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

Beginning in the Fall of 1993, I was in Wheaton for most of the year. I’m not going to get into the details of my time at Wheaton because that would make this entirely more a autobiography than I had intended. Suffice it to say that I think Wheaton is an amazing place spiritually and intellectually, but a dismal place socially. I’ve talked to enough alum to have this confirmed, though people experience this in different ways. In terms of my experiences with church, I went to the Midwest straight from what was then understood as one of the most dynamic churches in the country, and one of the very, very few that were beginning to take notice of the peculiarly postmodern sensibilities.

Wheaton had a number of churches in the area, pretty much most denominations you could think of. But, they didn’t have a Flock that Rocked. Indeed, every church had a college group, but the church I had come from was, essentially, a big ol’ college group and I had some of the best leadership shown by college students. At the churches, college students were basically advanced high schoolers, with their special group meetings, and their special pastor and their special pizza and a movie nights. It was really, really difficult to be in situations where college students were talked down to so much, in essence, and treated as incapable. Even as Wheaton College itself was training and trusting and thrusting college students to new realms of knowledge and leadership.

This bring me to a very important part of emerging churches, that I instinctively began to thrive in during high school, and more so during my time at Newsong. It’s trust. Trust people. Trust them enough to let go control and hand off responsibilities. Trust them enough that God is not only speaking to people with advanced degrees, ordination, or church-provided salary. Trust always involves risk, and oftentimes this risk involves some level of failure. In the podcast I posted below, Eric noted that at the time Newsong didn’t really have a sense of what would work in a worship setting, so they took a lot of risks and just tried things. They felt free to experiment, and the broad range of activities outside the sunday service, and beyond the direct involvement of staff, and the super high morale of the attenders meant there was a lot of experimenting, and a lot of empowerment. People began to taste of walking in the Spirit and learning discernment and using their gifts as they could, where they could.

Wheaton was not far from what was then the reigning king of Evangelical churches: Willowcreek. Willowcreek was the baby-boomer church, designed from the ground up to minister to the sensibilities of the post-WWII generation. The driving philosophy behind this was being “seeker sensitive.” So, there was a sense that Willowcreek would have been the natural fit for me. Only while it wasn’t very far, Wheaton was far enough for this carless kid. It was a 40 minute drive or so. So, it wasn’t going to happen. I did visit a few times that first year, and honestly, it didn’t entirely grab me anyhow. It was extremely polished. Extremely professionalized. Extremely large in every way. Like going into a business meeting. The emphasis for involvement was small groups, so there’s that. But, it seemed there was a pretty clear boundary between those for whom church meant performance and those for whom church meant reception. Seeker sensitive meant there was a relatively shallow and topical message on the weekends, with a deeper more Scripture based service during the week. Looking at bullet points about the two churches it would be easy to see Newsong as merely a younger expression of Willowcreek. Only from my perspective, even as an outsider, it wasn’t at all. Newsong had a lot of talent, but it took place in a junior high gym. It had a lot of contemporary sensibilities, but it was a lot more of the people, than for the people. Newsong did things well–great music, great preaching—but it was a lot more raw. That trust thing again, I think.

But, the similarities were there. Dieter Zander saw Bill Hybels as a mentor, and even as NewSong was not a seeker sensitive church there were elements of the bigger in the smaller. And, given NewSong’s success, Dieter was a rising star, and if there’s something the biggest church in the country (at the time) liked, it was drawing in all the rising stars.

Dieter left NewSong in late 1993 or early 1994, I believe. To go start a new ministry at Willowcreek, a Gen-X ministry. I heard from friends that he was leaving, and the emotions they were feeling. At the time I was pretty selfish, and wrote Dieter a note saying I thought it was a great decision and the Midwest needed such an influence. I thought I could get involved, find the same atmosphere that I missed back home.

I was wrong. About all of it. And in the next part I’ll get into why, and I’ll start giving some of my more… difficult… opinions about emerging church habits and history.

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