How nice of Michael to reply to the post “Horton on Emerging Church”. I like his reply, affirm what he has written and have a few thoughts in response at the very end.
Reply to Andrew
May 11, 2005
Actually, today is my birthday and I received a great present in the form of a Andrew’s post on this blog. (Someone passed it on to me and I printed it off in hard-copy form, since “academics like Michael” prefer print to screens.) I’m sending this to Andrew, but would be thrilled if he posted it to y’all.
First, thanks for the very kind remarks and the thoughtful interaction. One of the things that I like most about Emergent types is the willingness to listen and engage in conversation. Many of us grew up in churches where tough subjects weren’t raised and it’s refreshing to see folks ask, “Why?” instead of settle for pious slogans.
I’d like to respond briefly to Andrew’s remarks about my comments in a recent radio interview, under his sub-topic, “Michael’s Worthy Spankings.”
1. “Emergent’s catering to sloppy pop-postmodern philosophies.”
Conservative evangelicalism often catered to sloppy modern philosophies, including the belief that if we could just find some universal Archimedian starting-point for our beliefs, we could arrive at absolute certainty (foundationalism). I know that Brian McLaren thinks that there’s a sloppy “postmodernism” out there that celebrates raving relativism and he’s against that, but he does think it’s a good therapy (as in chemotherapy) against modern absolutism. Actually, I’d like to think that a wiser way forward is to try to avoid sloppiness of all stripes by hitching our wagon to the only real type-casting that matters in scripture: “this present age” and “the age to come.” With the death, resurrection, and ascension of Christ, and the sending of his Spirit, a new age has dawned to make everything new. Whether in its premodern, modern, or postmodern phases, “this age” keeps dishing up the same gruel, with different packaging. As someone who interacts with postmodern literature a lot in my recent books (hey, I was a correspondent with Derrida!), I can appreciate that there are some pretty radical criticisms of modernity. There are some important shifts—a lot of them good ones, I would say.
2. “They are really young and too demographically separated.”
Andrew says that the traditional church hasn’t done well with older people either, but I guess that depends on what you mean by “traditional.” Although Kim Riddlebarger and I planted a church in Orange County that consists of mostly new or young Christians, my family and I are now at a church with 600 members who span the generations. In fact, in this largely Dutch-immigrant denomination, there is a pretty strong tradition of taking care of people from cradle (including catechism and schools) to grave (including nursing homes, usually visited by members each Sunday after church). It can certainly be parochial and insular, but there’s a wisdom in it all that makes me take a step back and admire the wisdom of a church I didn’t create. Remarkably, children and grandchildren grow up in that church and, for all its warts, seem to be grounded in their faith and are able to share it with others. I worry that in our culture of niche demographic marketing, this imperfect version of the communion of saints is being torn apart. While youth certainly can’t be despised, the fact that Christ instituted through his apostles an office named “elder” attests to the fact that wisdom is to be cherished above creativity and innovation.
I certainly don’t think that seminary solves our ecclesial woes! In fact, the current state of theological education is itself part of the problem: that’s where young people who sense God’s call to be shepherds of Christ’s flock are often converted into CEO’s, market analysts, politicians, and therapists. Aping the secular universities they want to impress, divinity schools have often offered cloying attempts to make Christianity (i.e., themselves) “relevant” to whatever academic fad happens to be on the stage at the moment.
But there are still good seminaries. (I’d like to think I teach at one!) Seminaries that don’t take themselves too seriously, but take God, his Word, and his Gospel very seriously. If, according to the Apostle Paul’s qualifications for office-holders, even a deacon must be trained in “the deep truths of scripture,” surely it is no wonder that elders and ministers must be “able to teach,” and that “no one lay hands on anyone rashly”—that is, ordain anyone without sober examination and testing. Americans are notorious for their pragmatism: “We don’t need no education.” That’s just The Man, telling us what to think. But when the chips are down we all still want to find a good pathologist for our cancer and we’d have misgivings about choosing an obstetrician who did a mail-order degree. Is the Great Commission (and the people it is meant to benefit) less valuable than our physical health? In my humble opinion, Emergent needs to value such seminaries not simply to the extent that they provide venues for their movement, but to the extent that they train first-rate ministers of word and sacrament.
4. “Vague and avoids certainty.”
There’s a difference between epistemological certainty (i.e., rationalism) and the assurance that comes from the Spirit through preaching and sacrament (i.e., conviction or trust). There really is such a thing as the “hermeneutical turn” (although Ricoeur thinks we’re well beyond that now), away from Cartesian rationalism. And that’s a good thing! But then our “premodern” Reformed theologians were already there: “our theology,” as they called it, was not “God’s theology.” In other words, God has “archetypal” or original, absolute knowledge, and we have “ectypal” knowledge—that is, knowledge, derived from God’s own revelation of himself and his purposes in history.
As reformers like Luther and Calvin insisted against the “ladders” people were climbing in the middle ages (ladders of speculation, monastic asceticism, and mysticism), the Christian story is all about God’s descent, nor our ascent. God has condescended, said Calvin, to speak “baby talk” to us, not so that we can know everything, nor indeed anything the way God knows it, but so that we might be reconciled to him in true worship through Christ. In all of our old books, our “ectypal” theology is further described as “the theology of pilgrims on the way,” distinguished from “the theology of glorified saints in heaven.” All of this, they said, should lead to a “humble theology.”
Something happened along the way, doubtless involved in some way with “modernity” but also due to our own sinfulness, that seduced us into forgetting that important point. We need to recover it, but we need to begin again to think with our pre-Cartesian forebears and simply adopt whatever side the pendulum of “this age” has swung in the last 45 minutes.
I don’t think theology—that is, the patient discipleship of listening to the Master’s voice along with the “communion of saints” in other times and places, has fared very well in modernity. It certainly wasn’t a hot topic in my conservative evangelical churches growing up. In fact, it’s one reason I was on my way out, not because I’m an egg-head (I’ve always been a very average student), but because I need to have something deeper than “love songs to Jesus” for my spiritual diet. I’m not Reformed because I find it therapeutically useful or a “good fit” for my current location spiritually, but because it rings true to me as I read the scriptures and participate in the community formed by the Spirit through word and sacrament. We learn from others. Our radio program, The White Horse Inn, has two Reformed pastors along with a Lutheran and a Baptist pastor. I’m regularly impressed with the insights of those outside my own tradition: Roman Catholic, Orthodox, Anabaptist. They make me go back to the sources and figure out whether I’m just wearing a label or following God’s Word. Yet at the end of the day, you can’t just pick and choose. You can’t remain aloof to the question of where you stand in the wider Christian family. Often, the issues that have historically divided the Christian community are the very issues that are most important and interesting.
Andrew introduces dichotomies that were actually well-known in modernity: “God? Yes. My theology? No.” Kant, for example, thought that we could know that God exists (as a necessary presupposition for ethical action), but we can’t say anything for certain about God—his attributes, purposes in history, and so forth. Throughout modernity, therefore, theology had to survive in the realm of the heart, personal preference, opinion. But Andrew is no Kantian. He even adds, “For what it is worth,…I am absolutely convinced, beyond doubt, in the One True God and his Son Jesus Christ. He is my Savior.” Well, this is theology! The question isn’t whether we have one, but whether it’s good—and this is certainly good theology. As Stanley Hauerwas and others have reminded us, becoming disciples is a lot like learning a foreign language. We spend a lot of time learning the lingo of our generation, of our vocation (especially if we’re techies), of pop culture. What encourages me about Emergent types is the yearning for something deeper. No offense to Andrew, but the best work in the church has been done in confessions and catechisms rather than on blogs. There’s still a lot we don’t know—and we don’t know anything as we ought, but after we’ve said that, it would not be humility but arrogance that would reduce the proclamation of Christ to a couple sentences or slogans. Remember, doctrinal minimalism is “modern” (actually, it’s been our way since the Fall).
In short, the church needs to be both mother and missionary. As simply mother, she can create a suffocating environment (no offense meant, but sort of like a couple of home-schooling families I’ve run into). You get the feeling that the kids just don’t get out much. A lot of our “traditional” Reformed and Presbyterian churches are like that (my Lutheran friends say the same thing). But if the church is only a missionary and not a mother, we’ll wind up losing the “reached” while trying to save the “lost.” In other words, most people for 2,000 years have become Christians by being baptized, catechized, immersed in its relevance at home and church, and then they eventually die in it. Kind of boring, isn’t it? But most people in church history have actually become Christians this way (since Acts 2, in fact), not through “crusades” and revivalistic movements that come in tsunamis in this weird country.
We need to continue this dialogue. I mean, at least on our side, we need to hear what you have to say. You challenge us to think more deeply about the missionary side of our existence as a church. We may want to do our pub chats and coffee house stuff on a day other than Sunday, and save the Lord’s Day for pretty “straight-up” Word-and-Sacrament ministry (which, after all, Christ ordained), but you’re giving us ideas and pricking our conscience. It would also be interesting to talk about criteria for what we do in worship. Anyway, I hope we can keep this discussion going.
Professor of Theology
Westminster Seminary California
Thanks Mike , and happy birthday for yesterday. I emailed your white horse inn address as soon as i posted my thoughts, and wish you had received it earlier.
Thanks for your response – Its great and i dont feel the need to argue it. In fact you can consider me in agreement with it. I hope my readers will add some further encouraging thoughts to your letter. I will, however, throw a couple of clarifying thoughts and tidbits on those 4 points, not as rebuttal, but more as footnotes.
Regarding me as an “Emergent” – I think i am quite typical of other emergents in that i am focusing my energy in starting church planting movements in the “emerging area” of culture, the fringe where chaos is the norm and where change and unpredictability are the water we walk in. The new churches often reflect that and i am proud to be associated with these brand new life-forms. But i am equally connected to the traditional, the mainstream, the old wineskins, the residual forms of church. Sometimes I don’t see the difference – and I often avoid bringing up the “Emergent” word because it gives the wrong impression that i am cut off from the older expressions, which is not true. But for the sake of this conversation, | will remain under the “Emerging/Emergent” label and use the words “us” and “we”, just as Isaiah chose identification with the people he ministered among (despite their unclean lips)
However, if the current criticism on emerging church continues to be innaccurate and misleading (not yours), then i will in good conscience, have to take the label off my head because it no longer characterizes what God is doing globally among the emerging culture.
OK – your response, written on your birthday [now i feel bad – hope you didn’t miss out on family time to write that]
1. Sloppy Philosophy.
Lets, all of us, try to avoid it. Its not helpful at all. The problem is, sloppy philosophy (SP) comes up most often in critiques of emerging church, and emerging church people, in attempting to defend themselves on the same ground that the critics are offering, end up jumping back into the SP to get themselves back out of it. When we do that, it seems like we are legitimizing the SP.
Here is a way out:
Critics should start with what the emergents are actually dealing with (check out what they are reading/listening to/responding to) and Emergents should be more open with what is influencing them – Keep the “reading” list on your blogs updated, for example.
If the critics knew what books and theologians we were ACTUALLY listening to, we would get a better quality critique. And Mike, I am not referring to your critique here, but to others of a substandard nature.
2. Demographically Separated.
– I feel elder care and elder evangelism are two different things. Regarding the winning of elderly people into the Kingdom, most elderly people in traditional churches have been there a very long time and many came through Billy Graham crusades or Sunday School or Girls Brigade when they were much MUCH younger. I have led “New Believers” classes in many traditional churches and i can testify that they are mostly composed of young couples, teenagers, and a few middle aged.
The emerging churches that have been planted over the past 5-10 years have yet to prove themselves in the area of elder care, because they are too young.
– “Elders” are vital to the emerging church. I have many elders (E.B. Brooks, Thom Wolf) and I would be anchorless without them.
– Its true, Mike, that some faults have already emerged. One example of a club-culture church in Glasgow (emergents know which one) was not able to grow old with its people or adapt to the new families. Even the Soul Survivor church I attended near London said on the front page of the handout that it was a church for “20’s and 30’s. Since I had just turned 40, I felt a little offended. And then the morning worship service turned out to be very suburban and tame – something my mother would enjoy – which made me feel confused and left out.
I don’t like age segregation and people know that. Church BY young people FOR everyone.
However, if a small group of young people want to start a church and stay connected to the mother church (and use their building) then their most likely course of action is to pitch the project as a church for younger people – which gives them an excuse to be noisy, experimental, and weird. (even if they turn out to be quiet and liturgical). For this reason, we may continue to see segregation and age-targeting, but it may be pressure from the traditional sponsoring churches, rather than a demographic choice from the emerging church.
Agreed. As I said, i had great experiences at Seminaries and managed to avoid much of the faddishness. The basic grounding for ministry was my years at West Australian Bible College in Perth, where we studied EVERY book of the Bible – i loved it!!!. It will interest you to know that all of my church history professors were Westminster Pres. (WessiePressies) like yourself – some were American and some Australian.
We all know that in the future, Seminaries will have a part to play in the formation of leaders for the emerging church, but in a modular rather than singular fashion.
4. Vague and Avoids Certainty
Agreed. We share the same avoidance of sloganeering and the desire to have good theology. The missionary and mother analogy works with me also. With my background in missiology and 20 years of missions work around the world (the over-acheiving hyper-active type), i need to be careful of leaning too far over to the missionary and neglecting the mothering/nurturing.
I also like the idea of standing into one’s own tradition, while at the same time learning from others.
My tradition is Baptist. I was adopted by a fundamentalist Baptist church as a new believer in my late teens and grew up with them spiritually. i am also grateful for the strong love of God’s Word that was nurtured during my time with them. I am no longer fundamentalist – but I am a Baptist – yes, I am more than a Baptist, and i also strive to be “less Baptist and more like Jesus” (Thom Wolf) when necessary.
Last week I attended Stromness Baptist Church, and like Baptist churches around the world, I felt quite at home and was perfectly fluent in the language. Probably the way you feel when you attend Reformed churches. My home church, in case you are wondering, is Austin First Baptist Church – a 155 year old church in Texas that we miss very much and are looking forward to our first furlough (after 5 years away) later this year.
Mike, thanks again for your response. Don’t feel obliged to respond to my responses – they are not questions nor even rebuttals – they are just polite thank-yous and respectful acknowledgments that i have listened to you and taken to heart what you have said.
I pray every success for your radio program and ask God to give you a teaching ministry that extends its tent pegs across the globe, to places it is needed most.
Look forward to future discussion and coffee when location allows