly by Samir Semanovic in the following: “As far as Christianity is concerned…what perplexes us is being part of a religion that interprets its sacred texts, its history, and its practices in a way that confines and manages God.”[7]

Yet, as I return from my sabbatical, I am energized by the reality that I am no longer trapped in this morass. I have permission to seek God beyond the content that currently confines him. The words of Brian McLaren capture the essence of the freedom I proceed with:

“The essential emphasis on spirituality reminds us, then, that a new kind of Christianity is not simply new — in the sense of a new tree being planted at some distance from an old one. It is rather, the green tips growing out on many of the fragile branches of the ancient tree of faith and spirituality that has been growing throughout history.”[8]

Fathoming the undiscovered in the life of faith, the dimensions of God Whose Spirit has more to say to me, more than I can now bear, Who cannot be measured, Who is alive, Who is here, Who is not silent, Who declares there’s more to counting than I presently comprehend — is the sacred, life-giving treasure bestowed upon me by the emerging church/emerging Christianity.

Please join me in celebrating the recognition of the reality of the ongoing miracle of the green tips growing out on many of the fragile branches of the ancient tree of faith and spirituality that has been growing throughout history.” I cherish the fact that “our ancestors’ images and understandings of God continually changed, evolved and matured over the centuries. God, it seems, keeps initiating this evolution.”[9]

An immeasurable blessing.

Finally, one last question: “How might we become willing to change our current posture to reposition ourselves to be able to bear what God has to say?” Frances Schaeffer suggests, “The history of theology is all too often a long exhibition of a desire to win.[10] More recently, David Kinnaman’s ground breaking research and book place the challenge squarely in front of us: “We can’t change what we are known for unless we change how we live.”[11] Yes, we human beings are equipped with the capacity to develop presuppositions. Our ideas have consequences.[12] “By presuppositions we mean the basic way an individual looks at life, his basic worldview, the grid through which he sees the world. Presuppositions rest upon that which a person considers to be the truth of what exists.”[13]

Ah yes. We now enter the arena where what we know to be true, correct and sufficient is antagonized by our God inspired imaginations. One author treats the subject in this way: “The great changes in history occur, I believe, not through argument but through seeing things differently. Jesus did not tell people what to do or think but invited them to see things with new eyes or the eyes of a child. He was confident their conduct would then change on its own. He appealed not to their reason but their imagination.”[14] Another says, “The gospel is always more than we imagine, the Bible always has something for us greater than we expect, and Jesus is always beyond what we can conceive.[15]

It was a struggle for Jesus to get through to His disciples then, just as it is now. They struggled to imagine how they might accept, comprehend and live out this new reality Jesus was sharing. This struggle possessed practical, risky implications then, just as it does today. Daniel Taylor writes: “Tradition is not primarily a set of creeds or theologies, though these are included, but a history of persons and communities and relationships. And when I see faith in terms of the struggle of people, alone and together, to know and be known by God, then I do not object to the risk that is the price for being part of that struggle.[16]

Yet, it is a fundamental change in the nature of that struggle among us, that is pertinent to the question “How might we become willing to change our current posture to reposition ourselves to be able to bear what God has to say? As Schaeffer characterizes this struggle amongst Christians, “We build ourselves up by tearing other men down. This can never show a real oneness among Christians.[17] Still others have suggested that regarding persons of other faith persuasions, “we must assume the posture of a guest.[18] Kinnaman’s research reveals, “like it or not, being judgmental is intricately connected to our image as Christians…They believe we are more interested in proving we are right than God is right. They say Christians are more focused on condemning people than helping people become more like Jesus.[19] Finally, let’s get real shall we? “It’s amazing what people have cooked up to do to others in the name of God.[20]

Admittedly, one of the core motivations for my sabbatical was to take myself off the battlefield, well beyond the possibility of my heart being shattered by another incoming barrage of unequivocally the most hateful, hurtful correspondence I have ever received — from self-proclaimed Christian zealots, portending to be defenders of what is right, correct and true. What might a change in posture look like regarding the diversity of the differences that exist among us? Perhaps Schaeffer’s suggestion is a place to begin when he says: “So let us consider this: Is my difference with my brother in Christ really crucially important? If so, it is doubly important that I spend time upon my knees asking the Holy Spirit, asking Christ, to do his work through me and my group, that I and we might show love even in this larger difference that we have come to with another brother in Christ or with another group of true Christians.[21]

The decline of the emerging church? I don’t see it. On the contrary, I continue to celebrate “the green tips growing out on many of the fragile branches of the ancient tree of faith and spirituality that has been growing throughout history.”[22]

New growth: It’s a subtle, simple, amazing wonder to witness.  Listen for it and you just may hear the voice of God in the breeze: “I have more to say to you, more than you can now bear.”

For me, it took a sixteen month sabbatical to change my former posture to reposition myself to be able to bear what God had to say to me. I’ve shared some of that here with you.

What might you do in 2010 to change your current posture to reposition yourself to be able to bear what God has to say to you?

No clue? Confess the same to Jesus. He is here, He is alive, He is listening and He is not silent…I assure you.

NOTES:


[1] SeeMcLaren, BrianA New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, CA USA Copyright © 2010 by Brian D. McLaren– Available February 2010. P. 100.

[2] Handy, Charles The Age of Paradox Harvard Business School Press, Boston, Massachusetts Copyright © 1994 by Charles Handy, p. 221 – The excerpt is also referred to as the McNamara Fallacy.

[3] Schaeffer, Francis A. He Is There And He Is Not Silent – Does It Make Sense To Believe In God, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois Copyright © 1972 by Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 17

[4] Schaeffer, Francis A.  True Spirituality – How To Live For Jesus Moment by Moment, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois Copyright © 1971 by Tyndale House Publishers p. 151.

[5] Schaeffer, Francis A. He Is There And He Is Not Silent – Does It Make Sense To Believe In God, Tyndale House Publishers, Wheaton, Illinois Copyright © 1972 by Francis A. Schaeffer, pp.12-13.

[6] Schaeffer, Frances A. No Little People, Crossway Books , Wheaton, Illinois Copyright © 1974 by L’Abri Fellowship, p. 66.

[7] Selmanovic, Samir It’s Really All About God – Reflections of a Muslim Atheist Jewish Christian, Published by Jossey-Bass – A Wiley Imprint, San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2009 by Samir Selmanovic, p. 68. (My favorite Book of 2009)

[8] SeeMcLaren, BrianA New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, CA USA Copyright © 2010 by Brian D. McLaren– Available February 2010. pp. 228 & 229.

[9] SeeMcLaren, BrianA New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, CA USA Copyright © 2010 by Brian D. McLaren– Available February 2010. P. 99.

[10] Schaeffer, Francis A. The Mark of the Christian, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois Copyright © 1970 by L’Abri Fellowship, p. 29

[11] Kinnaman, David  unChristian – What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters, Baker Books Grand Rapids, Michigan Copyright © 2007 by David Kinnaman and Fermi Project, p. 231.

[12] Weaver, Richard M. Ideas Have Consequences, The University of Chicago Press, Copyright © 1948 by The University of Chicago – One of the best books you may ever read on this subject. I highly recommend it.

[13] Schaeffer, Francis A.  How Should We Then Live – The Rise and Decline of Western Thought and Culture, Crossway Books, Wheaton, Illinois Copyright © 1976 by Francis A. Schaeffer, p. 19.

[14] Smith, Huston with Paine, Jeffrey Tales of Wonder – Adventures Chasing The Divine – An Autobiography, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, New York, NY Copyright © 2009 by Huston Smith, p. 106.

[15] Jones, Tony The New Christians – Dispatches From The Emergent Frontier, Jossey-Bass – A Wiley Imprint San Francisco, CA Copyright © 2007 by John Wiley & Sons, Inc. pp.104-105.

[16] Taylor, Daniel The Myth of Certainty – The Reflective Christian and the Risk of Commitment, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois Copyright © 1986 by Daniel Taylor, p. 107.

[17] Schaeffer, Francis A. The Mark of the Christian, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois Copyright © 1970 by L’Abri Fellowship, p. 26.

[18] Chandler, Paul-Gordon, Pilgrims of Christ on the Muslim Road – Exploring A New Path Between Two Faiths, Cowley Publications, Lanham, Maryland Copyright © 2007 by Paul-Gordon Chandler,  p.92.

[19] Kinnaman, David  unChristian – What A New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity and Why It Matters, Baker Books Grand Rapids, Michigan Copyright © 2007 by David Kinnaman and Fermi Project, pp. 183 & 184.

[20] SeeMcLaren, BrianA New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, CA USA Copyright © 2010 by Brian D. McLaren– Available February 2010. P. 87.

[21] Schaeffer, Francis A. The Mark of the Christian, InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, Illinois Copyright © 1970 by L’Abri Fellowship, pp. 27 & 28.

[22] SeeMcLaren, BrianA New Kind of Christianity – Ten Questions That Are Transforming the Faith, HarperOne – An Imprint of HarperCollins Publishers, San Francisco, CA USA Copyright © 2010 by Brian D. McLaren– Available February 2010. pp. 228 & 229.

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3 thoughts on “The Decline of the Emerging Church (?)”

  1. Bill I really appreciated your take of what seems to be happening on the fringe, or the intersection. Probably two years ago now I left the church I was involved in a minor leadership role. Part of the decision was direction, the church’s focus was internal, implementing programs etc to attract outsiders. There was very little outreach or missional vision. Anyways, I ended up on the fringe of the church. I attend a church occasionally, but my image of church has changed. I’m involved in a local soup kitchen ( The Rainbow Kitchen ), a street ministry called CARTS ( CHRISTIAN ACTION REFLECTING THE SPIRIT ), and involved with youth on a local first nations reserve. I’m beginning to ask myself if these might be those green shoots you talk about. Could these small missional communities be called ” church “, or should we try to stick that label. But I’m finding the idea of small very sustainable both in terms of mission, and cost…fuel efficient.There highly communal, the focus is so outward that there isn’t time to navel gaze. Worship has become more about living than the Sunday morning dynamics of music and sermon. There is a reality of living out the texts, rather than just in them. And there is a different level of engagement also…we have people in the mix that might not be believers, also of different faiths. There is no agenda to convert, there is more of a sense of belonging, joining the mission, following. If in the midst of that the Spirit speaks and changes hearts, great…if not they still belong.Anyways, sorry for going on so long, but I wanted to add some context. But my big question to you is, do you envision the idea of tender green shoots being the new reality of faith. Are we moving towards small, sustainable,simple and fluid? Could they be free of building, or is it a merger to Mega. Do you envision multifaith communities? Anyways Bill in my two years outside the church living in the intersection has really opened my eyes to the opportunities. Again, I loved your article…it was hope filled, filled with encouragement. I actually think emegence has got bigger it has spilled outside of what was, into something like God…becomming more and more undefinable.

  2. Ron:

    Truly, deeply, appreciated your reply(ies). In terms of your question: “But my big question to you is, do you envision the idea of tender green shoots being the new reality of faith. Are we moving towards small, sustainable,simple and fluid? Could they be free of building, or is it a merger to Mega. Do you envision multi-faith communities?”-—Gosh Ron, I really need to think about your question….probably a week or so…My immediate response is that “I am just not that perceptive (or intelligent)— As I said in the article, I cannot imagine what God’s Spirit is up to — other than vastly more than language or the human mind allows to to characterize…that’s a beautiful thing in so many ways — as you know. However, the multi-faith dimension is clearly one that is blossoming among us. It is so gorgeous it brings tears to my eyes.

    However, CARTS is a splendid example of one of the many forms of the new “green shoots.” Wow! I have to share my own “cart” story with you sometime…It changed my life (really).

    “Church” – wow! There’s a term I have been attempting to reinvent for two years now. It has SO MUCH negative, confusing baggage associated with it for so many millions of people. In fact, I think we must begin using symbols instead of the word “church” – symbols linked directly to a way of living — today — not life lived 2,000 years ago in a culture, with a language(s) and among a people so many cannot relate to today.

    Once again, I adore your term “intersection” — Yes – Yes – Yes —- we must be in and among “traffic” — because we ARE traffic, empowered and directed by the breeze and whisper of God’s Spirit. If that “ain’t” sustainable and fuel efficient — Brother, I don’t know what is!

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