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

My bringing up Tertullian is a pretty good indicator why I’m an outsider with an insider’s understanding of the emerging church.

I doubt there are a lot of people who would bring up Tertullian as an emerging church patron saint, but I’ll argue the case. Though maybe not now.

My early church history class was a lot more than studying that prickly Father. We read Eusebius’ Church History, the first volume of the ante-Nicene fathers, and a few other texts which have no doubt blended together among my influences over the years. My major paper in the class was on Tertullian–so that’s why I have an affinity for him. Or rather, I found a major affinity for him, and so read all his works over a few weeks and wrote the paper on him.

What struck me in that class was the depth of the faith. I had grown up in the church. Was pretty active at each level. I knew it, had done all the things expected of a young Evangelical. I knew the basics, and I thought the basics were all there was to know.

It wasn’t. So, at a time in which I was doing well I was introduced to the depths of the faith, sparking something deep within me.

How is this related to the emerging church? Oddly, in a lot of ways. The more obvious is that emerging churches are characterized by an interest in broader Christian spiritualities. No one ever told me there was something interesting outside the Evangelical tradition, indeed I was taught to have a suspicion of such things. Wheaton was amazing, in part, because in both my degree programs–I started as a history major and added a Bible/Theology major after taking the early church history class–emphasized reading primary documents. Historians, and others, characterized primary documents as those written by people who actually were involved in a certain situation, or who were historical figures, or otherwise were able to speak about something they experienced. Secondary sources are those written about an era or movement or something else, without having direct exposure to it.

Reading Tertullian is reading a primary source, reading a book that lauds the contributions of the early church is a secondary source.

That’s a tangent… Basically, my time at Wheaton exposed me to some key, broader influences of spirituality that opened my mind and soul to the broader work of God in time and space. At the time I didn’t realize I was doing what a whole lot of other people around the world were doing. Realizing the inadequacy of far too much church teaching in helping to build a substantive Christian life and message, leaving popular theology increasing irrelevant to far too many people, and doing it in a way that made people think that the whole of Christianity was irrelevant, shallow, and often destructive. A good many of these people had grown up in churches, and many had even been very active in churches. Some were broken by temptations, but a good portion of society was just exhausted with the show and the flair and the lack of substantive community. There was broken morale and people broken by power hungry, striving men and women who had a “rev.” in front of their name but didn’t know God nearly as much as they thought they did.

So, in essence, people had in fact tried church and found it wanting. Which was something I was going to discover very quickly during my junior year.

That’s a key part of understanding the emerging church. For all its mistakes the great bulk of what has happened is not about heresy or trying to make Christianity easier or prettier. It’s realizing there’s something missing, and what is missing isn’t about coming up with something new–it’s realizing what is missing is what characterized the church and theology at its strongest moments in history. The lack of these things absolutely affects the influence of the church in today’s world–especially in places where the church had longstanding influence. The questions, and some of the errors, come in trying to understand how these deeper characteristics of theology and church can be applied to today’s postChristian world. It has a lot of similarities to a pre-Christian society but some very strong distinctions too, and these distinctions haven’t quite been sorted out in practical expressions.

I was, at Wheaton, emerging from my Evangelical roots, into a stronger, deeper, wiser Christian. I was increasingly an outsider, as I had no mentors at that time showing me the way, and did not learn about these emerging tendencies from a popular writer or guru. I was in the middle of it, and found my light in the writings of those from long ago.

A discovery that may have, literally, saved my life.

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