An Outsider’s History of the Emerging Church (part 10)

During the summer after my sophomore year of college I worked as a mailman, delivering mail to addresses all over San Dimas, filling in for the regular carriers who were on vacation. A great summer job. Good pay. Lots of sun and exercise. Very nice after the Chicago winter. More than this, I was back at NewSong. For the most part, NewSong was still a Gen-X, proto-emerging church. The ministries were still quite dynamic, there was a lot of spread out leadership, and an openness to multiple visions and needs all uniting in a shared community. I was still very much an outsider as far as the leadership, but was very involved in the goings-on of small groups and community events. People were involved in ministry and in each other’s lives.

Those I knew were excited about God, excited about ministry, excited about participation, excited about growing deeper in faith and action, and were holistic in how this was worked out. They were predominately young and unmarried still. The whole church, essentially, was a singles ministry–but one that took quite advantage of what seems to be the Pauline understanding of singleness. They have more time and less family responsibilities, so can devote themselves more to the work of their community. Even as this shared work often meant relationships forming and blossoming.

I wasn’t a leader really, but my brother was involved in the lay leadership, as was his girlfriend (now wife–they met at the small group), and many other friends. People had the chance to rise and grow in participation and leadership basically to whatever level they were willing to go.

Dieter had left, and the church was still doing fine, moving along on the shoulders of those who called NewSong home.

Dieter had made for a broad based leadership. In addition, rather than pulling people out of other churches, or recruiting on seminary bulletin boards, he had reached out to men and women who had somehow found themselves involved in the church, or connecting to NewSong’s overall vision. The staff were people who had been diverted from various other goals, and seemed to have found a new passion in this dynamic community, willing to let go their other plans so as to devote themselves full time to helping NewSong’s ministry. People were raised up from within the community, encouraged, and given a trust of leadership that wasn’t necessarily founded on resume or experience, but more on what Dieter saw in them, who they could become. He then increasingly let people take up authority and responsibility, with a lot of learning on the job taking place. This meant things weren’t perfect, but there was in this a huge freedom for experimentation, creativity, and dynamic exploration of what church meant for postmodern generations.

That’s what it looked like from the outside.

Needless to say, going from this dynamic community back to Wheaton–where I had some friends, but nothing even closely resembling the kind of holistic, Christian fellowship of NewSong–was difficult. Wheaton offered something NewSong didn’t, however. Intellectual and spiritual training that would deepen my faith and push me farther than I even knew possible. I got back with high expectations, having ended my sophomore year on a strong note. Within a month it seemed like everything had turned sour. My junior year was the consummate Dark Night of the soul. I felt immensely isolated. Immensely lacking. Immensely in need of God. Only I didn’t know where he had gone. The fullness I felt of his presence during the last year had almost entirely disappeared, even as I had, in just about every way, sought to press farther and deeper in every aspect of my spirituality.

I was co-leading a ministry to underprivileged children. I had added a Bible/Theology major, which meant I was getting more and more into the study of the Bible and faith. This study opened my eyes to even more spirituality. I had continued to read the writings of the early church, and then began getting very much into reading John Wesley. I bought Albert Outler’s small volume of Wesley writings, and found significant insight, direction, and trouble. Trouble because Wesley was, well, Wesley. And while I didn’t have near the extroverted leadership sense he had, I did have quite the constipated, single-minded devotion to finding God’s work in my life. I looked at the early church and at Wesley as models for my own burgeoning spirituality.

Yet, things got worse in my life. I seemed to have less community than ever. I seemed to have less contact with God than ever. I seemed to have more troubles than ever. I pressed on. Wesley fasted twice a week. I started doing that. I was learning Greek, and learning prayer, and hearing from some of the greatest Christian leaders of our day during Wheaton’s regular chapels. Yet, I began noticing that I didn’t resonate with those who other people at Wheaton resonated with. The more deeply I found myself going, the less connection I had with others. And I had no idea why.

I began getting quite depressed. Seriously depressed. Clinically so. Only I didn’t know it at the time. I only had the training of my Evangelical roots to go with, and it had not at all prepared me for the emotional waves of deeper spirituality. I was given tools for evangelism and tools for apologetics. Back in California, the community aspects of Christianity were all too easy–right before me, I would just show up and I was a part. At Wheaton, all was dark and struggle, no matter what I did or tried it fell flat.

I asked a pastor who I knew at NewSong what was going on. Why were things getting so much worse even as I was trying to do more and more in pursuing Christ. His answer? Unconfessed sin. I must be sinning in a way that was blocking God’s answer.

Everything in me said no. This wasn’t it. Not that I was perfect or had everything together. I was only 21 after all. I was growing, but I was still fighting against so much. But it wasn’t sin.

This pastor was a friend, a good man, someone who I trusted. And I know he valued me. Yet, at the time I needed a pastor the most, someone to say God was still working, that “this” was what was happening, I had nothing. I found relief in reading Philip Yancey’s Disappointment with God–who pointed out a particular work of God in the Dark Nights. I found relief elsewhere in reading–reading books that others I knew hadn’t heard of and didn’t talk about. Answers in traditions that were, increasingly, either outside of my own or not referred to by my own.

My junior year I took a class on Paul’s life and writings. My major paper in that class was on Paul’s Purpose for the Church.

First, the earliest church and Tertullian, with their holistic portrayal of the church in the midst of a pagan society. Then a major study on John Wesley which thrust me into the midst of a holistic understanding of the Gospel. Then a study of Paul’s theology, driven by in depth consideration of his letters and the stories in Acts. All stacked on top of my own worship experiences that went well beyond entertaining today’s youth of the 90s, and was, for me, a comprehensive exploration of community life in shared pursuit of Christ. All this experience and all this study, all the depths of intellectual and spiritual wrestling that was so far beyond anything I had understood growing up that I had a hard time communicating it to others–all then stewing together in a year of profound social isolation and troubles home and there. I was being emotionally and spiritually torn apart.

Some time late in the first semester of my junior year I had read the first chapter to Paul’s letter to the Philippians, and was stuck on verse 21. To live is Christ, to Die is gain. I didn’t know what that meant. I mean I knew what that meant, but I didn’t know how to say that for myself, and I didn’t know, really, what it was to say ‘to live is Christ’. For Christ, with Christ, in the power of Christ, in the teachings of Christ. To live is to serve Christ, to worship Christ, to seek Christ. These things I knew. I didn’t know what “to live is Christ” meant. And, one day, while walking back to my apartment I prayed I would be able to really understand that verse.

God answered that prayer, and is still answering that prayer. All while I was increasingly on the outside of every formal movement. He was doing his own work, and my gurus were men and women who lived centuries ago, and a couple of key contemporary writers. I had completely run out of the faith that the church of my youth had taught me.

It was burned away through physical, social, spiritual, and emotional disasters that kept knocking me off my feet.

That was my junior year at Wheaton. I was utterly submerged, my head deep below the waves. Choking and no longer able to breathe.

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