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

One of the biggest assumptions about those in the emerging church is that they are trying to find an easier, more comfortable, more theologically loose version of church. Now, it’s difficult to make sweeping statements because there are always exceptions, but in my experience and study it’s entirely wrong to say those in the emerging church are looking for an easy way out. Indeed, I think it’s entirely to the contrary. Much of the emerging church, in my estimation, is propelled by seeking more from a church community than most churches are willing to give. Men and women, in essence, mature past the bounds that churches know what to do with–and in response may a few different directions. The first response is to become nominal. There are lots of causes of nominality in a church, so to apply one or another cause as the only explanation is dangerous. Typically, church leaders like to throw out the charge of “consumerism” for the nominals in their midst. However, a big cause of nominality (and indeed a nominality that may lead to consumerism) is low morale, no longer finding or expecting paths of contribution or maturity beyond the repetition of the established messages.

In other words, men and women become nominal when they have reached a point of Christian maturity where they don’t know how to find more growth, and the church they are a part of does not have the ability to lead them to new depths of involvement or understanding. People can exist in this state for a good chunk of their lives. Those who value cultural institutions might linger in a church, might even have a low level of involvement. Those who don’t have that value will probably drift away, as many do.

But, other people have different responses. Some depress their maturing and stay active at a reasonably involved pace, doing what they can do, as they can. These people tend to form the bedrock of any church–and generally they’re really good people who may or may not have a vague sense there’s something more.

Other people don’t go nominal but they don’t settle. They are pushed to do something, and often this will take the form initially of trying to do something in their own church setting, which if honored by the staff, might even allow for new paths of growth for that person and many others. If not, if pushed back against, these people become lost in that morass of loving Jesus but frustrated with present church realities. This can result in church shopping, or it can result in going emerging–something that has been a reality for most of church history in my opinion, but gone by different names and responses in different times in history. With the breakdown of denominations and the lessening education gap between clergy and laity, there is the ability to press on even in the absence of sanctioned ecclesial support. Sometimes, this pressing on makes all the difference in maintaining a faith.

Which brings me back to my story. During my freshman year at Wheaton I attended Wheaton Wesleyan church. I was baptized in a Wesleyan church when I was 4, and was fairly comfortable with that tradition. Some other friends went as well. The pastor was an older man, who had been at the church for quite a long while. My memory is he was a very godly man, one of those dear pastors who people are blessed to have in their life. It had the feel of a nice family, though there wasn’t an obvious path of involvement, so I never really found a place there. The end of that school year or so the pastor announced he was retiring.

This seems to be pretty much the pattern in my life. Leaders leave. Mentors move. Sometimes I catch them at the end of a long tenure. Sometimes they abandon ship early. Sometimes they have good reason to move just when I happen to have been building a relationship. I don’t take it personally. But it has affected me. And, no doubt, it affects my views on all kinds of things.

For instance, have you ever studied the leaders in the Bible? If you are wanting to pull out principals of leadership it might be a helpful task. If you’re wanting to be reassured about leaders, it’s a bad place to go. Because the Bible is full of leaders. And for the most part they’re leading people into disasters, or sin. There are exceptions. Thank God for the exceptions.

I really could have used a mentor while at Wheaton. I tried a few directions. I was involved, but my problem was, again, my problems. I wasn’t the type of person to get into the whole dorm/residential life world. I was at Wheaton because I was desperate to meet God. And I did meet God at Wheaton.

But not through leaders or mentors. In fact, it was only when I moved away from looking for such that I began to find wisdom and direction again. Only now I’m again jumping ahead in the story.

My freshman year was my year of trying to play the part. It was mostly miserable, and empty. I prayed a lot, was desperate to find God, to get help from God in finding deeper friendships and relationships. I was constantly around people, way too much for an introvert, yet I was entirely lonely.

My sophomore year things changed in curious ways. Better living situation, I was a friend with my roommate, and while dorm life was far from ideal it was a bit more comfortable. I was involved in a weekly ministry, which offered both contribution and interaction with peers. But more than this I was finding a curious deepening with God. I was still desperate to find him, and in that desperation he seemed to pull back the curtains a few times in ways that still resonate.

There were small epiphanic eruptions, but the most biggest, the main one, came during the four day Fall break in October of ’94. Everyone else had gone somewhere else. I was, mostly, alone. I was inspired to read Paradise Lost, and sat on the big Wheaton lawn all weekend. This isn’t the place for details about that, but it’s enough to say that this weekend filled me with an incredible sense of God, his calling, his eternity, his hope, his life. Later that year, in the Spring, there was a revival on campus–week long public confessions of sin, worship, and pretty clear works of God in people’s lives. This was pretty intense, but it was not necessarily new. God had been doing this in my life throughout the year, leading me into increased depths of mystical, intellectual, and historical understanding of his presence. I had really good teachers at Wheaton, who opened up new paths of learning–but they were not as much mentors as they were guides, pointing me in the new directions. And, it was the pure work of God himself who opened up my heart and soul in the ways he was moving. I was moved onto a path where my mentors were God and ancients, reading and prayer, even as I was able to manage a more decent social life than before.

My sophomore year was a year of gifts, a year in which God opened up to me his presence and possibilities, revealing in undeniable ways his fullness and work–ways which I had echoes of before. This all occurred almost entirely outside the confines of church. In fact, I have no memory of what church I went to my sophomore year.

There was not really an emerging church in 1995, but I was emerging, pulled along by God’s Spirit in profound ways. I was on the seashore for much of that year, one foot in heaven and one foot still on earth.

The next year it all dried up. Which pushed me further into needing the depths of God, and further from finding any path to that in traditional churches.

This entry was posted in emerging history, personal, theology. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to An Outsider’s History of the Emerging Church (part nine)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *