An Outsider’s history of the Emerging Church (part seven)

My time at Wheaton was what really propelled me as an outsider into being an insider, even as I’ve really stayed an outsider.

Confused? Well, now you know how I have felt the last ten years or so.

When I say I’m an outsider, that’s to say I have little or no part in the standard paths of emerging church participation. I’ve really no connection with any of the big names or leaders. I’ve not been a big name or a big leader, or even a small name and a small leader. I’ve written a book that has a connection to the emerging church, that was heartily endorsed by some pretty important folks in the movement and in other realms. But, the book has received very little attention or sales. I’m not solicited for my opinion on things emerging, nor can I even now admit to attending an emerging/missional church. That puts me on the outside.

So, how do I speak about these things, even saying that I have a bit of an inside status.

Because my alignment with the emerging church has little to do with structural loyalty or functional training or trendy participation. Rather, my alignment has to do with the fact I am instinctively emerging by my nature, my emphases, my questions, my complaints, my solutions, and a lot of my experiences. I resonated with emerging before there was an emerging conversation, because my path was leading that direction already, albeit outside the usual channels of blogs or conferences.

Really, my path was very isolated for the most part. Cementing a strong outsider feeling me.

This path led to a lot of the same emphases, but because of my approach to it–from the outside–I have different perspectives on the same interests, traits, and goals.

I think my time at Wheaton pretty much thrust me on this transformative reality even as, at the time, I was not in any way doing anything that resembled emerging stuff. The experiences happened when I came home in the summer, when I would participate again with a NewSong small group and other ministries. Wheaton, however, was shaping for my mind and heart and spirit. Not in happy ways, for the most part, in excruciating tearing and challenging and breaking ways. Almost all of it internal.

Paul writes in Romans 12: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God-what is good and acceptable and perfect.”

He doesn’t add how much this really can hurt.

That’s a big preface. These posts are as much, or more, for me than for any reader, so I’m processing without really a plan in mind. Meandering over my past, I suppose, and linking that with the scattered conclusions of my experiences. You want a more cogent discussion–try out It’s a Dance. Much more to the point and orderly on much the same conclusions. But the conclusions there aren’t always as illuminating as facing the reality of the non-fiction experiences.

So, I was at Wheaton. My freshman year was… pretty empty, truth be told. I was not a very good student. I was intelligent but a pretty big underachiever–a reality that can be explained by a lot of reasons, but none of which I’m going to get into right now. Needless to say that wasn’t surprising. What was surprising was the fact I was at Wheaton, despite the fact there’s no way financially I should have been there. Looking back I see this year as the breaking. I was a good kid coming out of high school, but that wasn’t enough. It seemed like nothing I did that year worked out. Nothing felt free and easy or even fun. I felt extremely alone, even as I was just about continually surrounded by guys–guys who found, apparently, really good friendships. I just wasn’t like them–and it wasn’t because I think I was better or more insightful or more spiritual. More that the circumstances I had come out of into Wheaton thrust me into asking questions about God and life that a lot of people don’t ask for quite a while. I came to Wheaton because I was seeking God. That sounds grand and impressive. But I absolutely wasn’t. That was my yearning, however, and that combined with my experiences of poverty and dealing with major family traumas pushed me out of being at all content with the usual college scene–of which Wheaton had very little anyhow. Yet, to find friendship one must participate.

I realized now that this was really the beginning of the great tearing in my life. A tearing that seems to be a dynamic reality from then on, one in which my, apparently, natural bent towards Christian mysticism is not allowed to roam free but instead continually re-places me within a grounded world.

The freshman year was the year of spiritual reaching out, as I sought, in my isolation a community with God, that I didn’t feel in any part of my life. I felt great lack, so I prayed, and prayed, and prayed, and prayed. It didn’t get better. And I didn’t know what to do with that fact. I went home for the summer, had an amazing resurgence of proto-emerging community in the NewSong small groups. NewSong was now being led by the man who was, up to Dieter’s leaving, the pastor of small groups. He had done a tremendous job in that role, but the question remained whether it was his season to step up as the key leader for a very unique setting.

He wasn’t, it turns out. But, that’s again getting ahead of the story.

My summer was encouraging, and it was with a bit of sadness that I returned to Wheaton. But I did return, a minor miracle really.

My first quarter was a lot like my Freshman year. Same stuff, mostly same people all around. I got along a fair bit better with my roommate–not that my freshman roommate was a constant issue, we just were very different people. So, there was potential for a better year. And that hit the second semester. In just about every way, the second semester was good. Everything was clicking, it seemed, but the most lasting part of that, and the most relevant for this present history, is that I took early church history with Dr. J. Julius Scott.

Ever have a class, a professor, who not only taught you something new but indeed opened up a whole new world, a whole new vision, a whole new reality that in one short season devastates the old and ushers in the new? That was that class for me. For I had been introduced to the church fathers. And, curiously, the most influential of these writers was a man named Tertullian–the patron saint, I might say, of the emerging church.

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