Thursday, July 02, 2009

Stick a fork in it?

*** I started writing this post two weeks ago, and then promptly forgot about it as I prepared for my move. So, my thanks go out to Rachel Held Evans (whose writing is always entertaining, thought-provoking, and refreshingly cordial) for a recent post that reminded me to resurrect my own thoughts.

Riding the coat tails of collapsing Evangelicalism, there has been much discussion as of late on the demise of emerging Christianity. Not only is Emergent dead, the Church, herself, has apparently returned to dust, as well.

It’s sad really, because I was just getting to know the emerging church, and she seemed to have a rather rosy glow to her cheeks, even if her demeanor had grown a bit melancholy.

Ironically, even while some theologians were declaring the death of God as transcendent being in the 60’s, theologians such as John Howard Yoder and Harvey Cox were working to remind us of everything the Church could be, if she would only allow herself.

I come from the Protestant tradition, and we are a fickle crew.

Some of us are only just now coming around to admitting that our brothers and sisters in the Catholic Church might actually be followers of Christ, and we’ve largely ignored the Eastern Orthodox believers all together. And, while we have seemed to release the radicalism of the Anabaptists from our collective memory, we have relegated them to antiquity rather than learn from all they have to share with the Body. It took us awhile to adjust to the idea of a Non-Denominational congregation but, as it began to meet the needs of those dissatisfied with their denominational structures and authorities, we’ve softened to the concept.

This emerging church, however, this blurring of the lines between our neatly defined categories of Christians, is simply too much to stomach. After all, we’ve already protested anything that needed to be disapproved. In fact, we’ve finally managed to fix everything that has happened since the Great Schism, and get back to our golden age under Constantine.

Why on earth do these young people want to mess with a good thing?

We seem to have a natural drive for independence, which has resulted in multiple versions of “church”. However, what we are going to have to understand, that many in previous generations have preferred not to admit, is that we must intentionally seek interdependence.

We must seek community.

I was part of a congregation that had a controlling personality as its “authority”. That person claimed that what set “Church” apart from “not-Church” was the presence of elders, appointed with spiritual authority. Unfortunately, those elders deferred any disputes with the pastor to him, without offering support or protection to the congregation members, and also vowed to support him because it was “his church.” Based on what I have studied and what I have experienced, I can not help but believe it is not proper authority that identifies the Church of Christ, but rather proper community.

This isn’t some wacky idea I pulled out of a hat.

Anabaptists (You know, those other people who were around during the Reformation? The ones who either got out of control or got ignored?) have long acknowledged the function of community as authority, rather than a centralized group or individual figure as authority. Phyllis Tickle alluded to this idea when she attempted to answer the question “Where, now, is our authority?” (for which she was quickly criticized for undermining the doctrine of “sola scriptura”). Mrs. Tickle suggested that authority in the Church arises not solely from an individual reading, interpreting, and applying scripture, but rather from the engagement of the community with the scripture, discerning together under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. (Please see Acts 15.)

I will stand firmly with those who say you can’t simply walk away from church and do Christianity on your own. Christianity is not an individualistic faith, it requires loving and serving and trusting and wrestling in community to grow and develop. I know there are exceptions (for instance, someone locked away in solitary confinement), but we are designed for community.

At the same time, I will question those who claim that Christianity can not be done outside the walls of a clearly defined institutional building.

No matter what is dead,

No matter what is dying,

Christianity as we know it is changing

And the Church can not turn a blind eye and pretend it isn’t so.

There will be expressions of the Church that do not look like what we have called church for hundreds of years. But, make no mistake, they will be the Church. And if these expressions include neighbors becoming deeply involved in loving those around them and sharing the hope that comes from Christ into specific situations with which they are connected in a hands-on way, we are going to be wasting our breath trying to convince the recipients of that grace that what they are experiencing as Church is not real, and that coming into a building and listening to someone with “authority” teach on verses of scripture and then send everyone out to “love and serve” is what constitutes Church.

Hear me correctly, I am not saying there is no longer a place for a congregation that gathers in a specific location, at a specific time, on a specific day, to receive teaching from someone who has been identified as gifted with the ability to discern and communicate scriptural teachings. It does mean, that if those congregations do not begin to value the gifts of the whole Body, to see the building and living out of day-to-day authentic community as putting flesh on the weekly gathering, to invite other voices into the process of discernment, to value the authority of community over the power of an individual, they will slowly cease to have any significant impact in a rapidly changing, global, pluralistic society where historical Christian “authority” is not recognized, but where the love of Christ followers can break through.

There was a time when the Church expanded from private homes to public cathedrals, and there is now a time when the Church is expanding beyond the boundaries of any structure. In an increasingly networked society, the Church is going to have both intimate local expressions and integrating cyber expressions which will serve to challenge and inform one another. Some of these local expressions will continue to gather weekly in a building with a steeple, while some will gather in homes, in bars, in parks, and under bridges.

In fact, some crazy Christians will even go so far as to live together in community, sharing posessions and meals, offering hospitality and serving their neighbors.

The Church is not dead.

But nether is she static.

And as our world comes to understand how interconnected we truly are,

So must the Church.

May we listen.

May we learn.

May we love.

A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.
(John 13:34-35)


Ramón said...

I gotta give you a callback on this one, Kimberly.


Anonymous said...


May we all integrate with and by way of love.

Nick said...

Thanks for this post.

Greg said...

Great post Kim! By the way, the Orthodox also hold to the idea of the entire community of believers being the ultimate source of authority on earth. Even the ancient councils would send their decisions to all of the churches for confirmation.

Moff said...

Just catching up on my blog reading, Kim... so sorry to be late to this one...

1) Beautifully written post.

2) PREACH it, girlfriend! I am so glad to see you writing this and writing it the way you wrote it. The "Emergent is dead" conversation has been interesting, but unconvincing, and your point that Church Happens --authorized or unauthorized-- is one I agree with deeply. The Holy Spirit bucks all our attempts to circumscribe His work in the world... and thank God for that!

Rob said...

Amen, Kim! Love it!

What I love specifically is that this offers a balanced perspective. You and I have some shared experiences with "authority" in the church, many of them bad.

What I appreciate about your post is that those bad experiences don't overshadow the entire concept of the institution (or whatever you want to call it). As I shared with you recently, I wish people that have experienced the bad would not so quickly lump all other church experiences together calling them bad. The actions of a few (maybe even of many) do not define the whole.

That's all I got right now. :)

Aaron B. Reddin said...


"Christianity is not an individualistic faith, it requires loving and serving and trusting and wrestling in community to grow and develop." the greatest combination of words that I've read so far this year.

What better way to put it? Trusting AND wrestling in community. If you step outside yourself and look at the world, we are all wrestlers. We wrestle with life, decisions, and each other. And just as you stated, that is the basis of our growth and development.

Great post!