An Outsider’s History of the Emerging Church (part 12)

One of the consistent problems throughout the church is the “I don’t have that problem, so neither do you” attitude that pops up whenever someone expresses a bit of discontent, shares a tale of negative experiences, or otherwise points to a problem they feel needs to be addressed. This is yet another expression of that quite persistent core fault that so many have which I call “generalizing self”. My gifts are what everyone should be doing. My causes are what everyone should address. My priorities should be everyone’s priorities. My experiences are like everyone’s experiences. And if my experiences are like everyone’s experiences, then if I have had good leadership and good church community, then those who speak against church clearly have issues of sin–maybe relativism, or consumerism, or whatever. On the other side, if I have had bad church experiences, then clearly everyone supporting the church as it is currently formed is just a silly sheep or a hungry wolf, power hungry or sycophantic. They’ve joined forces with the Man and need to be shocked out of their oft suburban lull.

This can often be hidden in either strong leadership that forms a community shaped after their own image, or in leaving a church, so that the discontents are muted, and the battle over non-generalized church identity exists only in occasional small flareups.

The emerging church changed the dynamic of this pattern. Those who felt the burn of discontent realized there was a spiritual burn in this, a burn that did not abandon Christ but sought him with more and more passion. Only this passion was given no space, no room, no expression within the standard models of 5 songs, lecture style sermon, prayer, occasionally communion, then done. Pastors, of course, didn’t often see a problem as they were exercising their spiritual gifts, often well beyond their gifting. The assumption that the role of most of the rest of the people was to hear the preached word made sense to them. However, hearing is not one of the spiritual gifts in any of Paul’s various lists. The gifts are active and contributory.

So in the angst of not having new models some breaking took place, some reactionary responses began to stew before popping out in various places in various forms. Often this was expressed in standard church growth models. People who start churches are given a free pass to stretch their wings and bring along a small group of people who can express a church the way that is in their souls. A small community is an active community, for the most part.

Some of these new expressions were formed within established churches, with a goal to reach those who the “generalized self” churches weren’t reaching. If I generalize my self, then I’m not aware of people different than me. If they don’t respond to me, then I blame them for not being as good a me as me. They’re wrong for not being me, apparently. So, if they reject the church that is like me, I don’t feel a need to do anything different to reach out to them. They should just respond right, after all.

But not everyone sees it like this. They realized that the church of our era is not inherently exactly what Paul or Jesus were getting at. And Paul and Jesus were both quite good about going into the streets, reaching out to the other, not with a generalized message but with a particular message to specific people in specific contexts. This isn’t a different Gospel, it’s the big Gospel focused in different ways.

So, communities were formed within churches–a church within a church. That’s what Dieter started at Willowcreek after he left NewSong. Gen-X ministries were still the buzz-word, but not nearly as much so.

These ministries often ran into a wall, and it was often the same wall. Freedom was accepted as long as it stayed within the bounds of the vision of the minister. The lead minister, in essence, became the surrogate spirit for the congregation. People fed into him, and he fed into them, giving identity and good teaching and meaning.

In healthy communities these kind of issues might appear, but there’s a common value of unity that seeks to give and take, respecting the other, leading to people making allowances and giving space. Other communities that have had the living water harden into ice, the fractures break apart, leading to anger, and dismissal, and more angst. This pattern can often repeat itself, as seen in the massive multiplication of denominations.

That’s the generalized story of the late 90s. Where was I? I finished my senior year, continued in the various problems that had plague me throughout Wheaton, which was pervasive financial disasters hitting from every direction. Moved back to California. I was entirely broken. When he was 63, John Wesley wrote his brother Charles and said that while he did not feel the wrath of God, neither “do I love God. I never did.” He continues by writing “and yet to be so employed by God; and so hedged in that I can neither go forward nor backward! Surely there never was such an instance before, from the beginning of the world!” This is how I felt. I felt poured out, outside all that I had tried to pursue, empty, but I still had faith. Which was something. Even as I stayed on the outside of a whole lot of what was going on around me, often very close by.

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