I’m banging my way through this book, ever concerned about the deadline that’s looming, close on the horizon. I’m writing about cultural shifts, and how they affect our spiritual communities in a new generation.
MaryAnn McKibben Dana, who is in my writing group and is helping me with the project a great deal, asked me, “It’s like emerging church for the mainline?”
“Hmmm… well… yes… sort of … I guess….”
I am, as many of you know, in a constant struggle with realizing that paramount shifts to postmodernism have occurred, knowing that I am postmodern, and accepting that people label me emerging. I am a part of presbymergent and have great hope for the creative energy that flows there, but not entirely comfortable with all things emerging. Yet, as Shawn Coons and Jim Bonewald have reminded me on occasion, there are different emerging church movements, not just one. That’s comforting.
One of the main things that I have difficulty with within the emerging church movements (even the denominational-mergents) is the quick assumption that those who are emerging from an evangelical tradition are somehow more in touch with culture than us—the stuffy, old, hierarchical mainliners.
We are far from perfect. We have important questions to ask ourselves, significant changes that will be made. And many of those questions are being asked in emerging church circles.
If I’m honest, I’ll tell you that I’m not only emerging from the mainline church, but also from the evangelical church in which I grew up. I was educated in both. They both reside uncomfortably within me. With that perspective, the thought that evangelicalism is more in tune with postmodern culture than mainline denominations is really, really odd.
Evangelicalism is, on the surface, much more culturally flexible. Many evangelical congregations will change their worship style if they know that it will attract more members. They may not like it, but they’ll do it. Since the focus is outward, they easily alter their traditions to the surrounding culture. Their main goal is evangelizing, so they adapt to different advertising techniques, image makeovers, and technological advances. Evangelicals quickly grasp on to trends.
And, most importantly, they plant new churches. They have a deep sense that the best way to reach out to a “different people group” is to start a new congregation.
In comparison, when we talk about planting churches in Presbyterian circles, we instantly point out the failure rate, and argue that it’s a bad investment (as if closing churches, hoarding money, and turning away new leadership is a really great business plan…). Our cultural standards and advertising almost always favor the tastes and preferences of the elderly, and in an established church, any deviation is rare and difficult to pull off. There can be a sense that new generations need to develop an appreciation for our practices, while we have little patience for any adaptation of our traditions.
Yet, I have to say, beyond that surface level, when you scratch just a little bit, the mainline church makes a lot more sense than the evangelical tradition in a postmodern era. That’s why I converted and that’s why I stay.
We have embraced scientific thought, not expecting the newest discoveries to bow and bend to a six-day creation story. We have wrestled with biblical literalism, and taken postmodern insights in hermeneutics seriously. We have questioned theories of atonement for decades. We have upheld the inherent value and equality of women in our homes, workplaces, political arenas, and congregations. We have been engaging in social justice issues, caring for the poor, feeding the hungry, responding to disasters, and helping the homeless. We do not do these things only for Christians or as a manipulative evangelistic tool. But we have also been doing it in the public sphere, working for change in people’s lives, because we believe in the inherent dignity and worth of humans, of “the Other.”
Communities that are emerging from the evangelical tradition are beginning to wrestle with many of these things, but they have a lot of work ahead of them before they catch up with the mainlines.
Where does that leave us now? We have a cadre of congregations that have been formed in the mold, tastes, and expectations of fifty years ago. Will we, the mainline church, be able to open ourselves up a bit, and welcome a culture of people who do not long for the 50s or even 60s? Will we be able to welcome the reforming of our sacred traditions in a new culture? Or, will we allow our fears to overwhelm us?
I guess what I’m asking is this: Will we allow our congregational cultures to be as vigorous and engaging as our great academic and theological traditions have been? Will we begin to wrestle with the important questions of planting churches? And will we allow our congregations to be reformed and always reforming?
the photo’s by Diana Pappas