In the preface of his book Tony Jones instantly has me intrigued with this quote,"Many in church leadership today - not to mention everyday believers - feel that the church made a wrong turn somewhere in the twentieth century. At the dawn of a new century, the emergents are one of the few groups offering a way out of this mess, and lots of people are listening." Jones then opens up his book on the Emergent church by first of all giving a cursory glance back on the old country that is being left behind as he reflects on the 20th Century.
As Tony Jones looks at the horizon behind him he makes two definitive statements, called dispatches in Chapter 1. He states:
Dispatch 1: Emergents find little importance in the discrete differences between the various flavors of Christianity. Instead, they practice a generous orthodoxy that appreciates the contributions of all Christian movements. (p. 8)
Our church, Epiphany United Methodist Church in Loveland, Ohio did a sermon series a year ago about different denominations. Now growing up in a fundamentalist, evangelical past I wasn't sure where the pastor was going with this. It was my experiences in the past that something like this would be an opportunity to blast the mainlines, Catholics, and charismatics. But instead, Doug took this sermon series as an opportunity to celebrate what we can learn from the emphases that other denominations bring to the table when you consider the entire body of Christ. Needless to say, it was an awesome series.
Dispatch 2: Emergents reject the politics and theologies of left versus right. Seeing both sides as a remnant of modernity, they look forward to a more complex reality. (p. 20)
I have studied church history enough to know about the great divide during the 20th Century between the fundamentalists and liberals. Most of my experiences in churches has been of the Conservative evangelical flavor. I heard my share of sermons demonizing youth culture, Hollywood, rock music, and anything that actually seemed interesting to me. Needless to say, I grew up with a lot of guilt! In fact we had to reject modern culture and immerse ourselves in the counter-Christian culture. You know, that sub-standard, vanilla flavored, bland, boring thing that Christian culture produces when it tries to entertain ONLY a church audience. I actually remember being frightened into saying the "salvation prayer" after a showing of "A Thief in the Night" which was the 70's version of Tim LaHayes amazingly awful "Left Behind" movies. And I also remember one guy at our house who came over for a haircut from my mom ranting about how terrible it was that Amy Grant would dare to sing a "secular" song with Peter Cetera who was the lead singer of Chicago. I remember looking at the guy thinking he was crazy because I didn't understand why Amy Grant should be forced to entertain ONLY US CHRISTIANS!
In the youth groups that I have been a part of it always seemed like the most important thing was to create programs in which we can somehow trick people into hearing the "plan of salvation" and get 'em saved! After they say the pray, sign the card, which was a kind of guaranteed ticket to heaven, our work was done! Unfortunately, no assimilation would occur, no discipleship, no follow up, no caring for the needs of those we manipulated into saying "the prayer". When I was alone with my friends we would often talk about if this was really effective at all and are people really beginning a new relationship with God or are they just repeating some prayer for "fire insurance" under the false pretense that we encouraged, that if you just say this prayer you will be saved. The culture was to be feared and we were to "separate" and wait for the rapture to take us ragtag bunch of Christians home to be with God. It was a very depressing and weak eschatology that drove the evangelical church.
It wasn't until I took a very nervous step into the Methodist church that I discovered some new thoughts and ways of thinking. Mind you, God had to really humble me to enter into the mainline churches. I really had an arrogant view of the mainlines as I was growing up. But it wasn't until the fundamentalists and Baptists told me to find another job that I was finally willing to consider some other alternatives I would have never really considered in my younger years. Now, within the Methodist church I have discovered this thing called "Social Justice" and a view of culture that is transformative instead of condemning and hopeless. Needless to say, this has been like an awakening for me as I discovered a new eschatology that brings hope and courage and God's love that is much more holistic.
But the mainline is not above criticism here as Tony points out some of its glaring faults. During the industrial age,big business and monolithic bureaucracies were the forms that our culture created in the areas of work and industry. Sadly to say, I see that this is a big problem within the church I am in. In the evangelical churches once I was hired I was considered an official pastor. But as I came to the Methodist Church I got the label of Director of Student Ministries and that really bothered me at first. A mere title, I know. I believe that I have been called by God to be a youth pastor. Titles that people put on my door really do not matter. But after some time I did want to pursue becoming clergy within the Methodist church for a variety of reasons. It has been shocking to me to amount of bureaucratic red tape and overbearing process that has been created for someone to serve as a pastor! So many of those coming out of seminary, and not even seminary trained adults for that matter, are realizing that all it takes to start a church is a vision, persistent and passion and with that anybody could pretty much do it, from the gifted to the insane! If the mainline wants to survive they will need to seriously reevaluate the monolithic government that has been created in their denominations.
I am excited about this new thinking outside-of-the-box that Jones is presenting. Instead of accepting that 20th century Christianity was the way it has always been, he is presenting new and fresh ideas that will hopefully shake the foundations of the church and cause so many of us to rethink church, evangelism, discipleship, culture, etc.