An Outsider’s history of the emerging church (part six)

Why do you put yourself in the emerging theology camp, Patrick?

That’s a great question, and I’m glad I asked.

The key for me is that looking back on my theological/ecclesial path the last 15 years or so, I have come to realize that it’s not because I went to all the right conferences or grew a goatee or got into Apple products or embraced postmodernistic relativism.

I mean I am postmodern, there’s no doubt about that, but postmodern as in–not modern–rather than some amalgamation of French continental popular philosophical non-values.

I wasn’t pressed or led or steered by some visionary leader. Rather, I simply went my own way, and it turns out this way is a way a lot of folks who identify as emerging/missional have gone. Some of them pooled together and became insiders. I’ve never done that, or been included in that, though there was a season I tried to.

This is jumping way ahead in the story.

Dieter left NewSong to go to Willowcreek. Now, let me start off by handing Willowcreek all kinds of compliments for the good they do and whatnot. I need to preface the following because I do not believe there’s an totally wrong or totally right aspect to church or theology. There’s a spectrum. I think Willowcreek has done a great deal of good for many thousands of people, and it sounds like they are trying to navigate the tides of present society in a Christian way.

In a way, I think it’s pretty accurate to say Willowcreek is sort of like the King David of churches.

Willowcreek thrived in part because of gifted initial leadership. However, once big, they tended to thrive by plucking out the best leaders from around the country and tempting them with gold, and power, and influence, and Christianity Today features. (Midwestern based magazines tend to have midwestern emphasizing aspects–even as the midwest isn’t particularly a leading edge of… anything. That’s not to bash the midwest… midwesterners, in my experience pride themselves on going slow into change and doing things the way it’s always been done).

The fellas at Willow kept their eyes open for “women bathing on the rooftops”, or in other words, pastors doing really interesting things, and they plucked them from their commitments and had their way with them. The passage from 2 Samuel 12 is quite appropriate, I think.

Now, this isn’t terribly surprising, truth be told. For a long while, in a lot of traditions, there is a tendency for church leaders to live by different rules than those in the churches. People in churches are commended to commit, to stick it out, to participate, to not be consumers, to take seriously their membership, etc. Church leaders are not limited by such mundane realities. They have “a call” or “a vision” or some other pseudo-mystical appellation for their choices. They don’t go to the bigger church because of such crass reason as ambition. It’s a greater opportunity for ministry. They don’t emphasize particularly people because they want to be surrounded by the best. That would be consumerism. Don’t be silly. It’s congregations who do that, mostly because such people don’t have the spiritualized language that is, in essence, ecclesial adultery.

Pastors are whores. Maybe not for money… but there are other ways pastors are paid that might sound quite laudable on the surface.

Yeah, yeah, I know. Not all of them are whores. Maybe not even most of them. Some are extremely spiritual people who really do follow God’s deepest call in their lives. I’ve met them. And those are the sorts of people who have helped me come back from the brink of church rejection.

But there are particular temptations as a minister–and while such common sins aren’t often able to be expressed in terms of fancy cars or vacations or whatever–they have particularly churchy ways of expression.

So NewSong’s founding pastor was wooed away by the King of churches, at a moment in which he felt that he had done his part in leading NewSong and there was nothing more. The seven-year itch struck, and the commitments were broken. The details of this are in the appendix of Emerging Churches by Gibbs and Bolger, if you want to know more.

There’s some key things I’ve learned from this, looking back. As I said, at the time I thought it was a grand idea, mostly for supposedly selfish reasons. I was in Chicago area after all. And, at the time, there was not a leading edge for the development of church after modernity. Dieter was it, in a whole lot of ways. And he did what he felt was right, and what was pretty common in the church leadership world. He wasn’t the only lamb Willowcreek snatched from poor families after all.

From his perspective, he had attempted a more seeker-sensitive approach at NewSong, and the people at NewSong didn’t have much response to it. Dieter was discouraged, felt his leadership was not viable. And this expresses a really common issue in emerging church and many evangelical churches, especially as the emerging movement was coming together in the late 90s and after. There is an expression of broad participation and the valuing of all involved, but at the heart of so many of these communities is a vision-centered orientation that sees the mission more important than the people.

In other words, if a committed person has a different perception than the anointed leader they are either pushed aside, or there is a collapse of the leader’s own self-perception. There is not, in essence, a respect given to those who have been equally called to that community. This is troublesome because in emerging/missional type churches all the rhetoric points towards active and welcomed participation so any kind of power assertion or vision dominance makes for extreme dysfunction in both pastor and congregation.

This isn’t to say there shouldn’t be a vision or a mission. Rather, that these are shaped by both the leaders and the followers, who together make up the call of God for that community, who all share in the gifts of the Spirit and so there can and should be correction given both ways. Dieter, in my estimation now, was not at the end of his leadership at NewSong, rather the people at NewSong were keeping focused on what could have been a more fully developed, culturally honed, church model–not one following in the footsteps of a Baby Boomer mentality, but one that was keyed to be a leader in the new expressions of church in this world. And the congregation knew it. There was a conversation that could have taken place that would have offered significant growth to both the leaders of NewSong and those who attended. Only Willow flashed its ecclesial cash, wooed the tempted pastor away, who essentially fled the church for more apparent fruit-filled pastures. And he left behind people who were not really ready to step up to the mantle of what NewSong might have become.

In emphasizing a leader-dominating vision, and spiritualizing less than spiritual motives of church leaders, a major crack develops in Christian communities that again and again undermines the potential influence and depth of particular communities. Because the Spirit works in both leaders and followers, in pastors and laity, to develop a holistic expression of God’s kingdom, when one side is dismissed, ignored, or undermined then chaos follows. Not always quickly. But it does follow. And this is a pretty regular pattern to see.

I’m jumping ahead again. Not necessarily in the story, but at least in my assessment. I think I need to step back a bit and talk about the path I got on which helped me be even more of an emerging-oriented outsider, and also what I was seeing from the outside that was going on with the proto-emerging church.

That’s the next post.

Also, to note, this all isn’t some kind of conclusive statement of objective reality. This is the story from my particular perspective, viewed through the lens of both my experiences and my training/study since then. I welcome other voices to contribute their perspectives–but my experience has shown that people tend to not respond, but instead judge quietly. That’s a big problem too… but that’s a whole other topic that won’t come up for quite awhile in this tale.

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